If words were the measure of a coaching stint, Mick Malthouse would already seem like a veteran of Visy Park. Photo: Getty Images
SO MUCH energy, so much newsprint and so many hours of airtime have been expended on the subject of Mick Malthouse as coach of Carlton that it somehow seems hard to believe it's a marriage that will only be consummated officially on Monday.
Certainly, if words were the measure of a coaching stint, Malthouse would already seem like a veteran of Visy Park.
His appointment two months ago followed several months of intense speculation the job would be his sooner rather than later. Since that debate was settled, there has been much more musing on the Blues' future under his command.
Yet it's only on Monday that Malthouse and the Carlton players will together start the core business of preparing in a meaningful fashion for a new AFL season.
The Blues' first to third-year players arrived back at the club from their holiday break on Wednesday. For the rest of the list, Monday is the first day of school, with not just the students welcome.
Carlton will hold an open training session for its supporters at Visy Park at 2.45pm, with a free barbecue. It might not attract the same incredible numbers that poured into Punt Road one December afternoon the day Ben Cousins started with Richmond a few years ago but plenty of faithful are expected to turn up for a peek at the new boss and the beginning of a new era.
There'll be several days on the track, and of testing, before the whole class, and its teacher, head to Arizona for a two-week training camp. And even hardened veterans such as Carlton skipper Chris Judd and former premiership player and now Blues football manager Andrew McKay have conceded to some child-like tingles of expectation.
''Over the last three to four weeks players have been coming in to use the altitude room or doing work in the gym and you can just feel that bit of a buzz around the place, you can tell everyone's up and about, which is great,'' says McKay.
Not that they've seen much, if any, of the coach yet. Malthouse's visits to the club have been confined to the odd half-day here or there. Sometimes Muhammad, in this case the club, has had to go to the mountain. Last Monday, McKay, football administration manager Shane O'Sullivan, fitness man Justin Cordy and new assistant coach and long-time Malthouse cohort Rob Wiley met the coach in town for a long planning session.
''We spent half the day just going through our planning of training and our scheduling, just trying to bed down what we want to do this year,'' says McKay. ''Justin ran through what he wants to do fitness-wise, Rob has helped design the training stuff and we talked about even little things like with travel, when we go, when we come back.
''Arizona will be about Mick getting to know the players and vice versa, getting to know how he wants to play, the structures he wants to put in place, so even though we'll be doing a fair bit of work at altitude, it will be a good education camp as well.''
If there is a ''back to school'' feel about the weeks ahead, the Carlton players are already in little doubt about who'll be the boss. Judd knew that when he arrived at West Coast for 2002, even a couple of years after Malthouse had left.
''He probably doesn't go down the player empowerment model, which a lot of modern-day coaches do,'' Judd said this week. ''From the stories I've heard, he's a bit more into rule, govern and behaviour. That will be interesting. But his record speaks for itself and I think it's an exciting time for our footy club.''
While the players return from the US on November 25, Malthouse and McKay will leave camp a few days early to get back for the November 22 national draft, where the Blues - after remaining inactive on the trade front save for acquiring an extra pick in return for now Magpie Jordan Russell - will have eight potential selections.
Carlton was keen on a blue-chip key forward but its genuine interest at the trade table waned once Travis Cloke recommitted to Collingwood. ''We wanted the creme de la creme and not to dabble in the rest if Cloke wasn't available,'' McKay admits. ''That's why we weren't active in trades or free agency.
''We've got a number of guys that have an opportunity to really prove themselves next year that have either been injured or haven't had that opportunity in the past.
''We feel like we've got some good developing forwards in [Levi] Casboult, [Luke] Mitchell, and [Shaun] Hampson showed good signs last season, and we know 'Waitey' [Jarrad Waite] is a good player with that X-factor that just needs to spend more time on the ground. We think there's enough there if we develop the younger guys and keep the rest of them fit.''
In midfield the likes of Kane Lucas can expect considerably more game time, while the revitalised Brock McLean looks set to continue that resurgence under Malthouse, with the triple premiership coach a fan of the strong-bodied clearance winner. ''I think the game almost came back to Brock a little bit this year,'' McKay observes. ''I suppose, with a bit more congestion, he was able to use his strength over the ball and quick hands.''
What can be said with confidence, and is already confirmed by the coach, is Carlton in 2013 will be a lot more defence minded. ''I can categorically tell you the game plan won't change,'' Malthouse said recently, meaning, of course, his game plan. ''It will be defence first, defence second and defence third.''
Carlton slipped to being the ninth-best defensive unit in terms of points against this year, having been fifth in 2011, and it has for years now, on occasion, worn the ''downhill skiers'' tag.
But the Blues believe they have the personnel to turn that around under a coach famed for his tactical stinginess, and this confidence is underlined by the clearing of the defensive decks, out-of-favour types such as Paul Bower, Bret Thornton and Russell having departed.
While McKay concedes emerging key backman Andrew McInnes, who'll miss at least half next season with a reconstructed knee, will be a major loss, the Blues look forward to the return of Jeremy Laidler, ''a real general down there''. There's Michael Jamison, the option of versatile Lachie Henderson and defensive rebounders such as Chris Yarran and Zach Tuohy.
Malthouse has already identified Matthew Watson as a potentially big part of the jigsaw puzzle. ''Mick's really keen to use Matthew back there, with his penetrating and accurate kicking,'' says McKay.
While Malthouse will put his own obvious imprimatur on all things Carlton, the fitness program designed by Cordy won't change a lot. It's the upshot of that work on the field rather than the toll in the medical room the Blues hope will be the biggest practical difference in 2013, and it's something the coach has already noted.
''He's certainly conscious of going too hard too early,'' says McKay.
''He doesn't want anyone breaking down in Arizona. You could turn it into a really hard and physical boot camp, or just temper it a little bit and do a bit of education, skills and also just a bit of bonding. He understands it's a long season and you need to have everyone fit by January and ready to go in February rather than flying in November and breaking down in January.''
That, though, is the players. When it comes to the subject of the game's most talked-about coach and the new targets of his philosophies, it's been a pretty long pre-season already. And at least, for Carlton and Malthouse the real action has finally arrived.