Quirky things at training. Calls over summer, was his job on the line?
Strange things are happening at Shell Stadium. Funny little things, more
associated with Malcolm Blight, who walked away from the place five years ago,
than Gary Ayres, who might be pushed.
Two Fridays ago, around lunchtime, the entire senior list was ordered into
the middle of the ground inside the empty stadium to sing the club song. Just to
see if they remembered the words. Those who witnessed it described it as an
Then at training four days ago the team had been on the track for about 45
minutes when Ayres lost his patience with the fumbling and lack of hunger. He
ordered them inside "to have a think about things" and not come back until they
were ready to do it properly. The coach waited on the ground. The players
returned five minutes later. "See," said Ayres, smiling wickedly and not a
little defensively. "I can be a bit out there as well."
Critics would call these acts of desperation, uncharacteristic gimmicks. But
Ayres seems to relish his claim that he can be as quirky as the next coach.
After all, he rang Blight for advice a month ago. And yet he has also been
regarded all his career as so straight, so definite, so confident in his own
occasionally unusual style.
So much so that he can be as tough as a person as he once was in defence.
Allan Jeans said as much at Ayres' hall-of-fame induction in May. The player
known as Conan generated a respect that rendered him untouchable off the field
in the normal team sense. And Ayres' former teammates confirm he was different.
Many of them privately joked about his famous 1970s-style haircut but no one
ever brought the subject into the public arena the way pretty much everything
else of a trivial nature is hung out in public among football teams. His fashion
sense, which provoked the odd chuckle, was typically taboo.
So it's tough asking Ayres about his future as a coach. Despite a grand final
in his first senior year at Geelong and consecutive finals appearances in '96
and '97, Geelong was dreadful in 1998, and woeful in 1999 after its run of five
wins at the start of the season.
Not helpful to the public Gary Ayres has been the ghost of Blight, hovering
over Geelong, a shadow that has become darker with the distance of time and
Blight's remarkable success at Adelaide. Blight departed the Cats with dignity
and respect. Now he is discussed by many at the club in holy terms.
Ayres' contract expires at the end of 2000, potentially his sixth year in the
job, and it appears that the Cats' financially perilous position has prevented
more speculation that Ayres could be sacked by the new board at the end of this
season. "I had a few journos ring me over last summer to tell me the dogs were
barking," said Ayres. "I just laughed. What else can you do?"
Officially, Ayres' coaching future has not been discussed at board level,
although he has discussed it privately with his new CEO Brian Cook, who said
this week that, barring any unforseen disasters, the coach would be there next
season. President Frank Costa, who meets Ayres once a fortnight to discuss
football issues, echoed this.
Because senior coaches have so rarely walked away in the past and have been
viewed in the football world as pretty much desperate to keep their jobs at any
cost, Blight, with his dramatic resignation this week, has shifted that image
slightly. Could it be true that he simply didn't need it any more?
Ayres has two things to say about that. One is that he is bemused - and
probably insulted - at all the questions about his own future, particularly when
journalists asked him after last week's naqrrow win over Collingwood as to the
extent of his personal relief and happiness. One, he felt no happiness after the
final siren last week despite Geelong's first victory in 10 weeks and, two, he
finds it amazing how no one ever asks whether the coach has had enough and could
be considering pulling the pin.
Because they never do, Gary.
Until Blight this week, and Ayres knows the one big difference between
himself and the Crows' coach. "He has climbed the mountain in both senses as a
player and coach," said Ayres. "I've only been there as a player."
If there has been one umbrella criticism of Ayres this season at Geelong it
has been his well-documented failure to take advice, but what else is new? He's
an AFL coach. More deeply, he has been unable to instill reasonable disciplinary
standards upon his on-field leaders and, tactically, he has been innovative but
The defensive side of Geelong's game - which worked so well under Ayres in
1997 when the Cats finished second at the end of the home and away season and
boasted the third best defence in the AFL - has not been the priority it was.
He denies that he doesn't listen. "I've always been a listener," he said,
"and I have a fairly open mind. I know I'm seen as being pretty black and white
about things but there is plenty of grey there, believe me. The nature of
coaching is that if it's wrong or right you wear it in the end."
Clearly if Ayres does survive - as expected - to serve the final year of his
current contract, his playing list will change relatively dramatically. He is
already planning those changes and said prophetically: "The sooner people
understand that they cannot survive past a certain age as players the better off
clubs will be. There have been some wonderful exceptions, like Craig Bradley,
but not many. Once you're 30 all you can expect is a yearly contract, and that's
all we're going to be prepared to offer."
So why sign Garry Hocking to a three-year contract at 30? "Garry's a
four-time best and fairest winner at the club," said Ayres quickly. "He's a
historic figure here. I have no problems with Garry. Still, I realise you're
going to write that and people will still believe what they want to believe.
"Apparently we had a box-on in the carpark. You heard that one, did you? What
can I say to that stuff?"
