When I ran my coach’s box, it was always a democratic dictatorship.
You listen, but you act on your instinct and what is said is final with no correspondence entered into.
A coach’s week is very much about listening. Listening to your medical advice, listening to your director of science, finding out about the tiredness of your players, their blood and urine levels, right down to whether they are simply happy or sad.
Listening to your football operations manager in regards to who has been signed and who hasn’t, when is the best time to travel to interstate games, the availability of grounds, rehab centres and even the beach.
Then you listen to your recruitment manager about the sorts of players you’re going to have and what sort of players you need. Then there’s your assistant coaches and what they’ve dissected from the previous week and whether it agrees with what you’ve seen.
You’re listening constantly to expert advice, but the buck stops with you. The way I see it, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou runs his ship exactly the same way.
He’s strong, he’s opinionated, clearly a powerful man, and I like him. I like him because I think you need someone in his position with strength and to be seen with strength.
But how much say does Andrew have in the decisions made and when does he become the dictator?
It’s my pleasure here to ask a few questions to try and find out.
I wonder whether we’re seeing a serious change in the game and whether it is becoming more like basketball, soccer or rugby. What imperfections do you see currently in the way the game is played?
The game is constantly evolving, but we see changes now much more rapidly in the past. Clubs, coaches and players now constantly adapt to tactics used by the leading teams, and to try and break them down and work through. I still firmly believe that our game is like no other game in what it requires of our players, with both multiple skills, running power, strength etc. The game always keeps moving and that’s a big part of its appeal.
To give us an insight into the type of game you do like, what was your favourite game in the past two seasons and why?
I can’t separate two games from last year. The grand final between Geelong and Collingwood and the preliminary final between Collingwood and Hawthorn. Both games were classics, both in the tactical demands that were made of both teams through the match, and the changes to the various tactics as the matches progressed, and the efforts of the players and their responses through both matches. They were two wonderful matches to finish last season and they stick very firmly in my memory.
You played most of your career at North Melbourne. I believe the club should have taken the AFL’s big-money offer to relocate to the Gold Coast. Are you still a Kangaroos supporter and on reflection, do you regret not pushing them harder to make the move like South Melbourne and Fitzroy were?
No, I don’t regret pushing them harder at all. The AFL always said, as an organisation, that this had to be a decision for North Melbourne as a club and its supporters. That was certainly my personal view as well, that North Melbourne had to decide what was best for its future, and not be told by outside parties what it should do, after the offer was presented. I will always have a soft spot for North Melbourne, but ultimately I barrack for all the teams.
My understanding is that half the clubs in the competition recorded a financial loss last year. Is that true and how do you plan to overcome that to ensure their sustainable future?
That is true and was the reason why the AFL has done so much work around a dis-equal distribution funding strategy coming from the broadcasting deal, that was announced last year. The key part of this approach, we announced last year, was to work towards trying to get all 18 clubs profitable and operating as sustainable clubs in their own right.
I don’t believe there should be a cap on spending for football departments. If a club goes out of its way to generate money, it should have the ultimate choice to decide what it does with that money. Are you in favour of a cap and is the AFL considering one? If yes, why?
No. We are not in favour of a cap around football department spending for clubs. It is our view that the AFL should not be in a position where it is trying to hinder innovation, and preventing clubs from trying to explore ideas that may benefit them. On the other side of that debate, clubs must all spend responsibly and ensure they can operate within their means. Continue to spend money at a much greater rate than money is earned is not sustainable for the clubs or the competition.
It’s been mooted that the AFL will eventually broadcast its own product. Can you explain how that might happen and do you have the expertise? Are there any precedents for this around the world and why would you make such a change?
That is a possibility that may occur in the medium to longer term. AFL media has now been established to provide a service to fans, in the coverage of their teams, and that is already producing its own programs, around the recent grand final documentaries. The documentary series on the 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001 grand finals was a strong success last year, as was the production earlier this year that looked at the 2011 grand final in detail. The NFL has already been down this path in America but I have consistently said that we can’t possibly predict how the next rights agreement will look at this point.
What sort of impact would it have on the regular, free-to-air television watcher and what did you mean when you recently said you had “fence-proofed” the next TV rights deal?
There will be no impact on free to air television. Under the legislation requirements, there will always be four games on free-to-air television, and we have always worked to ensure that the Eagles and the Dockers are seen on free to air in WA, the Crows and the Power on free to air in SA, the Suns and the Lions in Qld and the Giants and the Swans in NSW. We will do everything we can to maximise the value of our rights, our reach to as many supporters as possible, and improve on the technology available to give our supporters the ultimate viewing experience.
Do you or any of the AFL executive have any influence on the match review panel?
No, the match review panel operates entirely independently of the AFL executive, and that is clear from the occasions when our senior staff, myself or Adrian Anderson, will disagree with decisions at times.
Like in law, why do the match review panel and tribunal not have the benefit of precedence, possibly in the form of a video library showing like incidents? Wouldn’t that make for better clarity and consistency of decision making and understanding?
