First published in The Conversation on 23 March, 2012.
Michael “Mick” Malthouse is one of the most important figures in the history of Australian football.
A premiership player for Richmond in 1980 he subsequently coached the then Footscray Bulldogs to a number of finals series. He coached the West Coast Eagles to their inaugural premiership in 1992 and then led the biggest club in the competition, Collingwood, to a premiership in 2010.
Malthouse sensationally left Collingwood at the end of the 2011 season as part of a “succession plan” that saw club legend Nathan Buckley take the senior coaching job.
He now works in the media and has taken a role with La Trobe University as a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow.
Malthouse spoke with La Trobe University senior lecturer in sports journalism David Lowden on the same day Jim Stynes passed away.
Key elements of the conversation include:
- The decision to leave Collingwood
- Racism in football and wider society
- The challenges faced by smaller “Moneyball“ clubs
- Jim Stynes' legacy as a pioneer for Irish players
- Climate change, astronomy and his passion for history
We hope you enjoy.
You were the Australian team coach for the international rules series in 2008 and 2010. What would you like to say about Jim Stynes.
I didn’t really contact Jim in regard to those series, but I have had contact with him as a person, as a football identity, and the respect for him as a player was just enormous. You’d never hear a bad word about Jim. That’s not since he was diagnosed with cancer, and that’s pretty easy to do I think. People say ok well it’s only the positives. I’ve never heard a bad word about Jim right through his career. The only thing you hear about him is his great courage and I totally endorse that.
He has a record number of games played in a row, which I think is 244. It’s extraordinary. He played with broken bones, and he played off the back of a concussion, he played with rib injuries and so forth. Was it madness? Was it because he was an Irishman or whatever? It was just his love for the game and you just love his courage.
The other parts of Jim Stynes. Well, to be able to come across and play a foreign game in a foreign land is extraordinary, in one sense, but double extraordinary when you think that he was being the best player, by winning a Brownlow medal.
When I first took over at West Coast, it had really become evident that you had to stop Jim Stynes if you wanted to stop Melbourne. More times than not, we didn’t.
One time I did, and it was more of a fluke, I dragged a young enthusiastic centre half-back Glen Jakovich out of his role and made him run around with him. Glen learned a lot from it, I learned a lot from it.
I can’t remember the result of the game, but I remember the result of the contest, and Glen Jakovich won. It was one of the very few times that I can say that Jim Stynes didn’t have an influence on the game. He’s an extraordinary man, and we’re all saddened by it.
Jim and Sean Wight were the start of the Irish experiment, and of course you had Marty Clarke at Collingwood who’s one of the latest to join that line of Irish recruits. What can you tell us about the Irish experiment and its impact on the game and your relationship with Marty?
I’m not really sure who thought of it at the start, with Stynes and Wight, but it’s one of those moments when you think “someone’s thought out of the box here”. Was it because of the Irish connection in regards to the Gaelic game that we played the Galahs with Harry Beitzel. They (the Irish) had to show that they could play, and that they wanted to be paid to play. So it sort of gained a bit of ground.
Like any other football club, and any other football coach, you’re continually on the hunt for players, even outside of the norm. So in other words, the norm is zone, then the norm becomes draft, then the norm goes, well we’ve got to pinch them from NSW, from Queensland. Jason Dunstall’s from Queensland. Wayne Carey from NSW. The list went on and on, and then we started to experiment with Tadgh Kennelly. He was a great player for Sydney.
In Collingwood, we got Marty Clarke, and he was an instant hit, because he had great ball control and he had a fair idea of the game, he’d been watching a bit of it. He didn’t lack courage, he was adaptable. He was a positive thinker. He thought he should’ve been in the first game that was played when he came over. We didn’t put him in, but it wasn’t long before he got a game. From memory, his first game against Sydney was excellent, he played very, very well.
The experiment to me soured a little bit then, because I think Marty went backwards. He got a couple of injuries and they influenced the way he played. But like anything else in life, when you come on the scene and you play good football, someone says, “lets find his deficiency”. Deep down I had a feeling that Marty was going to be very vulnerable in certain areas, and lo and behold, the three components where I thought he was vulnerable became very, very vulnerable. To the point where he lost his confidence, got injured and couldn’t get back into the game.
