Which Way is North?

 

As a long-time North Melbourne member, I feel I’m probably the Mongrel with the most insight into the club, so I’ll weigh in on how I see the current situation at Arden Street. I realise this will open me up to claims of bias, favouritism and whatnot, but before you tee off in the comments, tell me honestly that you’ve watched every North Melbourne game and every coach interview over the last couple of years, and that you’re not just re-quoting something written by Caro.

That’s what I thought.

Now, as a long-time member of a club that has historically had fewer members than many others, we are afforded a few more opportunities to get the good info direct from the source. So, I called up my good mate Bev who is the person in charge of the membership recruitment line/ the best damn scone-maker you’ll see this side of a CWA convention, to see what I could discover. I asked if I could chat to Hoody and Marf about it all, which seemed fair to me as Hoody still had my Guns n’ Roses Appetite for Destruction CD since the last bout of Kanga Karaoke (on a side note, she was able to belt out a version of Sweet Child o’ Mine that will have you searching for a lighter to thrust into the air quicker than you can say ‘Paradise City’).

However, Bev wasn’t forthcoming and kept responding with questions of her own, like “Who are you?”, “No, seriously, who the hell are you?” and “The mongrel what?”. Good old Bev, she does love her jokes. But rather than play games with her, I figured I’d just write this up and run it by them later on.

So, Northward Ho!

(No, Bev, that wasn’t directed at you. Actually, how do you even know what a ho is? Oh, that’s right, your song was that Kid Laroi one. Rocked it too.)

The first steps

With the news that David Noble has reached a mutual agreement with North Melbourne to not coach the team, finding a replacement becomes the second-highest priority for the club. “But Josh,” I hear you say. “Surely replacing the head coach is the top priority for the team?” Well, voice inside my head that I’m using as an unreliable narrator, disagrees. The first priority is a priority pick.

Hidden cleverly in the same announcement was the fact that North have hit up the AFL to provide them with priority picks.

Yes, plural.

With that in hand, it makes it easier to attract a coach knowing they have one (or more) additional picks to work with to build their squad. Now, some commentators and football personalities have trotted out a single-line response that is so uniform it may as well be copy-pasted from one to the other: “North Melbourne don’t deserve a priority pick, they did this to themselves through mismanagement.”

Now, let me be crystal clear on my thoughts on this and say, unequivocally and directly…. What horse shit.

If that is genuinely the argument, that clubs that get themselves into bad positions don’t deserve priority picks, then the competition needs to add asterisks to a whole bunch of premierships.

Let’s look at the priority picks in the last couple of decades.

St Kilda used on to get Nick Riewoldt.

West Coast used one to get Chris Judd.

Richmond got Brett Deledio.

Melbourne got Colin Sylvia and Tom Scully.

Hawthorn got Jarryd Roughead, Xavier Ellis, and also another to get Luke Hodge (though that was technically Fremantle’s that they traded it for Trent Croad, and threw in picks that gave Hawthorn Sam Mitchell as well. Fair to say that one didn’t pan out).

Bulldogs got Adam Cooney and Ryan Griffen.

Magpies got Dale Thomas.

Carlton got Marc Murphy and Matthew Kruzer…. the list goes on, and in almost all cases, the picks came after clubs had screwed the pooch on bad trades, bad list management and in many cases, shorter time frames since tasting success.

In fact, since 1997, Melbourne and Carlton alone have had three top three priority picks each! And let’s be honest, recent success for both clubs aside, during their periods of being cellar dwellers both clubs set a pretty high standard for poor list management and stagnant team culture. Priority picks were one ingredient that helped turn them it around, so it’s a bit rich to claim North are somehow unworthy when looking at the benefits other clubs have received in the past.

Plus, while trades and retirements have been handled poorly, the back office is doing exemplary work, whereas the other two clubs needed to clean house before tasting success.

So, let’s just put to bed the tired, lazy catchphrase without merit of North being undeserving because of mismanagement. And on that topic…

Sack the board?

Another catchcry that has popped up is that North should follow the example of Carlton, Brisbane and Melbourne to have a board cleanout. The only thing is, they’ve already done that. In fact, some journalists have been complaining about North doing a cleanout, making statements that Archer, Buckley and Brayshaw left someone else to clean up their mess.

So clean out the board, but keep the people making decisions there? Is that what they should be doing? It reeks of the same logic as the calls for a list cleanout a couple of years back, followed by cries of a team in crisis when they actually did drop 11 players from their squad.

