Chris Fagan Should Have Caused An AFL Revolution. Why Hasn’t He?
When Brisbane was in the process of searching for a new coach at the end of 2016, the Lions were doing so with thick, dark clouds hovering over the club.
They’d just completed three-straight seasons of abject misery with a win-loss record of 14-52, and had played in September just once in the preceding 12 years. A litany of stars had either left Brisbane or were looking for an escape, while Gabba crowds were at an 18-year low.
Yet instead of treading down the same well-worn path of AFL coaching recruitment, the same path that helped plunge the Lions into such troubled waters to begin with, Brisbane allowed itself to be bold.
That strategy has paid stupendous dividends.
The Lions’ hiring of Chris Fagan, at the time a 55-year-old candidate on absolutely no-one else’s radar, who’d been working not as an assistant coach but as a director of football, and who didn’t have a single game of AFL experience to his name, constituted one of the biggest splashes in AFL coaching history.
Unfortunately, with the exception of North Melbourne’s capture of David Noble last November, it’s not the kind of splash any other club has been remotely interested in replicating.
Since Fagan has ruled the roost in Brisbane, the results speak for themselves. The Lions are on the cusp of a third straight top-four finish and are once again in the thick of premiership calculations, favourites in fact, according to the Stats Insider futures model.
And while Fagan won “Coach of the Year” honours in just his third season in 2019, we’re only now seeing how exceptionally talented he truly is, currently guiding Brisbane on a seven-game winning streak without the services of its reigning Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, while completely reinventing the forward line on the fly.
While Neale's rise from a foot soldier under Ross Lyon in Fremantle to legitimate megastar in Brisbane has been well documented, it’s stories such as Jarryd Lyons, Mitch Robinson and Brandon Starcevich which speak as glowingly to Fagan’s coaching prowess, while there’s no doubt the likes of Hugh McCluggage, Eric Hipwood and Cameron Rayner will enjoy a smoother path to superstardom with the Tasmanian pulling the strings.
Yet despite the path Fagan has forged, utterly transforming a struggling, stricken outfit, why is it that the bulk of the AFL’s clubs continue to wield such a conservative bat when it comes to the process of finding new coaches?
Five of the six coaching appointments between Fagan and Noble were all men under 40 years of age and all with modest to excellent playing backgrounds. Matthew Nicks was a relative dinosaur at 45, yet had 175 games of AFL experience under his belt.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the approach of hiring young men with intimate knowledge of the AFL system – after all, these are the same waters Alastair Clarkson and Damien Hardwick were fished from – you can be absolutely sure the next round of appointments will follow the exact same process, with the likes of Sam Mitchell, Blake Caracellaand Daniel Giansiracusa seamlessly making their way into your team’s club photo.
But is this sterile approach keeping certain clubs tethered to a merry-go-round of mediocrity? Even more worryingly, is it closing the door on a whole range of people just as capable of having a Fagan-like impact?
The current landscape is unforgiving to those who haven’t played at the highest level. It’s one that is very conscious of your birth certificate, suspicious of candidates approaching 50. The AFL is a competition which loves to celebrate and trumpet its indigenous playing contributions, yet is embarrassingly lacking when it comes to indigenous coaching or even assistant coaching roles.
The process is completely uninterested in candidates coming from outside the AFL, while if you’re a woman, have fun watching the bulk of the AFL’s audience lose its collective shit regarding the prospect of you coaching at the highest level.
Right now, AFL senior ranks have just six coaches who are in their 50s. We’ve just one (Brett Ratten) who is doing so having been fired from his previous head coaching gig, while we haven’t a single female assistant coach. Not one. Ten per cent of the AFL’s playing stocks come from an indigenous background, yet representation at a coaching level in the AFL is less than one per cent.
No one is suggesting the process of hiring a coach is easy. It’s one that’s often undertaken when a club is on its knees, while identifying that genuinely left-field candidate isn’t just a matter of sticking your head out the window.
In recent years, the clubs that have been a little more bold, such as Brisbane, the Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne and St Kilda, have been able to do so owing to their relatively smaller stature within the AFL universe, and indeed because they’d all had absolutely nothing to lose.
Which brings us back, as so many things in football do, to Collingwood.
Soon enough, the Pies will perhaps be looking for a successor to Nathan Buckley, a process which will give the footy world further insight into just where we’re at as an industry when it comes to hiring coaches.
Collingwood has always been reliable for revealing certain uncomfortable truths about the league, and how the Magpies approach their search for their third coach in 22 years will reveal plenty about the maturation, or lack thereof, in the AFL.
Brisbane’s hiring of Fagan and the subsequent success it has yielded should have caused a revolution in the AFL. It should have provided a template where looking at non-traditional coaches is concerned, and that difference among applicants, rather than being mocked, should be celebrated.
Instead, and like so many aspects of this league, the AFL has done a sterling job isolating the moment and treating it as a curio rather than something of which to aspire. And that’s a great shame.
* This article first appeared on Rohan Connolly's FOOTYOLOGY website
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