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'The choice was evolution or revolution': Rebuilding the Crows


One year ago, former Premier John Olsen became chairman of the struggling Adelaide Football Club amid calls to “blow up the place and start again”.  He talks to Michelangelo Rucci about the challenges, and the future. 

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John Olsen has neither much time – nor blood – on his hands after starting the rebuild on and off the field at the Adelaide Football Club.

His first year as Crows chairman was more about calm and pragmatic changes at South Australia’s biggest, but failing, AFL club.

“I was not short of suggestions on what to do first,  like make major changes from the top down or walk in and to blow up the place and start again,” says Olsen, who replaced Rob Chapman as club chairman in October last year after the Crows tumbled to their first AFL wooden spoon, three years after playing in the national league grand final.

“But that is not the way to do it, not when we could build change on existing sound foundations.

“The choice was evolution or revolution.”

So how is the Adelaide Football Club different today, a year after the Olsen – at 75 – was the surprise aspirant for the role passed over by many influential men about South Australian business and in local football?

Chief executive Andrew Fagan is gone, replaced by the less visible and less heard Tim Silvers from the Hawthorn Football Club.

“Tim has settled in well; authentic, open, professional, thorough and carries a wealth of AFL knowledge,” says Olsen of his new right-hand man.

John Olsen and Tim Silvers. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The club’s board has expanded from nine to 10 directors and now has three women (new deputy chair Linda Fellows, former federal politician Kate Ellis and lawyer Shanti Berggren) for “greater gender balance”. Many expected the board would have been trimmed and recast with many new faces and voices. Club great Mark Ricciuto remains – and on a firm footing – a year after the Brownlow Medallist seemed to have tripped over his tongue too many times in his media roles.

List manager Justin Reid, the public punching bag for most Crows critics, is still managing the recruiting strategy through a rebuild that divides opinion among the pundits and fans.

Other than Fagan, who fell on his sword in January, there is hardly a long roll call of men and women asked to walk the plank during Olsen’s reign. But there also is the sobering note that the COVID pandemic cost 40 per cent of the staff (85 hard-working people) their dream jobs in AFL football.

“New chief executive, new HR manager, changes in the football department and a heavy (COVID-forced) turnover of staff – there has been a lot of change,” Olsen said. “Not all of it has been publicly visible (at an AFL club that has a 24/7 searchlight on its operations). In time, people will see it.”

The choice was evolution or revolution

Most visible is the addition of new fitness coach, the highly regarded and well-travelled Darren Burgess fresh from his success with AFL premiers Melbourne. But there is no Neil Balme, who rejected his second (and final) offer to join Adelaide from AFL rival Richmond.

Also highly visible at the club’s West Lakes headquarters is how the white walls – that offended club great Andrew McLeod and were described by Silvers on his arrival as reminiscent of a “medical ward” – now carry images of Adelaide’s greatest moments and heroes.

“You walk in and know this is the Adelaide Football Club,” Olsen said.

Memorabilia that was locked away in storage boxes is now back on display, waiting to be moved again – to a new home, either at the old gas works at Brompton or to Thebarton Oval.

Olsen insists it is still a debate among two equally placed locations rather than a fait accompli with Brompton where the Crows are among four last bidders for the site.

“We have not picked one,” Olsen told InDaily this week while reflecting on his first year as Crows chairman. “On the multi-criteria analysis we are doing, both sites are very similar with only one or two points between Brompton and Thebarton that recognises each site has plusses or minuses in the debate.”

Brompton demands a heavy spend on clearing the polluted soil, but offers full ownership of the precinct to the club.

Thebarton Oval puts the Crows in a share arrangement of a modern community football precinct with the SANFL and Adelaide Football League. The club would be in a lease arrangement with the City of West Torrens for 42 years (by a 21-year agreement with an extension for another 21 years).

The Crows are uneasy with the uncertainty on how much land is taken from the site for the South Road tunnels and how long Kings Reserve, needed for a second training ground, is used as a storage and soil dumping site by the road workers.

Every week there is another meeting and this will continue until at least the end of December, when a decision should be made on the final four competing bids at Brompton. The Crows have almost exhausted all their fact-finding studies and costings, but the meetings with civic leaders and engineers go on.

More time disappears from Olsen’s busy agenda while he also needs to oversee the Adelaide Football Club’s direction in football – more so when he has pinned his chairmanship on a “football first” focus and the needs of a membership base that is being asked to stick with the Crows during the “tough times” before enjoying the anticipated fruits of a harcore rebuild.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute (of the first year as Crows chairman),” says Olsen, whose physical appearance is not showing the strain of the high-profile role that is as heavily scrutinised as his six demanding years as State Premier from 1996-2001.

“But I had no comprehension of the time that would be required, despite all the homework I did before agreeing to be chairman. It has demanded far more time than I anticipated. Every day there is something. And almost every evening too. I have no issue with that because I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenges and the role.”

Olsen takes over as Crows chairman from predecessor Rob Chapman. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

A new home, taking the Crows away from their original, 32-year base at the now bulldozed Football Park precinct at West Lakes, is the key legacy note to be left from the Olsen era at the Adelaide Football Club. The timeline has repeatedly shifted – by decision beyond the Crows’ control – from end of June to end of October to now early 2022.

The latest diary notes have foundations poured on a new club headquarters next year and the ribbon at the grand opening being cut early in 2024. Then Olsen will need to have his succcessor in place.

“I was elected club chairman to March 2024 when I hope we will move into our new home, but I can’t answer how long I will be chairman. Others will have their views that need to be taken into account. And there is a lot to do,” Olsen says. “I do know, however, it will not be a 10-year gig. And I will strive to leave with the club on a good foundation.”

