In the AFL coaching hot seat, a Critical Friend helps

Neil Craig and Adam Kingsley had identical answers to the same question, 32 years apart.

For all your football experience and nous, how do you think you will go as a senior coach?

“Until you’re in that hot seat, you don’t know,” Craig and Kingsley responded, virtually word for word.

And every newly appointed senior coach with the vaguest sense of what’s coming would say the same.

As Ross Lyon walked into his pre-game press conference at St Kilda last week, a few days before his return to that hot seat, he laughed and said: “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Four clubs changed their coach for this season, with Alastair Clarkson also taking over at North Melbourne and Brad Scott in charge at Essendon.

Kingsley, Lyon, Clarkson and Scott come into this season with a wide range of coaching histories and their own unique circumstances.

They were all winners in round one. But at some stage over the next few months, each of them is guaranteed to feel the blowtorch under his seat.

Mick Malthouse famously said every club is four-straight losses away from a crisis.

It’s the intense public spotlight – hands up whose job performance is scrutinised on the back page of metropolitan daily newspapers? – that adds an extra dimension to the pressure and stress.

“I’m of the philosophy that everyone needs a coach,” Craig told AAP.

“When you sit in that chair, so many people internally and externally think you’re on top of everything, you don’t have any self-doubt, you don’t get tired, you don’t get anxious, you’re sleeping well at night, you bounce into work every day, you have the answers to everything.

“That’s reality, that’s what they think.”

Lyon readily agrees, saying he has benefited enormously from working with psychologist Dr Sean Richardson.

The former Fremantle coach, now in his second tenure with the Saints, also goes for a walk once a fortnight with someone he calls “a very smart man”.

Lyon has a fierce reputation as a senior coach – a relentless task master who would just wear colleagues out.

“The Bubble” nearly won St Kilda a premiership in 2009-10, but eventually it burst.

“It’s not without challenge. The brain science – if something is hard, if you shy away from it, it gets harder,” Lyon said last week.

“But if you look at it – ‘this is a a good challenge, I’m up for it’ and you lean into it – it actually gets easier.

“I am doing it differently. The 2023 brochure is different to what it was in ’07, ’08 and ’09 for a whole bunch of reasons.

“I like the ’23 brochure a bit better.”

Craig’s first senior coaching role was in 1991 with SANFL side Norwood and in 2004 he took over at Adelaide.

He remains the Crows’ longest-serving senior coach, with 166 games until 2011, two preliminary finals and their first minor premiership.

But how would Crows fans remember Craig? For his many achievements, or the “Crowbots” jibe that they were too regimented in how they played?

Is he damned for what Craig himself remembers as a glaring miscalculation, when in April 2011 he said the Crows had the most exciting group of players in their history?

That hit the wrong chord, given the club’s storied 1997-98 flags, and it is no coincidence that he was gone three months later.

Craig now works as a coaching consultant and he has a part-time time role at Gold Coast.

He also worked extensively with Eddie Jones during his tenure as England rugby coach.

Craig is big on the concept of the “Critical Friend” – the rusted-on, utterly loyal colleague that can give feedback to the senior coach between the eyes.

That Critical Friend will be equal parts confidant, eyes-and-ears and, to use Craig’s words, bullshit monitor.

“If you don’t have that person around you, with some of those things, I say good luck,” he says.

“I think the job now is too complicated.”

Craig notes that too often, the coach who is hired and the coach who is managing a bad run of form in mid-July the next year are two different people – and not in a good way.

“How has that happened? The guy I interviewed in September, I was sure this guy had the qualities to get the job done,” says Craig, speaking from the perspective of a club board member.

“I always want the coach I interviewed in September.”

Like Craig, Kingsley has an impressive coaching CV, with assistant roles under Mark Williams (Port Adelaide), Ross Lyon (St Kilda) and Damien Hardwick (Richmond).

He certainly looks the goods. But so did Brendan McCartney when he went to the Western Bulldogs – gone in three seasons.

Brendon Bolton and his green shoots were seen as a fresh new start at Carlton. Brett Ratten was reappointed at St Kilda midway through last season, then ruthlessly dumped only a few months later.

How Essendon handled Ben Rutten’s sacking last year was a new low for a dysfunctional club with plenty of experience of debacles over the last decade or so.

“Everyone says well, unless you’ve won a premiership you haven’t made it. Sometimes you’re in an environment where you’re not capable of winning a premiership,” Craig says.

In short, strap yourself in to the hot seat. And best you bring your Critical Friend.


Roger Vaughan
(Australian Associated Press)


Like This

Categories: Sport