Ayres aside, the truth is that like many of the deals done at the club before
the new board and chief executive took over, the Hocking signing after last
season has worried the new regime. Most feel that Hocking's defensive game has
gone and, as has been documented, they remain angry at the over-exuberance of
his attacking side. "Buddah, this is the last time I'm going to drive you down
the highway to the tribunal," Cats football manager Garry Davidson reportedly
told Hocking after he had been reported for a second time this season. "I`ll
take the train, then," replied Hocking. He didn't have to, though, when the
third time arose. Davidson drove him.
And Ayres, uncharacteristically, told him publicly to pull his head in.
It's always been about leadership at Geelong. Or the lack of it. One can only
wonder how Barry Stoneham, out of contract at the end of the season, must be
feeling right now. Brad Sholl and Michael Mansfield have both been dropped to
the reserves this season and Ronnie Burns has been another guilty of a
relatively ridiculous indiscretion.
In terms of Geelong's list, its most glaring shortfall appears to be its lack
of a class midfield. Names such as Daryn Cresswell and Brett Ratten must come
to mind when the football department compiles its wish list. The new team at the
helm has also questioned some of last year's recruiting decisions and the Cats'
total of 15 recycled players.
Although Victoria's two most successful AFL teams - the Kangaroos and the
Bulldogs - boast 12 recycled players apiece, it is a source of some bitterness
at Geelong that the policy persisted in the lead-up to this season when the
former Sydney pair of Jason Mooney and Simon Arnott and Lions Tristan Lynch and
Scott Bamford were recruited. Ayres defends the move, pointing out in particular
Arnott's solid contribution this season. Significantly, he is the only player
from the above quartet under 25.
With Brian Cook restructuring the club's financial potential in a four-year
business plan under the watchful eye of accounting consultant KPMG, football
staff and supporters are also wondering how the Cats would fare in the
inevitable bidding war looming when Ben Graham comes out of contract at the end
of the season.
If Ayres believes a significant proportion of the explanation for his team's
dismal year lies off the field and is in part cultural, then how much
responsibility can he take for the leadership problems - the injured Leigh
Colbert notwithstanding - at senior level?
When Ayres took over as captain at Hawthorn he didn't change much about his
approach, preferring to let his deeds do the talking in the manner of his
predecessor and probably his closest friend from his old club, Michael Tuck. His
second year as captain (1993) was his last as a player and Alan Joyce's last as
Ayres was one of a group of senior players who felt the side was more like a
ship without a rudder under Joyce and the coach simultaneously was trying to
find a way to drop his captain and two-time Norm Smith medallist. It was two or
three weeks before the match committee plucked up the courage to do so and at
the end of the year the champion footballer was among a group, which also
included Dermott Brereton and Tony Hall, who were offered insulting pay packets
for 1994. Ayres was also told he would lose the captaincy. He left Hawthorn and
has never really been back.
All of the above is pretty well part of Hawthorn folklore. Less public and
never discussed is the 19-year-old footballer who lost his father and became the
male head of the family. Perhaps that's another reason for the self-belief that
his detractors at Geelong - many of them sacked players - describe as
After Geelong's sixth successive loss, Gary Ayres rang Malcolm Blight to see
how the Adelaide coach was coping with the Crows almost-as-disastrous run of
defeats. Ayres was looking for something different; any small piece of advice.
Despite Ayres' Hawthorn pedigree, Blight was his first choice. Ayres came to
Geelong as Blight's assistant after his acrimonious departure from the Hawks in
1993. Both he and Blight signed two-year deals from the start of season `94 but
less than a year later - after a thrilling rollercoaster ride to the 1994 grand
final - Blight was gone.
Little more than a year after being stripped of the Hawthorn captaincy, Gary
Ayres was the coach of Geelong. Less than a year after that he had coached the
team to another grand final in his first senior year. And a devastating loss to
Carlton that, he said this week, remains worse than anything that has been
dished up this year.
Still, it hasn't been an enjoyable experience. The Hawthorn departure taught
Ayres how cruelly football can treat its ageing champions, and perhaps it was
some of that lingering bitterness mingled with the healthy distance that Ayres
has kept between himself and the football world that has stopped him from
considering moving to Geelong to live fulltime.
He keeps a unit near Shell Stadium but Ayres figured the least he could do
for his family if he became a coach was to keep them as removed as possible from
any potential turmoil. "If I ever bring this job home," he said to wife Jackie
almost four years ago, "let me know." He believes she still hasn't been forced
One of his happiest nights this year took place when, surrounded by Jackie
and the couple's teenaged daughter and son, he emerged briefly from his coaching
cocoon to be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame after a glowing and emotional
speech delivered by his old coach Allan Jeans.
Still, it hasn't been much fun for his children, particularly his son, who
hasn't played football for two years and has had to endure taunts about his
father's supposed lack of coaching ability and - remarkably - lack of talent as
a footballer. Could they have forgotten already? Ayres chuckled. "Half the time
you're only dealing with jealousy. I say to them: 'Did you ask them what their