This new foundation certainly has been built on top of Adelaide’s old base by a careful theme of evolution. Olsen certainly did not hop onto the bulldozers that cleared away Football Park’s concrete terraces and grandstand to start a new era for the Crows with the heavy hand of a revolution.

So what has happened at the Adelaide Football Club during the past year – the first year of the Olsen era – while the Crows have cast away the wooden spoon by winning a modest seven of 22 games to rank 15th of 18?

A club that developed the image – right or wrong – of being arrogant, living to a self-entitled attitude and constantly bogged down by the fall-out of overstated crises and controversy, such as a pre-season camp in south-east Queensland early in 2018, has measured itself against every AFL rival. The Crows have not been frightened to look in the mirror.

“Wherever there is a best practice in the AFL, we have and we will continue to  incorporated it in our policies,” Olsen said. “Everything we do is prefaced by the question, ‘Can we do it better?’ We don’t take anything off the shelf and continue with how it has been done since 1991. We demand there be improvement for next time.”

In keeping with Olsen’s “football first” theme, the greatest scrutiny needs to be on the football program that has delivered a mediocre 32 wins from 83 league matches since the 2017 grand final loss to Richmond at the MCG – and no finals appearance for a club that says it “exists to play finals”.

The greatest question marks have been on the work of Reid, the club’s list manager since December 2014.

“It is a work in progress,” says Olsen of the evolution in Adelaide’s recruiting office where many would have argued for a revolution that would have replaced Reid.

“Those assessments are harsh. We have benchmarked our list-management strategies with every other club in the competition for the past five years.”

This review determined every AFL club will stumble in recruiting. For Adelaide, those mistakes were made in 2018, the year in which Adelaide notably made its second bid – and paid dearly with treasured first-round draft picks – to secure 2006 No.1 draftee Bryce Gibbs from Carlton. The South Australian’s homecoming became more costly when Gibbs was not commanding AFL selection and was dismissed with a year still lingering on his contract at the end of 2020.

“We check our performance (in list management) as we do with every other aspect of our club,” Olsen said. “We seek constant improvement. We want to be the best at everything. That should be expected without needing to be said.”

Reid certainly won back some credibility by closing the deal to secure Sydney rising star Jordan Dawson in a come-home deal that dominated the commentary during the recent AFL trade period.

Ultimately, after putting up several attractive options to Sydney, Reid told his reluctant rivals at the Swans they had to settle by 9am on the last day of the trade period (Wednesday, October 12). Sydney caved in, taking a future first-round draft pick, 12 hours before Reid’s deadline.

“We had a clear focus on Jordan Dawson and we were successful,” Olsen said of the trade that filled Crows fans with new pride, and new faith in Reid.

Off the field, a club that – as inaugural coach Graham Cornes often says – has never been lacking for anything is today more circumspect in its spending.

Adelaide celebrated being debt free just before the world – let alone AFL football – changed with the COVID pandemic. The Crows worked a $2.8 million overdraft at the end of the shortened 2020 season. This will push out to $5 million this year while the Crows deal with still servicing in 2021 members and sponsors who were delivered less for their financial commitments made in 2020.

“The AFL believes there is still a hit to come in 2022 and there probably will be an aftermath in 2023,” Olsen said.

The biggest question facing the AFL and its 18 clubs is the willingness of fans, those who are double vaccinated, to return to venues next season.

“We already have noted 10-15 per cent of supporters are reluctant to go to the stadiums and many have become comfortable at home,” Olsen said. “Will they return? That is a question everyone is facing across the AFL.

“For us, we are asking how we improve the match-day experience, and that starts with the quality of football we deliver.”

Olsen expresses concern for his club having “the right resources” to function to its highest ideals.

“That is the question left by the cuts we have taken (through the COVID pandemic,” Olsen said. “We have people working beyond their call of duty; they are doing their jobs and filling in for the 85 people no longer there.

“There are significant resources needed to do the jobs we need to do (to excel on and off the field).”

To ensure these limited and strapped resources are dedicated to “football first”, Olsen’s team already has scrapped baseball – the national Adelaide Giants franchise – from the Crows business model. This venture offered no financial gain while the Crows could not, by border closures, lure international teams to Adelaide for training programs built on the expertise of an AFL program.

Adelaide’s Esports division, which also has no financial upside for the Crows, is expected to be sold by the end of the year.

“After all the cuts we have made to staff numbers by COVID, we do need to ask is it appropriate to have any of our business outside of football,” Olsen said. “And we need to answer if any of these extra business units take any focus from football.”

Today, amid COVID cuts, no AFL club can afford to make bad decisions on its top-end contracts in the football department.

Yet again – as it was with Brenton Sanderson in 2014 and Don Pyke in 2018 – Adelaide is poised to work a summer re-signing of a senior coach with Matthew Nicks. His original three-year contract expires on October 31, 2022.

The heavy cost of sacking and paying out Sanderson and Pyke soon after their contracts were extended demands the Crows be more demanding in writing the termination clauses should Nicks stumble.

Talks continue between the Crows hierarchy and Nicks while Olsen wants stability in key roles at Adelaide.

“It is important that the chairman, chief executive and coach are aligned on the same page on all key subjects with frank, open discussions,” says Olsen.

Now this leadership trio needs the same theme to flow to the supporter base. For the first time in three years, Adelaide genuinely can sell hope, and a vision of a club that has ended the slide on the AFL ladder.

“We are asking they stay with us , we are on a very good journey,” said Olsen of the message the club has for its members and fans. “I genuinely believe we are. I have a lot of time for Matthew Nicks. I know the players respect him.

“We have players who have built up 40 games of experiences during the past two seasons. This will become 60 next year. And as they keep adding that valuable experience to their names we will build into a team that returns to finals football. I’ll underscore it – we are on a good journey.”

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