Marty decided that the greener pastures were in Ireland, where he was promised a lot. He actually played magnificently to get his county into the final, but the Gaelic football association didn’t deliver fully on their promises, and hence he wasn’t really financially in the position he thought he would be. He’s now made his way back to Collingwood, no doubt with the financial incentive, and also the prospect of playing in finals football, which Collingwood should do.
So to connect Stynes, Kennelly and Clarke, are we seeing the Irish experiment as one good player per decade? It hasn’t really been the windfall that football thought it was going to be.
No, because there’s a lot of homesickness. There’s also the theory that the Irish were playing back of centre. Of course there are exceptions, including Jim Stynes, but by and large the Irish play very well when the ball comes at them. They’ll get it and go forwards, because they haven’t got as much pressure on them. When they have to create the play forward with the ball, it becomes a different issue, because it requires a different mindset. So I think that it’s become a restriction. Players become a back of centre player, and there are already a lot of those around.
Consider the cost of relocation, the cost of the contract, cost of time. Do you go and find someone from VFL, or SA football? Or whatever, and I’m not only talking about the draft, I’m talking outside of that, given that with rookies open age, then you weigh it up. Who’s going to give you the better value for the best price? So the Irish have fallen to the wayside a little bit.
I think if Marty comes back and has a big program and he can adapt to it, then he might change a few minds.
Caolan Mooney’s a young player, and he’s an exception. I see him surpassing Marty. He’s like lightening. Good kick on him, good decision-making skills. So Collingwood have certainly embraced it, they’ve got three Irishmen there. In other clubs throughout the country, I would say you’d find ten to 12 Irishmen. So it’s not finished, but it is restricted.
Just to go back to where we started. You coached Australia, what was it like wearing the coat of arms?
I never really thought about it until I was approached by the AFL. My mindset was that the previous time that Australia played Ireland, there were too many issues that took place that forced the two countries apart in terms of that sporting event.
The rules changed, and they needed to change.
They were unforgiving for the Australian football league, it was all about Gaelic. They had to limit hand passes, limit the number of times you can bounce it, limit the number of times you can interchange. And I was a victim of it many times as a coach, because they are three of the fundamentals of the game.
I was having players coming in saying “well you can’t bounce it any more than twice, you can’t pass it more than four times”, and we might have 29 players but only ten interchanges for the whole match were allowed. It meant some of the blokes would sit there all day. It’s not healthy.
So we were highly restricted, and as a consequence we were beaten by just under a goal in each game. The Irish were rapt, and the AFL were rapt because we conducted ourselves in true sportsmanship, which I was very proud of the boys for doing.
We knew that we would go back a year later to play. We didn’t end up playing the following year because of the GFC, but we were back in 2010. We won the cup back under those rules. When I stood in the centre of Croke Park, with the national anthem playing, it really sunk in that I was coaching Australia. A hybrid side, probably never going to do it again.
Was it Mickey Mouse? Well it didn’t matter if it was, you’re still representing your country and I felt very, very proud.
You’ve been a coach every year since you stopped playing, up until this year. It’s round one this week, how are you feeling? Have you been reflecting on the fact that you’re not coaching?
No, I’ve been very busy. I’ve purposely taken on probably too much work, with the view to cutting back the end of next year.
But right now I’m in a very good state, I’ve looked at the games, I’ve looked at the repercussions and looked at the reasons why they’ve come about in the first place. It was the way the contract fell, as far as Collingwood viewed it.
Or was it an age factor? Were they hell-bent on Nathan coaching? He was a former great. Probably one of the best players to come out of Collingwood.
So once you get your head around that, you look at other areas. I know the weight of the expectations of the crowd. We lost very few games in the last two or three years, and I know what I’m like when we lose a game. It’s devastation.
When you win a game, it’s flippant. It’s over in two seconds and you think about next week, whereas a loss stays with you for a long time.
I don’t go to bed at night now thinking about the phone call I might get the next morning about someone being injured. Or X-ray results. I don’t go to bed worrying about the opposition.
So there’s certainly less stress, but when you’re a coach you’re always a coach. And when you don’t coach, because you’ve been coaching so long, you analyse games. I don’t look at a game, I analyse a game.
