Tough times: Carlton coach Brett Ratten arrives back in Melbourne after the loss to Gold Coast Suns. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
THE spectre of Mick Malthouse that has haunted Brett Ratten for more than two years has finally materialised. And there is no doubt the presence of the last but one premiership coach declaring his ongoing passion for the job has made Ratten's survival all the more unlikely.
Ratten knows it, Malthouse knows it and so do the two Carlton chiefs who in the end will drive the decision - president Stephen Kernahan and his chief executive, Greg Swann. Only Swann has been publicly silent since the Gold Coast train wreck, but the very fact he ended all social contact with Malthouse after one of their regular dinners three months ago indicates this has been looming.
Kernahan, who made it clear in a club sanctioned interview that Ratten's future is safe for just one more game, was clearly torn yesterday. He has been a Carlton director for the past three coach sackings - all were contracted at the time - and was determined not to behave as the old Carlton would have. Denis Pagan lost a game in Queensland only to have his fate sealed on the Richard Pratt-chartered flight home, and certainly John Elliott would have sacked Ratten by now.
Instead, Kernahan yesterday sought counsel from several trusted confidants - probably Mike Fitzpatrick and Stephen Gough among them - who would have urged him to look at the big picture and not just the coach. Certainly he was urged to hold the line for one more week and has insisted to everyone who will listen that his board is united and Swann is doing everything the board requires of him, and more.
But he made it clear by his public commentary that Ratten's future is in grave doubt. The coach is contracted for a year and yet his future could not be guaranteed beyond Sunday. Kernahan described Saturday night's loss to Gold Coast as one of Carlton's worst in his memory. Privately he is understood to regard it as the worst.
And Ratten, too, was pointed in a letter to club members, pointing the finger at some of his players. "Without doubt we have carried some blokes into games this season," he wrote. ''One minute they play well; the next it's, 'Oh well'."
Malthouse widened his own return to coaching door ever so slightly further on 3AW, saying that, for him, it is a return to coaching in 2013 or never. He would not consider moving to Port Adelaide, so clearly he was talking about Carlton. And there is no doubt the Blues, despite their debt and the estimated $500,000 pay-out to Ratten, could gather the funds to secure him. The timing for Ratten is unfortunate where Malthouse is concerned, because he appears the lone figure in the frame as Paul Roos continues to rule out coaching next year.
Malthouse's manager, Peter Sidwell, told The Age last night: "Michael's first and greatest priority is to confirm he has the support of his wider family and friends. That will precede any decision as to whether he wishes to go back into coaching. The current media speculation in regard to any and all football clubs' future decisions is unedifying. Michael will not entertain any approach until October.''
For those Carlton powerbrokers who believed raising the money to lure Malthouse and pay out Ratten to relaunch for 2013 was a no-brainer, then the shock Gold Coast defeat has done them a favour.
Interestingly, the two most vocal defenders of the beleaguered coach were David Parkin and Robert Walls, with the latter a long-time Malthouse critic. Both are Carlton premiership coaches, both have been sacked by the club - Parkin twice.
A move to sign Malthouse will send dominoes falling across the AFL, given his strong allegiance to key Collingwood staffers such as high-performance chief David Buttifant, along with the uncertainty over whether Blues assistants Gavin Brown and Alan Richardson would stay with the Blues should Malthouse replace Ratten.
Port Adelaide yesterday confirmed it would approach Ratten - whose stated wish is to be a career coach - as a senior candidate, and the uncertainty over the Carlton football department prompted Richmond to seek a decision by midweek from prospective high-performance coach Darren Burgess, who is leaving Liverpool but who is also considering an offer from Port.
Surely, then, a decision from Malthouse will come long before October. His worry for family and friends, and specifically one son whom he said had suffered particularly from the tribulations of existing so closely to an AFL coach, was genuine, but surely he was just musing on the wrongs of the past. Because he then added that those relatives would support him unconditionally.
It seems like a fait accompli. If Malthouse chooses to jump back in, then Ratten is finished. At least at the club he called home for so long.