As a politician and diplomat, John Olsen has stood before constituents to seek their trust, party rooms to seek their support, and world leaders to gain their confidence.
What could be challenging about 100 people in the William Magarey Room at Adelaide Oval wanting to talk football?
“I’ve known nothing like this,” says the former South Australian Premier, federal senator and Australian consul-general in Los Angeles and New York.
Olsen will chair the Adelaide Football Club annual meeting next Wednesday, followed by the annual members’ information session in the William Magarey room.
The Q&A session of past meetings has been a cushy run for his predecessor Rob Chapman – questions about the end to printing the club yearbook, the supposedly uncomfortable short sleeves of AFLW team supporter polo shirts, the hard run the club had in the media and former federal senator Chris Schacht taking issue with the AFL Commission having control of club board appointments.
Even the infamous pre-season camp on the Gold Coast in 2018 was easy to negotiate while the members believed it was another reason for the media to batter the Crows.
This time it will be different. That first-ever AFL wooden spoon from last year’s unprecedented fall from one of the national league’s usually competitive performers has changed the tone and agenda for the Q&A.
“The Adelaide Football Club has a massive following, and the commitment and the passion our people have for their club knows no bounds,” says Olsen, who formally took charge on October 18 to end Chapman’s record 12-year stint as chairman of South Australia’s biggest sporting club.
“Our members, our fans and everyone associated with the Crows wants this club to be the best it possibly can.”
The members’ agenda is heavy. Who will be the new chief executive succeeding Andrew Fagan, who in January called an end to his six-year stay? Where will the Crows build their new home away from West Lakes; Thebarton, or the CBD of the city the Crows promote more than any other sporting team?Finances that were heavily hit by the COVID pandemic and have put the Crows back in debt. The fallout from club hero Andrew McLeod speaking out against the club’s loss of culture – and declaring the clubhouse was “not a particularly warm place”. This theme will resonate next Wednesday from the members who lament the loss of The Shed as a social hub since the move of AFL matches from Football Park to Adelaide Oval in 2014.
And Olsen has his own agenda. The “football first” theme he put on that table as soon as the former SANFL president agreed to step into a non-paying role that has become more consuming than he first anticipated.
Olsen was true to his mantra at the start of this interview. It was football, football, football on his mind as he was asked about a summer of intense scrutiny from within the Crows front office.
This is an enormous opportunity for the Adelaide Football Club, says Olsen of the reset at a club that 30 years ago became South Australia’s first AFL participant.
“And that opportunity carries responsibility.”
Olsen speaks of an “immense reserve of goodwill” the Adelaide Football Club built up while delivering the confidence boost South Australia needed in the 1990s – particularly with the back-to-back AFL flags in 1997 and 1998 – after the State Bank collapse that ushered Olsen to the hot seat of State Premier.
Now it is the Crows’ collapse – from AFL minor premier in 2017 to wooden spooner in 2020 – that has Olsen in an equally demanding role with just as much (perhaps more) public scrutiny.
“The reset (of the Crows football program) has begun – and I am not taking credit for reshaping the football department,” Olsen said. “My predecessors put new assistant coaches in place. Under (senior coach) Matthew Nicks and (football chief) Adam Kelly there has been a reshaping of the football department – and the results show where it counts most, among the players on the training track and in the practice games they have played this summer.
“I have been really impressed with the players’ attitude. The internal trial on Saturday was great to watch. The players were hungry. The draftees were making a strong impression. The guys were putting all their heart into the game. (Former captain) ‘Tex’ (Walker) showed commitment, fitness, pace and a lack of selfishness in the way he involved others. And there was the way the players took up their challenge to fight for their places in the team.”
Just as impressive for Olsen – particularly after learning of the divides in a player group that was split into three factions after the Collective Mind camp in 2018 – was the renewed unity among the Crows squad that he noted at an indoor soccer match during the summer.
“Amid a competitive environment there also was a commitment to look after each other. And there is a happy environment that Matthew Nicks has put in place. That has gone beyond the players to also their families,” he adds, referring to a family session the squad enjoyed at Bowden at the weekend.
The Crows are, as their slogan says, ready to “fly as one” again. But it is a long climb from 18th spot in a highly competitive league with a rebuilding squad loaded with young talent.
“Patience will be required,” says Olsen. “Gaining match experience will count.”
Olsen has moved from being a fan with a perception from the outside of his football club, to its leader dealing with reality from the inside. It has been a time-consuming shift, giving him just one chance during the summer to escape to his River Murray retreat to take up his passion for water skiing. The only other trip to the river was on Boxing Day to check if the sprinkler system was still functioning.
“I took it on,” says Olsen not complaining of the time demanded as an AFL club president-chairman. His decade as SANFL president prepared him for the time-consuming expectations carried by the Crows chairmanship.
