Ross Lyon: Carlton's Inspired Next Step or Another Disaster?

After two-and-a-half years and exactly 50 games, the predominantly Covid-saturated reign of David Teague is over.

Whether you think Teague has been hard done by, or whether you think the Carlton board should be drowned in that small lake next to the bowls club at Princess Park is another matter entirely.

For now, the Blues are looking for their sixth coach in 15 years, and it looks increasingly like they’ll settle on Ross Lyon to perform that role.

For a while now Carlton’s approach to selecting head coaches has been akin to an awkward teenager in high school trying on different identities.

They pivoted from Brett Ratten’s calm, scholastic approach to Mick Malthouse’s power-obsessed “bossman” feel. They then went full spectrum and settled on Brendon Bolton’s hanging crystals in the window, new-age approach. After that fiasco, Teague earned the job based on 11 games of decent substitute teaching, and because his own personality wasn’t anything like Malthouse or Bolton, whose ghosts still linger along Royal Parade.

Next up, they’ll be trying on the AFL’s answer to Jose Mourinho, which for the Blues will either be an inspired, logical next step, or yet another spectacular disaster, the likes of which this club has become depressingly familiar with.

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Like Mourinho, Lyon first toiled away in coaching obscurity in the aftermath of a playing career that for a variety of reasons didn’t amount to much. Where the self-anointed “chosen one” was initially fetching coffees for Bobby Robson and dusting the trophy cabinet at the Nou Camp, Lyon was working with Paul Roos and John Longmire in Sydney, helping to cook up one of the most famous, drought-breaking premierships in league history.

When Mourinho finally got his own gig, success spewed forth like an out-of-control firehose, winning the Champions League with Porto, conquering the domestic scene in England with Chelsea, and doing a whole heap of both at Inter Milan.

While Ross Lyon’s own resume isn’t as champagne-drenched, his transition into head coaching opportunities of his own brought success at a relatively similar, equally rapid rate.

He took over St Kilda in 2007 with the club having won a grand total of five September games over the previous 33 years. He had them in a grand final within three seasons, and if not for a couple of bounces of the ball, could have easily won back-to-back flags.

He worked quicker and in an even more success-starved environment in Fremantle, taking the Dockers to their first grand final within two years of being snatched away from the Saints, and again, if not for awful kicking on the biggest stage, came agonisingly close to winning a premiership.

Carlton, just like St Kilda and Fremantle prior to capturing Lyon, is a cesspit of underperformance and awful governance, perhaps best expressed through the fact the Blues have collected more wooden spoons (five) than they have finals wins (two) over the last 16 years.

Yet just like St Kilda and Fremantle, Lyon could be inheriting a squad that’s actually bursting with star power and potential, and which is crying out for a big dose of accountability and structure, the likes of which happen to be the two biggest weapons in his tool bag.

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At St Kilda, he immediately got to work with generational talent such as Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Brendon Goddard. At the Dockers, he enjoyed the prime years of Matthew Pavlich, had Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters about to reach theirs, while also having the midfield security blankets of Aaron Sandilands and David Mundy.

At Carlton, he’d be inheriting as good a “big three” as any club in the land with all of Sam Walsh, Jacob Weitering and Harry McKay about to collect the first of what should become a wardrobe full of All-Australian blazers. Should Patrick Cripps ever rediscover his health and form, he’s another Brownlow calibre midfielder for Lyon, while Charlie Curnow also has unlimited potential. He could even have a certain Adam Cerra to work with, even if Cerra mightn't want to work with Ross. 

While Lyon has often been found wanting when it comes to devising even remotely-nuanced offences, a sticking point that sees him unsuited to many coaching opportunities, including Collingwood’s current vacancy, the situation at Carlton is a very different kettle of fish.

The Blues already rank 10th for scoring, and happen to have a 23-year-old Coleman medallist in their ranks, and who’ll continue to be serviced by a midfield that has the potential to be the game’s best.

Instead, what Carlton is desperately crying out for is structure and someone who can devise a plan which can help the Blues stop leaking points like a sieve.

Only North Melbourne surrendered more points this year, while the Blues ranked a lowly 16th for both tackle and clearance differential, while ceding, on average, an extra 215 metres gained per match to opponents.

Thankfully for Carlton, this is the stuff with which Lyon is both obsessed with and has routinely proven capable of remedying.

At St Kilda, he morphed a decent defence into one of the best in history, and which in 2009 conceded 367 points less than the next best defence in the competition.

At Fremantle, he took over a defence that was ranked eighth, and turned it into a top-two unit over four consecutive seasons. It was a similar story in Sydney, where Lyon’s fingerprints are all over one of the most tenacious tackling teams of all time.

In this realm, there’s no doubt Lyon knows what he’s doing. In fact, in this regard, he might be one of the best minds in the game.

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However like Mourninho, Lyon does have a highly-inflated opinion of himself. He’s been embroiled in some worrying off-field matters, he’s short, often extremely arrogant with the media, while he’s famous for imposing the kind of professional standards upon those who work under him which are almost impossible to keep up with.

That said, certain clubs need certain figures to drift into their lives at particular times. In the aftermath of the Brendan McCartney years, Luke Beveridge was exactly what the Western Bulldogs needed.

Essendon right now is benefitting from everything Ben Rutten is, and John Worsfold wasn’t. And if it wasn’t for Brisbane ditching its infatuation with former playing greats as coaches, the Lions would have never embarked on their Chris Fagan journey.

Carlton doesn’t need any more nice guys with good intentions who’ll tell anybody who’ll listen about the club’s “green shoots”.

For too long, the Blues have been uncomfortable about who they are and who they want to be. That insecurity has led them into troublesome relationships and messy breakups.

Like him or hate him, Lyon at least knows precisely who he is, and how he wants his teams to play. For Carlton, these are the exact qualities the Blues are crying out for in a partner, and the kind of qualities that can help them play finals quickly and regularly.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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