A majority of the current board are new appointments. President Sonja Hood came in this year. So too did Andrew Harris Rodney Piltz and Anthony Stevens. Suzana Ristevski joined less than a year ago. Paul Dwyer has been there since 2018, and the only longer-term member is Dr Harry Unglik, whose focus is more on player welfare and medical concerns.

It’s also worth noting that many people have suggested starting the sacking of the board with Ben Amarfio, despite the fact he’s not on the board, but appointed by it.

Let’s look at Amarfio, too. Since his appointment in 2019, his tenure has had North increase memberships year-on-year. Historical debt was paid off entirely at a time that saw clubs tightening their belts all over the place. New, long-term sponsors were brought on board. And all of this was done without a cent of direct gambling revenue or additional payments from the AFL.

So you’ve got a new board, and an executive group that is focused on bringing in the maximum amount of resources into the club, while staying completely uninvolved in the football department and game-day decisions.

And that’s a bad thing, is it?

Replacing the coach

In hindsight, Brad Scott doesn’t look so bad these days. He managed to get two prelims out of a squad that few people thought could make finals, though the decision to punt Firrito, Petrie, Dal Santo and Boomer has forever tainted him to many Roos fans.

When he stepped down in favour of Rhyce Shaw, the team seemed immediately rejuvenated, yet Shaw wasn’t able to get the team to deliver on the field either (though much has been said about a lack of support internally. People in the know have said he was absolutely committed to the role, but it was far too much to put on one person with the turnovers at the club at the time).

Then the club conducted a manhunt for their next coach, with the assistance of spoon-whisperer, Paul Roos. He brought in David Noble from the cold of football administration to helm the Kangas.

Noble was 100% committed to bringing the team through the rebuild, and creating an environment for success. Coaches have a tough job, and he put everything into it at a time when North was in a death spiral and a little thing called Covid came in to add to the complications.

After losing the on-field leadership of Tarrant, Ben Brown and Cunnington, having to dismiss much of the High-Performance team made it all the harder to integrate new players into the squad, especially when many of the senior players such as Goldstein and Ziebell had their own careers in the balance.

And so, when the inevitable review started giving updates to the board, it came as little surprise that Noble’s days were numbered. Maybe he lost the players? Maybe his gameplan wasn’t workable? Maybe he’s just the victim of being in charge of a bottom side during covid when support was low and stress was high on everyone? It’s all moot now. Even if he’s not the major reason, sacking the coach has long been used as a circuit breaker to reset the team.

Because of the current dire situation, North Melbourne cannot really afford to appoint someone without experience in the top seat, so I’m excluding Adam Yze, Ashley Hansen, Daniel Giansiracusa and Jaymie Graham. Not that they wouldn’t be excellent coaches, but after putting two untried head coaches in the seat, the board will take an experienced option if possible.

Probably.

So, let’s look at the candidates. To make it easier, I’ll add a completely arbitrary score out of ten for how likely I think it is. Is it scientifically sound? Hell no! but it’ll make it easier for you to laugh at me when I’m wrong, so please feel free to do so:

Alastair Clarkson

Anyone saying that Clarkson is undeserving of the title ‘coach of the modern era’ better duck for cover, lest they be beset by a legion of good-time Hawthorn fans.

While he’s an unlikely appointment, North will absolutely be trying to bring him home to Arden street where his career began. While plenty of people will point out that he’s a coach, not a wizard, so expecting him to turn around the team immediately is a mistake, getting a premiership-winning coach into the club will at least give players like LDU, JHF, Zurhaar and Thomas a reason to sign on for a few more years. That’s the key success metric for 2023 at the Roos.

Pros:

Premiership Coach.

Can likely hand-pick whatever support staff he wants.

Started his career at North.

The board will look like absolute geniuses if they can pull it off.

Cons:

He can (and should) ask for absolute top dollar.

Has said he’s keen to go to a club to win premierships, and even the most optimistic North fan ill admit that’s a long way off at the moment.

GWS, Tasmania and Essendon are all vying for his services, and many will say all are closer to a flag than North. Yes, even Tasmania.

Chance: 3/10

 

Leigh Adams

Recent history suggests that the caretaker has a great chance to be offered the big job if things go well. Rhyce Shaw was appointed in similar circumstances, though that should also be a cautionary tale. Adams’ time as VFL coach hasn’t resulted in many wins, but often the VFL-affiliate in a rebuilding team is tasked with prioritising experimenting with fringe players over pursuing the win. He has his chance though, and a few wins out of the last remaining games won’t hurt his chances at all. If he can manage it that is.