Even through the NAB cup series, I find myself analysing what the coach is doing, why he does it, how his players are responding, what could’ve happened, what should’ve happened. I try not to get involved in being the mother-in-law, or the father-in-law. Let them play their games, sit back and just analyse, if it’s for 3AW or Channel 7, analyse it the way I’m supposed to.
Or if I’m just looking from the lounge chair, let the stress go to the coaches and not to me.
You’ve said about whether it was an age thing or succession planning. The view has been that you signed up for the succession plan, are you saying that Collingwood imposed a succession plan?
Collingwood wanted a succession plan.
And you didn’t?
No, I’m not saying I didn’t, it’s just that under the circumstances, I thought it was a bit um, you know things were pretty tough in those years.
Did the impact of the decision hit you later?
Well no, because when I signed the contract, it was mid-year, and there were still a lot of points that we were looking at. And in the end it was like, what’s more important, my grandson’s kidneys and the subsequent operation he had? My mother’s life? My daughter also went through a pretty tough time and it took a long time for her to get over it, mentally and physically.
So, what’s more important? Getting it out of the way, or focusing on the things most important in life? So that’s what I did.
So you were under duress?
Well we do a lot of things under duress.
On a completely different note, do you think a woman could ever be a senior coach?
Well I can’t see a woman doing senior coaching.
A woman wouldn’t have that innate feel for the game that is at the (coalface).
So you can’t learn the tactics, you can’t learn enough about the game.
No, and that little bit of camaraderie, that little bit of give and take that you just need to know. That not everyone’s on the same level, not everyone’s got the same passion, not everyone’s got the same build, some players play differently than others, you have to know how they’ve taken it.
From the stands it sometimes looks pretty simple, and a game should be simple, but what defines a good coach is a thorough understanding of all the pitfalls more so than all the glory.
I learned more about coaching by missing games. When I look through my career, I’ve been reported missing a game at vital times. I’ve been injured, missing a grand final by playing in bottom sides. Yes I know the difference between bottom and top. What I’ve learned from those times that were the negatives of life, I learned more from that about coaching than I did from being a premiership player having a good year, not being injured, not being suspended etc.
Matt Rendell said this week that there’s no racism in football, is he right?
No, he’s not right.
Because there’s enough racism that is just under the surface and it peeps out now and again.
Racism to me is a majority and a minority thing. It’s easy to be in the majority and say there’s nothing. Ask the minority, and they will tell you that there is just enough there to know it’s there.
You started as a player in 1972. In your time in the game, the representation of indigenous players has increased quite dramatically. In recent days there’s been debate about the welfare, assimilation and development of indigenous players. What’s your view on that?
You find the player, you then find the accommodation that is required for the player.
I’m not talking about housing, I’m talking about having things in place that cater for every type of player that comes through your door, whether they be indigenous, Irish, Fijian, a country kid coming down from the bush, whether it be a Tasmanian kid that just doesn’t like the big life in the main cities, whether it be a shy kid or an extrovert, whether it be a highly educated kid or someone who struggled through school.
You have got to have in your football organisation, particularly with the modern game today where there’s so much money going through it, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you’ve got things in place that make it an easy passage for that player to come in and feel very comfortable. And where he’s deficient you help. And that deficiency may well be settling into a big city, it may well be that he needs to study to get his year 12, it may well be that he needs a car license, may well be that he doesn’t know how to eat properly because he’s never been taught the right skills, it may be as simple as a Skype to his parents who live in Dublin once a week just to give him the opportunity to settle.
With Liam Jurrah, I know that he was training at North and the recruiting people said he’s good enough to play but he’ll only be here for three years, it is just how his situation is. He was at Collingwood very briefly a couple of years ago. Did you think that this was a bloke that could be a ten year player or are you always aware of the level of issues he was facing with where he came from?
The only way I saw it, Liam Jurrah, we couldn’t make contact with him. When I looked at him as a Melbourne player the only reason he couldn’t be a ten year player, it had nothing to do with his culture, was simply whether he was going be good enough to play the way modern football is played. Just like any other player.
You’re going to get some players that come into the thing and go “why did I pick [Jarryd] Blair and not Medders [Paul Medhurst]?” One’s a seasoned player, one’s a first year player. Because Blair understood his role. Medders was a better mark, better kick, stronger, more experienced but just didn’t understand the role like Blair. So I picked Blair, Blair played the role beautifully and as a consequence stayed on the side.
