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Malthouse coaching 'worst kept secret'

At the press call for Mick Malthouse's (unsurprising) announcement as Carlton coach, sports writer Greg Baum says interest lay in Malthouse's increasingly frustrated answers about the timing of his signing.

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IT WAS the sort of sequence that makes sense only in reverse. Twelve days apart, in the same auditorium at Princes Park, two Carlton coaches faced the media music. One was poised and dignified and prompted a round of applause when he was done. The other, once the introductory niceties were dispensed with, was bristling and combative, and when he was done, two Carlton staffers stood impromptu guard on the corridor down which he exited.

The perversity is that the decorous one was Brett Ratten, and he was on the way out, notwithstanding that a year remained on his contract, and the grumpy bum was Mick Malthouse, and - surprise, surprise - he was on the way in, having just signed for three years.

The repeatedly surfacing friction yesterday centred on the insistence of Carlton and Malthouse that they had held no discussions before Ratten's departure, and that they had had only an ''inkling'' of interest in one another. This jars with the understanding of the wider football community about a long, if unofficial courtship.

Spotlight: Mick Malthouse and Stephen Kernahan.

Spotlight: Mick Malthouse and Stephen Kernahan. Photo: Pat Scala

Of course, there are many ways not to have discussions. Malthouse said he delegated all authority to his friend and manager Peter Sidwell, also the chairman of Melbourne Heart, who was in the auditorium yesterday. His only instruction was to make no move until he had squared his coaching ambition - not so much rekindled as ever burning - with his family. He did the Sunday night before last.

Yet at the time of Ratten's sacking four days previously, Carlton already knew that Malthouse was available; tacitly, president Stephen Kernahan admitted it then, with the pause of the season.

Yesterday, Kernahan allowed that ''a few people outside Carlton'' might have spoken to Sidwell before the Blues and Malthouse formally met for the first time eight days ago. But the next day, three assistant coaches somehow knew already that their jobs had become untenable. Malthouse said he had only spoken of the ''structure'' he wanted, not the personnel. Kernahan said that he was ''totally comfortable'' with the integrity of the process.

Installed, Malthouse spoke elliptically of ''a thing called 'it' '', experienced and understood by few, the sum of all the pressures that an AFL footballer or coach feels.

Now part Confucius, part Sheedy, he said he would be doing a disservice to himself and the club to think in terms of a limit on his coaching career, or for that matter on Carlton's ambition. Coaching, he said, was a mountain that he still had not crested.

''A premiership to me has always been only part of the journey,'' he said, ''not a destination.''

Doubtlessly, he and Carlton will compare notes on that in three years. The Blues have never been much interested in scenic journeys, just expeditious arrivals. They don't apologise for their ambition, or care how many toes they stand on in pursuing it. It makes them more than any other, the club of cloak and dagger, or perhaps now Cloke and dagger.

Malthouse, too, has always been a better football coach by far than a PR operative. He was not there yesterday to propitiate media, especially not the 15 per cent he believes are out to spoil, provoke and antagonise. Of course, in this era, a little diplomacy helps, especially to satisfy sponsors.

But ultimately in football, as Kernahan noted on Ratten's D-Day, only winning matters.

Right now, those with the most jaundiced view of Malthouse's appointment are Carlton fans, who perhaps cannot yet in their imaginations divest him of his Collingwood cap, and so dwell only on what they disliked about Magpie Mick; some want Kernahan and the board held to account immediately for this travesty.

History suggests that six wins in a row will win most of them over. This time last year, Mark Harvey was Fremantle's martyr; now his name is hardly heard. Unsentimentally audited, Kernahan, Malthouse and Ratten - to his undying credit - were on the same page, whose bottom line, as summed up by Kernahan, reads: ''It's only about the football club.''