Loyalty in AFL

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

"We are all in the same boat, in a strong sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty," said English writer G.K. Chesterton.

I know Chesterton was talking about the wider world and humanity when he made it, even family, with no thought of ever having it applied to sport, let alone a game he would never have heard of.

But you know, sport still relies on 'loyalty'. Loyalty of fans for their team, sponsors of clubs, coaches to players and players to coaches.

But loyalty is, or can be, a fragile thing in modern day sport and, in fact, modern day society.

Most people will be loyal to themselves which is natural and arguably right, particular as being loyal so often relates to their family and their livelihood.
Was Adelaide loyal to Neil Craig, Melbourne to Dean Bailey, Western Bulldogs to Rodney Eade, and Fremantle to Mark Harvey? No, if sacking someone is seen as an act of disloyalty.

In the end, all those clubs wanted to make a change. All of those clubs had various reasons why they felt they needed to make a change and all of those clubs went about it in a different way.

But what upset the football world most was Fremantle's dumping of Mark Harvey in favour of Ross Lyon.

It wasn't so much Harvey had a year to go on his contract, but it was the apparent callousness and swift way in which Fremantle moved which surprised and disappointed so many.

I have suffered the same fate as Harvey, dismissed with a year to go on my contract, but I was given the news before the end of the season with still 18 months of a contract to go.

I wasnít happy about it, but at least I can say the club told me as soon as they decided. I didnít need to know then, or now, exactly what went on behind the scenes, but suffice to say, I was expected to perform better with the team than what had transpired.

On that basis it seems only now that Harvey didn't perform as well as the Fremantle board would have liked, but as an outsider with no knowledge other than the win/loss record and the injuries Fremantle suffered in 2011 as my guide, I would have to say Harvey was unlucky.

He had a very good 2010 season pushing for top four for most of that year and winning a final, but I don't believe he could have won a game in his last seven matches this season with the decimated list at his disposal.

My read is Fremantle went for a coach they believed would be better for their club, nothing wrong with that. The AFL is a highly competitive world and club's will be ruthless in their pursuit of success. Time will tell whether they have made the right call.

You can't blame Ross Lyon for accepting the offer, because he knows as career coach he has to take opportunities which are best for him and, as he stated, for his family.

Clearly he was encouraged enough by the Fremantle board to make the move for reasons he is comfortable with. No one should begrudge Lyon. He accepted an offer he felt was better than St Kilda's offer.

But l do believe Harvey deserved better from the Fremantle club.

Despite the fact he had a year to run, they should have told him at the end of the season they were looking for a particular coach and if they secured the person they were after then Harvey's contract would be paid out, but he would not be coaching the club in 2012.

Or even blunter they could have told him at the end of the 2011 season the club wasnít going to proceed with him.

As hard as that would have been, it would also have been a better way to treat Harvey.

In modern sport it is such a highly competitive game on and off the field in the pursuit of success, that the concept of loyalty is tested.

I believe loyalty is best viewed on a seasonal basis. It's easier that way. At the start of the year when the playing list is finalised and all the staff is finalised you can set a direction for that year, which should still be a part of the long plans and vision of the club.

I think Chesterton is right, we are in the same boat, albeit for one year, but in that one year every person involved owes it to each other to pursue individual and collective excellence.

I think if you can compartmentalise it like that, there is a way forward. It doesn't matter who will leave at the end of the season. They are not leaving in the current season and therefore everyone is expected to be loyal.

Where the lines get blurred is when coaches and players do not honour contracts. This is a major issue in any elite sport and it occurs because there is an environment of mistrust that exists on both sides. 

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