The Godfather: Peter Corris on the year in AFL
It’s been a tumultuous year in the AFL, marked tragically by the death of recently appointed Adelaide coach Phil Walsh before he had the chance to put his stamp on the team. This sad event was handled with great dignity and respect by the AFL as a whole and by all supporters.
Another dramatic event, with a happier outcome, was the commotion surrounding the booing of Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes. Goodes, the holder of the record number of games played for the Swans, a dual Brownlow Medallist and a former Australian of the Year, had singled out a girl in the crowd who had called him ‘a big ape’. Exception was taken to this and in subsequent matches he was booed by sections of the crowd whenever he touched the ball.
Goodes, an outspoken advocate for Indigenous people, objected and in one game performed an Aboriginal war dance in defiance. An outcry against the racism inherent in the treatment of Goodes bought out the best in the AFL organisation and the public. In one round the captains of all teams led their teams out wearing a jumper carrying Goodes’s number 37. No such booing was heard subsequently.
Two coaches, of very different vintage and style, lost their positions during the year. Mick Malthouse, who had coached for 31 years, winning three premierships, fell foul of a dearth of talent in the ranks of his team, Carlton. Several of Carlton’s scoring players left the club, there were numerous injuries and it appeared that Malthouse’s game style was ill-adapted to the demands of the contemporary game.
James Hird, a favourite son of Essendon, appointed coach in 2013, was involved in the delivery of supplements to the players, which appeared to violate the drugs code. Hird suffered a year’s suspension while the players, subject to proceedings by the international agency concerned with drugs in sport, remained under a cloud. Returning to coaching in 2015, Hird was unable to arrest the team’s slide towards the bottom of the ladder and resigned, presumably under pressure from the Essendon board.
While Malthouse has said he won’t coach any more and is not a media favourite, Hird, personable and articulate, may be expected to surface again.
Three iconic players have left the stage – one permanently and the others with questions over their futures. Winner of the Brownlow and Norm Smith Medals, West Coast Premiership captain Chris Judd – arguably one of the most intelligent men to play the game – departed from Carlton with a career-ending AC ligament rupture. Gary Ablett Junior, often listed as one of the best players ever, returned briefly from injury only to be reinjured to the great cost of his team, the Gold Coast Suns. Star Sydney Swans player Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin announced only this week that he suffered from epilepsy and mental health problems and is unlikely to play in the finals. All lovers of the game will hope for the return of both Franklin and Ablett.
At the end of the season the domination of teams from West Australia presents an absorbing scenario for the finals, with some leading teams obliged to travel to the Perth Stadium, known as ‘the house of pain’. In prospect is a ‘derby’ between the two WA teams, an outcome not welcomed by most fans and dreaded by a financially oriented AFL executive.