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The Age

Private face of a very public club

Author: Caroline Wilson
Date: 15/11/2000
Words: 1025
          Publication: The Age
Section: Sport
Page: 1
The mystery man of the AFL coaching fraternity has come out of hiding and the journey, as they say in football, has already proved a fascinating one.

For a start, who would have guessed that Wayne Brittain, who is 42 but looks younger, has been a grandfather for five years?

Or that his children often beg their mother to drive them to school or sport training because their father, determined not to lose sight of his family despite his most demanding of football jobs, never stops talking or asking them questions once he has them as a captive audience in the car?

Brittain was only half joking yesterday when he said that they started young in the Brittain family. His own father, Billy, was just 17 when Brittain was born. A talented suburban footballer who played alongside Denis Pagan and John Scholes in the one-time Sunday competition for Happy Valley, Billy Brittain died at 36 but not before playing football alongside his son.

Brittain himself underwent a knee reconstruction at 12, he has a leg that still doesn't bend properley, and was forced to give up the game in his early 20s because of back problems. His first coaching job was as a teenager at Elsternwick in a now-departed suburban league and he loved it, he says, from the outset.

``I would love to sit here now and talk about my AFL playing career," said Brittain yesterday, ``and certainly I would have loved what it could have done for my bank balance, but all I can tell you is I love footy. That's what I`ve told them at every coaching interview I`ve ever fronted."

Brittain gives the impression that coming out of the closet in a public sense has been a painfully slow and not an altogether comfortable process for the father of five with a stepson and a daughter, both in their 20s, from a previous marriage, and three children aged between nine and 14 with his wife Lea.

His staff at Carlton agree that he is far more comfortable in the middle of a training session or playing beach football with his extended family on the Gold Coast than he is among those silvertails who pull the strings at Optus.

His two best mates, he said, were his brothers Michael and Craig - the only Brittain to have played AFL football, with five games for the Kangaroos - both of whom live in Brisbane. The Brittain family did not depart Melbourne for Queensland until after his father died and he was 20, but he still refers to Queensland, where his coaching career truly took off, as ``home".

Brittain denies he has deliberately avoided the spotlight - rather, the spotlight has avoided him at a football club boasting personalities such John Elliott, Steve Kernahan and Greg Williams - but clearly he found it difficult talking about himself during a season when everyone wanted to know just who was coaching Carlton and David Parkin was still coming to terms in an occasionally emotional fashion with the end of it all as an AFL coach.

As is so often the case at Carlton, a power shift has taken place with Brittain's official appointment, but publically the fall-out has proved minimal. Brittain's reportedly tense relationship with Col Kinnear - ironically the last senior coach boasting no AFL experience - pointed 12 months ago to Kinnear's departure, but the Blues' football manager's position has been strengthened in part by chief executive John Gurrieri's relative inexperience in player contract negotiations.

Brittain made it clear at the Blues' best and fairest that assistant coach and fitness advisor Barry Mitchell had become his right-hand man and with VFL coach Ross Lyon, that trio has forged close links. It was Mitchell who Parkin supporters blame for pushing Brittain to force the situation that has seen the four-time premiership coach return to Hawthorn and Brittain emerge with the wages and conditions commensurate with his true role.

John Worsfold, the third full-time assistant coach, struggled to create a solid role for himself during 2000, but Brittain said this week that he was looking forward to working more closely with the former West Coast captain next season.

The relationship between Brittain and club president Elliott has also proved intriguing. Elliott took a long time to accept the prospect of the low-profile Brittain as his proud club's new coach, even after pretty much everyone else at Carlton knew he had replaced Parkin in everything but name.

In reality, the Brittain ascendency began when the Blues looked headed for their first wooden spoon during the 1998 season. Two years before the coaching experiment of 2000 Brittain coached the Blues during the Ansett Cup series, but admitted his new role as match-day coach this year was a ``suck it and see" situation as far as the board was concerned.

If Parkin sniffed a coup was taking place then he allowed it to happen because of his firm belief in Brittain's football brain and strong player-communication skills. Parkin also knew his grip on the game at the toughest level was loosening.

Brittain's assessment of Parkin's departure is less brutal, more diplomatic and also believable. ``If we could have had David here I would have been quite happy with it," he said. ``But what David had seen in me was a little of himself in that he took a similar role under John Kennedy, but it was only when John Kennedy left that he could truly grow as a coach. I`m just glad he's back in footy; he has a terrific vision for what the game should be."

But Elliott became convinced of Brittain only when Carlton almost lost him to St Kilda and a group of Blues senior players convinced him to stay. Three days before the Grand Final, Elliott finally offered the man with no senior VFL-AFL playing experience a three-year deal.

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