By Tom Heenan
Steven Alomes must be joking.
In Friday’s The Age he dubbed the Fremantle coach, Ross Lyon, an ‘evil genius’ who has brought the game into disrepute.
‘Evil’ is a little too strong to describe Lyon and the other coaches who have created the flood, the press and the rugger style of play which have destroyed football as Alomes knows and likes it.
Such laments have often been heard. In the seventies it was the death of the drop kick and stab pass. By the eighties the torp was on the nose, and ten years on the grizzle was about the overuse of handball. Now it’s the press, the flood and the hunting-in-packs style of play.
By 2020 … who knows? The end of jaw-breaking fried dim sims, cold chips and flat beer in the cheap seats?
Alomes suggests the Lyon style will lead to the death of the game. But really, will it?
The cause of mob-footy is not Lyon or his fellow coaches. They are just exploiting the changing economy of football which has allowed the professionalization of players, coaches and club administrations.
In the 1960s, players were part-timers and there was no prolonged pre-season. They trained Tuesday and Thursday nights during the season, and may have had a trot and chat on Sunday mornings after the game over a pie and keg. They were paid, but not much, unless they were headliners.
The way in which the game was played reflected this. It was a stop-start affair with players rarely straying out of position. When one eventually did, Melbourne’s back pocket player ‘Froggy’ Crompton, he kicked the winning goal in the 1964 grand final.
The fitness and skill-levels of the sixties’ players weren’t in the same league of today’s bunch. Just look at the dying moments of the 1966 Grand Final. With his side up by a point, the Saints’ full-back, Bob Murray, grabbed the ball at half-back, had a brief trot and then grubbed his kick. His poor decision-making and execution could have cost the Saints a premiership.
The 1970 Grand Final is legendary with Carlton’s 44-point comeback against a hapless Collingwood. Footy folklore has it that Carlton’s coach, Ron Barassi, turned the game with his half-time instruction to handball at-all-costs. Here supposedly was born modern footy’s running game.
Rubbish. The game was a stop-start affair with plenty of errors. Granted, on show were the great kicking skills of Collingwood’s Barry Price, the Richardsons and Peter McKenna; the first running ruck modern, Len Thompson; and Carlton’s mercurial Jesaulenko and hardman, John Nicholls.
But these players – and the game itself – were not a patch on today’s. Lumbering types like Carlton’s ‘Percy’ Jones and the ‘Pies half-back, Denis O’Callaghan, would not make the cut in today’s gut-running, mob-tackling game.
By the late 1970s the kick-to-position static style was giving way to the running game of the eighties. But there were still dinosaurs. Essendon’s Billy Duckworth won a Norm Smith in ’84 and played until 1990. But he would have lacked the tank to run with today’s lot.
The change came not because of ‘evil geniuses’ in the coaching boxes, but the broadening of the game’s revenue base. Clubs’ slim pickings from the gate and well-heeled local businessmen gave way to broadcasting revenue and sponsorship from transnational companies. This enabled football to professionalise and improve as a spectacle.
Throughout Duckworth’s career he drove a bus. ‘Percy’ Jones ran pubs and many more were clerks, sales reps and bank tellers. While today’s players are paid to train, play and study the game, the Duckworths and Joneses were after-dark part-timers.
The clubs have also played their part in the game’s professionalization. Recognising the need to remain competitive both on and off the field, most embarked on membership drives during the noughties. Many club memberships have more than doubled over the past ten years, adding to the revenue base.
Collingwood has more than 70,000 members, while Hawthorn has hit the 60,000 mark, not bad for a club that 20 years ago was on the financial skids and robustly discussing a merger with current competition basket case, Melbourne.
The influx of membership money has allowed well-supported clubs to invest in elite training facilities and programs, and get around AFL equalisation structures such as the draft. Steve Dank and Dean ‘The Weapon’ Robinson became integral parts of club training regimes because the revenue base could support their sports science programs.
The more well-healed clubs are spending millions on such programs, raising players’ physical and playing capabilities to unmatched levels, and allowing coaches to devise game plans unthinkable in the 1960s.
Indicative of this have been changes in footy jargon. The stop-start affairs of the sixties gave us ‘stacks-on-the-mill.’ Now ‘the flood’, ‘the press’, ‘the spread’ and ‘gut-running’ roll off supporters’ tongues, and football is the richer for it.
This revolution – for that is what is – has not made the game less skilful or ugly. It has enhanced the game as a spectacle. The players are quicker, stronger and more skilful. Their hand and foot disposal ability is unprecedented, and the game’s defensive side has improved markedly.
Furthermore, the game has become more athletic and inclusive. The crossover athlete is now a part of football. In the 1980s it was Melbourne’s Irish experiment and by 1991 one of its products, Jim Stynes, had won a Brownlow.
More recently, it’s basketballers. Dean Brogan played for the Adelaide 36ers before joining Port Adelaide, while Collingwood’s Scott Pendleberry was on an AIS basketball scholarship before turning to football. So serious has become the basketball push that in August the AFL scouted American college teams looking for 200 centimetre plus players willing to give footy a try.
But the most highly publicised cross-over has been with rugby. In the eighties South Melbourne relocated to Sydney and under Tom Hafey’s coaching adopted the rugger-style of tackling. By the late noughties tackles laid were statistical KPIs alongside disposals, and rugby players were beginning to make the transition to AFL.
Swan Lewis Roberts-Thomson played rugby union at Sydney Grammar with Wallaby Phil Waugh. LRT had only 40 Rules games under his belt before being drafted to Swans. He has since become a premiership player.
The AFL’s expansion into Sydney’s west and the Gold Coast was accompanied by high profile rugger signings. Israel Folau was plucked from the Broncos by GWS, while Karmichael Hunt joined the Suns on a $3 million contract. Though both signings were criticised by the code’s commentariart, the presence of these crossover players gave the game a presence in the Brisbane and Sydney rugby-dominated media markets.
But the outstanding success has been the former Canadian rugby international turned Swan, Mike Pyke, who has developed into one of the game’s key big men.
Though past players and commentators frown on the rugger crossover, it will continue adding to the game’s skill and tactical base. This is apparent in the Lyon rugger-type game plan founded on scrum-like intensity, slick passing and hard running to space.
Alomes may yearn for the days of the grubbed drop-kick, the wobbly punt and a bit of ‘biffo’ behind play. Those days are gone and thankfully so. Under the likes of Lyon, the game is entering an interesting phase, with coaches prepared to draw on tactics and skills from other codes.
Lyon’s no ‘evil genius.’ He’s just a coach reinventing the way the game is played. By 2020 we may be lamenting the passing of his great Freo teams which gave us so much enjoyment with their rugger-style intensity, and having a whinge about another coach and his latest tactical innovation which is ruining the game as we liked it.
Dr Tom Heenan lectures in sports and Australian studies at Monash University.
This article first appeared in BackPageLead