What it takes to play finals


Let’s talk about sport.


First, the individual.


I wish Joe Misiti and I were mates. Most people would love to be mates with Joe. If ever there was a bloke who represented all of us out there, Joe was him. You could tell he liked a beer, that he thought food should be deep-fried. That he loved a joke. There were faster, better skilled, but he had heart, passion. He was blue collar. A lad.


Give me that over a groomed champion any day of any century.


Funny thing is, he almost didn’t make it at the top level. He came up from juniors about the time teams had to cut their lists. He was unfit compared to the rest of the team, a bit slow, in line to be chopped. So he made the small, simple commitment to sprint to the end of every drill. To get rid of the ball and take off! Not until he’d reached the next cone, but until he’d past the last player at the back of it. That would have only been an extra 20-35 meters. The smallest sprint. But times that by 60 in a night of training, that’s 2kms extra sprinting.


Two AFL premierships and 200-plus games later, people’s first reaction – no matter who they barrack for – is to smile when they hear his name, as if they know something. As if you’re talking about a back yard legend who made it for all of us.


Campbell Brown got chopped from the TEAL Cup Under 16s list. “Too short, too slow.” He would go to the Caulfield racecourse where Hawthorn were training, get instructions from their fitness instructor, jump the fence after they had gone in, and run. Run, run, run. Under 18s TEAL Cup squad, he was going to not make the list again, but the coach had just happened to be at Caulfield one night and had seen him doing all that speed work after being cut two years earlier. The coach saw his want. Campbell, simply, as he said, made his own luck. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”


And won a flag, and was the shortest ever All-Australian centre half back!


Down in the Amateur levels I played alongside Arnie. He was a fringe player, borderline seniors winger, no right foot. Okay; every Tuesday he taped a tennis ball to the sweet spot on his left shoe so he had to kick with his non-preferred all night. Everybody took the piss. Everybody. Yet, within ten weeks he could kick both feet and remained a senior player until he retired.


The best player I’ve ever played alongside, or against, was Leon Burnstein. 5′ 2”, no real stand out skill. But he did each moment of each drill at training as if his life depended on it. He never, ever paced himself to get through the night. If you came late, and saw him towards training’s end, dragging his feet, sucking in air, you’d think he was our least player. But in truth, he was spent.


Every drill, every time he ran, he gave the lot. And, during a game, was the only bloke in our team still running strong deep in the last. The only one on the oval football fit enough to get to and bash into pack after pack after contest after pack.


It wasn’t the AFL, few people came to watch. Not many cared. But he had passion! Not the sort that bristles as you walk past – he was as laconic, as dry humoured a bloke I’ve ever met – but an internal pride.


Ben Wheeler, Dean Mahoney, Dean Towers, Toby Nankervis, Mark Yeates, Nathan Foley, Billy Tuckerman, Aydan Mariner – only some of them played at the AFL level but these are my football heroes. Each one has character. Each one does or did extra.  From ratbags, to straight laced men, to wild boys, younger than me, older, the only thing they all have in common is they were and are driven without strangling the life out of footy.


Now. Let’s talk about team. Let’s talk about finals – at any level.


Lots of teams have talent. The mob you’ll be up against has as much as you. But, the team most likely to win has a plan.


There are about five or six forward line structures a team can work to. About the same for on-ball brigades. All the good teams have a basic game plan, whether it’s the rolling press, or play on quick, or tempo, or always handball out the back, or play the boundar,; or play the middle, or long to talls, rovers swoop, or all out attack, or maintain possession…


Truth to tell, it doesn’t really matter which plan your team uses. What does matter is how mature, how hungry the playing group is. If they really want to win, they’ll buy in to the coach’s plan.

It’s about being predictable to each other.


Really, the coach has to be able to sell it, have blokes wanting in, but the players, as a team, have to take responsibility.


As a coach, if you want your team to play finals, stick to your plan, preach it like gospel every night… and improve your bottom six.


Too many coaches don’t genuinely bother with their bottom six players. They should. As Yabby Jeans said – each finals team has four or five standout players, bu the team with the best bottom six will usually win. Coaches, don’t look to replace your bottom six, improve them. I will bet you at least four of them have been under-coached. Give them one-on-one coaching, show them you care. Show them you have faith. More often than not, all that is holding them back is confidence, having someone to play for. Be that person.


If you want to win finals, collectively, your club needs the ‘mate’ in teammate. A team that wants to play finals will get around each other on Sundays, be it golf, bbqs, whatever. Reserves finals teams will hang around to watch the seniors. Seniors get there early to watch the twos. Drink together, hang around after selection on Thursday night.


