Part 8 – Lost in Transmission
Docklands. Colonial Stadium. Telstra Dome. Etihad Stadium.
By any name, the League’s new whiz-bang indoor venue (and headquarters) which ushered in the new millennium left punters feeling colder than its predecessor Waverley. It could be argued the stadium, more suited to inner city singletons and corporates, was a major tipping point for many rank and file.
Essendon confined their booming membership to a boutique stadium at boutique prices. The other tenant clubs and their constituents were sold a pup by deals informed by greed and conflicted interests.
What’s more, until years later when the secret to growing grass sans sunlight was unlocked, the surface itself was unfit for footy, and on occasion, unsafe for players. There was no cultivating a home ground vibe either.
Whilst the sterile Docklands struggled for acceptance, the MCG’s massive Ponsford-Olympic Stands redevelopment between 2003-05 created a 100,000 capacity cauldron which trapped the atmosphere as well as any roof. What the new MCC members stand lost for character was offset by facilities and an attention to detail which finally delivered a world class coliseum commensurate to a venue purporting to be the centre of the sporting universe.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews saw cracks in the Bombers’ armory in 2001.
Picking up from the ‘Nineties, for much of the decade non Victorian clubs dominated September. Essendon began the 21st Century promising a dynasty however it would be the Brisbane Lions to cash in on salary cap concessions and a remarkable playing list (to the Bombers and Magpies’ chagrin).
On the matter of salary caps, Carlton’s “deliberate, elaborate and sophisticated” rorting in 2001-02 dominated headlines. A $930,000 penalty exacerbated a precarious financial state on the back of misreading the tea leaves and investing heavily in the soon-to-be decommissioned Princes Park. And before the Blues’ on-field rebuild could lay foundations, severe draft penalties rendered the League powerhouse utterly s—house. Poor incoming coach Denis Pagan bought into a giant lemon, outgoing President John Elliott figuratively told to go suck one for his trouble.
A whopping 52 goals 18 behinds were scored in Essendon’s extraordinary comeback win over North in 2001.
Remarkably, bragging rights were shared across six teams between 2003-2008 and most clubs at least played off in a preliminary final or better over the decade. The Swans’ breakthrough after 72 long years was a good news story, as was giant tease Geelong breaking through after 44. Other emotive events to captivate the public included Jason McCartney’s comeback game after overcoming severe burns from the 2002 Bali bombing, Troy Broadbridge’s death in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Jim Stynes’ brave fight for the survival of Melbourne and himself.
The AFL couldn’t be happier, but there would be a fine line between facilitating ‘pass the premiership’ and selectively pulling levers to keep the game going. Ultimately the AFL’s laws would be exploited by reckless clubs, safe in the knowledge there was a safety net to catch their fall, or mitigate the fallout when caught. With a lucrative TV contract in place the AFL couldn’t afford clubs falling off the cliff. Rights worth $40m a year to Channel 7 jumped markedly in 2000 when the AFL extracted $100m a year from 9, 10 and Foxtel. Come 2006 the going rate was $150m pa. In terms of football’s relationship with television, the tail was yet to wag the dog, though the day was fast approaching.
“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.”
Allan Jeans, 2007
With a socialist framework underpinning the League’s competitiveness, coaches continued taking cues from other sports and sports science in order to glean any advantage. The game progressed, in a sense, but with players as athletes as chess pieces, football began losing much of the fluidity and freedom of eras past. Key forwards were robbed of space and fast ball movement, scoring constricted by crowded scrums, flooding, tempo play, forward presses and a keepings off / possession obsession which mitigated positional play and contests.
Hawthorn drew a line in the sand in 2004 which drew a withering onslaught from Essendon. The AFL drew 26 charges against 18 players.
Team scores, averaging 103 points per game in 2000, fell to 90 by 2010. Classic sharp-shooter Matthew Lloyd topped the ton twice, however only Fraser Gehrig and Buddy Franklin managed the same feat (once). Fevola and Hall came close but the days of most teams boasting a prolific, designated spearhead were over. Collingwood’s leading goalkicker in its 2010 Premiership season was small forward Alan Didak with just 41 goals.
