Ayres comes to ground, smiling!
When I began captain-coaching Coburg in the VFA in 1984 we were blessed with a little room alongside the timekeepers, in the press box built by North Melbourne’s during its tenure of the ground in 1965. It became my home once I retired after the 1987 season. So addicted to an elevated viewing position did I become that during the finals at Port in 1988/89 we had a scissor lift positioned near the Port race. To coach from the dugout was considered old-fashioned and antiquated.
Last Saturday Gary Ayres became the first VFA/VFL coach to resurrect this piece of coaching archaeology when he positioned himself against the fence, only metres from the interchange lines. However, unlike those AFL coaches who’ve returned to ground level Ayres had his feet planted on the grass - not on a cosy step at the back of the interchange bench - where he treated every interchange player to a few homespun words of advice.
The coach comes to ground
Having coached West Coburg juniors (under-16s and 18s) from the boundary over the past three years I was interested to see how ‘well behaved’ Ayres would be. As every coach knows, it’s not always easy to contain one’s emotion when a player makes a truly bad decision or an umpire does likewise only metres away. ‘That must surely be holding the ball,’ I’d asked, in a loud but not raucous tone when an opposition player was tackled and his outstretched leg failed to make contact with the ball a couple of weeks back. ‘No it’s not,’ came the riposte from the umpire. All of us saw the funny side of the exchange. Sometimes, it isn’t quite as funny!
Frustrated by two successive losses Gary Ayres decided it was time to get amongst his players. By game’s end, and with his side steamrolling the Bendigo Bombers he must surely have been wondering whether he’d ever go back to coaching via the telephone. With the delegation of roles that has occurred in elite football there is simply no need for a coach to occupy a position where he has a general overview of the game. Why seek a panoramic view when forward, defensive and midfield coaches can relay messages to you at ground level, leaving you to address the particularities of the game and discuss a problem as it occurs, face to face with a player?
Whether such a model would suit Gerard FitzGerald at North Ballart is a moot point. So driven by the stats is Gerard he might well feel that the science could be compromised in the emotional-charged atmosphere around the dugout. But Ayres has a persona that is as crucial to his coaching as what he says. Every instruction he utters is viewed by players through the prism of his legendary status in the game. That’s partly why his foray into the inter-personal coaching role was so riveting on Saturday.
When Dylan McLaren tapped the ball into the corridor opening up a path for the Bombers to the scoring end I knew there would be trouble. No sooner had I looked Ayres’ way and the words were roaring from his mouth. ‘Tell Dylan that’s….’ But against that he was quick to wrap the arm around Nathan Batsanis after a little talking to, then offer the uplifting ‘well done’.
Ayres says he’ll ‘probably do it again’ and readily admits that his foray into ground level coaching enabled him to better work the interchange – 112 on Saturday as opposed to an average of 90 in other games – and ‘get to players quickly at the breaks’. He also believes that coaching at ground level means he does ‘less commentating on the game’ than when he’s in the coaching box. ‘You tend to concentrate on what’s happening close to you and spot someone who might be tiring and look more carefully at your interchange.’
Gary Ayres also acknowledges that coaching at ground level gave him a better perspective on ‘the hard work players do, such as blocking in congestion, and how they position themselves.’ So, with injured captain John Baird – Ayres says will make a great coach – and coaching assistants Dion Miles and Andrew Mirams, and Les Quarrell (the board man) looking after the coach’s box, who knows how many more games he’ll spend on the boundary line. One thing’s for sure, it makes for great television and will have left other VFL coaches considering the merits of roughing it down with the people. I reckon there is!