VFL Coaches in waiting?
When Williamstown’s Sam Reid drove the ball through the goals at the 30-minute mark of that pulsating last quarter on Saturday, Scorpions’ coach Peter German’s heart must have sunk through the floor. How does a side lead by 35 points at three quarter time only to lose in the dying moments? And does it say anything about the respective coaches?
Bradley Gotch, the man I once dubbed the smiling assassin, was his calm and modest self in the Seagull rooms after the match. While the players, including his son Xavier, revelled in the moment he simply offered that engaging smile and said it was a victory for the players rather than the coach. A VFA premiership player with Dandenong in 1991 and premiership coach with the Scorpions and Williamstown, Gotch is at the top of his game. Whilst he could surely coach an AFL side as well as the next bloke, he’s never really been touted as an AFL coach nor flagged the prospect.
Peter German makes no bones about his desire to coach at AFL level. With a career that includes 185 games for the Kangaroos, premierships as coach of Subiaco in 2004 and 2006, assisting coaching roles at Fremantle, West Coast and Hawthorn and a year in Tasmania back in 1995 German seems to have ticked all the boxes. Yet he’s not a coach who thinks the game is all that different from what it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s and is an intriguing blend of the mix of the old and the new.
There’s no denying the old style passion German brings to the huddle or his preparedness to barrel a player and demand a greater commitment to structure. This was no more evident than at quarter time on Saturday. With seven miserable points from a barrage of entries inside fifty it was no surprise the coach wasn’t bursting with mirth. At half-time German was still characteristically stern as he planted his feet in the middle of the room, talked of the need for composure up forward and delivered an icy stare when someone inadvertently opened the change-room door. The difference was the Scorpions were now in the game and the mood in the rooms suggested they would be hard to beat. By three quarter time a half-time deficit of two points had been turned into a 35-point lead and only the very partisan would have said German wasn’t winning the battle against his wily opponent.
Willi grabs the lead at the 30-minute mark
Football is full of assistant coaches and former stars that want to coach an AFL side. Despite Nathan Buckley having no real coaching experience the publicity surrounding his coaching prospects – not necessarily of his making - would have us believe he’ll be the greatest coach to ever touch a magnetic board. This despite history being littered with champion players who simply didn’t understand what it was like to teach or coach a player not blessed with the sublime skills of a Brownlow Medallist. It’s hard to believe that such cautionary thoughts haven’t crossed the minds of coaches of the calibre of German, Gotch, Simon Atkins and reigning premiership coach Gerard FitzGerald, to name a few.
Nathan Buckley and James Hird - if he ever threw his hat in the ring - would bring an aura to any coaching role. But why would Buckley, Hird, or Garry Lyon, who’s often touted as a potential coach, bring more skill or expertise to coaching than these VFL coaches? In last year’s VFL grand final North Ballarat coach Gerard FitzGerald delivered a coaching performance that was among the best I’d seen in VFA/VFL ranks. Whether it would have been quite as commanding had Port not been riddled with injury is a question he doesn’t need to answer. On grand final night he did not miss a beat and every facet of the match was addressed with such precision that his opponent, the great Gary Ayres, was powerless to stop the Roosters.
Coaching is a fascinating activity. These days I still go home after coaching the West Coburg Under 16s with the same questions from twenty years ago ringing in my head. Did I pick up the trends quickly enough? Was I fair? Did a moment of passion get the better of me? Yes, the game’s changed, but a good coach is still the one who can fathom the trend, spot a match-up or a mismatch and communicate in a way that brings hope and confidence. The fact that Colin Kinnear hadn’t played AFL football didn’t stop him coaching us to the premiership against Geelong champion Bill Goggin’s Geelong West in 1979. Nor was it an impediment to me doing the same against Williamstown under Terry Wheeler (1988) and Barry Round (1989). Peter German, Simon Atkins, Brad Gotch and Gerard FitzGerald mightn’t have the profile of Buckley, Hird or Lyon. But they can all coach. And that’s all that matters.