There is no doubt about who runs the Carlton Football Club. If there was,
John Elliott would be quick to remind everyone that he, not the chief executive
or the democratically elected board, is the shot caller. But who is running the
Wayne Brittain is responsible for implementing the Blues' game plan. He wears
headphones in the coach's box and can bark instructions directly to players. On
occasion this season, he has addressed the players at quarter and three-quarter
time. These tasks are normally performed by the senior coach.
When David Parkin revealed late last year that he planned to step back,
remove himself somewhat from "hands on" coaching and handball more
responsibility to his main assistant, there were some in football who took his
words with a grain of salt.
Parkin is prone to exaggeration and has a penchant for self-deprecation, for
claiming himself to be less able or important than he really is. He also likes
to lavish praise on his assistant coaches, to promote their abilities; none have
ever received as many accolades from Parkin as Brittain, not even Ken Judge.
Parkin is also an obsessive workaholic (who still works as a university
lecturer). Step back or diminish his workload? Surely not Parko.
Yet, after two rounds of the season, it would appear that Parkin has made
good his promise to become, in effect, a "coach/manager" who delegates and
manages the coaches. He has, as he pledged, handed some of his authority to
Brittain, who does, indeed, set the game plan for each game. It is a management
structure that is common enough in the corporate world, but has never really
taken root in the AFL, where the coach's box is still a dictatorship, with
lieutenants supporting and advising the general.
Carlton's coaching panel has been enlarged, with John Worsfold and Ross Lyon
added to the team, alongside Barry Mitchell and high-profile part-timers Stephen
Kernahan and Greg Williams. Worsfold's brief is defence, Kernahan directs the
forwards, or "front half" in Parkinese. Williams and Mitchell are charged with
the midfield responsibility and Lyon coaches the twos. Carlton, once
under-resourced in the football department, now rivals Brisbane as the club with
the most crowded box on match day.
With two full-time extra coaches on the panel, Brittain, who was assistant
coach and reserves coach last year, has been released to become Parkin's
right-hand man. "He'll be running the show in a real sense," Parkin told The
Age back in November.
"Most of our work is done before we get to a game," said Brittain last week.
"John (Worsfold) will set up with our kick-ins and all of that type of stuff.
Sticks (Kernahan) will set up what we're doing up forward. Greg (Williams) and
Mitch (Mitchell) will set up what we're doing in the midfield. And I package the
whole lot up and put it together."
Brittain says his upgraded role has "evolved" over the years. It did not
happen out of the blue. Last year, he handled the senior team during practice
matches and Ansett Cup games, but went back to coaching the reserves. This was
the next step.
"It's a terrific opportunity for me, no doubt," Brittain said of the new
structure. "Just being reponsible for how we're playing and setting the game
plan ... That's a massive step from what I was doing last year as well. It's a
terrific opportunity and it's a set-up that, right at the minute, is working
All that Parkin promised has come to pass and that grain of salt has proven
unwarranted. The most interesting question is: why has he done it?
The easy answer is that Parkin is 57 and nearing the end at Carlton. He has
had well-publicised health problems, specifically an inner-ear affliction that
can effect his balance, although he insists that this does not trouble him
greatly. In his public statements, Parkin does little to discourage the view
that he won't be coaching Carlton for too much longer.
There is little doubt that he would like to see Brittain succeed him.
Brittain, a Queenslander, suffers from a lack of profile and, in particular,
from the fact that his impressive resume does not include the mandatory game,
let alone 150 games, of VFL/AFL football. The AFL competition has not, as yet,
reached the stage of recognising that coaching ability has little connection to
playing credentials. Or, rather, if this fact is recognised, it does not govern
coaching appointments. In the United States, this was learnt long ago and many
elite coaches in the NFL did not play at the highest level, having graduated
from modest college football backgrounds.
Sources suggest that Brittain was overlooked for the Richmond coaching
postion last year, in part, but not entirely, because of concerns about how his
non-AFL background would be perceived at a club whose ferocious supporters are
unforgiving to coaches. Jeff Gieschen, with only 24 games at Footscray to his
name, had just been discarded. The Tigers were understandly gun shy about
appointing another no-name coach.
Sources say Parkin understands that the only way to persuade the Carlton
hierachy - and we know who runs the club - of Brittain's credentials is to give
him an upgraded role, effectively somewhere between senior and assistant coach.
