Is being the coach of an AFL club the most cut-throat job of all? If you ask Mark Neeld or Michael Voss the answer would be obvious. If you ask James Hird, he will simply point to the media campsite that has been permanently erected outside his Toorak home for the last three months as evidence.
Coaching is one of the great enigmas of our game. It is one thing being responsible for 22 men that go to war every weekend. It is another thing entirely to be the man responsible for keeping players, supporters, the board and sponsors happy and satisfied, while knowing their club is heading in the right direction.
The coaching merry-go-round has been in fine form this year, with three coaches being cut (albeit for different reasons) and last week’s resigning of John Worsfold at the Eagles. It begs the question, are coaches at the mercy of success like never before?
The ultimate prize is seemingly the only kryptonite for a terminated contract. Look at the importance of Denis Pagan to North Melbourne’s glory years of the 90s. North Melbourne players of that era formed an imposing unit. Players like Wayne Carey, Glenn Archer, Corey McKernan and Anthony Stevens put the fear of god into their opponents when they attacked the ball and the man like their lives depended on it. When it came to facing their curly-haired commander Denis Pagan, they were like students in detention.
Wayne Schwass, a two-time best & fairest winner, premiership player and vice-captain of this fantastic side recently spoke with Mike Sheahan about Pagan and his fearsome reputation. “He certainly came from a position of fear and intimidation. Especially early days when you’re a 17-year-old kid coming down from country Victoria … I’ve seen grown men cry with some of the things Denis has said to them.”
This illustrates the tough love Pagan had for his players, but also that the players trusted him. They bought in to his plan; bought into leaving nothing on the field; bought into ‘Pagan’s Paddock’. It yielded two premierships.
Gone are the days of the Kevin Sheedy dynasty. The intense scrutiny on the modern coach has increased tenfold over the last decade, with some coaches having succumbed to the pressure from within and from outside the club. You only have to look at the baptism of fire that Mark Neeld walked into when he took the Melbourne job last year for proof. What people tend to forget is Neeld is a good coach. Anyone who is the architect of a premiership-winning midfield has solid credentials – just ask Mick Malthouse. There is no doubt that coaches, like players, are becoming more like a commodity to be bought and sold on the market.
They are certainly not hanging around either, with the seemingly accepted shorter lifespan for a coach being firmly on display last week. Paul Roos declared before he had even started that he was there to steady the ship at Melbourne and then hand the reigns over to a qualified understudy in a few years.
You wouldn’t have thought that was on Sheeds’ mind when he took over at Windy Hill in 1981. How times have changed.