Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies directing traffic against the Bulldogs on Friday night. Picture: Michael Klein
Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies directing traffic against the Bulldogs on Friday night. Picture: Michael Klein

Malthouse: Who is best suited to new footy climate?

I read a quote this week: "The strongest trees are the ones that can bend with the wind."

We are all living with dramatic change; at home, at work, at school and in sport. How quickly we adapt to this change will make the difference as to how well we negotiate these tough times.

In the AFL, the clubs who adjust fastest are the clubs who will have the greatest chance at success later in the year.

In a shortened competition, 17 rounds at this stage, and without any guarantee for next week, the age-old cliché of a week at a time is genuine reality for AFL clubs.

You get off to a bad start: one loss, two losses, three losses, and quite frankly it's all over. There is no time for recovery to decrease the gap.

Coaches will have had to refocus their players this week as they head into Round 1. They will have broken the "season" down to one game, contest by contest.

 

 

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They don't know if there will be a game next weekend, or a rush of games with short breaks in the next few weeks, so they can't plan ahead for them.

Focus tightly on the contest in front of you and take your best attitude into game one.

That would be my message.

Without crowds, every person - worker or volunteer - suddenly becomes the entire and only support crew for the team, so they also have to be as focused as if every game is a final. There is just no leeway for taking your eyes of the ball.

I applaud the 88 per cent of players who voted to continue with the season, in empty stadiums, and I will admit that I am disappointed with the 12 per cent who voted no, especially if they are senior players.

Australian rules footballers play for the supporters and now more than ever football supporters, all Australians for that matter, need something, anything to take their minds off the chaos and lift their spirits.

They still want to see high quality football. The big marks, the desperate tackles, the amazing goals, after all there will still be, hopefully, a premiership at the end.

Possibly a Grand Final played in front of a crowd.

We pray that this crisis does not last long.

 

 

NO EXCUSES FOR CLUBS

Clubs can't look for excuses in this. Crowd absence is not an excuse. Some teams will adjust faster than others to the silence.

In the early days with West Coast, supporters of the club in Melbourne were virtually non-existent, so the absence of crowd applause after a goal was the norm.

We got to a point where playing away was welcomed, because we had to do it together, ourselves. And there was great enjoyment in that.

I expect Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast to find this transition easier than other clubs.

They are used to being shunned by a Victorian crowd. Take last year's preliminary final for instance. It was probably 90 per cent Collingwood crowd support to 10 per cent GWS. Yet somehow the Giants found a way to victory without the noise behind them, by playing as a single unit. Motivating and supporting each other.

 

Gold Coast aren’t used to big roars from the crowd at their games. Picture: AAP Image
Gold Coast aren’t used to big roars from the crowd at their games. Picture: AAP Image

 

 

TEAM UNITY EVEN MORE IMPORTANT

Personal interest will be taken out of the game this season without accolade from the crowd to provide instant gratification and motivation for the individual. It will all be about team.

Trusting your teammates, lifting your teammates, getting around one another even if that means running from the backline to congratulate the forwards on a goal. Do it.

I used to judge players on their ability to play on the "big stage", in front of a big, deafening crowd. Some can do it, some can't, as we've witnessed in many finals.

A quiet stadium will be a true test for some. They can't look into the stands for congratulations. They won't hear applause for every good thing they do. It will certainly test their mental resolve, as some players rely on the buzz of the crowd for stimulation. It will have to come from within and from their teammates instead.

 

CAPTAINS LEADING FROM THE FRONT

If ever there was a need for strong, vocal on-field leaders, that time is now.

I opened the window of the ABC Radio commentary box on Friday night to listen to what was happening on-field during the Western Bulldogs-Collingwood match. It instantly became clear who the more experienced captain was, with Scott Pendlebury's voice heard as he constantly gave clear and useful instructions to his teammates.

He had full control of his team, as opposed to Marcus Bontempelli in his first outing as captain. He looked overwhelmed with the strange event and was very quiet by comparison. He will learn from it, though.

The Magpies' players were very good at offering each other congratulations for everything, big and small, and what that highlighted was that the two biggest clubs in Victoria - Collingwood and Richmond - don't need a crowd. As a team each is self-motivated and that will put both in good stead through this extraordinary time.

 

WILL ALTERNATE VENUES BE USED?

Seventeen games, playing each club once, seems like a fair competition. And it is the fairest option given the circumstances. But if you are the away team in that one contest, it isn't fair. But that's the ball game.

I do wonder though, given that crowd numbers won't be an issue, could we see grounds like Moorabbin and Ikon Park brought back into the mix?

Will Hawthorn and North Melbourne still travel to Tasmania? I hope they do.

And could Geelong, should it finish in the top eight have a home final at GMHBA Stadium? (Sidenote - Please Gill, keep it as a final eight and reward the winners, don't succumb to making it a top 10.)

These are all issues for the AFL to address after the impact of Round 1 is fully revealed.

 

THE IMPACT ON DRAFTEES

And there are other issues, beyond this season. Where will the next Sam Walsh come from?

His brother, Henry Walsh, is in the Geelong Falcons squad this year, but if he can't play games then the recruiters can't be sure how good he is.

This year's draft may all come down to guess work and 2019 information. Recruiters won't really know if a 17-year-old would-be ruckman remains in that category or if he has become another key-position type. They won't know if the kid with tremendous speed developed his skills enough to go in the top 10, or stagnated and slipped to become a potential fourth-round pick.

There's not a lot AFL clubs can do about it and I really feel for the kids, but it's the playing field everyone is going to have to deal with.

In the meantime, television rights will play a part in the financial future of the game and the Australian economy. And for every food and drink vendor, stadium cleaner, gate keeper and aisle attendant put out of a job, and every other Australian doing it tough, we have football to watch from the comfort of our homes. Cheer loud and pray that it continues until the crowds are let back in.

Originally published as Malthouse: Who is best suited to new footy climate?


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