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Sunday Age


Date: 26/03/2000
Words: 750
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Sport
Page: 16
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 Carlton team?

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 pretty well."

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 headphones.

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.


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.

Kevin Morris

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.

David Wheadon

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.

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