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Change is coming to the Crows - but off-field reinvention won't be easy

Football

Crows coach Matthew Nicks is the least-resourced coach in the AFL today – and the results show with a winless team. Michelangelo Rucci looks at how this will change – and who at the Adelaide Football Club will make the key decisions.

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Wayne Jackson has put up his hand. Not to be the next Adelaide Football Club chairman, but the former AFL chief executive is keen to be part of an “independent review”, even if it takes by his count “20 hours a week for the next three months”.

Neil Kerley, the Crows’ first football manager in 1991, wants to offer his insights on how to correct a football program that is destined to deliver a wooden spoon (and perhaps a winless season) for the first time in Adelaide’s 30-year story.

Inaugural coach Graham Cornes has on his own initiative prepared a six-point plan to revive the Crows, with points four and five demanding reinforcement of the coaching panel and scrutiny of the list-management and recruiting team.

Many frustrated Adelaide fans want a second-coming from the “messiah”, 1997-1998 premiership coach Malcolm Blight. He, too, is not short of concerns, both on and off the field. He, too, is scribbling notes – for his radio segments – on how to revive the Crows.

If Crows chairman Rob Chapman today announced a review panel chaired by Jackson and staffed by Cornes, Blight and Kerley, there would be a tick against point three of Cornes’ plan: “Restore the confidence of the members.”

This is where substance must win over style. The fan base is more than frustrated now – it is searching for answers while many ask how could such a well-established club like Adelaide fall so hard less than three years after playing in an AFL grand final.

Setting up, as Jackson wishes, an “independent review” – rather than having senior club staff work hand-in-hand with outsiders such as Jason Dunstall and Matthew Pavlich, as unfolded at West Lakes at the end of last season – would reassure an agitated membership and fan base.

But, unlike the Dunstall-led “external review”, there must be meaningful change in the Adelaide football department to ensure success with the current rebuild – described by the Crows as being at its halfway mark. This is to avoid mediocrity at a club that today has the league’s fifth-longest premiership drought (22 years).

Crows chief executive Andrew Fagan entered the Adelaide “bubble” last month to start a low-profile review.

Cornes, the Crows coach from 1991-1994, repeatedly has said the Adelaide football department has “never lacked for anything”. But this year he laments how novice coach Matthew Nicks has been let down, particularly with support staff – most notably with the lack of a proven AFL midfield coach (a role taken up by SANFL premiership coach Michael Godden after the Dunstall-chaired review claimed Scott Camporeale’s scalp).

There will be change at West Lakes next season. But there are many questions as to how this change will unfold – and who will make the key decisions.

Another external review – be it with a Jackson-led team or a consultancy group such as KPMG that reviewed the Crows in 2013 – is highly unlikely.

Crows chief executive Andrew Fagan entered the Adelaide “bubble” last month to start a low-profile review. He was stung by criticism last year, particularly from leading AFL critics, questioning why the Crows needed external eyes to see issues that should have been clearly evident to Fagan in his daily routine at West Lakes.

“That’s the way it was in my time,” says inaugural Crows chief executive (1990-2001) and later chairman (2004-2008) Bill Sanders. “We never had an external review; we never had to go beyond myself or (football manager) John Reid.

“The only time we looked outside the club was in our fourth or fifth year (1994-95) when we brought in someone from the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra for a full-day seminar for all the club.

“I appreciate it is more sophisticated and there is more staff at an AFL club today.”

This was noted with the KPMG review that broke down the “silo syndrome” – departments working independently and protecting their patch – at Richmond before the Tigers ended their 37-year premiership drought by beating the more-favoured Adelaide in the 2017 AFL grand final.

External reviews also have delivered premiership results in the SANFL, in particular at North Adelaide that in the lead-up to its 2018 flag hired former Port Adelaide Football Club chief executive Brian Cunningham and Tim Ridgway, an international expert in organisational psychology and leadership.

“I’m proud of the work we did in that North Adelaide review – and of how the club’s board took on all of our recommendations and enacted each one,” Cunningham said. “The results speak for themselves.”

Cunningham led two significant internal reviews at Port Adelaide during his long tenure as chief executive (1992-2004) – 2000, after a disappointing collapse from 1999 top-eight finalist to also-ran; and 2003, after three disappointing finals campaigns. The two reviews culminated in the breakthrough premiership in 2004.

But when does an AFL club board move from an internal review to external experts?

“When you don’t have confidence in the people running the club,” says Cunningham.

COVID and AFL-ordered cuts in spending in club football departments are forcing Nicks to reinvent his program.

Last year, Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas worked an internal review at Alberton without any public or media attention that was heavily focussed on the Adelaide Football Club. Even Crows director Mark Ricciuto quizzed Thomas in a telephone call if there was any review underway at Alberton – after Port Adelaide had missed the finals for the second consecutive year – and, if so, how Thomas had managed to keep it quiet. There was. And the Port Adelaide review passed without external fuss.

Thomas has worked several internal reviews at Alberton, none more important than the “darkest hour” moment at the end of 2012 when Port Adelaide’s presence in the AFL was in question.

“I did it very quietly and privately, but sought advice from seven different AFL experts,” Thomas said. “I asked each one to assess one particular aspect of our operation. None of them knew of the others involved in the review.

