Remembering Yabby

As published by Australian Football, 13 July 2012

Allan Jeans sadly passed away a year ago today. Few journalists extracted much joy from ‘Yabby’ over his long career, thus preserving his mysterious aura.  Five years ago I was lucky enough to gain an insight into the five-time Premiership coach and his football philosophies.  

In his modest Cheltenham home, Jeans at 74 still exuded an undeniable presence.  My first mistake was saying ‘yes’ to sugar in my coffee – he took great delight equating my likeness for sweetness to weakness.  But Jeans had mellowed enough to make one feel welcome and worthy of his time – you just had to be ‘on’.

For anyone with a pulse, Allan Jeans’ motivational speeches, both as a coach and in later years as a guest speaker, possessed a power that always resonated.  Interestingly, it took a girl’s observation at a school clinic before he even realised how or why he modulated his voice so effectively.

“I suppose it might have been the trains at Hawthorn going past – every time you went in giving a serve to somebody or giving an instruction, a train would go past and you’d have to raise your voice”, mused Jeans.

Considering himself merely an ordinary person that happened to coach in a public arena, Jeans’ aversion for self promotion also had the tactical benefit of denying opponents any motivational material.

“Usually if you’re prepared to say something different or ratty they like to come and listen” Jeans dryly quipped, in reference to the trend of coaches as club marketers.

In an age of weasel words, spin and manufactured hype, Jeans’ strength of character and ability to cut through superfluous distractions to get to the nub of an issue were refreshing traits born of another era.

Given the complex nature of modern football and the coach’s role, I asked Jeans what he made of the exhaustive selection process now in vogue.

“I think the first question you gotta ask any person is ‘what product are we selling as a professional football club?’  The product you’re selling is winning!  ‘Now tell me your philosophy on how to win a game of Australian Rules football because we’re buying that philosophy”.

About now I could picture myself in the bowels of the MCG sitting alongside Dermie and Dipper preparing for the ’89 Grand Final, Yabby exhorting us to pay the price for the better pair of shoes.

“The formula for winning in League football is so simple it’s unbelievable!” boomed Jeans with a twinkle in his eye, prompting me for a response.

Unfortunately I was a rabbit caught in the headlights, for an incisive answer escaped me.

“Money and players!” exclaimed Yabby, before suddenly realising it isn’t quite so simple these days.

“You can’t really buy players now, but (if) you can hang onto players it’s so much easier.”

And that certainly is the great challenge facing clubs in the current environment.

After closely observing three coaches in five years at perennial easybeat St Kilda, at just 27 Jeans sensed his true calling.  Being a policeman with a mature sense of responsibility provided a leadership foundation, however it was the brothers Smith, Norm and Len, that guided Jeans through his early years.  At 33 Jeans famously took the Saints to football’s pinnacle.

When Jeans inherited a not-so happy team at Hawthorn in 1981, no-one envisaged the fantastic ride ahead.  Jeans’ assessment of the Hawk juggernaut is modest and pragmatic.

“No coach has won a premiership with poor players.  Hawthorn was very fortunate, they had a very good county zone and I got the benefit out of it.”

More than good fortune, Jeans’ ability to identify players’ weaknesses, extract their best and minimise the “natural phenomenon of undulating performance” were keys to his success. With Jeans at the helm, the perfect storm bore the ruthless, grounded, and highly disciplined Hawks of the ‘Eighties.

“The only thing that alters is the bottom sides crack earlier if you put the same amount of pressure on them.”

Jeans’ penchant for engaging the likes of Dipper in impromptu wrestling bouts were legendary, however a brain aneurysm in January 1988 nearly had him down for a full count.

“I was lucky to get through it, I was very fortunate.  Dr Su, he was a brilliant neurosurgeon, he saved my life.  It was a very complicated operation.”

Speaking of physical challenges, it was about then, when the conversation turned to the contentious hands in the back rule, that Yabby jumped out of his chair to demonstrate the proper technique of holding one’s ground without infringing.  Never mind our age or size difference, Jeans was immovable within the confines of his small loungeroom!

After the major health scare, Jeans surprisingly returned to the director’s chair.  The lure of a great Hawthorn team was incentive enough, and Yabby simply loved coaching too much.  Having left the police force in 1987, Jeans also felt he needed to consolidate his family’s finances.  The ’89 flag vindicated Jeans’ perseverance, but after retiring at the end of 1990, many questioned how Graeme Richmond lured Jeans back for an ill-feted year at the Tigers in 1992.

“When you’ve been in football any length of time you don’t like to see clubs struggling. If you feel like you can help them, if you like coaching…”

Before the conversation turned to his passion for lawn bowls, Jeans expressed his concern at structural issues facing the AFL, and the modern game’s aesthetics.

“Possession takes away the unpredictability and that’s what the coaches are trying to get, but it’s the unpredictability that keeps you so intense watching it, and that’s what you’ve got to try and keep going.”

Amid a coach driven modern game, Jeans also empathised with the AFL’s task of maintaining its unique brand of organised chaos.

“Can you describe our game?”

Again I fumbled for a sharp response.  Thankfully that was Yabby’s point.

“If you can’t describe something, how do you sell it?”

Allan Jeans the man wasn’t such a hard sell. Coaching 575 games over 26 years at a winning ratio of 62% was only half the story of a person who influenced so many lives within and beyond football.

@JeffDowsing, August 2007

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