The Weight of Great Expectations

Like all the big Melbourne clubs, Essendon and Carlton maintain a fierce and abiding rivalry. As is often the case with great rivalries, there is much that is shared, as well as much that divides.

With sixteen flags apiece they share a spot at the top of the premiership tally. Of the six Grand Finals they’ve fought, they’ve shared the spoils evenly.

Another thing in common are large followings with high expectations fed by historic success.

So after sixteen rounds of Season 2010, there’s an apt symmetry to the fact that both clubs share a similar problem: how to deal with the general disenchantment of those supporters.

Expectation and entitlement are two words that loom large in the current clamour. Both clubs have experienced lean times by their standards- in Carlton’s case, lean by any standard. Despite this reality, neither club appears to have really shaken off the sense of entitlement that was born of better times. Expectations appear to be based on history, not current reality. Much seems required of middling playing lists.

The practical question for the present is whether these expectations are going to help or hinder both clubs’ future development.

A great tradition is something all clubs aspire to. Earned by the accumulation of past glories, it can be a valuable asset to be called upon in times of need. But as Collingwood could attest, sometimes tradition can work against you as well as for you, especially if you become captive to it.

The past seems extraordinarily present in Essendon’s current situation. The Cult of Kevin is omnipresent as Matthew Knights grapples with the task of rebuilding a team. It was probably inevitable that Knights would be cast in a Sheedy shadow from day one, but that doesn’t make it helpful.

Three years after his departure, many Bomber supporters don’t appear to have moved on from the Sheedy years. Indeed, the man himself gives frequent cause to question how much he has moved on.

As if this weren’t enough, now looms the prospective Cult of James. Whilst entirely speculative in regard to Mr Hird’s intentions, the past great is seen by many to be a potential future saviour. This despite the very contemporary Brisbane lesson that appointing an ex champion isn’t a guaranteed  quick fix for all that ails.

The idea of a favourite son returned as saviour recurs through football history. But that history suggests the return of the son alone isn’t sufficient. And besides, didn’t Sheedy originally come to the Bombers from Richmond?

None of this ignores the fact that Knights has contributed to his own problems. When the team has teased with the odd brilliant performance, he hasn’t exactly played down expectations. The dramatic difference between their best and worst invites speculation about potential brittleness in the game plan. When players appear to lack spirit and confidence, the coach will always be looked at. These are valid areas of speculation.

But is the burden of responsibility solely the coach’s? And are the standards by which he’ll be judged entirely fair?

When David Evans was pronouncing finals a minimum pass mark for the current season, was he realistic about the list post Lloyd and Lucas? Did such pronouncements help inflate unrealistic expectation?

Is the coach to blame for the factionalism that seems to be afflicting the club? Unlikely.

And has the club’s management handled the current speculation as well as it might? Again unlikely.

Meanwhile, Carlton has been grappling with the aftermath of a cult of its own in recent years. The Cult of Jack ran too long and was allowed to fall in love with its own publicity to the club’s detriment. As a last desperate play, Jack turned to a notable outsider as the answer.

This was an idea with much successful precedent in Carlton’s history. But in this case it didn’t work. Denis Pagan’s approach was in many ways the opposite of that which the remaining Carlton senior players had known. The culture clash was instant, and most players chose to depart rather than adapt, thus deepening the existing problems.

Circumstances seemed to leave Pagan torn between a rebuild and a patch job, and success remained a distant prospect.

Eventually, one of those departing favourite sons was called to duty. The appointment of Brett Ratten seemed in many ways aimed at repairing the club’s battered soul as much as improving on-field fortunes.

This was required because a succession of administrations had floundered in the face of the problems they confronted. Jack’s legacy was a cause, but it quickly seemed to also become a ready excuse, as division and confusion delayed recovery. If Dick Pratt hadn’t interceded, contributing his wealth and a Collingwood CEO, one wonders what may have happened.

Now Ratten is under fire, as quickly heightened expectations meet current disappointment. In truth, many of the faithful had doubted his tactical expertise from very early in the piece. There always seems to be an abundance of coaching experts sitting in the stands.

Again, the coach may not be entirely helpful to his own cause. Ratten is correct to assert that the punditry largely wrote the Blues off after Fevola’s departure. But the club had asserted pre-season that its own expectations exceeded the pundits’. When you can beat Geelong and St Kilda, it is fair that the fans protest when you lose more winnable games, erasing the prospect of a top four finish, however faint. Particularly so when the team seems to have dropped its bundle of late.

But expectation needs to be laced with perspective and reality. What is the greater significance of maintaining a spot in the lower realms of the eight? It certainly helps the morale of the fans in the short term, but it is no real substitute for a realistic climb towards another premiership.

That climb can only be achieved through gathering sufficient resources on and off the field, and then maximising their use. The coach has a vital role in that process, but he’s not the only factor. And only those on the inside can properly judge which factors are working or not.

The example of Geelong in 2006 seems irresistible here. Faced with disappointment, that club reviewed their entire operations, rather than laying failure on the coach. The subsequent results rather suggest they got that analysis right.

So what conclusions should be drawn from this tale of insiders and outsiders, of expectations great and frustrated?

Football history repeatedly attests that when things go awry it is often easiest to throw the coach overboard. But it also shows this doesn’t necessarily help in the long run. Changing coaches and discarding plans seems rather more a recipe for Richmond’s last thirty years than a path to success.

Great coaches and big personalities have been integral to every successful club. But all that talk about the importance of teamwork isn’t a waste of time. It’s ultimately the collective effort that tells the tale.