In one of my old leagues, time after time, a team that brought their players from the nearest big city would make the Grand Final undefeated, then lose to a team of locals that lived in each other’s pockets.


These things are about passion – to want to win for each other.


Three votes in your team’s finals push, is, like with the individuals, hunger.


July, middle of winter, you can usually tell a team that is going to make and do well in finals by how many of the team do extra before or after training. On-ballers getting together off their own bat to practise ruck work, or do 400s. Two of three players doing 100s or rabbit burrows, working on their first ten metres. Three or four blokes simply doing kick and lead with purpose – practising being knackered as they attack the ball. Getting their eye in. It creates an edge about the club you can feel. An atmosphere.


Doing extra.


Players working on their strengths, or on their weaknesses. Malcolm Blight, ever the unconventional thinker, told me he always wanted to see players working on their strengths. “They’re in that team for the ace they can produce at the crunch point of the game. I want to see it work.” I guess I did both. When I started my kicking was terrible! But I love marking.


Damian Dove was the best body-on mark I’d seen in bush footy, so after training, I’d get him to stay out and have someone to kick the ball high and long to us. We would knock each other bloody trying to outmark each other.


Looking back, it made sense of what (most AFL champions regard as the greatest fullback of all time) Geoff Southby told me; “What the recruiters are looking for more than a player who wants to win, is someone who absolutely hates to lose!”


Lord knows I’m no star, just a country hack, but Dovie and I wouldn’t really care about winning as much as be determined to not let the other beat us! I was already in my late 30s, but still learnt from those battles, that bit extra. And I loved the challenge of it, always.


I’ve seen it in the club’s best players, I’ve seen it in interchange twos players. Anyone who stays out when the rest go in has my respect, is a footballer. No-one under AFL level is a superstar, not by talent alone. It’s not about how good a player you are, it’s about how good you try to be. Too many players of ability are simply big natural fish playing in small ponds. A good player is one determined to improve. Or, even, to share. No player at a club is above adopting a player of lesser ability, getting there ten minutes early, or staying out after training, to do extra with them.

A coach can’t do it all.


That’s where the players on wage really earn their money. They help. They make their teammates better. They bring in outside ideas, share them with locals, and leave something that will outlast their tenure.

When they’re injured they rock up in tracksuit gear and help.


And I’m not talking about taking training. Anybody can take a drill or two when training’s on, and so is the spotlight. We all want to be coach. I’m talking about when next to no-one is watching.


It’s the difference between them getting admiration of ability, and respect. It’s everything. If they want real respect, they’ll help themselves improve, or a kid, a reserves player, a good seniors on-baller, a backline…


This simple desire – to hang around on the oval, to touch the leather for its own sake, this hunger, doesn’t have to be noisy, doesn’t have to be gun-ho. You’ve just got to want to stay out there. To love touching the pill.


All it takes is two or three club leaders to do it. You’d be amazed at how many other players get swept up. Those half thinking about doing extra, but don’t want to look like gooses. Those that simply hadn’t thought of it. Those that would, but can’t be bothered on their own. Inspiration doesn’t have to involve shouting to the pre-game huddle.


Those four to twelve players doing extra, before or after training, or on their nights off, or even Sunday, is leadership.


A love of football.


That will get you through finals!


And if you don’t win, if the other mob had too much talent, a better coach, better committee, the luck of the fall, bigger population base to draw from, whatever, so damn what. You’ll have spent the year working on what football is really about – mateship.




Things you build a life around.


Joe Misiti loves football. These days he still looks fitter than he ever did, and is running around a suburban oval somewhere each weekend, near his beloved Essendon, and playing indoor footy.


I’m not sure why, but that thought of that makes a mug like me incredibly happy! Smokin’ Joe is out there competing against the likes of you and me, then having a beer or three for all of us.


I’m glad you did that bit extra Joe. That you took the responsibility of your career on yourself. You’re dead set ripper!


  1. Mark Duffett says

    A little bird told me you celebrated a significant milestone recently, Old Dog – congratulations. Hope to see you in September at close quarters again, so clearly living out the values espoused here.

  2. One of your heroes, Matt, got the TOW-ERS TOW-ERS chant going again on Saturday night.

    I tried putting the article on a link, but didn’t work, sorry, but if you want to take a look at my post this morning, you’ll see the mention (Swans/St Kilda game)

    Nice read, thanks.

  3. Really enjoyed this Old Dog. You are a poet-footballer. I love the subtle advancement of the Dean Towers appreciation – among many things in this article.

