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Epilogue: Enter Phil Walsh

Touch of the Fumbles

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Phil Walsh has this to say of his mission to remodel the Adelaide Football Club: “We’ll build the car that we think we need to get us where we want to go, and then we’ll drive it as fast as we can.”

A heartening analogy (if a tad insensitive to the recent travails of local automotive manufacturing) with one caveat; since a near-death experience, when he was hit by a bus in Peru two years ago, Phil Walsh prefers not to drive motor vehicles. Even fast ones. He doesn’t like being cooped up inside. So the car analogy might be a bit of a bad omen.

Nonetheless, there is a certain poetry in the Crows ending their yoyo season hurtling from the depths of despair to a cautious optimism, and managing to annoy Port Adelaide in the process (an outcome worthy enough to drag the Fumbles back from prolonged Mad Monday celebrations for one more post-season hit-out.)

Phil Walsh is, to mangle a phrase, something old, something new, something borrowed, and somewhat teal.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he has spent most of the past two decades passionately hating the Adelaide Football Club. We admire that kind of disdain here at Fumbleland.

Football is, after all, parochial; tribal.

As Walsh himself – who’d played and coached at six different clubs before yesterday – put it: “Once I walk through the door, I’m 100 per cent committed … The other 17 clubs are the enemy; I dislike a lot of clubs.”

So do I.

But evidently being the object of Walsh’s dislike was something the Crows found strangely alluring, much like that Seinfeld episode in which George finds himself attracted to Jerry’s girlfriend because “she just dislikes me so much…it’s irresistible”? As Costanza figured it: “A woman that hates me this much comes along once in a lifetime. I’ve got to go after her!”

Mark Ricciuto, it seems, went after Phil Walsh with a single-minded determination. Walsh didn’t seek out the job; the club sought him.

So these two men sitting behind a desk. Neither of them love the Adelaide Football Club. They’re here to do a job.

Fledgling CEO Andrew Fagan insisted he was “the outstanding candidate through that process; he literally blew us away”.

I presume he didn’t literally blow them away.

But he impressed them.

He had to. Since Brenton Sanderson (remember him?) was sacked, we’ve been coached by Simon Goodwin, Bomber Thompson, Alastair Clarkson, John Worsfold, Guy McKenna, Nathan Bassett, Stuart Dew, Leigh Tudor and Brendon Bolton (or at least, I think we were), and none of them delivered the promised premiership.

And gloriously, after all that, the man we appointed was sitting under our very noses, and had been for much of the past two decades. And they won’t say it, the Power mob, but it riled them. David Koch may have blustered on about Port being the envy of the competition when he stole the Crows’ thunder yesterday, but the fact that someone who usually adheres to the conventions of the competition so graciously felt compelled to hijack the announcement suggests he was stung by it.

Fagan, incidentally, did himself credit with his own diplomatic retort, noting it was “somewhat unusual, but he’s in a difficult position”.

At any rate, by the time the Crows hit social media with their own “announcement” – balefully headlined “Crows Swoop” – it was a little redolent of that scene on The Simpsons where Homer’s heretofore-estranged brother Herb gathers the family to unveil his new invention, the revolutionary Baby Translator.

“Now I bet you’re all wondering what’s under this sheet …”

“Not really,” replies an unenthused Bart. “We peeked inside while you were in the john.”

“Oh,” mumbles a dejected Unkie Herb. “Well, here it is again.”

And there it was again. It did, at least, break the turgid momentum of the AFL Trade period, a two-week meat market that feels like it drags on for a generation, as clubs stage silly standoffs over players that no longer want to play for them (Redden for Beams and Hartlett for Ryder? Really?!) and the media plays an amusing game of “Let’s see how many times we can get the Crows to rule out trading Paddy Dangerfield”.

So the metaphoric sheet was finally whisked away, leaving two men sitting behind a desk, addressing the media: Walsh and Fagan, the public face of the Adelaide Football Club. By which they’d been collectively employed for less than a week.

