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Inside the Crows' downfall: "The system didn't get us... we made mistakes"

Football

Less than three years ago, the Crows were considered favourites to win the AFL premiership. Today, they are at the other extreme – winless and on track to hold the wooden spoon. In the first instalment in a special four-part series, Michelangelo Rucci examines the context for the sudden collapse following the 2017 grand final loss.

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For a monolith that in the past five years has perfected the denial, Adelaide Football Club chairman Rob Chapman could not have been more forthright.

“We have made mistakes,” said Chapman, chairman since 2009.

Mistakes – plural.

Not one big mistake, such as the secretive and damaging bespoke pre-season camp organised by third party Collective Mind on the Gold Coast in February 2018 when Crows coach Don Pyke and his football boss Brett Burton over-reacted to the AFL grand final loss five months earlier.

But the failure to retain key players, bad calls in list management, misguided contract renewals – particularly with coaches – and the increasingly debated direction of the football club on and off the field add to the list of errors that draw greater scrutiny today while the Crows struggle to win AFL matches.

From favourite to triumph in the 2017 AFL grand final – and thereby ending a 19-year premiership drought … to holding the wooden spoon, on the 30th anniversary of its formation as an AFL club built amid a storm in South Australian football in 1990. This is the unexpected script before South Australia’s biggest sporting empire – whose realm extends to AFLW, SANFL, national baseball, eSports and a media division specialising in lifestyle programs.

The sudden collapse of an AFL darling is no simple case of every club having its turn at the top – and bottom – of the heavily regulated national competition.

To avoid replicating European football where money generally decides success, the AFL has its draft and salary cap avoid creating dynasties at the top of the premiership rankings and prevent basket cases at the bottom of the ladder. That is the theory. But this does not stop smart clubs from “beating” the system – and misguided clubs from shooting themselves in the foot.

“The system didn’t get us … everyone knows how it works,” Chapman told InDaily. “We made mistakes .…”

Jake Kelly, the son of Collingwood premiership defender and powerful player agent Craig, played his 34th AFL game in the 2017 grand final that ended in a 48-point loss to Richmond at the MCG. He has not swept away the events since the grand final – a series of moments that culminated in an external review led by Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall at the end of last season … and the end of Pyke’s four-year reign as coach while still on contract for another two seasons.

“I’ve pondered on it (the fall from pacesetter to a wooden spoon holder) a lot,” Kelly said.

“It is very hard, complex,” adds Kelly to reinforce there is not one mistake – such as the much-quoted but little-known pre-season camp – that has derailed the Crows.

“My conclusion is there is not one sole reason.

“Everybody goes through this.”

Not everyone, however, notes Malcolm Blight, the “messiah” who delivered Adelaide’s only AFL premierships in 1997 and 1998, and 1985 Brownlow Medallist Brad Hardie.

“In the AFL era (since 1987) two clubs had avoided the big fall,” says Blight. “Geelong and Adelaide.”

Since 1987, Geelong’s lowest ranking has been 12th in 2001 and 2003. Until this season’s crash, Adelaide had not ranked lower than 14th (in Neil Craig’s final season in 2011).

“You look at the AFL era, virtually everyone – even Collingwood – has made it to the cellar or very close to it. Geelong and Adelaide had little trips down the ladder but neither of them bottomed out … because they made good decisions.”

The same could have been once said of West Coast, one of three clubs – along with Adelaide and Geelong – in traditional football zones that built up their supporter bases in monopoly markets.

“Had you said to me 20 years ago (when West Coast had won two AFL flags and was a constant finalist for a decade) that the Eagles would win the wooden spoon one day, I’d have told you that you were dreaming,” says Hardie, a West Australian who played 150 AFL games at Footscray, Brisbane and Collingwood (1985-1992).

“West Coast should never have been a club that ‘bottomed out’. Once they get to the top they should stay there considering all the money, power and prestige they command in Perth.”

But the West Australian powerhouse – that was a template for the Crows – went from AFL premier in 2007 to 15th of 16 in 2009 and wooden spooner in 2010. Like the Crows, there was not one mistake at West Coast – even if the smoking gun is the drug question that led to an inquiry led by former Victorian Supreme Court judge William Gillard.

“(Coach) John Worsfold was too loyal to his senior players … and the players lived the rock-star life,” Hardie said.

Adelaide fell off the planet too quickly. The question is, why?

Adelaide’s past decade stands as its worst in the club’s 30-year story.

In the pioneer decade (1991-2000) when chairman Bob Hammond and chief executive Bill Sanders built a successful club that repeatedly was tagged as the “Chardonnay set” and lacking a “heart and soul”, the Crows won two flags. The lowest finish was 13th of 16 in 1999 when the burnout of the back-to-back premiership seasons left a heavy toll on all at West Lakes.

In the second decade (2001-2010) – always to be remembered for Neil Craig setting up a strong football base – Adelaide missed the finals just twice and should have won a flag in either 2005 or 2006. The Crows did not advance beyond preliminary finals, however.

In the past decade (2011 onwards), Adelaide has missed finals five times; sacked two coaches, Pyke and Brenton Sanderson, while on long-term contracts; lost significant players such as eventual Brownlow Medallist Patrick Dangerfield and endured scandals from the Kurt Tippett salary cap breach to the infamous Gold Coast camp.

“The fall from 2017,” says Blight, “makes Adelaide a one-trick pony. They had just one real crack at the premiership. Most teams have two or three cracks at it.

“Adelaide fell off the planet too quickly. The question is, why?”

So much of the current torment on the field relates as much to poor list management – and the over-reaction from Pyke and Burton who considered the players mentally weak after the 2017 grand final loss.

“It is an absolutely fair question,” says Kelly when asked if the Crows overplayed the fallout from the grand final. “Should have we handled it differently? Maybe, potentially. Should have we reviewed it straight away?

“One answer I can give you is, by round one, 2018 it (the grand final loss) had no effect on us at all.”

But the camp is another question that does not go away.

The Gold Coast getaway was supposed to better connect the Crows – and instead divided the group into three factions. As did Pyke, following the ways of his former West Coast premiership team-mate John Worsfold, with a flawed persistence with one group of players.

Chapman admits loyalty to Pyke blinkered Adelaide.

“We threw everything at 2017 and did not get the premiership,” Chapman said. “Then we backed the team to get the job done in 2018. And we made mistakes.

“People will point to list management. And they will do that with the benefit of hindsight. But that list management (under Justin Reid’s watch from 2015) put us in a grand final.

“In hindsight, you can say we made a mistake in playing the best 22 every week when we could have put some games into the kids.

“So we are in a reset. We made that decision at the end of last year – we publicly said as much but perhaps we did not communicate it well enough.”

Today, no-one is in doubt about Adelaide’s reset, particularly when Matthew Nicks has started his first AFL senior coaching stint with a 0-6 win-loss record – the worst for the Crows since Craig went 0-6 in 2010.

Tomorrow, Rucci examines Adelaide’s list management – including revelations of divisions within the club about key players and recruitment decisions.

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