Sometimes supporters might need to recognise that there are no quick fixes in the modern AFL environment. You don’t help people find the way forward by requiring them to watch their backs.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Nice work, JB. When the Dogs win another 15 flags, I might have some idea of what Carlton and Essendon fans are currently experiencing!

  2. JB – this may sound a bit provocative, but here goes:

    Perhaps the “success” of Essendon and Carlton over the years is a somewhat false one built on a false legend and false beliefs. In both cases they had the resources to either buy a flag or cheat their way to a flag (both teams have copped penalties for breaching the salary caps – ie they cheated). Perhaps now that the league is more socialist in its structure whereby teams have enormous restrictions on simply buying flags, the Bombers and Blues are “just another brick in the wall”. And they can’t cope. The born to rule mentality has gone. They’re like the Tsars robbed of their wealth. Perhaps they’re not as good as they think they are? Perhaps they need to stop whinging and get on with establishing a good, solid business and cultural foundation, because none of the other teams reckon its necessarily good for football that they succeed.

    Just a thought…………….

  3. Hope you’ve got your helmet and suit of armour on, Dips…

  4. John Butler says


    The way both sides are travelling, your Dogs are much more likely to salute in the next year or so. That only leaves 14 to go.


    Fair points there, though I hope they apply more to supporters than the clubs. I speak with most knowledge of Blues fans. Some of them seem slow to learn the bitter lessons of the recent past. Jack pretty much exhausted the path of buying your way to success- to the club’s great cost. I think the club has finally moved on, but only time and the right decisions will tell.

    Complacency isn’t the sole preserve of Bombers and Blues. Sustained success can breed it in any camp, can’t it? :)

  5. Tony Robb says

    Great article JB.

    “The practical question for the present is whether these expectations are going to help or hinder both clubs’ future development”.

    I beleive this question is a very important one from the Blues perspective. As you correctly say, the supporters, such as myself, have grown up on a diet of regular success and have an expectation for regular feasts at the Premiership table. That has extended to 15 years and the natives are justifiably restless. However, does that help or hinder? A bit of both most likely. Football clubs should be accountable to members for performances dished out over the past month and Carlton have been ordinary on many levels with many glaring problems eminating from poor recruiting, poor coaching and poor preparation.

    The players as a group don’t not appear to hold that fiece pride about representing the club but that could be said of most of GexY as they have grown in environments that vary so much from those in the 70 and 80s. and have mnay ore discraction and priorities

    As I said a few weeks back the loss of Kruezer has exposed a lot of holes in the team’s makeup just as the loss of Hille has done to Essendon. There still remains a considerable lack of depth and poor decison making on off the field with the coachbox being very slow to make what appear to be obvious changes. The handling of Goodes and Shaw being blaring examples last week. Judd is a lone solder and Cartlon have no genuine heavy artillary in contested competition. The committee have recruited player with similar body types who all need to put on 6 -8 kg of size to be competative against more phyisacl teams such as Hawthorn and Sydney. That however is unlikely to happen as the majority of the players have ectomorphic body types and will never bulk up. This then lend itself to too many outside players ( read receivers) and not enough inside players(read getters) Essendon are the same. Another similarity is that both teams contain quite a few indiginous boys with even leaner body types who, while great in open running games, will always struggle in heavily contested games. There were several times last week when Garlett etc tried to pinch a loose footie rather than get over the ball and take on an opponent. That it a style of play that again works well in open footy but fails in contesed football as they are brushed aside too easily. Small bodies aslo get tired by July so the drop off in form can be expected. The problem is there is no fallback position and this is unlikely to change without some considerble changes in club philosophy. I have harped for weeks about poor defensive pressure from the forwards and particulry the midfield. It happened again last week and is defies words. The Swans cleared it too aftern with no pressure from the opposition. Does Mrphy get assigned an opponent to run with? He certainly doesnt appear to. Me feels it will be a long six weeks JB

  6. John Butler says


    I wouldn’t disagree with much of that assessment (although you lose me a bit with that ecto thingmyhoosits stuff).

    And Ratt’s would seem to have missed some obvious calls lately. Perhaps he’s developing a defensive mindset like the players?

    I just hope we make considered judgements and not paper over other cracks by burning the coach.

  7. John Butler says


    In case you missed my previous point, I’ve got a DVD of the 2008 GF I could lend you. :)

  8. Not missed JB, not missed. That’s precisely why the Cats succeeded in 2009. They didn’t believe it would just happen. They had built a culture, a team, an administration, a leadership quality. They didn’t believe the world owed them a living like some “born to rule” clubs do.

    I really love my Cats.

  9. JB – perhaps a better example of my argument is to look at Richmond. They had such success in the 60s and 70s, such money, such power, and such influence that they stopped working for success. They believed it would happen because “they were Richmond” – no other reason. And when it didn’t happen they didn’t do the hard thing, they did the easy thing; sack the coach. The Bombers and Blues would do well not to complain themselves into the same trap.

  10. Tony Robb says

    Soory Jb
    Ectomorphic ‘ skinny whippets. Garlett
    Endomophic muscle bound beasts . Chappey and most of the cats
    Mesomophic. Fat blokes Stewart Dew

    Ideal body shape is mix of the top two ‘ Kouta

  11. JB,

    did they have a grand final in 2008. I can’t seem to remember that one.

    My telly went fuzzy and my phone started ringing (non stop)as soon as the final siren sounded.

  12. John Butler says


    A common complaint that day, or so I heard tell.

    I had a similar experience in ’93.

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