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Why AFL coaches are at loggerheads with league chiefs

Why AFL coaches are at loggerheads with league chiefs

Rarely has the lack of football club experience at senior levels of the AFL been so exposed as it has by the refusal of game bosses to adequately respond to the increasing angst among its senior coaching community.

AFL coaches remain the only senior fraternity in the competition whose wages have not returned to pre-pandemic levels – AFL executives in the majority certainly have – and Gillon McLachlan’s inability to fix the situation for 2022 smacks of a head office with no real understanding of life at an elite football club.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder.Credit:Chris Hopkins

For the first time the AFL Commission has no serving former player and the same goes for McLachlan’s executive. Chairman Richard Goyder indicated that he would look to bolster his board at the start of the season but nothing has changed. Nor has it changed, despite ongoing promises, for most senior coaches still working on significantly reduced wages.

The clubs this season can spend $6.5 million on their football departments with some exemptions including women and indigenous coaches. This is $3 million down from pre-COVID times in 2019. It is true that not every club has taken advantage of those exemptions, but it still seems extraordinary that most senior premiership coaches are still earning much less than they were three years ago.

This at a time when club chiefs, AFL bosses, AFL players and AFLW players have been recompensed and more.

The soft-cap cuts mean that Geelong premiership coach Chris Scott has a new contract with a pay cut and his former CEO Brian Cook has moved to Carlton for a decent pay rise.

No one is suggesting Cook’s esteemed place in the AFL hierarchy is not deserving of a multimillion-dollar new deal, but the AFL’s refusal to act upon the coaches’ mounting disenchantment means that even if consistent finals performer Scott moved to a new club, no football department could afford to lift his wage without making damaging sacrifices elsewhere.

Sydney coach John Longmire.

Sydney coach John Longmire.Credit:Getty Images

“It’s as wrong as anything I’ve seen in footy,” said Sydney coach John Longmire this week. “This isn’t sustainable for both the staff in football departments and ultimately the health and well-being of players. We’re pushed and pushed and pushed.

“There’s a price to pay, and most clubs have three senior coaches less, and I can tell you that when we front up on Monday morning the player demands don’t drop and why should they? They are only here for a limited time, and they deserve the best.

“Alastair Clarkson should be able to come back into coaching and his new football department not suffer. The Richmond Football Club shouldn’t have to suffer because Damien Hardwick is a successful coach. Experienced coaches are more expendable now.”

Coaches in the AFL earn between $400,000 and $1.1 million a year after the COVID-enforced changes.

Richmond shouldn’t have to suffer because of Damien Hardwick’s success as a coach, says John Longmire.

Richmond shouldn’t have to suffer because of Damien Hardwick’s success as a coach, says John Longmire.Credit:Getty Images

The Swans’ latest setback is the loss of experienced football staffer Peter Berbakov, who will move to Brisbane later this month to take up a role with the Institute of Sport, with the club unable to come close to making the high-performance expert a competitive offer.

Longmire, who last year visited McLachlan at his Melbourne home in a bid to win the same living-away-from-home hub allowance for his football staff that the players had, said most coaches now felt powerless with no new avenues to force change.

The AFL Coaches Association, which is funded by the AFL, has failed to influence the debate and has no true clout. It is worth remembering that the coaches volunteered initially to take 20 per cent pay cuts at the start of the pandemic – cuts which later deepened – and then operated under savage football department cuts in the belief that player list sizes would be cut also to the mid to high 30s. This never eventuated.

Later this month the association’s boss Alistair Nicholson will front the club chiefs and the AFL and plead the coaches’ cause, as he has at a series of meetings at head office as the campaign, relaunched this season by new Collingwood president Jeff Browne, appears to have finally hit home.

Alastair Clarkson has been backing his old coaching fraternity.

Alastair Clarkson has been backing his old coaching fraternity.Credit:AFL Photos

Retired coach Nathan Buckley has been campaigning for his old fraternity, as has Clarkson.

The AFL’s football operation, led by Andrew Dillon, is working on a new formula that should lead to at least an additional $500,000 bolstering the soft cap next year, with some additional relief for senior coaches. But why no action was taken for 2022, when the game announced it was financially stable again, seems mean spirited and demonstrates the game’s lack of true understanding of life at an AFL club.

Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge, another vocal critic of the soft-cap cuts, actually quit the association 18 months ago. At the AFL season launch Beveridge departed immediately after receiving his life membership and refused to attend the meeting between the 18 club coaches and the AFL the following day.


One of the most disturbing elements of the simmering feud is the wedge driven between coaches and club bosses, which has largely been fuelled by the AFL.

Last year McLachlan, who sympathises with the senior coaches but believes their assistants have been historically overpaid, proposed that 50 per cent of the senior coach wage at every club would move outside the football department soft cap. Those presidents at cash-strapped clubs or those with less-experienced, lesser-paid coaches voted against the proposal.

This was frankly weak by McLachlan and his team and poorly executed. Worse, the AFL chiefs now repeatedly tell senior coaches that their clubs voted against them returning to their pre-COVID wages. Some coaches know this not to be true, but at other clubs there is genuine resentment between football department staff and the rest. Worse is that some clubs are putting staff on their AFLW football department books and seeing those staff spending significantly more time on the men’s program.

Either way it seems a strange way for the AFL to do business. Surely, the days of the head office divide-and-conquer strategy are long gone and the competition bosses should be working for harmony across the game and within the clubs after so much sacrifice and angst. McLachlan says he has the highest regard for senior coaches and yet has failed to act on their behalf.

AFL coaches are the game’s frontmen and football’s national ambassadors. This is not symbolic. They work long hours and remain the off-field key to success and failure. When their teams are struggling they take the blame and are forced to answer for every one of those failings. They are the first to be sacked and now, under new rules for clubs receiving extra AFL financial assistance, are rarely given long-term security. When COVID struck, they continued to work to keep their teams and their assistant coaches together when other club staff rallied for the occasional Zoom meeting.

It seems extraordinary that they have not been afforded the financial respect won back by their club chief executives – and the AFL executives who are back earning million-dollar salaries. Clearly they have borne the brunt of McLachlan’s desire to equalise the competition by drastically cutting the football-department spending of the richer clubs. And the ongoing head office loathing for overpaid high-performance bosses and assistant coaches.

But it is even more extraordinary that McLachlan and his commission, who had the ultimate power and strategic capability to fix this damaging oversight, failed to do so and then blamed the clubs.

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