Pros:

Already a part of the coaching team.

Familiar with the players.

Will have a chance to implement his own ideas.

Cons:

Already a part of the coaching team.

Familiar with the players.

Will have a chance to implement his own ideas.

Chance: 1/10

 

John Blakey

A very highly-regarded assistant coach at Brisbane, Sydney and now North Melbourne. Technically, he does have experience as head coach, having filled in for Leigh Matthews who took personal leave for a death in the family in 2005. He lost that game by 28 points, but I’m sure he learned a lot.

Pros:

Premiership player with the Kangaroos.

Already a part of the coaching panel.

Considered a head coach-in-waiting by many of the coaches in the league.

Cons:

Has only coached for one game.

May have to shoulder some of the blame for current state.

Has openly said he’s not looking to coach the team.

Chance: 7/10

 

Adam Simpson

North Melbourne sounded Simpson out when searching for a replacement for Shaw, and as a former Captain of the team, he could bring the sort of success-driven culture and leadership that the team will need. A tiny fly in the ointment is the fact he’s contracted to West Coast until 2024. Can North tempt him home to join the team he won two flags with, and abandon the team he coached to one in 2018? While it would be a great story to welcome home someone who has such history with the club, West Coast is unlikely to remove him without having someone lined up for themselves, assuming they even want to. If they do though, the next bloke may be the one in the best position to slot into the spot, especially if he wants to get out of the Melbourne bubble and the scrutiny that comes with it.

Pros:

Premiership Player.

Premiership Coach.

Former North Captain.

Cons:

Is currently contracted to West Coast.

Family is settled in Perth.

As bad as 2022 has been for West Coast, it’s still not as bad as North’s.

Chance: 5/10

 

Nathan Buckley

Now, this is an interesting one. While plenty of people view Buckley with some level of contempt, there’s no denying that he understands the game and could play a bit in his day as well. He’s been out of the system for a hot minute, and with the cultural accusations that fell on him, he’s unlikely to have a team around finals contention knock on his door for the top job.

He may also be the one in the best position to explain to another young prodigy from SA why dismissing North to chase a flag doesn’t always end with catching one, and may actually mean you miss your shot.

Pros:

Excellent footy brain.

Can mentor the young mids.

Eddie will bitch slap anyone in the media talking nasty about his mate Nafe.

Cons:

He’s already knocked back North Melbourne as a player and as a coach.

Has the baggage of the Collingwood ‘do better’ report.

I have it on good authority he borrows pens and returns them without the lid.

Chance: 4/10

 

James Hird

Another left-field name to add to the list. As much as Buckley comes with baggage, Hird is like turning up to the departure gate with a dromedary camel and trying to check it in the overhead.

His knowledge of the game is incredible. He may very well have one of the best footy minds in the business, but the ghosts of the past are powerful. He’s backed McVeigh for the GWS job, but does he want his own redemption arc? He’d be an asset to any team, but has enough time passed? Will it ever?

Pros:

Premiership player.

Tactically one of the best minds around at the moment.

Well-regarded by coaches at all levels.

Cons:

I mean… yeah… the whole saga thing. While I think it’s fair to say he’s not the person most directly responsible for the biggest sporting scandal since Fine Cotton, he still bears some of the blame. Fairly or not.

Without being indelicate… it took a toll on his mental health. Coaching this current North squad may not be quite as bad, but won’t be easy either. Does he want to endure that?

Is from Essendon. Look, it might be a one-way rivalry these days, but stems all the way back to Essendon blocking North Melbourne’s entrance to the VFL in 1896, only relenting when they gave up much of their drawing areas.

Chance: 1/10

 

Mark McVeigh

The former Essendon utility has jumped into the spot vacated by Leon Cameron, and has looked right at home. He’s openly stated he’d be open to coaching North Melbourne, but is that just his way of putting GWS into the position of having to make a call on his future? For my money, I can’t see them dumping him, especially with a coaching panel that includes other former Essendon players in Hird and Solomon. Keeping that unit together will pay off in the long run, and McVeigh’s comments seem to be aimed squarely at letting the GWS board know that the clock is ticking.

Pros:

Looking good at GWS since taking the top job.

Has experience developing youth with the ACT Rams and Giants Academy.

May be looking to return to Melbourne.