In addition to safety and marketing considerations, the AFL was concerned with recapturing an ideal of what it considered football’s golden age. In taking on the fraught mission it seemed League Operations Manager Adrian Anderson and Rules Committee chief Kevin Bartlett couldn’t decide whether to speed up or slow the game down. Many rule changes were criticised as knee-jerk reactions, unfathomable or self-defeating (requiring further correcting) or just way too technical. Others were too silly to progress beyond the preseason competition. “Which ‘golden era’ of footy are we attempting to recapture again?” asked the baffled fans perched in row ZZ…
Goals of the years 2000-2010
The only response for forwards and midfielders to ultimate defence (by now the proven means to achieve ultimate success), was simply to get fitter, faster and more skilful. And they did. It just became harder for theatre goers and diehards alike to appreciate. A number of corker Grand Finals (and other finals) at least put some shine on the time. The 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010 deciders all had supporters on the brink of combustion.
Maximising crowds was still an AFL objective, and despite so much change, questionable aesthetic appeal and the increasingly generic nature of Melbourne based clubs, average attendances pushed up to an unprecedented 38,000 mark.
Gambling, alcohol, illicit drugs… No one really knew the extent of the problems but the days of footballers as role models had gone the way of the torpedo punt.
Unfortunately, as professionalism found another level, the quest for perfection came at a cost. Clubs were said to reside within a bubble to eliminate distractions and avert media scrutiny. Never before had so many footballers and coaches been interviewed with so little to say. Players could run, boy could players like Ben Cousins run, but there was nowhere to hide. And no pressure valve. As the celebrity age took hold and with journalists now outnumbering players, bubbles would burst.
Unprecedented fame, adulation and money wore a cost. The 2000’s might be regarded as the age of the fallen idol. The lives of Wayne Carey and Ben Cousins, two of the game’s all-time greats, played out as soap operas. Other stars Brendan Fevola and David Schwarz contracted the gambling bug. Retired champion Gary Ablett Snr’s reputation took a significant hit. Chad Fletcher was lucky not to star in a reality show called Death in Vegas. Many other players’ lives unravelled.
As the decade drew to a close, for the first time since the early 1900’s, even the integrity of the contest was being questioned. Priority draft picks dangled in front of cellar dwelling clubs like giant carrots. Although the Demons’ tanking saga had its origins in 2009, it would take four years before an eight month investigation, 800+ pages of evidence and 58 interviews of players and officials to arrive at an ambiguous verdict and the third largest fine in AFL history. ‘Carltank’ was fortunate to escape the same scrutiny.
Good thing Essendon didn’t saddle up for this marketing misstep
The ongoing financial viability of clubs continued to strike at the game’s heart. Richmond, Melbourne, North and the Western Bulldogs put money ahead of members and four points in flogging home games to far off places. Ugly, indecipherable and unnecessary clash strips became commonplace, ostensibly to move merchandise. Similar motivations informed a unanimous vote to grant licenses to risky start-ups in western Sydney and the Gold Coast. Once again the AFL and its clubs sold their soul on the promise of a big windfall and fear of competing football codes. Meanwhile, Australian Rules loving Tasmania continued to be left off the map.
Despite all this, through the 2000’s fans continued to turn up in droves to a competition boasting media domination in most states, most of the year round. But warning signs had emerged; cheer squads being treated poorly, mismanaged clubs dipping deeper into members’ pockets on the promise of glory, arranging to sit with friends or family, together, becoming a logistical challenge and the coaching merry-go-round picking up speed (along with some players, allegedly). Fans had absorbed as much, if not more change than they could handle.
The all consuming AFL had become a colossus, too big to ignore. Problem being it was beginning to devour itself and those who fed it.
2000 Essendon v Melbourne Grand Final
2001 Brisbane v Essendon Grand Final
2002 Brisbane v Collingwood Grand Final
2003 Brisbane v Collingwood Grand Final
2004 Port Adelaide v Brisbane Grand Final
2005 Sydney v West Coast Grand Final
2006 West Coast v Sydney Grand Final
2007 Geelong v Port Adelaide Grand Final
2008 Hawthorn v Geelong Grand Final
2009 Geelong v St Kilda Grand inal
2010 Collingwood v St Kilda Grand Final Draw
2010 Collingwood v St Kilda Grand Final Replay
The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)
Part 3: Safe, at home and away (1949-1959)
Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)
Part 5: Rocking the suburbs (1967-1976)
Part 6: Castles made of sand (1977-1986)
Part 7: Growing pains and gains (1987-1999)
Part 9: Whatever it takes (2011-)