When I was in high school, I had a part-time job working for one of Australia’s largest retail chains. When I first started, the store that I worked for was one of the poorest performing stores in its region. Our staff were comfortable, people would turn up, breeze through work, get paid and go home. Management held a carefree attitude, lacked initiative and this attitude was reflected by the staff.
About a year into my employment, the head office did a major reshuffle and our store got a new manager. Overnight our comfort zone evaporated and our once carefree working environment ceased to exist.
One of the first things I noticed once I went to my first shift after the change in management was that our statistics regarding sales, broken up into the stores various departments were displayed. We had goals set out, key performance indicators, motivational quotes and in big bold red writing our position within our region.
Over the next few weeks, the store began to evolve. People who did not buy into the changes saw their shifts cut, managers were put under pressure to perform, and this filtered down to the workers. Some staff members couldn’t make the adjustment, resigning or putting in for transfers to other stores.
Human nature dictates that when people are pushed out of their comfort zone they will often rebel to a certain degree, and this is what happened at our store. Those who could adapt received more shifts and more opportunities to take on responsibilities.
By the time I left that store we had gone from sixth to second in our region, proof that those who bought in on the organizational culture change had believed in it and worked hard to make that change work.
A football club is no different to a company. The culture within the organization has a major effect in how the club performs both on and off the field.
At Collingwood, there has been a lot of discussion in the media of the well-known ‘brat pack’, a group of senior players including Dane Swan, Alan Didak, Ben Johnson and Heath Shaw. Whilst these players were kept on a long leash under the tutelage of former coach Mick Malthouse, his successor Nathan Buckley has reigned in that leash, obviously with creation of some friction within the club.
This is not to say that Malthouse did not act on players who he perceived to be a destabilising force on his team. Chris Tarrant was traded out to Fremantle as the club began to tire of his late night antics, and Rhys Shaw, another member of the ‘brat pack’, found a new home at Sydney.
What is clear though is that under Buckley’s reign, there has been a shift towards a more professional stance at Collingwood. Heath Shaw was recently left out of a crucial match against Sydney, the club unimpressed at his conditioning after coming back from an absence due to a back injury.
In addition to this there has been speculation that members of the ‘brat pack’ are unhappy that Didak has continually been left to languish in the reserves and Johnson, albeit recovering from injury, is now not an automatic selection for the senior side.
Given both are highly likely to retire at season’s end, the non-selections of both can be viewed as putting the team and the development of junior players in the mix for the next serious tilt at a premiership first, rather than a season-long testimonial to two longstanding servants of the club.
The introduction of the ‘Leading Teams’ program over the off-season has also caused friction within the club, with some players showing reluctance to buy into the program. Let’s not forget, this was a club that won a premiership in 2010 and made the Grand Final the following season.
Senior players may not believe that after playing in a premiership, criticism from team mates -particularly from younger ones – designed to improve performance is something that is necessary or warranted.
The most recent contentious issue down at the Westpac Centre has revolved around rebounding defender Harry O’Brien, who late last week was granted time away from the club due to personal reasons.
Whilst O’Brien returned to the fold this week, he was told in no uncertain terms that there are standards in place, a culture that is being established and that the emphasis was on himself to buy into it, or in other words, the club is always bigger than the player.
Whilst the club is supposedly built upon the ethos of a line out of its theme song, side by side is something at the moment that Collingwood would struggle to claim to be.
Down the road at Melbourne headquarters, players seem to be working in a less tense environment since former senior coach Mark Neeld’s departure. Melbourne, like Collingwood, are another team that seemingly have issues with culture.
Though the continual heavy defeats suffered this season give the club little room to manoeuvre in the public eye. Remembering this was a club that many believe purposely lost games in order to procure priority and top end draft picks, it is little wonder that a losing culture has been ingrained in the players’ psyche.
Whilst recording a comfortable victory against GWS, its second victory against the Western Bulldogs was one that almost got away, with a 45-point lead early in the last quarter evaporating to a mere three points by the final siren. The Melbourne players, so proficient in the art of losing, were seemingly unaccustomed to being in a winning position and retreated into their shells.
Casting a glance at Neeld’s tenure, it becomes obvious that he had stormed into Melbourne with a hard-line approach with talk to match, claiming that his side would be the most difficult team to play against and beat. Whether this was to instil belief in his players, a call to arms for supporters who had observed their team resemble a Benny Hill sketch in recent times, or an attempt to announce himself as a senior coach with a hard edge remains unclear.
What is clear is the jettisoning of senior players such as Brent Moloney and Cam Bruce and the importation of experienced, albeit mainly average players from other successful sides in order to instil a winning culture at the club ultimately failed. Players seemingly became disenchanted with Neeld’s hardnosed coaching style, none more so than former number one draft pick Jack Watts who was dropped from the senior team and considering asking to be traded at year’s end.
Despite Neeld’s insistence during his tenure that his relationship with Watts was amicable, his former player admitted that playing under Need was difficult and that the two had differing football philosophies.
Neeld’s tenure would come to an end a mere 18 months after it began, with the decision to enforce a new culture on a struggling club ultimately becoming an underlying reason behind his dismissal.His removal displayed the lack of unity that had enveloped the club during Neeld’s time at the helm, with former players such as Maloney and Ricky Petterd taking to social media to support the dismissal.
Had Melbourne been successful on the field, it may have been Watts rather than Neeld that would have been moved on or at least read the riot act and told in no uncertain terms that no player was bigger than the club.
It is a scenario that has happened before with former Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis booted out of the side he won three premierships with in the Brisbane Lions, only to then suffer the same fate at his second club the Western Bulldogs.
Another player who came close to suffering a similar fate was Geelong’s Steve Johnson, who was almost traded to Collingwood but for a failed medical report on an injured ankle. Heading into the 2007 season, Johnson was suspended by the club for alcohol-related issues, and the highly talented but erratic forward looked to be headed out the door.
Fast-forward to the end of the season, Johnson was judged best on ground in a 125 point demolition of Port Adelaide in the Grand Final, winning the Norm Smith medal. Johnson had bought in to the culture the team had been trying to establish, and success had followed for both himself and the club.
The highly vaunted ‘Bloods’ culture at the Sydney Swans gives the rest of the competition an indication of the importance of team unison and the necessity of having a healthy culture within a football club.
When Paul Roos took over as interim coach during the 2002 season, the common perception was that Terry Wallace would be the head coach for the following season. The positive results in the backend of that season saw Roos given the nod ahead of Wallace, the clincher being the positive reception towards the new coach from the players.
Player empowerment became paramount with Roos encouraging his players to become actively involved in team meetings, a complete shift away from the coaching style of his predecessor Rodney Eade.
Then captain Stuart Maxfield took it a step further, introducing the ‘Bloods’ culture, a methodology designed to mentally strengthen the players and make them more accountable for their actions on and off the field. By incorporating a historical aspect of a bygone era, Maxfield had created an entity within the club, something that players recognized was bigger than themselves. Each player was now a cog within a machine, each had a role and by not fulfilling that role they were letting down that culture and the history of the club.
Since 2003, Sydney have played finals nine out of a possible 10 times, have made three grand final appearances and won two premierships. Whilst Roos is no longer at the helm, long-time assistant coach John Longmire continued the club’s success, coaching the Swans to last year’s premiership against the highly fancied Hawthorn.
Culture, whether it be in a retail store or a football club is a key plank in the path to success. Whilst unseen, it has the ability to tear a club apart as in the case of Melbourne, or propel it to glory as in the case of the Swans. More so now then in anytime in the history of the VFL/AFL has a club’s culture become so highly scrutinised and significant in the race for the premiership.