The other day, disgusted as I was as usual with the televisiual feast that Videotron's cable service had to offer, I delved into my movie collection and busted out the “The Club”, a 1980 film based on the play by the same name by David Williamson. It delivered quite a few highlights: a bemused Tom Hafey acting as an assistant coach to Jack Thompson; Rene Kink's “performance” as Tank O'Donohue and especially being able to spot Ray Shaw, Peter Daicos and Ronnie Wearmouth as it's best to remember them.
After the movie I jumped online briefly and the first footy headline I happened upon was “Knights-mare continues”, a stinging rebuke aimed at Essendon's performance against the West Coast Eagles. Eagle Mark LeCras slotted twelve goals, four-to-six of which were on beleaguered and probably overmatched Don Heath Hocking. Why four-to-six? Because Knights says four were kicked directly on Hocking, while pretty much everyone else says young Heath shopped six.
You can absolutely watch “The Club” substituting the Essendon hierarchy with the main characters and it makes perfect sense: a proud club that's down on it's luck with a coach who's struggling to get the most out of his men. (Except of course the subplot about The Club President punching a stripper, no-one's alleging anything of that sort here).
In that great example of Australian footy machismo, The Club coach Laurie Holden is slammed by all quarters for refusing to move his captain Danny Rowe off a hot player (Wilson) while The Club is copping a thrashing. Rowe has a stinker, The Club loses the match and Wilson is the best player on the ground. When talking with head-case rookie superstar Geoff Hayward, Holden describes his thinking in the following manner:
GEOFF: I don't want to play the devil's advocate, but you've done some pretty bad coaching yourself lately.
LAURIE: Such as?
GEOFF: Such as not shifting Danny off Wilson last week. He was getting thrashed.
LAURIE: I know.
GEOFF: Wilson was leaving him for dead.
LAURIE: (irritably) I know.
GEOFF: Then why didn't you shift him?
LAURIE: Because he was desperate to keep trying. He's never been that badly beaten before. I know it was the wrong thing to do but Danny's been the backbone of my team for eight years and I felt I owed him something. Besides, I doubt whether there's anyone in the team who could've done any better.
Matthew Knights and Laurie Holden both fell victim to the Dawson Quandary – when to move an overmatched player off a hot superstar. We can assume Knights was aware of Hocking struggling. And they're not the only two coaches to have been pilloried for arriving at the Quandary: Hawk Zac Dawson was left to stand a rampant Anthony Rocca in 2006 and the Pie forward kicked 10. Dawson, 19 at the time, weighed approximately 80 kilograms opposed to the 105 kegs sported on the 29 year-old Rocca frame. That decision and subsequent media frenzy nearly caused the young full-back's career to disintegrate on the spot and it's only in the last eighteen months that he's found redemption after barely sniffing the Senior side again at Hawthorn and finally finding his way to St. Kilda. His coach, Alastair Clarkson, said he left Dawson there to get experience; but you've gotta ask yourself when this becomes simply flogging a dead horse.
Do we hang Knights immediately or congratulate him for sticking to his guns and his show of faith? I guess it depends on his assessment of “where” Essendon are. From all accounts, Knights won the top job in 2007 with an optimistic view of the Bombers' playing list that appealed to the coaching search panel; his assessment was that major changes wouldn't be needed in order for Bombers success. His direct opponent for the job, current Richmond boss Damien Hardwick, deigned it necessary to blowtorch most of the playing group and build from scratch. In essence, the decision came down to Knights' short-term optimism and the promise of results within two-to-three years versus Hardwick's crystal ball pleading youth development and therefore future hope.
I'm not a big fan of fan-pressure forcing out coaches, but fans basically demand one of two things: results or hope. Results speak for themselves – games won, and a team in the throes of competing for a title. Hope for the future is probably an even easier “sell”: fans can stomach the word “rebuilding” for two seasons if the promise of results is there – even three years in some cases. But as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, results must follow hope and if wins are scarce after year three the coach finds himself in very warm liquid. Knights won the Senior Coach job promising results, not hope, and as such his (let's be generous) choice to leave Hocking on LeCras is either naive or negligent coaching. If, however, the Dons' recent form downturn has shunted this year from the “win now” category to“development” his decision is less damning.
I'm not privy to the goings-on behind closed doors at Windy Hill and so, like the rest of the world, I have no idea if 2010 is now pigeonholed under “results”, “hope” or “strange and cruel hybrid leaving the fans and media second guessing everything the coach says and does”. I hope for Knights' sake that Essendon FC knows this year's category: because if the players, administration and coach aren't on the same page the only way this can end is with an “I-told-you-so” smile on the face of Damien Hardwick and a dole-queue grimace on that of Knights.