I look at Liam Jurrah and go “beautifully balanced, great kick, good mark, defensive work inadequate.“ Modern football you have to have a great defensive quality, so it’s got nothing to do with his background, it’s got nothing to do with his culture, it’s got nothing to do with his colour, it’s just simply he’s got to get his mindset right.
I think, given his injury, of all coaches Mark Neeld is very, very aware of defensive work. He could’ve improved in that eight to 10 percent that’s required then he could’ve been a 10-year player. But if he didn’t improve on that he was never going to be a 10-year player.
How important is money to on-field success?
Well I can honestly say that I reckon I was part of Moneyball [type of situation] in Footscray. We didn’t have the opportunity to have a lot of money, so therefore we’ve had a lot of players filter out from the top clubs. I’m talking about Mark Kellet, Bruce Duperouzel, Peter Foster, they weren’t all from top clubs mind you at the time. We had a lot of players that filtered down but didn’t want to stay at Footscray because the contract wasn’t big enough or whatever. But we managed.
How many Moneyball clubs have won titles? None.
Well, North Melbourne maybe
The ten year rule.
I mean North in the Nineties? Are you saying money does make a difference?
I say right now in AFL football. I’m not talking about the ‘90s, when North Melbourne were very, very good of course. If you can’t load up your salary cap to 100% and you don’t have the same money available to you to make an altitude room or to get extra, The most important person in a football club these days bar none is your recruiting manager. When you’ve got a good recruiting manager who has good assistants around him, then they have their own networks. They are able to cover every foot of Australian soil.
Hence Collingwood were able to get Witts, Young, Clarke, Mooney. Anyway, you got a heap of players from outside the system, all legal and it’s done because they have the money to pay the best, and they have got the best. They can come into those rooms and there’s altitude rooms. They can go and travel to do altitude training without too much impost on the budget. They have new rooms, they have new weight sets, they’ve got the swimming pool, they’ve go their own ground, they’ve got all that. Hawthorn’s done the same, Carlton are doing the same, Essendon are currently doing the same. When you don’t pay 100 percent salary cap you’re already at a massive disadvantage in today’s football.
Greater Western Sydney and Sydney Swans coaches and captains ahead of tomorrow's season opener. AAP/Dean Lewins
So I think the money situation is, Collingwood were broke when I first got there and it was evident. The rooms were, the gymnasium hardly existed, medical conditions were poor, video areas were terrible. When we started to pump a bit of money in, all of sudden the expectations into the player is they go and see. They get coaches that can help them out with their deficiencies so the player improves, every player improves 5 percent, 10 percent, that’s a massive improvement over an opponent.
Should AFL clubs receive part of their revenue from poker machines or other forms of gambling?
Well I’ve seen firsthand what gambling does. So I’m opposed to it. But I know that’s irrelevant, it’s never going to basically change. It’s a delicate question. I really have no answer for that.
North Melbourne coach Brad Scott says he’s far more concerned about his player succumbing to online gambling than abusive alcohol and you had to deal with Heath Shaw and Nick Maxwell getting caught up in gambling related infringements. Do you agree with Scott? Is the threat of gambling perhaps even more sinister than alcohol?
He may be a little closer to it. I do know that players gamble on the races and so forth. I hope they don’t gamble on football, I don’t think they would. I think the ones that have been caught out have been honest mistakes quite frankly. Very small, but small does lead to big and big can be bigger. So they’ve got to be careful of that.
The binge drinking is the biggest problem because the players tend to go “okay we got a long weekend, we play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We don’t want to go out. But we’re out and we’ll have a crack at it”. I think they both can be problems.
Australian rules is the indigenous game of our country and week by week it’s the most popular game. Does the government have a duty to fund stadiums or should they be spending the public purse subsiding the cost?
I would say if the AFL are making nothing, yes. But given the wealth of the AFL? Australian football puts so much back into the community. I think there’s got to be a level of government assistance, certainly for some of the grounds. But I don’t think it should ever be [something they rely on]. If they can’t do it, don’t rely on the government to do it.