“I was worried that the idea of a formal review would further undermine the confidence and performance of the club,” added Thomas, capturing a theme noted in 2006 at Geelong where chief executive Brian Cook had his relationship with senior coach Mark  Thompson strained by a lengthy internal review that paid a dividend the next season by ending the Cats’ 44-year premiership drought.

“I was able to gather the additional information I needed to make changes we made at the end of 2012 in coaching, fitness and recruiting,” added Thomas. “Importantly, I was able to test our thinking at the time – and confirm that not everything was terrible at Port Adelaide, despite the external commentary.

“Our list strategy, for example, was pretty sound… even though it didn’t look that way at the time. It was important to reinforce that while everything had been reviewed, we were only fixing what needed to be fixed.

“(Senior coach) Ken Hinkley, (senior assistant) Alan Richardson and (fitness coach) Darren Burgess all came into the football program just as David Koch was being appointed club president. I was a relatively new chief executive, so this represented significant leadership change at Port Adelaide.”

Since 2012 and including last year, Thomas has continued to lead internal reviews “with,” he adds, “significant  external input, always in a discreet way.”

“This is my preferred model,” said Thomas. “The board trusts the club executives to review performance effectively while always encouraging external opinion, expertise and insight to test their thinking and to add value to it.

“And external assessment of the board and its relationships with the chief executive and senior executive is always healthy.”

Adelaide – despite the appeals for more external reviews and offers of help from experienced football men such as Jackson – are on the internal review path under Fagan’s watch.

The so-called “outsider” who came to the Adelaide Football Club from rugby is judged by his opening vow on replacing Steven Trigg as chief executive at the end of the 2014 season: “The vision should be (to make the Crows) the most respected and successful (team) in the country. That is my history… deliver the best football program because that is what you can control. Put the right people in the right seats – and get the right systems in place. That is the focus for me – give the Adelaide Crows the best football program in the AFL.”

Nicks does not have this. His budget was hurt by the big payouts to his predecessor Don Pyke, senior assistant Camporeale and sacked football boss Brett Burton. Still in question is how much of these termination pay-outs are eating into the 2021 football budget that is capped at $6.2 million next season (down by $3.5 million amid the COVID cuts ordered by the AFL). Or will the AFL cut the Crows a break by excusing redundancy payments from the soft cap in recognition of the major cutbacks in all football departments across the national league?

COVID-induced cuts also cost Nicks his full-time defence coach Martin Mattner who is now working in the building industry.

Also in question is what Nicks wants – and what will he get – next season?

On Wednesday night, after Adelaide extended its worst start to an AFL season with the 51-point collapse to Melbourne at Adelaide Oval marking the 10th consecutive loss, Nicks declared his future planning was “changing all the time”.

COVID and AFL-ordered cuts in spending in club football departments are forcing Nicks to reinvent his program.

Nicks suggested the game would move on from appointing a senior assistant – which he does not have this season – to demand more of “line coaches”, the assistants working with forwards, defenders and midfielders.

“They will be so much more than line coaches – they will need a high skill set (to take on more roles),” Nicks said.

Luring coaching support to Adelaide for Nicks’ new team will be challenging. Even Pyke failed to convince his West Coast premiership team-mate Peter Sumich to join him at West Lakes, either as a senior assistant or key strategist in the football department.

There is the expectation Nicks will seek former Crows defender Nathan Bassett with whom he worked at Port Adelaide where Bassett remains as the forwards coach today.

In a sport where timing is everything, Nicks needs more quality staff in his club’s recruiting and development programs to ensure the rebuild with young talent succeeds. But there is less money to spend on securing this much-needed staff.

“We will find the best people we can,” Nicks said. “And we will develop people inside our club.”

From Cornes’ six-point plan, the fifth demand – “scrutinise/review recruiting/list-management team” – will resonate most with Crows fans and the media. It is true to Crows premiership captain Mark Bickley’s call for a review of list manager Justin Reid’s work since 2014.

Beyond giving Nicks a strong coaching staff, Adelaide needs to be sure the grand collection of top-order draft picks and trade options (particularly with free-agent midfielder Brad Crouch) are converted into a mix of fresh-faced draftees and experienced recruits who quickly restore the Crows’ on-field reputations.

Board member Mark Ricciuto, the chair of Adelaide’s list-management committee, continues to publicly endorse Reid and Crows recruiting manager Hamish Ogilvie who he describes as “one of the most respected recruiters” in the AFL.

“Hamish is going to have his biggest draft hand (since joining Adelaide in November 2006),” said Ricciuto, with the Crows anticipating having five top-20 picks in the delayed national draft.

“There is no guarantee (with drafting), but the one benefit from having a bad season is you do get access to the better talent, even in a compromised draft. There is clear evidence that top-four teams are built on a core group of draftees from the first half-dozen picks and from the first round of a draft.”

Fagan’s review not only needs to establish a new coaching panel to support Nicks, but also ensure Adelaide makes the most of its unprecedented opportunity to build a new playing list for these new coaches to develop.

And then there is point six in Cornes’ plan: “Create, develop, demand, establish excellence and consistency from the playing group.”

[For the record, Cornes’ points one and two relate to off-field governance – announce the new chairman and “review the constituents of the board, is it balanced enough (with for example) football and PR intellect?)”.]

For the rest of the AFL season, you can read news and insights from Michelangelo Rucci – SA’s most experienced and credible football writer – every Friday in InDaily.

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