    I like your admiration for so many footballers. I think it would be reassuring for those footballers to know that the depth of their commitment and effort does not go unnoticed and is appreciated. I think that is one of many reasons the players spoke so openly to you for your book. I think they sensed the level of your appreciation – and understanding.

    PS. Clubs and pro runners training on racetracks goes back a long way. Especially at Caulfield.

  4. Matt Zurbo says

    Yes, Mark, Ssh. But thank you.

    On ya Jan. He had a strange one, so good, then a few clunkers, too.

  5. Matt Zurbo says

    John, haha, and I love your ability to find racing connections! Cheers mate.

  6. Brilliant Old Dog I could not agree more bottom 6 so often determines a clubs destiny and yes that extra bit of work definitely helps as much for spirit as anything else ( agree re Geoff Southby big time )

  7. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    It will be fascinating to read more accounts of the lived game from the female perspective in the far off years to come. I wonder if they will be different at all, or have different emphases or preoccupations. I’m glad women will be able to write the game from the playing place, cause I read these pieces and enjoy them a great deal and yet know that I’ve never been able to partake of what you write … which is of course due to age and geographical location and parental genetic inclinations as well. I’m sure there ARE women who know what you write Matt. And of course there are women who know all the other layers in what you write about footy. It is very detailed and intimate in the best possible way. Merci.

  8. Matt Zurbo says

    Matilda, the female tide is a brilliant thing! I am well aware of it, as, when writing ‘pieces like this, over the past year, I have replaced words like ‘blokes’ and ‘boys’ with ‘players’ and ‘team’. I have some great female mates who play footy. I hope their teammates read these pieces every bit as much as I hope mine do, too.

  9. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    I’m sure they do! As your ‘readers’ do too. I’m not suggesting, on any level, that you change a thing Matt. I hope that’s not how my comment came across. I don’t actually mind ‘blokes’ and ‘boys’ at all ’cause they are naturally part of your lived experience and that is what you share and the intimacy of it is what draws me in. (Obviously ‘players’ and ‘teams’ are great when talking of the game more generally.) Never having had a lived experience of the game I love so much, I’m just interested in how women will account for it once they are historically acculturated as players from a young age. Their accounts may in fact be very remarkably similar cause ‘team’ may be what’s at the heart of it all. But their sense of team might be nuanced in different ways and I just look forward to that. It’s a case, for me, of hoping the female tide lands on the shore, not to obliterate what is already there, but simply to add to the many riches that are already scattered along the littoral.

  10. Brilliant Matt. I have forwarded it on to the parents of a couple of fringe AFL and WAFL players I know. They were blown away. Your influence extends far further than you know.
    Speaking personally what struck me was how applicable this was to life as much as to footy. I guess a lot of the work I do with blokes “down on their luck” is “coach the bottom 6”. And as you say, most of them have been “undercoached” more than lacking ability. Family trauma and abuse will do that to you. You stay down because you don’t believe you have the right to get up.
    The difference is all attitude and “having a crack” as you say. Not that it’s easy. I worked with a bloke in his 40’s who had always believed he was “stupid and lazy” because that is what his parents and teachers told him. He seemed far from stupid, but “the pieces were arranged a bit different”. After a while his psychologist and I sussed that it was dyslexia. He could read and write – just – but the bits didn’t organise in his head like for the rest of us. Colour blindness was the closest metaphor I could find to describe it to him. He has now got himself back working and reconnected with his daughter. But I knew he was on track when I reminded him one day about a parenting course we had discussed starting. “Oh I enrolled a month ago and have already been to 2 sessions.”
    After a bit of coaching and reinforcement he had started to believe he could make it and was doing those “extra bits at the end of training” for himself.
    Grateful for the life lessons from footy you share with us all. Thanks Matt.

  11. John Butler says

    Good read, that.

    Cheers Matt.

  12. Malby Dangles says

    Top work as always, Matty!
    There’s so much detail in here. Some great coaching gold and hopefully inspiration to those still playing.
    As a Carlton fan I used to dislike Smokin’ Joe (re: 1993 Grand Final) but not anymore.

  13. E.regnans says

    Love it, Matt.
    I imagine a loose collection of animals in the bush when I read this. All listening in to the wizened old blue tongue lizard, yakking on the stump.
    I’m a platypus down the back; nodding along.
    You got me thinking; so I had a yak of my own. Thanks Matt- and well played, Joe:

  14. Leon Burstin says

    What do you mean 5’2″. I was small but not that small

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