By letting Brittain call many of the shots, Parkin can demonstrate to big Jack
that his offsider has the right stuff to coach the Blues. Privately, Parkin has
said that it is up to himself and perhaps the media to persuade Elliott that
Brittain is worthy of coaching the club Big Jack once called "the greatest in
the history in the world".
At a press conference for today's Collingwood-Carlton match, Parkin was asked
about the prospect of Brittain succeeding him. He said Brittain was already
playing "a pivotal role in our organisation" before adding: "That won't be my
decision, I can assure you."
As Blues premiership player and coach and Age columnist Robert Walls has
observed, the relative merit of assistant coaches is difficult to judge. The
assistant coaching job can be compared to that of grandparents - you have many
of the joys of parenting (coaching), minus the horrible responsibilities (eg,
sacking players, disciplining children). If the assistant suggests something
that works, he can take credit for the idea, but if it fails, the buck stops
with the top man.
As Walls has observed, no matter how highly rated and impressive sounding, no
one really knows whether an assistant can cut it until he lands a senior job.
How will he react under pressure? Can he wear constant criticism? These are some
of the questions that cannot be answered until an assistant wears the
Brittain's new role, however, is a step above the regulation, garden-variety
assistant coach. As an architect of game plans, he will also take responsibility
for them. He does wear the headphones (in conjunction with Parkin). Carlton, it
follows, will have a better idea of whether its main assistant can cut it than
any other club. Walls, who gave Brittain his start at AFL level in Brisbane and
recommended him to the Blues when he left the Bears, said his former assistant
had been given "an opportunity to stake a claim" for the job.
While the Carlton model is one that other clubs will consider apeing if the
Blues win the flag, or perhaps even if they make the grand final, the
power-sharing arrangement has been forged around Carlton's unique circumstances,
of having a coach in the acknowledged twilight of his career. "It's a situation
that suits Carlton at the moment," Walls says. "You've got David Parkin, who
is winding down and sees himself pretty much not being there much longer."
The joint coach system also requires a senior coach who, like Parkin, has
done it all, seen it all, won flags and doesn't feel threatened by extensive
delegation. Many coaches, mindful of their fragile job security, are
understandably reluctant to promote their assistants to Brittain status. Parkin
is in the unusual position of wanting his second-in-command to claim his job, at
the appropiate time.
Brittain's chances of succeeding Parkin, or of winning another senior job
elewhere, hinge on Carlton's fortunes this year. Continued success can only
elevate his status; failure will lead to questions, perhaps even from within the
club about "who's running the team?"
Brittain says making it to a top job isn't what drives him. "It's not the
be-all and end-all for me to go and coach a senior side. To be part of a
coaching team, with a group that I've done a lot of work with and have it going
in the same direction is the same satisfaction as I'd get from coaching a senior
team anywhere. I've got a fair bit invested here."
He has a chance to prove he can coach the Carlton team this year. What Big
Jack will need convicing of is this: That he can coach Carlton, the club.
BRITTAIN'S GREAT RISE
Wayne Brittain first turned his attention to coaching when he injured his
back playing for QAFL club Windsor-Zilmere (the home of Essendon premiership
wingman Frank Dunell) in 1981. It was another five years before he landed the
senior post. In 1992, with Windsor-Zilmere having become North Brisbane, he so
impressed Brisbane Bears coach Robert Walls that he took Brittain on as his
assistant. When Ken Judge was appointed Hawthorn coach after Carlton's 1995
premiership, a vacancy opened up for an assistant and reserves coach at Optus
Oval. Enter Wayne Brittain.
Played 181 games for Richmond and Collingwood, including the Tigers' 1973-74
premierships and losing grand finals for the Magpies in '79 and '80. Was both
playing and non-playing coach of Essendon reserves before a successful period in
the SANFL. Stints followed back at Richmond and with the AFL as the institute
of sport's academy coach, and he is now part of the St Kilda coaching and match
committee team under Tim Watson and alongside Peter Banfield and Andy Collins.
Spent three seasons at Collingwood in the late '60s before finishing his
playing days in the country, where he first tasted the coaching caper at Colac.
Has worn the "assistant" tag at Geelong, Carlton, Essendon, Collingwood and now
Richmond, having followed Danny Frawley down Punt Rd from Victoria Park. Long
regarded as one of the game's most astute tactical brains, Wheadon was
interviewed for the Geelong coaching job eventually given to Mark Thompson.