AFL

COMMENT

Essendon supplements saga: Mick Malthouse is the right man for exiled Dons

Some Essendon fans will recoil at the notion of Mick Malthouse acting as the good shepherd to a portion of the 34 during their season in exile. They shouldn't.

Some Carlton and Collingwood people, still filled with Schadenhird after the catastrophic CAS verdict, may scoff at the idea of Malthouse acting as a bridge over the river WADA for those isolated players.

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They shouldn't.

There are logistical reasons why Malthouse might not coach/mentor suspended players. There are practical obstacles that must be surmounted – insurance, medical, masseuses, venues and, not least, who pays for it all.

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But none of the cons relate to Malthouse's capabilities. Indeed, whatever you think of him, he is almost uniquely qualified to step in and provide the kind of structure and road map that these disoriented players will sorely need in 2016. If the various impediments can be cleared and enough players are willing, he's the right man.

He's the most experienced coach in AFL history, who only finished up coaching at the top level last year. Obviously, the passion to coax, cajole and mentor young men has not dissipated.The 34 are in an unprecedented situation, requiring unprecedented solutions.

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It is fortuitous that someone of Malthouse's stature happens to be (a) just out of the game and (b) not formally involved with a team or club.

There is no risk for Malthouse or the players. He cannot infect the players with a WADA virus, nor can their suspensions contaminate him, as they would even the coach of the Keilor under-14s. He is, as he put it, "neutral" – like Switzerland.

Dealing with players in this strange netherworld will play to Malthouse's strengths. Motivating and handling diverse personalities – from Heritier Lumumba, Heath Shaw and Ben Cousins to John Worsfold – was the foundation of his coaching career and the reason he endured, amid constant change.

One of the major risks for the 34 – especially the 17 who remain on club lists – is that their exile will see them tune out of football. A short trip overseas might freshen them up mentally, but, at some point, they will need to become serious in their preparations for 2017. Or they will flounder upon their return.

Ahmed Saad was not quite the player he had been prior to his 18-month doping suspension, despite maintaining fitness. The 17 who are still in the AFL have one advantage that Saad didn't have: each other. It is easier to toil together, to generate enthusiasm and, practically speaking, run a decent training drill with a football if you have numbers.

It is preferable to train in a group of some size than solo, or in twos and threes. Malthouse would not be teaching players game plans or strategies. He would be keeping spirits afloat first, while his lieutenant David Buttifant keeps them fit. He would be a  haven.

Essendon and Worsfold are heavily constrained in what they can do for their suspended dozen. The AFL has already provided the players with information about the dos and don'ts, beginning from Black Tuesday (January 12) until the end of the suspension (assuming it isn't overturned). 

The 'don'ts' make an imposing list of totalitarian bylaws. The players can't even caddie  for a friend at a local golf competition without violating their WADA parole. They can't help out a junior basketball team or play indoor cricket.

They can't give a pep talk to their old school's first 18.

If Collingwood was willing – and this might be a bridge too far – their suspended dopes, Josh Thomas and Lachie Keeffe, could conceivably join in with a Malthouse crew of Bombers.

That Malthouse has already discussed this proposal with a suspended player, checked in with the AFL (and received a thumbs up) and the players' association is a measure of his genuine interest in taking up the challenge.

How would this be paid for? That's probably the trickiest part. Essendon are  not allowed to play any role in preparing the players for 2017 and that includes paying a third party to train them. The AFL suggested on Saturday that neither the league nor the AFLPA would be permitted to pay for an exile training program either.

Basically, the players would have to find the money themselves. Or find sponsors. Here's a possibility that warrants consideration – how about doing a deal with an enterprising television producer or network, who could make a mini-documentary and sell it for televisual consumption?

Many players, in any case, would be  wise to find some money to keep themselves trim, keen and up to speed in skills. 

Jake Carlisle, for instance, has just signed a major contract with the Saints, having stumbled spectacularly before his suspension. Whatever he invested to keep himself tidy during 2016 would be small beers in comparison with his St Kilda contract.

In 2016, the 34, the Essendon Football Club and the competition have fallen into turbulent, unchartered waters. 

Malthouse is offering, if not a life jacket, then at least a device that might prevent them from drowning in disorganisation or isolation. 

Minus another credible alternative, the players should put their hand up and accept his entirely decent proposal.