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Coaching casualties - writing on the wall for international footy friend

  • Monday, July 23 2007 @ 01:27 am ACST
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The job of great friend of international footy, Kevin Sheedy, is on the line, with talk rife that the Essendon Football Club may decide this week that his record tenure at the club must come to an end at the conclusion of the 2007 AFL season. Besides being a premiership player with Richmond in the 1960 and 70s and legendary coach with the Bombers from 1981 through to the present day, "Sheeds" was also the last coach of Australia's International Rules side and has long been an advocate for internationalising Aussie Rules. After a relatively quiet past couple of seasons on the coaching merry-go-round, 2007 is shaping up as a major turning point for many AFL coaching careers with 25% or more of the 16 coaches likely to lose their positions.

Already Neale Daniher has stepped down from Melbourne's top job after it became clear that the Demons would be looking elsewhere following another dive back down the ladder, a trend of high and lows that have haunted them throughout his tenure. Assistant Mark Riley currently fills the void. Across in the West, Fremantle's Chris Connolly stepped down last week when their season was almost gone, again after a fall from grace and after the club's president made it clear that reappointment was unlikely. Former Sheedy understudy Mark Harvey, one of Connolly's assistants, will fill the role for the remainder of 2007. In both cases the clubs got up to win the week after their coaches departed - an undeniable trend in the AFL.

Carlton's Denis Pagan almost felt the knife before the season started, and the latest crushing loss to Brisbane won't help the cause of the former all-conquering coach of the Kangaroos. The Blues hierarchy are increasingly expected to axe Pagan at year's end, probably bringing to an end a most distinguished coaching career. It could also be significant for Carlton's Irish recruits, with Pagan clearly a fan of the O'hAilpin brothers. It remains the case that the lads, despite great improvements, probably wouldn't be retained on the club's list if they weren't considered a long term experiment, particularly in the case of the elder brother, Setanta. New coaches often swing the axe, if not instantly then after a season to examine their players. If that happens, 2008 may be the year that Setanta has to demonstrate that he is a first choice player in his own right, not just a player of promise deserving of more time to adjust to a new sport.

And so to Kevin Sheedy, who played 251 games for the Tigers from 1967 to 1979, including a best and fairest in 1976, premierships in 1969, 73 and 74, captained the club in 78 and represented Victoria. He has watched and in many ways led the change from the semi-pro VFL era to the fully professional AFL era. In that time the former plumber has overseen four flags and consistent finals appearances. Innovative training techniques and colourful press conferences (who else would blame Martians for strange decisions since the umpires can't be criticised) have all been part of the Sheedy legacy. He has also been central in promoting indigenous players in footy, as quietly and humorously lauded in former great Michael Long's acceptance speech whilst being inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, when Long said, "My father always said, Kev, that you’re more than welcome around our campfire – as long as you get the wood". But after 27 years at the helm and at age 60, with the Bombers now seven years since winning the premiership and looking like sliding out of the finals race in 2007, the rumours of Essendon deciding it's time for a change have grown louder. With Sheedy himself suggesting the Bombers are a few years away from being strong premiership contenders, the club may well decide, or have already decided, that a new coach will be needed to see them through to their next big win.

Besides International Rules, Sheedy has experimented with bringing US players over to train with the Bombers, both ex-NFL (American Football) and players from the USAFL (Aussie Rules). His era has also seen several Japanese AFL players welcome at Windy Hill (an on-going relationship which will see benefits of the game down the track), and Sheeds also visited the US Nationals and advocated for the dual use ground being built in Florida. Critics have often dismissed his efforts as publicity stunts or distractions from on-field performance issues, but it's clear he does have a passion for the game spreading and he has demonstrated that numerous times, such as was discussed above and when featuring prominently at the 2005 International Cup dinner in Melbourne. His exit from the Bombers seems increasingly unavoidable, but let's hope his advocacy for international footy is not lost. There is an outside possibility that Sheedy could take on the senior role at another club, or even assist a first time AFL coach elsewhere. AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou has already said that when Sheedy's coaching career comes to an end at AFL level then the AFL would look to employ him. Hopefully if the end is near then Sheeds will remain involved in some way and continue his role as a great friend to the internationalisation of Australian Football.