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Banking on the theatre of AFL's fifth quarter

Football

An AFL post-match press conference – usually more about sponsors and cash than headlines – became the biggest story of the opening round. Michelangelo Rucci has attended more than a few after-match interviews and reports on their role.

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It’s dubbed the “fifth quarter” – the verbal game after every AFL match.

Win, lose or draw, an AFL coach will be directed to a small, windowless room to be bombarded under bright lights with questions – on tactics, injuries, umpiring decisions and, sometimes, even issues far removed from the game just played.

“It’s theatre … and I hated it,” says Hall of Fame premiership coach Michael Malthouse who developed a reputation across a record 718 post-match press conferences as a coach to fear in the fifth quarter.

Of the 36 football quarters played across Australia in the opening round of AFL season 2022 last week, none was more discussed – nor more controversial – than the fifth quarter of the Melbourne-Western Bulldogs grand final rematch at the MCG that launched the premiership race.

The fall-out from the March 16 verbal clash between agitated Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge and Fox Footy reporter Tom Morris was greater than anything that emerged from the match won by Melbourne.

Beveridge has since publicly apologised for his behaviour, which included accusing Morris of being a Melbourne barracker and “preying on us” as a “gutter journalist”.

Morris had repeatedly drawn Beveridge’s ire for broadcasting accurate leaks on team selection, including last year’s Grand Final team. He has since been sacked by Fox Footy for offensive video-audio messages about colleagues rather than any issue in his football reporting.

The Beveridge-Morris incident has put new focus on the fifth quarter just when many of the participants – coaches and journalists – are questioning the merit of the post-match press conference.

AFL coaches are compelled by the league to attend the fifth quarter.

“A coach has two jobs after a game,” says Crows premiership coach and Hall of Famer Malcolm Blight.

“First, he talks to the players but I am not sure why (when it should be left until the post-match review on Monday).

“Second, he talks to the supporters via the press conference. He is ticking a box for the club.”

And the media?

More and more journalists are avoiding the fifth quarter, preferring exclusive one-on-one interviews with players. They lament how the post-match sessions with the 18 national league coaches are being shown live by the Seven and Fox Footy television networks and AFL club websites and social media streams before they can even transcribe the quotes on return to the press box.

The post-match in today’s AFL is more about the commercial opportunities for the league, its 18 clubs and their major sponsors rather than the questions and answers between journalists and coaches.

Behind the coach is a big banner with the logos of the club’s corporate backers. In front of the coach is a football with another sponsorship symbol. Only media companies that have paid broadcasting rights to the league can keep a logo on their microphones.

At Perth’s billion-dollar new stadium, the press conference room is built as a glass “fishbowl”, with corporate packages sold to fans wanting to see the fifth quarter. The corporate deals with press conferences included in a day out at Perth Stadium is a popular part of the $40 million banked by West Coast from match-day events at home each season.

Some AFL clubs, including Adelaide, have even sold seats to press conferences to their sponsors – until some, usually charged with alcohol, started heckling or mocking the questions.

There are AFL clubs that have run competitions among their members to have a “question of the week” posed to the coach.

At Adelaide Oval, the media conference room in the Riverbank Stand has 40 seats.

During a regulation home-and-away game, only five are filled – none by radio or television networks whose boundary riders have gone home – highlighting how the media prefers exclusive one-on-one content rather than open press conferences.

This has not stopped one Adelaide radio network from seeking a commercial gain by placing a dead microphone with its station symbol in front of the coach and next to the Sherrin with a sponsor logo.

Some current AFL coaches share Malthouse’s hatred of the fifth quarter. Some take full advantage of the opportunity.

Morris is not first journalist – and he will not be the last – to find himself drawing the ire or suspicion of an AFL coach.

“I love coming in here,” Crows coach Matthew Nicks said at Adelaide Oval on Sunday evening after Adelaide’s season opened with a one-point loss to Fremantle.

“I take a couple of really deep breaths (before facing the media). I would prefer being the first coach in here … the winning coach comes in first, right?”

The fifth quarter is supposed to start 20 minutes after a match. But there is rarely an AFL official on hand to keep the show on time. The tardy coaches are those who are held back by club media managers trying to put their coach in a calmer mood.

Most AFL coaches arrive with the club’s media staff (that can outnumber the journalists) to film the press conference and to publish the coach’s answers on social media. The club’s football chief will sit at the back of the room, signalling to the coach which questions to answer and which to deflect. He also is there to monitor the coach’s mood … or sense of paranoia.

Morris is not first journalist – and he will not be the last – to find himself drawing the ire or suspicion of an AFL coach.

Dean Laidley, known as the “junkyard dog” during his 151-game playing career, was seething as he entered the media room at Docklands StadIum in Melbourne for his post-match press conference after North Melbourne lost by 56 points to Adelaide.

At 2-5, Laidley’s Kangaroos were in trouble as an AFL finals contender just a third of the way through the 2006 home-and-away season. His post-match spray of his players continued into the media conference.

“You have spent all week winding up the Crows,” he said to the lone South Australian among the 15 newspaper reporters and radio “boundary riders” in the room. “You are a Crows supporter.”

