COACHING does strange things to usually sane men. The highs are high, the lows low. Frustration builds, excitement boils over. The sacrifices are great, the satisfaction is short. There's always the next game to prepare for. Here's some recent observations.
Saturday, August 18, Etihad Stadium: The Roos are doing a job on the Pies. It's the same old story for Collingwood's big forwards. Chris Dawes is dropping chest marks and Travis Cloke leads up, doesn't mark, returns to the goal square. The coach is once again frustrated, but maybe it's time things were done differently. There are other options.
It should be noted that the Hawks without Lance Franklin are kicking more goals than when he is there. Cloke could be played more as a centre half-forward than full-forward. Dawes could be dropped. Ben Reid or even Nick Maxwell could go forward. There's no doubt that if Scott Pendlebury was played as a permanent forward, he would kick and create heaps of goals. Time is starting to run out on a problem that needs to be fixed.
Saturday, August 18, 10.45am, MCG: The sky is grey, the drizzle steady. No one is on the ground but the Essendon coach and a trusted sidekick. Hird is oblivious to the rain. He walks the ground, football in hand. He goes from wing to goal square, bouncing the ball and getting a feel for the conditions. From 70 metres out on the half-forward flank, dressed in street clothes, he takes one step and launches a torpedo. The connection between ball and shoe is perfect. The ball spirals 55 metres, lands outside the goal square, skids towards the goal post and curls a metre over the goal line. It's impressive, but not surprising.
5pm: Hird faces the media. He is flushed and visibly shaken. Carlton has beaten the Bombers by 96 points. It's the biggest defeat Hird has encountered as a coach. His players played with little, if any, heart. He knows it. The coach apologises to the Essendon members. It must be eating him. For years Hird controlled his own destiny. As a player, businessman, media performer and family man, it was all up to him. And he rarely let himself down. But coaching is different. You can do your job really well, but any one of the 100 players and staff you are responsible for can muck it up and bring the rest down. I always wondered whether Hird, the perfectionist, would be able to cope with that. Time will tell.
Sunday, August 12, 8.30am, Melbourne airport: The Brisbane Lions coach boards a plane at Melbourne Airport for Launceston, where the Hawks are to take on Port Adelaide. He offers his trademark smile to all the footy people on board. I look at the footy fixture and realise he is going to have a close look at the Power, who the Lions play in Adelaide tomorrow. I wonder how he is feeling. The Lions lost the night before to Carlton. It was their fifth loss in six weeks. Voss is coaching for his future. He won't get home to Brisbane until late Sunday. That's three clear days since he has seen his wife and kids, and the next opponent will be the high-flying Crows.
Saturday, August 18, Brisbane: After being 38 points down at quarter-time at the Gabba, the Lions have fought back to lead by four points with 30 seconds left. Voss is in the coach's box, tight and tense. The ball spills to Tom Rockliff. He kicks truly from outside 50, and the Lions will win. Voss can't contain himself. He shakes hands and hugs his assistants. If they can beat Port Adelaide and then the Western Bulldogs, it will be 10 wins for the season. That's six more than last year. Real progress will have been made.
Saturday, August 18, Brisbane: The final siren sounds at the Gabba and the Crows coach and his loyal mate Darren Milburn are ashen-faced. They have just lost the unloseable game. Hot favourites and six goals up at quarter-time, the Crows relaxed and got rolled. But perhaps the coach hadn't helped. Perhaps the coach sowed the seed for the loss the week before, when his team tossed Fremantle at home to chalk up its 15th win for the season, and climb to second spot. Back then, the novice coach was pumped, he was all about talking up his players. He was saying Scott Thompson and Patrick Dangerfield had to be Brownlow Medal chances, and that young centre half-back Daniel Talia was a good thing for the Rising Star. Hold on, Brenton! It's not the time to talk about individual awards when team success is all that matters.
Saturday, August 18, Perth: Richmond, for the 10th time this season, has lost a game by fewer than four goals. The coach is angry and frustrated - again. So he has a crack at Fremantle for bringing in the emergency ruckman, Aaron Sandilands, and taking out selected ruckman Jonathon Griffin. Hardwick says what the Dockers did was OK by the rules, but was it a ruse? Did the Dockers always plan this? Was it in the spirit of the game? Well, Damien, it really doesn't matter. It's no big deal. It's replacing one ruckman with another.
The Richmond coach says they planned for one thing and got another. Please, Damien, get over it. If the Tigers are so fragile that they let something like that throw them, no wonder they lose the close contests.
Sunday, August 19, Adelaide: It's late in the third quarter at AAMI Stadium. Port Adelaide's caretaker coach is down on the boundary line, itching to get on the field. His team, after kicking one goal in the first half, has kicked three goals to the Eagles' one in the third term.
The coach is excited. Too excited. The siren ends the quarter, and Hocking sprints on to the field waving his arms. He wants his players to follow him to the outer wing. He plans to take the players to the rank-and-file fans. It's the old-school Mark Williams trick and Hocking, in just his second game, is going to pull it. But there's a problem. When they arrive, there's scarcely anybody there. The crowd was 13,683, the smallest crowd ever to attend an AFL game at AAMI Stadium.