The Quality of Conviction: From Jock McHale to ‘Bomber’ Thompson

In 1931, a year after Collingwood won its fourth straight flag, sports journalist Percy Taylor brought together the original publication of The Australian Game of Football. Within its pages were the following words, deduced by experienced football publisher Geoffrey Slattery to have come from the all-conquering Collingwood coach, Jock McHale:

… believe in yourself … believe that what you are doing is correct and convince your team, both by precept and example, that your methods are sound and common sense.

One of this century’s greats has been applying the strength of this conviction as head coach at Essendon this year, while James Hird serves his suspension. Before the season began, Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson reversed the suspended coach’s judgement on the club’s two premier key position players. Jake Carlisle was to be a forward, and Michael Hurley was to return to the back line.

Half the season in, and a chasm had opened up between what Thompson was seeing and what the rest of us were seeing. The Bombers were struggling to score, Carlisle looked lost, and Hurley pedestrian. Then came the return Collingwood game with Carlisle’s 19 marks and 4-goal ownership of the MCG that afternoon. Soon after, another match winning feat of 8 goals against the Bulldogs.

How much is a coach worth, who possesses the critical judgement and persistence that can successfully identify and develop a club’s next key forward? The first man Thompson backed in the face of growing public scrutiny was Tom Hawkins at Geelong. Wayne Carey, one of the best Centre Half Forwards the game has seen, now rates Hawkins and Carlisle as their respective club’s most valuable players heading into this year’s finals.

But remember when Hawkins couldn’t kick straight and was perhaps best regarded as a bullocking big kid? It required years of persistence and development before he turned into the big game presence so fundamental to the Cats’ 2009 and 2011 premierships. We could take it for granted now. But plenty wondered whether he would be worth the trouble.

The Carlisle decision was all the more complicated for having been widely considered a shoe-in All-Australian at Full Back in the first half of last year, before he stole a few matches when switched to the forward line. Starting permanently up forward this year, however, he seemed all at sea with the differing role and expectations. The weeks went by with next to no service from him, so much so that AFL Legend Leigh Matthews started to publicly wonder whether the coach’s hunch might have become outright stubbornness.

Thompson even asked a journalist after one match where he would play Carlisle if he was coach. The journalist answered ‘the backline’. To which Thompson immediately withdrew the hint of openness at another opinion on the topic and shook his head, quipping ‘Nah. That’s why I’m the coach’.

Not long after that came Carlisle’s two rampaging games, dominating each from Centre Half Forward (the second time without the second tall in Daniher to divert some attention). A month on, with stiffer opposition, some injury concerns and an increase in the attention he draws, the domination hasn’t been repeated. But while it’s still only two breakout games to date, those games suggest the lid is now off, and it is hard to see the genie being put back in the bottle.

The coach, Carlisle and the rest of us now know what the player can do. And as ‘The Age’ senior football writer Rohan Connolly pointed out, Hurley has also played his part, finding career best form at Centre Half Back. Now that the baying hounds on the coach’s heels have gone quiet, we can again wonder about the quality of conviction that provides the belief and resilience to back one’s judgement, and stick to it, through all sorts of public scrutiny and pressure.

After all, Thompson could have gone with what most people seemed to be thinking, and in this case what had been proven (at least in terms of Carlisle down back, if not Hurley up forward). This would have granted him widespread public understanding if things didn’t work out. But Thompson risked that, on the quality of a vision for what the team needed, and the potential of the individuals involved. Then, of course, he had to be good enough to draw it out of them, in the midst of all the background pressure.

There is a quality of conviction exhibited here, a dynamic of leadership, that transcends sport. And for this, it is deeply intriguing. There is vision and strength, but also astute judgement. And the ability to help others believe the value you perceive in them. Indeed, what is the former without the latter? No one is an island. One’s success is ultimately dependent on the success of others. That much is obvious in team sport, though the principle often seems to elude us when it comes to structuring broader society.

Of course, history is littered with examples of how unflinching self-belief can land you far from where you once aspired. Look no further than the game itself, from the tragic fate of Tom Wills, one of the central figures in the game’s founding, to the ongoing supplements saga at Essendon. Let alone the travails enveloping the military, Church, and many a State. So it is with good reason that these institutions, and research bodies the world over, are increasingly exploring what it means to be a leader in today’s society.

Jock McHale finished his piece in 1931 with the assistance of Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing their’s and blaming it on you

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting, too.

Therein lies the mystery. Too much allowance, one stands for nothing. Not enough, and delusion is your bedfellow. Strength of conviction is not enough. A quality is required that goes to the heart of how one understands and relates with people. And traversing that terrain will likely remain an enduring art worthy of enquiry, wherever it is observed.

 

About Anthony James

AJ is a 5th gen Australian living with his family by the ocean in the city of Perth, on traditional Noongar lands. He is host of The RegenNarration podcast, teaches and talks on regenerative development, plays music and writes a bit. His writing has found its way into The Conversation, World Economic Forum and elsewhere. But when he saw the Almanac, he remembered he wanted to be a sports writer.

Comments

  1. What a hilarious article. Hurley remains the most overrated player in modern football, Carlisle a gifted galoot who can play any position for about a week until next week’s opposition coach notices he’s there and shuts him out. Both of them drug-assisted for most of their careers. I will reluctantly agree that Bomber T knows how to get the best out of his cattle, and provided they have the right chemical balance in their bloodstream they’re a chance of snatching the points (while the coaching staff focusses on pointing the … oh yes bomber, you’re not forgotten)

  2. Very negative Blades.
    I don’t profess to be a footy fanatic or an expert to ridicule this article but as a person and a keen participator in sport I can see that The difference between the author and the critic definitely boils down to positivity.
    Life, sport and happiness all require this attribute…..belief in themselves for sure.
    Well done Anthony on your ‘open’ comments.

  3. Dear AJ,
    What a wonderful dance you take us on from seeing deeper into someone’s potential, to the risk we often need to take to hold up a flag and bar for someone, weaving in some fabulous history and taking me, a Pies supporter on a journey with the Dees. And leading me to the deeper questions beneath it all. Wish there was more writing like this in the Age, as I have turned off from the endless drama this year.
    Thank you AJ, and I am glad you remembered you wanted to be a sports writer.
    Myree x

  4. Thanks for your comments, Blades, ‘Interested’ & Myree. You could really substitute any case study of these qualities you like. The broader dynamic is the art I’m interested in. Thanks for reading and writing!

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