There is consistency in decision making in the vast majority of cases, as there is a clear formula for ruling on incidents — the intent, the impact and where contact occurred. There are strong views in the football community on particular cases on parts of those rulings, but there are set penalties for offences. That said, not every case is the same.
The AFL fixture as it is currently drawn can never be totally fair. Adelaide, for example, play both GWS and Gold Coast twice each while many other teams vying for the finals play them only once. My optimum model to make it fair would be to draw the competition into two conferences of nine teams, where each team plays each other twice and then plays each team from the other conference once for a total of 25 home-and-away games with no NAB Cup. Your finals series will then be played between your top four from both divisions, protecting your elitism. That’s my ideal model, what’s yours to make it work within the confines of the annual cricket fixturing, which obviously limits flexibility at the MCG?
The AFL Commission and executive has resolved to leave the current system in play for two years. That decision was made in the middle of last year, as we looked at the game through the expansion period. We don’t believe that an increase from 22 games will work, due to the workload on players, and haven’t considered any change to the current season structure in the short term.
My vision would be that in 25 years we have 20 teams in two conferences and leave it at that. What’s your vision for future expansion and where else do you think the competition should be represented?
You can never say never to anything. If we are to expand again, the next logical place is to Tasmania, followed by north-western Australia or northern Queensland.
I’m all for expansion, as you know, but I always feared that bringing in two new clubs would weaken the competition standard and I think it has this year. Why did you decide to bring Gold Coast and GWS in virtually at the same time, and are you concerned about what effect some of the blowout results we’re seeing are having on the game’s image?
It was our view that a gap between the introduction of the two teams would have cost a significant amount of money, as well as causing a significant longer-term disruption to the competition with a weekly bye beyond one season only. We also thought the timing was right for us around the negotiation of the broadcast rights contract to bring in both teams, with the value of an extra ninth game each week to the contract.
Why are you so confident that the Suns will defy recent history and be successful on the Gold Coast when other sports have failed there so miserably, both financially and in win-loss ratio?
We are better prepared, better resourced than when we attempted to build our expansion clubs in the past. We have learnt from the mistakes we made with the Swans and the Bears, by not supporting those clubs enough in their early years. We are taking a long-term view with both the Suns and the Giants and we are aware this will be a generational decision. While there have been issues for the NRL team and we have seen the collapse of the basketball team and the soccer team, we see this period as an opportunity for our game to build its roots, and not a negative.
We toured Ireland in 2010 and sat at a dinner together where we were told the Gaelic Athletic Association was worth nine billion euros. What is the AFL worth and what is it expected to be worth when it takes over the ownership of Etihad Stadium? Will the AFL keep the stadium or sell it off and redevelop another ground in central Melbourne?
The GAA has net assets of some three billion euros, which is pretty good for a game played by amateurs! I don’t know an exact amount the AFL is worth, but in 12 years time we take possession of Etihad Stadium. We have no plans to sell that ground, but it will be worth quite a bit of money with its central location in Melbourne. We intend to be debt-free by the end of this broadcast agreement and the future is bright.
Interchange — how do you believe it is affecting the game? If it is affecting it negatively, do you think there is an optimum number of rotations or do you see the game going back to direct replacements, as hinted at by members of the laws of the game committee? Where do you sit on it and how much influence do you have on the decision making?
I cannot comment on the interchange discussion as it will most likely come before the AFL Commission at some stage this year. However, the AFL Laws of the Game committee is the appropriate body to review the interchange debate and forward any recommendations they may have.
What don’t you like about the way coaches are manipulating the current interchange system?
The coaches are merely exploiting the current rules. There is nothing wrong with that, and clubs have always sought to use the rules to the best advantage of their team.
There are more serious injuries in the game today because the players are getting bigger, faster and stronger, and they are far harder than at any time I’ve seen in the competition’s history. Is the AFL considering any move to install fully-dedicated and staffed medical facilities at venues for both players and supporters? I really believe the AFL Players’ Association should partly fund it in conjunction with the AFL.
I do believe the medical facilities will improve at all venues over time. However, all our venues have major hospitals located close to them and we are well served by wonderful medical staff.
How long do you see yourself staying in the job given that many high-profile CEOs around the world succumb to pressure and time at some stage?
Mick, there is much unfinished business in my role — expansion, 18 profitable clubs, the introduction of Adelaide Oval, a new Perth stadium, and other key projects. I will keep going into the foreseeable future as I am still energised and feel very privileged to be in this role.
Andrew, when the decision was being made whether to put you into the job and others were also being considered, you always had my total support. I’ve honestly, as a coach, enjoyed the confrontation at times, the friendship, the dialogue and the debates we’ve had. I only played against you three times and happened to win all three. I’ve also seen the game under your leadership grow at a considerable level. Congratulations and good luck for the times to come.
Mick, thanks for your kind words, and for the opportunity to address some big-picture questions in this interview.
You know how hugely I regard you and I do wish to again thank you and your family for your contribution to our game.