Lethal or Mick? A hypothetical

As published by the The Footy Almanac, 4 April 2012

If you flat out refuse to deal in hypotheticals, then by all means click the ‘back’ button now. Fair enough too, I’m not usually one for hypotheticals either, it’s a bit too Bruce McAvaney for my liking.

Actually Bruce, or more so his employer, lead me to my subject. Seven has certainly scored some kind of coup surrounding him with two absolute doyens of the game. For when it comes to the special comments gig, it would be nigh impossible to go past the insight that Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse’s combined tally of 1629 matches, 77 seasons and 12 flags at the highest level bring to the mike.

It was a bit like Mick Jagger meeting Paul McCartney at the beginning of last Friday night’s coverage, and the two respectfully greeted eachother as they probably did the 34 occasions they moved magnets on opposing clipboards. There appears to be no Sheedy – Walls frisson here.

As commentators, Lethal’s superbly pragmatic style mirrors his efficient, no-nonsense method as a player and coach. Meanwhile, Mick might tend towards the scenic, obscure path, but I guess it goes to his days as a wily back pocket which required a little more calculation than his colleague to get the job done.

For much of my life either Matthews or Malthouse have been steering the ship at Collingwood. Seeing them together led me to ponder which of the club’s two living premiership coaches I’d give the nod to if I was interviewing for the top job.

Both men succeeded at a club with a modern history of failing under an enormous weight of expectation.  Both also won multiple flags with non-Victorian teams (which had a bit more of a leg-up in assembling their premier combinations). The nature of Lethal and Mick’s kindred careers make for an interesting study.

Surprisingly, despite breaking two sizeable droughts, both are probably respected more as Collingwood coaches by the media and non-fans. Notwithstanding, had they delivered a second flag, I dare say their place in all black and white hearts would have been assured. 

Of course with such hypotheticals come hypothetical conditions. I’m not speculating in realistic terms if Bucks proved a disaster and the job was up for grabs next year. Matthews has been away from the coal face for a little long now.  So forget their respective ages, and taking into account Leigh’s considerable career with Brisbane and Mick’s at Footscray & West Coast, who would be the better appointment?

As much as anything, solving the riddle goes to how coaches are perrceived and rated, and just how many factors must come into play when clubs make the hand wringing decision. And what’s more, how does one realistically define success in AFL terms anyway?

 Exhibit A is Mick and Lethal’s tale of the tape;

Leigh Matthews
H & A:   250-7-177   @ 58.4%
Finals:      17-1-9      @ 64.8%
Grand Finals:   4-0-1   @ 80%

Mick Malthouse
H & A:   360-4-250   @ 58.9%
Finals:   26-2-22    @ 54%
Grand Finals:   3-1-4   @ 43.8%

Well they do say there’s damn lies and then there’s statistics. These figures alone glean very little.

Overall win-loss is virtually identical.  In finals Matthews leads 3-2 with one draw – hardly compelling. Overall head to head sees Lethal hold a 19-14 advantage though. Matthews also boasts an excellent strike rate in terms of flags to finals campaigns, but on the flipside there were a fair few Septembers with ample time for supporters to contemplate the gardening.

In terms of their similarly lengthy Magpie tenures, both found the club at its most dire.  Malthouse fared slightly worse; in the aftermath of last year’s decider he bluntly described Collingwood’s then status as ‘sixteenth, broke and shithouse’.  Matthews at least inherited a middling list of players.

Both righted the ship very quickly. Lethal took a mixed bag from 14th in 1987 to 2nd on the ladder before a straight sets exit in 1988, and then to the Promised Land in his fifth season. In Mick’s case, so meteroic was the rise in fortunes, the 2002-03 Grand Finals came about when his premiership clock had barely sent the kids off to bed. And but for a little luck the ‘Pies would have snatched the one they shouldn’t, whilst in the following one they might have, they froze. Mick’s last big dance saw circumstances conspire against one of the most outstanding seasons in League history (albeit some again blamed Malthouse, prior miracles aside).

Still, based on their time at Collingwood alone, Malthouse is well ahead. In a dozen seasons he conjured eight finals berths, six top four finishes and four Grand Finals – an enviable record in a 16-17 team competition. He also rapidly rebuilt the side a second time (and to this end Derek Hine’s recruiting genius was also a key). Besides 1990, Matthews failed to win a final in 1988-89, 1992 and 1994, plus the great hangover of 1991 earns a cross.

Tellingly, Malthouse overhauled Collingwood’s culture. Matthews tended to leave the grandiose visions to those running the club.  Collingwood and Brisbane resembled punch drunk fighters when he left, seemingly losing passion come the inevitable decline.  List management wasn’t a forte either.

‘Old Grumpy’ might have come across as decidedly hard work, yet Mick was universally loved by his charges and a different beast behind club doors.  Matthews’ directness was perhaps easier for club management but left a few aggrieved players in his wake (it’s said Lethal essentially ‘lost’ Collingwood’s players in 1993). But he’s always been a ‘winner’, and clubs are in the business of winning premierships. You can’t argue with a threepeat, nor his superior strike rate.

Not surprisingly, Malthouse and Matthews’ personalities are reflected in the overriding playing styles and philosophies over the journey.  Lethal’s best teams generally employed a fast running game utilising the corridor which saw key forwards at very least bringing down the ball front and square for the crumbers – never more evident than Akermanis’ premiership sealing snap in 2002.  With the right players on deck it was a recipe for success.  It’s no coincidence that Chris Scott’s successful tweak of Geelong’s style owed more than a little to his Brisbane learnings.

Mick’s bedrock was of course defence, although it would be remiss to dismiss the importance of exciting, skilled players to execute his game plans.  Apart from the ‘Pies, it facilitated a perfect decade of finals appearances at the Eagles after some commendable under-Dog achievements.  Malthouse also displayed a capacity to not only evolve over time, but to stay ahead of the game via well documented tactical innovations.  And the recent procession of assistants to find senior jobs is another feather in his cap.

Perhaps the decision would ultimately come down to this. Is the club traveling well and/or in a position to go all the way? If yes, then Matthews will take you there.

Is the club struggling and/or building a list? If yes, then Malthouse will turn things around in a jiffy.

Am I still sitting on the fence? Afraid so!