As for the perception against reality awakening on entering the club’s inner circle, Olsen’s diplomatic past prepares him to say: “That is a hard question to answer. If you look at the reality of the football department, it is clear a good foundation for change was set last year by my predecessors.”
As much as Olsen would like next week’s moment with the membership to be a football talkfest, the agenda is out of his control – and the members will have major off-field topics in mind.
NEW CHIEF EXECUTIVE
“It is not just a national search, there also have been international applications,” said Olsen. “There are quality candidates, both in the applications and those we have reached out to.”
Adelaide will have four board members, an independent, external expert and a specialist from executive recruiting firm Morton Phillips work through the final interviews. Olsen remains hopeful of having Andrew Fagan’s successor in place before the AFL premiership season begins late next month.
Olsen had hoped discussions with the Adelaide City Council would have stayed confidential – but an hour after seeking to open new dialogue with the Lord Mayor Sandra Verschoor, the public debate on the merit of a professional sporting organisation in the Adelaide parklands was raging again.
At the moment, the city council is prepared to let the Crows train on the parklands, but wants the club’s infrastructure – administrative, training and social buildings – off the parklands. Buying land on the fringe of the parklands is an expensive and challenging option after club finances were savaged by the COVID pandemic.
Olsen is not concerned with the prospect of co-existing with the SANFL at Thebarton Oval, where the Crows are being heavily courted by local mayor Michael Coxon.
“We co-existed at Football Park for 31 years,” says Olsen. “Where is the problem now?”
Adelaide’s new home certainly will not have the pre-COVID budget of $65 million drawn up for the Aquatic Centre owned by the Adelaide City Council at the North Adelaide edge to the parklands.
“Whatever we develop, it will need the capacity to expand once we are past COVID,” says Olsen who has many reasons to be clearing this agenda item quickly – $15 million in reasons from a federal government grant and the urgency to realise the best return for a $20 million asset at West Lakes.
As with his start as State Premier and SANFL president, Olsen will take charge of the Adelaide Football Club with the business retuning to debt after a “substantial loss” created by the COVID pandemic.
“We have an 18-month strategy to recover from the hits taken with COVID,” Olsen said. “We have cut costs massively. We have had 85 voluntary and involuntary retirements. That is a significant reduction in staff, and those who remain are working harder to cover the shortfall. We are blessed to have kept a dedicated staff prepared to take on the extra workload and that is a great tribute to those people putting in the hard yards to achieve better results for the football club.”
Transformation of the board of directors could begin at the annual meeting on Wednesday, with lawyer Kym Ryder facing three challengers to his seat. The reaction of the members will be noted.
Schacht recently told InDaily that the election allowed his fellow Adelaide members to send a message: “It is extremely important that there is a big vote this time to show intent from the 50,000-plus members on what they want to see change at their football club,” he said.
“A poor turnout would give the impression to the board – and the AFL Commission that holds the club’s licence – that everyone is happy. What we need is independent-thinking directors who are prepared to speak out in the club’s best interests. Good governance demands strong, independent people be part of this board – people who are willing to speak against the ways of the old boys’ club.”
Olsen’s first mass gathering of the Crows faithful after an annual meeting should not deliver anything he has not heard in his “due diligence” meetings with more than 100 key figures inside and outside the Adelaide Football Club.
“I stopped counting after 70,” says Olsen of just how many one-on-one sessions he took on to deal with the questions raised while clearing perception to find reality at West Lakes.
“And there were people who reached out to me. I made sure those meetings, be it over a coffee or on the phone on a trip to and from Canberra, were all followed up within a fortnight,” said Olsen.
There also was the fully independent review Olsen commissioned from KPMG to assess the Adelaide Football Club.
“That review reinforced what was emerging from the talks with many people,” he said. “And it gave support to the future direction the club needs to take – and is taking. We can make good decisions based on that knowledge. We all have our own personal position on where the Adelaide Football Club is and where it should be. There was no surprise in what I was hearing, inside or outside the club. But it is the big picture that has to be our focus – our football.
“I have enthusiasm for what we are about to embark on. We need some patience, but we will be rewarded. I have confidence the football department is on the right path – and I don’t want the credit for that; those decisions were made before my arrival and the praise belongs to Matthew Nicks, Adam Kelly, the coaches, the players and the support staff.
We are going to be open, frank and transparent.
“The club – like all clubs – suffered last year by not being able to engage with the members and fans because of the COVID protocols. That is no fault of the club nor the supporters. Hopefully, the changes that have been made already have quelled the concerns the fans carried last year – and we can put away the past to concentrate on the great opportunity we have before us today.”
Next Wednesday will give Olsen an answer to that question.
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