Why sacking Guy McKenna was a big mistake

Simon Reeve
Guy McKenna , at the helm at Gold Coast Suns.

In our home in the Gold Coast hinterland, far from the AFL nerve centres of Patersons Stadium, the G and Adelaide Oval, we still love our footy.

Between the Dockers, the Swans, the Eagles (there remains a not easily explained sentimental attachment) and more recently the Suns, we have a lot of bases covered through the winter months.

So I dispatch this from a place geographically removed from the big fan bases, in the heart of rugby league country.

I also write because footy, like the television industry I inhabit, can be a brutal business at times. We've seen that recently from close range.

Moving to Queensland as we did in late 2010, delighted about the synchronised launch of a new team in our new home, we jumped aboard the Suns wagon.

Their coach was a real bonus for us, a West Coast legend and one of the finest to play the game. As the fates would have it, our son Sam is the same age as Guy and Madeleine McKenna's son Jesse and they attend the same wonderful school. Sam and Jesse have been joined at the hip for a couple of years now.

I'm not a voice for the McKennas here, but for my own ticked off family and other long-time Suns members. Of course, we're devastated at the prospect of our good friends departing, in his quiet 13-year-old way, no one more so than Sam. But the question is why - and how the hell did it come to this?

Nothing against incoming coach Rodney Eade but the Suns of the North didn't need a former Son of the West. When a club is in crisis it's obvious to all, but this was a contrived crisis, followed by a dreadfully botched public execution.

The Suns board had the benefit of going under the radar with its post-grand final decision. In a small northern market, with the Essendon saga, James Hird, trade week, the looming NRL grand final, the biggest reaction came from Facebook, from furious members who had bought into the Suns story with their foundation coach at the helm.

In the predictable way of these matters, it was the media that seemed to have the news first. Before anyone had raised the issue with the coach, before there was any serious indication trouble was up, the whispers were out and the club had the journalists doing their work.

"Communication" emerged as a buzz word around Bluey's dismissal. The irony is that in their shambolic media conference to announce his sacking, the club's communication was as baffling a display as anything in football last season. The media conference to dump their coach of four years turned into a character endorsement. Chairman John Witheriff should have really said: "It's not you, Bluey, it's me . . ."

I loved Ben Scadden's (Adelaide Advertiser) tweet that day - Greatest sacked AFL coach in history. And that's entirely the point. The decision to dump Bluey has gone completely unchallenged. A good coach has been rolled for no apparent reason.

In the fog nothing was clear, but the move - if I'm reading it right - appeared to be initiated on the grumblings of a couple of players, echoed by a former player, Jared Brennan. He tweeted his glee on hearing the news. It said far more about Brennan than about the outgoing coach.

An AFL legend, Graham Cornes described it perfectly as "one of football's most disrespectful public utterances".

From what I've seen since they started, a couple of the club's senior players sometimes looked like the football was an imposition on the great lifestyle of the Gold Coast.

Nathan Bock wasn't one of those players. He gave his all to the Suns before breaking his leg. I sought his opinion on the departed coach. "I had a very good relationship with Bluey from the start," he said. "At a personal level he was excellent, especially with such a young group who were continually learning and evolving under his steady guidance. We wouldn't be having this conversation if it wasn't for the injuries."

The Suns won a commendable 10 games this year, with the well-documented and very long injury list that went far beyond Gary Ablett's shoulder. By comparison, the Dockers won 10 games in their third season, but it would take them until their 9th season to win more and make the finals for a first time. That's the Dockers . . . from a football stronghold.

Much has been made of Gold Coast's outstanding list of young potential superstars, but finals and premierships are made of the less visible things such as culture, tradition and the DNA of clubs. That takes years to build. AFL isn't in the soil and the blood of the population up here as it is in Freo, at Alberton Oval or Glenferrie. The Gold Coast is a holiday destination for most of Australia. It often feels that way even living here. It's what we love about it. It's also the big challenge faced by club, coach and player. How to sharpen, focus, harden up after catching a Burleigh wave in the morning before facing a Hawthorn wave (make that dumper) in the afternoon.

The Suns supporters seemed to better understand this nurturing and growth of the club than the management. Guy McKenna was pivotal to all of this, doing the quiet, thankless stuff in a remote AFL outpost. So was Bluey two wins short of keeping his job, maybe three? Were minds made up long before the season was done?

The Gold Coast has been a graveyard for many sporting organisations. In basketball the Blaze recently went down in a fiery heap, Gold Coast United were anything but, ending up playing to friends and relations. Even league teams have struggled - remember the Chargers? The Titans, too, in the present day are sailing awfully close to the wind. This can be a fickle market. But that's the big picture. Our family has a more pressing issue.

So our good friends are packing up and heading back to Melbourne. Like the Reeve family in television, the McKennas in AFL are a pragmatic bunch, living with the knowledge that life can change quickly. They keep a brave face for the hundreds of people who stop them in supermarkets, at school pick-ups, buying petrol, but they are hurting, make no mistake.

A home goes up for auction. Lives go into boxes. A wonderful dog, Jetta, and an 18-year-old cat, Poonah, will hit the road south again with the family, headed back from whence they came. Applications are made for new schools, friends are bid very sad farewells . . . and all you can do is look down the road to the next challenge. Jesse has a darling special needs sister, Jemima, we have all fallen in love with.

This is what the cameras, in the coaches' faces all winter and spring, don't see. Guy and Madeleine know that footy has given them a lot and aren't for a second, looking for sympathy. They know that this is the cold, hard reality of life in the sporting fast lane. The Suns burned very brightly in season 2014 before circumstances conspired. That's football. Coaches, like the organisations which employ them, face tough decisions week in and week out. But from my view, the sacking of Bluey was a really bad decision. I would say that, wouldn't I. We're losing our friends, but that's how I feel.

I do hope the Suns aren't just another franchise confined to the Gold Coast sporting scrap heap. We will go back there some day, but not for a good while. "Rocket" will have to quickly come to terms with the complex mix of a talented, but still very young squad and senior players who must clearly choose between a nice place to retire, or genuine, gut-busting premiership ambition.

Far from the blowtorch of the Melbourne media and daily scrutiny, that's not easy.

We know full well footy is big business these days. The rewards are enormous and the risks always lurking. A sure bet next season is that Sam and I will yell at Ross (Lyon) or John (Longmire) watching the Dockers and Swans, but it will be tempered greatly by this experience with the McKennas.

It is so easy to be an armchair football coach.

Finally, if Roosy or Mick or Damien or Brad wants a reference for the McKennas, call us. They are the best teenage boy minders, warm, stylish, can cook up a storm and will make a fine addition to any football club, community or school. The Gold Coast's loss will indeed be Melbourne's huge gain.