Dead Man Walking is a best selling non-fiction novel by Sister Helen Prejean written in 1993 and adapted in 1995 into an Academy Award winning film. The most recent adaptation is currently being played out at the Melbourne Football Club. ‘Dead man walking’ is a phrase called out by prison guards to clear the way way when taking a prisoner on death row to his execution. The guards in the latest version are the Melbourne Football Club board, headed by president Don McLardy and the prisoner being lead to his execution is head coach Mark Neeld.
On Monday the board decided not to sack Neeld following his team’s insipid performances both this year and last. Since taking over from Dean Bailey at the end of the 2011 season when the team amassed a respectable eight wins, 13 losses and a draw and finished 13th on the ladder, the team has gone backwards. In 2012 they won just four games and finished only above new boys the Suns and Giants and this year they have won just one of their first ten games – to the winless Giants – and sit second bottom. For a team that added so much young talent through the draft during the alleged “tanking” years, that is not good enough. People may argue the list isn’t great, and it’s not, but a team with all those picks should at a bare minimum improve it’s record each year and the Demons are clearly headed in the other direction.
It is for that reason that the coaching department must take its fair share of the blame and Neeld is at the core of that. The fact that some senior players reported they had falling outs with the head coach and some have since left and are now thriving under different coaches, for example Brent Moloney at the Lions, only strengthens the argument against Neeld. For those reasons, he should have lost his job on Monday. He comes across as a lovely bloke and he may find a niche in a different department but he’s just not head coach material. Players don’t play for him and he’s not a great motivator of men from the evidence provided. Some people are simply not made for certain jobs. In the same way that many people don’t try to be a beauty therapist because they would most likely be awful at it. Neeld had a go, he tried his best but coaching, it seems, is just not his “bag”.
So why didn’t the board sack him on Monday and start re-rebuilding again? $600,000 might have something to do with it. Whilst many in football circles agree he won’t be the coach in 2014, if they sack him now they will still have to pay the remainder of his contract, said to be around the $600,000 mark. The club simply can’t afford it, they are not Collingwood or Carlton with that kind of money sitting in the coffers. So the dead man keeps walking, for now at least.
Club legend Garry Lyon, who was on the 2011 subcommittee that appointed Neeld, has warned of the dangers facing the club if they have privately decided to fire him but are waiting out the contract. Speaking on Channel Nine on Monday, Lyon said “they are playing a dangerous game then, if the decision has been made and they haven’t told him and haven’t moved on it.” Referring to the fact that the club might find themselves in a sticky situation if they have decided to fire him but things improve. Whilst improvement is unlikely, they do have a bye after this Monday’s Queen’s Birthday game against Collingwood, followed by matches against St Kilda and the Bulldogs, both potentially winnable games.
So it seems as if the club are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Fire Neeld now and lose over half a million dollars, or keep him on until season’s end and accept poor performances. I say bite the bullet now. Bring in a new leader, even if it’s an interim coach, to try and turn things around. The proud fans of this historic club deserve better than settling for mediocrity just to save a few bucks.