Modern-day coaches win hearts before minds in bid to reach AFL grand final

Scott Heinrich
·5-min read

You could say it started with Allan Jeans. The prototypical Australian football coach from day dot was a snarler not a hugger, a grump whose tactical acumen would often amount to no more than a half-time spray. But as Australia’s indigenous code went from amateur to semi-professional to professional, it eventually cottoned onto the fact it is not just a physical game, but a mental and emotional one as well. Players need love, too.

Jeans, the former Hawthorn, St Kilda and Richmond coach, is remembered as a pioneer of the connection philosophy. “He would try to turn [players] into the right person before he would try to turn them into the right footballer,” Hawthorn great Dermot Brereton has said of one of the great influences on his career. Rodney Eade commented of his former mentor’s radical move in the 1970s and 80s to ask the players what they were thinking: “I think that was the start of coaches becoming more inclusive and giving players more power.”

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Fast forward several decades and the mould Jeans helped create is finally becoming the norm. Friday night’s preliminary final at Adelaide Oval is a glowing case in point. Had Port Adelaide and Richmond met at this stage five years ago, things would look markedly different than they do in 2020. By their own admissions, Ken Hinkley and Damien Hardwick are changed men. It could be argued that if they were not, players from either team might be doing something else on Friday night than battling it out for a place in the grand final.

Hardwick famously unclenched after Richmond’s annus horribilis in 2016, a year of abject underachievement that very nearly cost him his job. “I felt I segregated myself from players, I was trying to find the solution myself but in effect I was the problem,” Hardwick said. “I’ve learned my lesson. I like to think our boys walk in with a smile, walk out with a smile most days.” The rest is history. The Tigers won a flag in 2017, another in 2019, and might well win go again this year.

The parallels with Hinkley are obvious. The former Fitzroy and Geelong defender has been at the helm at Alberton since 2013 and not achieved a great deal. At the end of 2019, a fourth season out of five that saw Port miss the finals, Hinkley was told nothing less than a top-eight finish this year would do if he wanted to avoid the JobSeeker queue.

The Power’s turnaround in 2020 has been remarkable. Hinkley has essentially reinvented himself and is now a coach who portrays as much investment in the welfare of his players as any tactics or strategy. “You’ve got to win their hearts first and then you worry about the minds,” former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon said on Fox Footy. “He’s got their hearts, and that’s half the battle. Winning the heart doesn’t guarantee you success, but it then gives you the chance to go and implement a game style and get the buy-in you need.”

That buy-in has been unmistakable in a season that has produced Port Adelaide’s first minor premiership since 2004 and first preliminary final appearance since 2014. And it is not like they went and bought big in the off-season. Unquestionably, Port have hit the sweet spot with their best youngsters – the likes of Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma and Connor Rozee – timing their ascent to coincide with the career-best form of senior players such as Charlie Dixon, Travis Boak and others.

But Hinkley’s newfound holistic view of coaching, with some TLC thrown in for good measure, cannot be overstated as an influential factor. And in his players he has imbued belief. From the start of the season, Hinkley has talked up Port as premiership contenders. His troops are on board. “He’s a ripping bloke, Kenny, and you can just tell how the players love playing for him,” Brisbane great Jonathan Brown said earlier this month. Allan Jeans would be proud.

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Just as Hardwick had an epiphany of sorts after the horrors of 2016, Hinkley too has seen the light. Both Port Adelaide and Richmond play a hard, uncompromising brand of footy, but in terms of their coaches Friday night’s preliminary final is a battle of the nice guys. And that was inconceivable of these two war-weary men barely a handful of years ago.

Hardwick and Hinkley are not peculiarities of trial-and-error in the AFL system; they have both morphed into the quintessential modern-day coach and are part of a trend, not a detour. On the other side of the preliminary final draw, Lions coach Chris Fagan is lauded in Brisbane for his benevolence and ability to build relationships. It helps that he knows his way around a whiteboard but it cannot be disregarded as coincidence that once Fagan had won his players’ hearts, the Lions started winning. Nathan Buckley is another to be reaping the rewards of emancipation: the Collingwood coach battled away for years on the edge of exasperation but cuts a much calmer figure these days. It is as if he knows something now that he wishes he could tell his younger self.

If these mentors have come to the realisation that there is more to life than footy, that the young men in their charge are humans first and footballers second, then the game itself is the winner. It is also the greatest masterstroke in coaching of our time.

  • Guardian Australia will liveblog Friday night’s preliminary final at Adelaide Oval between Port Adelaide and Richmond. The game starts at 7:50pm AEST