Phil Walsh is, I’m told, one of the game’s great thinkers, an early engineer of the defensive press, which is handy given our defence has a propensity to leak like David Koch on a morning rant.

This, then was really the message for supporters; change, renewal. There will be more of it, and it is timely, if not overdue. Adelaide is not a bad club, not even an unsuccessful one, but it has become a stagnant one. Since it won its pair of premierships, nine clubs – North Melbourne, Essendon, Brisbane, Port, Sydney, West Coast, Geelong, Hawthorn and Collingwood – have hoisted the cup on Grand Final day; four of them more than once. Despite the appearance of the flag being shared amongst a glut of dynasties (the Lions, the Cats and now the Hawks), the premiership has been won by nine different clubs in 16 years.

Nine clubs. That’s half the current competition. That means there’s roughly a 50:50 chance you’ll win a premiership if you hang around long enough. We’ve made the finals in nine of those 16 years. We’re considered one of the strongest administrations in the league. This year we averaged the highest home ground attendances. On paper, we look a strong club with a consistently strong list. And yet we find ourselves among the 50 per cent of the competition that hasn’t snatched a premiership in the past 16 years.

So when the club tells us it needs to change, that it won’t tolerate mediocrity … well, I’m taking that as a good sign. I have to, really.

So these two men sitting behind a desk. Neither of them love the Adelaide Football Club. They’re here to do a job. Like Sam Burgess and Lote Tuqiri didn’t love the South Sydney Rabbitohs, but they signed on and walked away with a premiership.

Sport is business; if we want business to be good, we need to appreciate that the best people for the job don’t necessarily love your club. The same could be said for every Adelaide coach bar Graham Cornes, perhaps even the great Malcolm Blight when he was first drafted back to SA.

Walsh doesn’t intrinsically want the best for the Adelaide Football Club; indeed, he immediately demonstrated his status as a Crows outsider by effusively thanking Gary Ayres. But he is a reputed tactician and he wants to win. Fagan, too, wouldn’t have sat through many AFL games, let alone peppered his office with 19th Man paraphernalia and posters of Andrew McLeod and Tony Modra in full flight. But he comes with something the club sorely needs – a fresh perspective.

Mark Ricciuto, though, he loves the Adelaide Football Club. His formal return, it seems, has heralded a new era. If it succeeds, he will have been its chief architect.

Phil Walsh is, I’m told, one of the game’s great thinkers, an early engineer of the defensive press, which is handy given our defence has a propensity to leak like David Koch on a morning rant.

Unlike Kochie, he’s notoriously camera-shy (“It’s been blown a little bit out of proportion, my disdain for the media…but not by much!”) but yesterday, and in every previous interview he’s given, he came across as expansive, thoughtful, determined and quietly affable.

We may not have ended 2014 with a third premiership, but we have got our seventh senior coach. Given the travails of Gold Coast and, moreover, Essendon (who have two, or perhaps none; I can’t quite tell), that’s nothing to be sniffed it. Indeed, it’s cause for quiet celebration.

And we managed to mildly peeve Port Adelaide in the same fell swoop, so it really was win-win.

Walsh says he’ll “only select players that are totally committed to the team”. Given we appear set for another year of “will he/won’t he” intrigue about Dangerfield’s intentions, this is a pointed and reassuring statement. And he seems determined to crack one of the great mysteries of the 21st Century: “I want to find out what this club’s made of; I want to find out why they were inconsistent this year, what is it that stopped them playing the type of footy they want to play for long enough.”

The Yoyo Curse! If he can crack that one, I’ll forgive him any number of eight-point Showdown defeats; maybe even the 2004 Grand Final. We probably won’t be able to measure the success of the Crows boldest gambit in two decades until this time next year, at the earliest.

But for now, it has given supporters an almost imperceptible smidgeon of hope, that intangible asset upon which even the most despondent football club can survive and, sometimes, thrive. And that is something that, only a fortnight ago, seemed lost.

Tom Richardson is usually InDaily’s political commentator. During the football season he has been charting the fluctuating moods of Crows’ supporters with this column, which will return in 2015.


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