The AFL recently clamped down on the authority sports scientists or high performance coaches because of the perception the advice of club doctors was being over ruled by them. You’ve just co-written a book by the man you brought to Collingwood, David Buttifant, how would you describe his role and the level of authority he held at the Magpies?
Well to start off he’s a doctor in his field, honorary professor from, I think, the Australian National University, certainly in Canberra. So he knows his game. He knows his position in the club.
Does that mean because he is a doctor that he had the authority to overrule the doctors?
But he doesn’t overrule the doctors. We’ve got a very, very close relationship, all of us, in particular that division, that is the scientists, the doctor and the physios. They put their heads together and they work it out. If the doctor at the end of the day at Collingwood said “he is not to play” he would not play. If David said I think he can play, and the doctor said he he can’t play, he won’t play. We all knew our positions.
So in other words you’re endorsing the AFL’s position really, on the club doctors?
Well I’m just saying that I’m really surprised and disappointed that some directors of science in this instance are going outside the system and turning their back on the doctors at the football clubs. I’m very disappointed because that’s a lack of trust.
Should there be an accreditation of some description? I think there should be, because if you’re going to have a position held in that high regard, then you’ve got to have some accreditation of description that will blend in with the roles and the urgency and the position he actually holds.
You used to tell the players at West Coast, media – the enemy.
Yes. I know why you said it, because talking to the media means they might say something that would hurt the club. So it wasn’t that you didn’t trust the media, it’s that you didn’t trust the players not to say something that might hurt the club. Given that view and your previously sometimes frosty relationship with journalists, why did you become a member of the media yourself?
Young players have a tendency to think that every question that is asked of them they have to answer. They don’t. But they’re not taught that. Secondly a long winded answer, they’re [journalists] not interested. They’ll pluck apart that is more relevant and that part sometimes is completely opposite to the views of what they’re given. All I’m saying to those players is to be highly aware of who’s interviewing you, what the question’s going to be and how you answer them. Because they’ll come back to bite you. You don’t get “good news” top stories in papers, in dailies.
Matthew Nicholson and I are researching into whether footy matches will become like songs on iTunes where you pay a small amount to watch which game you want. AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou recently told The Conversation that the league may not sell it’s media rights the next time around. Where do you see the role of media in footy and what would be good for the game?
There’s three components, there’s the people who watch the game, listen to the game, go to the game, there’s the athletes and there’s the media who give the people the opportunity to watch it, or see it, or hear it. They’re all hand in hand so if one of them breaks down somewhere along the line the game’s going to break down. We all need each other. We need to have fine-tuned athletes to have a fine-tuned game and we need to be able to have that to the public, who are going to limitedly go and see it because only X amount can go to a game. But thousands upon thousands will watch or hear it or read about it and they want to have that opportunity. So we’re all linked. We might not want to be linked but we are all linked and we’re linked in a position to make the game great and stay great.
When La Trobe’s Vice-Chancellor John Dewar asked you to be his first Vice Chancellor’s fellow, what was your reaction and why did you accept?
Well the reaction was one of, I thought someone was having a lend of me for a start. The second phase was I’ve never been to university so I’m hardly going to be equipped to talk to students or teachers or lecturers or whatever the case may be. Thirdly a great honour, really. I had to go to the second case first say “can I really give value?” Well I guess when I look at it now and having spoken to lecturers and students I now know that outside experience does count for a hell of a lot so I can bring something across.
You came from an underprivileged background and I know having been with you since you first joined us at LaTrobe you had to reconcile a lack of formal education with your role here, have you reconciled that practical experience and the school of hard knocks counts for something?
Well just, yes. Just looking and talking to various people about academia, here and outside experiences they’re poles apart. And if the link can be made between my experience and the student’s in regard to what they’re studying and what I can say is honestly out there then the transition is far greater.
Because they’re going to spend more of their life outside of uni than, most students anyway, outside and it’s probably an easier and quicker methodology to get across to say academia is one thing but the reality, this is how it is out there. So I see it being great for the student to be able to latch on to various groups I’ve recommended they should talk to from outside, that actually live in the real world and short circuit some of the problems before they get out there.
Another thing you used to say to the players, you used to talk about goal setting and you had a booklet of ‘one percenters’ – tuck your jumper in because it’s harder for your opponent to tackle you, or tie up your boot laces to the side so the knot doesn’t affect your kick and stand on the mark because one time out of ten you might just touch it. Can you tell us a little bit more about your philosophy of professionalism?