Cons:

Seems very happy with the current setup at GWS.

Would expect to be in finals contention much sooner at the Giants than at North.

Is really just playing games with his bosses.

Chance: 2/10

 

Ross Lyon

Every time. Every time there’s a coaching vacancy, Lyon’s name is mentioned. It was mentioned when Shaw was appointed, but Lyon ruled himself out. It was mentioned when Noble was appointed, but Lyon ruled himself out. It was even mentioned when Carlton had a vacancy, but once again, Lyon ruled himself out. At this stage, he’s been out of the system for a few years, but may once again put his hand up.

Pros:

Highly experienced coach with four grand finals to his name.

Has experience building up under-performing teams.

Would mean he isn’t in commentary anymore.

Cons:

If a Noble spray caused concern amongst some players…. the Lyon roar will have them shitting bricks.

Gameplan often includes frustrating opposition players into boredom until they give in to frustration and do something stupid.

Will probably rule himself out again. His pull-out game is a lot more successful than the religious education teacher who first taught me that phrase. He had seven kids.

Chance: 1/10

 

Leon Cameron

When Cameron was let go from GWS, Noble reportedly contacted him to say there was a job in the football department at North if he wanted it. It seems he didn’t, because he’d rather remain unemployed for the moment. The main criticism he’s dealt with is that he was handed the keys to a list that has been likened to a Ferrari, and underachieved with it. What can he do with North’s list that can’t (yet) boast the level of talent that those GWS squads had? Is it the second chance he needs, or a call he doesn’t want to answer?

Pros:

Very experienced with developing young players.

Recent experience in the top job.

Well-respected.

Cons:

Will be asked to do more with less at North.

If he couldn’t achieve with GWS, can he do so at the Roos?

Has two first names instead of a last name.

Chance: 2/10

 

Don Pyke

Currently at Sydney, Pyke seems to be enjoying his time there after a reasonably successful stint at Adelaide that should be remembered for their Grand Final appearance and the appointment of an influential on-field leadership team, but is instead remembered for posing during the anthem and the collective minds debacle afterwards.

Pros:

Coached the Crows to a Grand Final.

Experience harnessing and redirecting player-driven culture.

As a Seppo, may be able to give the club the firepower it needs.

Cons:

His team was smashed in the Grand Final.

Should have advised against the Power Ranger stance.

Is named after a fish.

Chance: 2/10

 

Denis Pagan

I’m including North’s most recent premiership coach simply because his name has been thrown about un-ironically in some of the North Supporter groups I frequent. It may show just how much these groups have actually turned into group therapy sessions that his name is being mentioned at all.

Pros:

Premiership Coach.

Has an effective tactic named after him.

Rocked an epic mullet back in the day.

Cons:

Has been out of the game for a very long time.

Would probably violate modern player welfare standards with his famous sprays.

Is not going to be the next North Melbourne coach. I mean, come on. That should be obvious.

Chance: 0/10

 

Go Arden or go home

Finally, a quick little bit on the frequent “Go to Tassie” commentary and the Fitzroy comparisons…. As little chance as Pagan has of being North’s next Player/Coach, North Melbourne going to Tasmania is even more unlikely for three reasons:

  • North Melbourne are making money. Moving a profitable team makes no sense, as you lose the revenue streams and memberships with no guarantee they are replaced, while also having to build new facilities from the ground up. Terrible business move.
  • Players will leave. Not everyone will want to relocate, and many may request trades to stay in Melbourne or return to their home states if not. Terrible list management move.
  • Tasmania has repeatedly shown that they don’t want a relocated team, they want their own team. If they are going to abandon the team they currently support, for many it won’t be for the Noth Hobart Devil Roos. And less said about Eddie’s 11-11 idea the better. Terrible marketing move.

 

Final thoughts

There’s actually a lot of coaching talent around at the moment. The list doesn’t even mention Robert Harvey, Ken Hinkley, Scott Burns or Justin Leppitsch, all of whom would be in the running for a top job in most cases. North will need to make the right call, but there will be a tonne of pressure on a board that hasn’t been around all that long as a unit.

Making sure they do their due diligence and make their best possible case to their choice candidates is balanced with the need to move quickly, lest their preferred coach is signed to another team. It’s an enormous challenge for the team led by Amarfio and Hood. Get it wrong, and the club is set for a prolonged period of rebuilding the rebuild, but get it right and history has shown that the tide can turn very quickly.

Getting the right person at the right time can make all the difference.

 

 

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