Brendan McCartney briefs his team during the game against Fremantle. Photo: Getty Images
In his rising three years as Western Bulldogs coach, Brendan McCartney has preached a consistent narrative: we will work hard, we will get better, it will not happen overnight. He has never made the conversation about him.
Which made his response on Wednesday to questioning of the club's ''relevance'' – and the ability of its figureheads to keep the Bulldogs interesting through the drudgery of a major rebuild – notable.
''I'm probably not as quiet and easy-going as people realise,'' McCartney said. ''We've got enough intensity here. There's plenty of fight here too, don't worry. There's plenty of fight in this place. I've been in a club before where it didn't matter what happened, the wheels kept whirring internally, we kept working as a group, we kept working on our players. And the wheel turned. And I've got a feeling it'll happen again here.''
That club, Geelong, lives on the upper rungs of the ''relevance ladder'', which a Fairfax Media report placed the Bulldogs at the foot of among Victorian clubs. McCartney said a coach was ''a fool if you don't hear feedback'', but an even bigger fool if it became a distraction.
He defied recent opponents Fremantle, Gold Coast for a half, the Melbourne outfit they defeated before the bye, or Adelaide and Essendon, who beat the Dogs in close games, to have found his team ''invisible''. In the fine print of last Sunday's 38-point loss to the Dockers, he read progress.
''I just urge people to have a look at a lot of these young people who we're playing, who are now starting to get more comfortable on an AFL ground,'' McCartney said. ''There were bits of play out there last Sunday where three or four of our younger players were around the ball, and they had experienced players around the ball, and we beat them. We're gunna be OK here. The 'relevance ladder' will take care of itself I guess.''
Half of the Bulldogs' eight wins in 2013 came in their last six games, a stretch McCartney reflected had made the club ''pretty flavourable'', but three from 10 this season has had a souring effect. The coach noted lulls within games had come at critical times, but insisted: ''People probably think we aren't progressing but we are.''
Within Whitten Oval there is similar deep resolve. One official blanched at criticism of McCartney and captain Ryan Griffen's lack of profile; for the work he does beyond the playing group with supporters, sponsors and the like, the coach is considered one of the club's best communication assets. Not giving journalists a headline won't mark him down from the inside.
As the AFL announced a new competitive balance policy in the wake of equalisation measures that have been championed by Bulldogs president Peter Gordon, McCartney reiterated the club's pledge made early in his tenure as coach to ''win'' the west of Melbourne and make the area its heartland, and to win games of football. ''And every minute of every day that's what we chip away at.''
Of Gordon he said: ''I loved our president fighting for us, it made me feel pretty good actually to know that our leader's prepared to fight to make it a fair landscape.''
McCartney also took up the baton in defence of Griffen, the first-year captain who was kept to just 10 touches by Ryan Crowley last weekend, predicting an immediate and telling response.
''He'll play well. With due respect to his opponent, he was brilliant at what he did. All great players have a couple of days a year where they can't exert the influence they want on the game. The sort of person Ryan is, he'll bounce back, and his teammates will help.
''He's much loved and respected in here. And he's most loved because of his humility and his decency and his deep love of the club. No one tries harder here than him.''