Well simplistically is, if you’re not doing it, someone else is. And clearly that says a lot. It simply means that if you think you’ve done enough, you haven’t. If you stop and rest someone’s working. But there is also work smart, not long. There’s a distinction between trying to be the best player because you’re the fittest best player or you’re the smartest best player. There’s bits and pieces all the way through.
It’s something I know you’ve spoken to the students about already. Try and raise the bar a bit.
The lowest standard is going to be acceptable but for how long? And if I use Ian Thorpe as a metaphor in this case, he was the greatest, one of our greatest swimmers in Australia’s history , the moment he said “I’m coming back” was an indicator to me that people would grit their teeth or go “he doesn’t realise how far this game has gone”.
We talk about tactics in football which can change dramatically, I wouldn’t have thought too many tactics have changes in swimming but his time out, some of the tactics have changed so whatever they may be. Time waits for no one. And in a professional sport the moment you think you’re on top of it someone’s gone past you.
Why do you quote Chinese proverbs in press conferences? Was it another method other than intimidation to shut down a line of questioning? Was it just to get us thinking?
Yes, some of them were quite obscure and left them there. And the ox is slow and the earth is patient now is the title of my book. So many people have gone “well what does it mean?” And it really gets people thinking about it. And the Chinese have when you look at their advancements through time have been extraordinary and you’d be a fool not to listen and watch and take in you know Confucius and whoever else. Just have a look at their sayings and work it out yourself and you’ll find sometimes it makes you stop and think there is better ways.
Man stands for long time with mouth open before roast duck flies in.
Exactly, that’s a good one.
I know Tasmania and the environment are close to your heart, I’m surprised Hawthorn got the sponsorship before Collingwood given how much you love Tassie, but should they have a team?
Well they can have a team for probably 12 months, 24 months, 36 months and then they’d run out of money. It’s all to do with money. All the enthusiasm under the sun. Tasmania’s divided for a start off. The Union and the Confederates have got nothing on northern Tasmania and southern Tasmania. So how does half a million people justify having a side? Easily, Geelong has but you’ve go t to have this readymade cash on a year to year basis. Can they generate 55, 65, 75 million dollars which is going to take them over the next three years to have a side in the competition nd still say we’re profitable and we can go our fourth years where we need to raise 80 million dollars. The answer is do they can’t do that.
The economic things in Geelong are far different to how they are in the whole of Tasmania. And that’s why it’s so difficult to keep a side on the pitch. Is that the regular amount of money required and membership and the sponsorship and you’ve got to keep coming up with it. A one-off sounds fantastic and they’re right because you know that the football people understand football as Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast are understanding that you’ve virtually go to move the whole team. Melbourne Storm, there’s not a Victorian person that plays for them so everybody comes down from the other states and they’ve got to make the money through success.
Tasmania, as much as I’d like to say it could be the 19th side it would be a short lasting, three, four years maximum.
Are you an environmentalist?
I am a concerned person about the future.
So you believe in climate change?
And is it a good idea that we have carbon tax?
You’re getting political now.
We don’t have to
Well. We have to do something.
We’ve got to do something. We can’t, we could pick out a rogue scientist from anywhere to dispute what’s normal. Too many scientists are saying that the global weather has changed and C02 in the atmosphere has spiked. So what do we do? We believe that one scientist says, well it’s just a fluke of nature? Or do we say that the other 99 are saying it’s because it’s man made? And clearly, if it’s man made, we got to do something about it. Our planet will end up like Venus. We won’t be around.
Venus and Jupiter have been out in the sky the last few days, have you been out pointing your telescope?
They’re very close to each other.
Have you been pointing your telescope?
The telescope’s at Lorne. So I haven’t had a chance to get down there.
But you are interested in astronomy?
Absolutely. I know nothing about any of them but I love them all. So I’m not here to tell you I’m an expert but I love them all. It’s a release.
I only read history. Well, I don’t only read history. But history is 90 percent of my reading. Paleontology, anthropology, love it all. I would never lecture on it, though.
David Lowden teaches sports journalism at La Trobe University. Mick Malthouse recently became a vice-chancellor's fellow at La Trobe University.