If Laidley’s voice had carried down the long corridor to the Adelaide changerooms, Crows coach Neil Craig would have giggled. Or choked. Michelangelo Rucci, a Crows supporter …

The late Trevor Grant, then writing for the Herald Sun in Melbourne, certainly did laugh as he left the media room. His Monday column highlighted another AFL coach consumed with paranoia. The fifth quarter had again produced its own story.

To his credit, Laidley did telephone to make a private apology.

Not many football writers from the early years of the VFL’s national growth to the AFL were so fortunate after being treated with suspicion and even disdain by Victorian-based coaches. West Coast in Perth and the Crows from Adelaide were seen in Victoria as “State teams” backed by sympathisers in the local media. “Sycophants,” inaugural Crows coach Graham Cornes called them.

Ashley Porter reported on the Crows’ start-up years from 1991.

“There was a feeling from (the Victorian clubs) that we were controlled by the Crows,” Porter recalls.

Michael Malthouse coached a record 718 VFL-AFL games at Footscray, West Coast, Collingwood and Carlton from 1984-2015. He went through more press conferences than any coach in Australian football history – and more tense situations, even physical flare ups, with journalists than any other coach.

There was a golden rule with Malthouse: Do your homework; ask well-researched questions. He does not suffer fools.

Malthouse, now on the media side of the divide with his work on ABC radio and as a newspaper columnist, questions who gains from the post-match duels between coaches and journalists.

“Not the coach; definitely not the coach,” Malthouse told InDaily this week.

“People love it if the coach gets some action going in a press conference. So it is theatre. And some journalists make their names for drawing the coaches into that theatrical show …

“Is anyone – are the fans watching the press conferences – getting any more information from the coach? I’m not sure.

“As a coach, you are not willing to give up information on your game plan,” adds Malthouse knowing every AFL coach watches his rivals’ press conferences searching for insight on the opposition.

“I hated press conferences. I appreciated legitimate questions about the game, the game plan, the team structure … but you are not going to give anything away until your season is over,” said Malthouse who deflected all questions about his trademark “box defence” strategy until after Collingwood won the premiership in 2010, in a replayed grand final against St Kilda.

While many held their breath on how Malthouse would react during the fifth quarter, everyone listened intently for how Blight would respond.

“I’d be seething, I could be pointed and curt in my replies … but I was never disrespectful,” Blight told InDaily. “And I didn’t always have the answer. There were times when I would be asked something from the game at I simply could not remember. I’d be thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of this?'”

Blight admits some post-match press conferences would bring questions that changed his view on the game.

“One in 10 – there would be a question about something I had not noticed,” Blight said. “I’d leave the room thinking, I might have a look at that.”

Malthouse doubts many of today’s AFL coaches repeat this memory from Blight.

“I am not sure what purpose the post-match press conference serves,” Malthouse said. “Are journalists looking for clarification on something that has happened in the game? Listen to the questions asked these days.

“So many of the journalists asking them are wet behind the ears. They have been sent in with four or five set questions on their pads. They don’t listen to the answers.

“Does the press conference supply any more information when we have so much coverage of the game now with interviews during and after the game? Or are the press conferences now about baiting the coaches, to draw some action? Listen to what is asked these days. What do they want from the coach?”

I’d be seething, I could be pointed and curt in my replies … but I was never disrespectful

Porter, now retired from mainstream football reporting, agrees with Malthouse on the changing theme of the fifth quarter.

“Very few hard questions are asked of the coaches,” said Porter, who covered football both in Melbourne at The Sun and in Adelaide for more than three decades. “Often, an opinion is expressed by the journalists – and they hope the coach will give them an answer.

“Malthouse is right. Too often coaches are let off because there is no follow-up question.”

Porter started his football journalism in the era when SANFL coaches were interviewed post-match by just two newspaper reporters, one after the other. There was no obligation on the coach to speak to the media. Master coach Jack Oatey would walk past young reporters, stop when asked for an interview, respond: “You saw the game, didn’t you?” and leave.

There was no club media manager ushering a coach such as Oatey to a press conference room quickly briefing him on the questions to anticipate. No cameras. No backdrops with the logos of club sponsors. No risk of the quotes being on social media, a club website or podcast before the journalist had returned to his laptop.

“You built a rapport with a coach,” Porter said. “One-on-one it is not as confrontational as the coach sitting in front of a panel of journalists … it is not like an inquisition.

“Today, coaches don’t know the reporters well. They don’t know who they can trust.

“The coaches are more conscious of what they say. How do you offer an ‘off the record’ answer to a journalist – for background knowledge – when there is a television camera showing the press conference live around Australia?”

Blight also questions the future of the fifth quarter.

“They began for print journalists after television took away their routine of giving the readers of newspapers a descriptive, kick-by-kick rundown of a football game,” Blight said. “So the press conference after a game gave the journalists a new avenue for their writing by quizzing the coach.

“Now television has followed the journalists into the post-match.”

Carlton premiership coach David Parkin during the early 1990s tried to appease all with two post-match media conference – one for television with quick sound bites; the other for print journalists with more time to flesh out key points. The sixth quarter for the reporters with notebooks did not catch on with other AFL coaches.

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