Round 14, 2018

A football player and coach standing side on, ‘Officers 1922’, Brooker Collection, State Library of South Australia, PRG 1316/4/44

In recent weeks we’ve seen some footy coaches coaching from the boundary – notably St Kilda’s Alan Richardson and GWS’s Leon Cameron. Peter Schwab has said this enables ‘more immediate and direct’ communication between players and the coach which ‘is powerful’. This isn’t quite a return to the days of the playing-coach – but there’s something old worldly we like about it.

In a different realm and away from match days, Bulldog’s coach Luke Beveridge has spoken about the significant impact the picture book The Salty Dog by Gloria Rand had on his team in 2016, the year the (under) Dogs won the flag. Copies were given to the team during the pre-season camp at Lorne. Beveridge said the book, which is about ‘confronting your fears’, helped create the inspiration and belief needed to win a premiership.

Whether it be coaches being close to players during the game, or finding particular stories that carry important messages, these are examples of ways that ideas, plans of action and aspirations are shared and put into place on the footy field. And it is the place of coaches, who are often responsible for this, in our great game that we’re turning our attention to this week.

In doing this, we thought of Phil Matson (1884-1928) who was the first well-known West Australian football figure ‘to convert a prodigious playing career into even greater success as a coach’ (West Australian, 16 July 2015). In a coaching capacity, Matson won premierships as Subiaco captain-coach in 1913; East Perth player-coach in 1919-23 and as coach in 1926-27.  Matson moved to Victoria in 1925, and here coached Castlemaine to a premiership. He described his ‘ambition … to finish my football career by coaching a Victorian league team’. He was appointed coach of the Tigers for 1926, but the VFL refused to grant a permit so he returned West (News, 8 April 1926, p9).

When the Western Australian Football League met in 1926, particular mention was made of Matson’s services as coach of the state team (as was the apparently accidental omission of Matson’s invitation to a League dinner). Matson was described as being ‘second to none as a coach’ and able ‘to inspire superhuman efforts by the players’ (West Australian, 29 Jul 1926, p13).  As a coach, the Sporting Globe declared that Matson’s success was due to him being able to ‘[infuse] the spirit of determination into his men’ and ‘[he] has taught them to fight a game out to the finish’ (17 August 1927, p9).

His style of address to players was noted as significant. The Westralian Worker said there were ‘few finer footballers in the West than Phil … and it is doubtful if there has even been a better coach anywhere’. Not only was he described as having ‘a wonderful football brain’ but ‘to hear him address the players before a big engagement in that homely English of his was a real treat and inspiration’. The impact of his speech was intellectual and emotional: ‘Players felt and knew that Matson was right’ (17 Apr 1925, p8). ‘When … [urging] his men to victory he never gave any possibly justification for misinterpretation’ and these ‘vigorous and candid urgings … won matches’; to players ‘his every word was gospel’ (Daily News, 14 June 1928, p5).

Matson died after a car crash in which he was a passenger, and the tributes that followed focused on his ‘genius as a coach’. ‘Some of his moves’ reportedly ‘staggered’ people ‘by their daring’. While his tactics had been ‘denounced’ believing that would ‘bring about the downfall of his team’, this was proved false as ‘It was the very daring of his methods, in many cases, that ensured their success’ (Daily News, 14 June 1928, p5).

Matson’s style of speaking was reported to have been central to an incident between him and VFL officials at the end of the 1927 interstate game between Victoria and Western Australia. The Westralian Worker noted that class and speech was at the heart of the misunderstanding: Matson used one particular word ‘that originated during the war’. The paper didn’t report the word used but it was described as one ‘which meant that he was not praising the Vics unduly’. This word offended Edward Lionel Wilson, the Secretary of the VFL, who was ‘evidently a highbrow’. While ‘philosophical Phil’ has said ‘nothing derogatory, nothing really “naughty”’ the paper surmised that the problem wouldn’t have arisen if ‘his phrasing has been more in line with Oxford speech and accent’ (2 Sep 1927, p10).

This weekend we hope to see some tactically effective and inspirational coaching. Whether speeches are delivered in posh or proletarian tones and from the boundary line or in the rooms – we think it will be difficult for any to reach the iconic status of some of our favourite coaching displays which include Saints player Craig Davenport being firmly and demonstratively spoken to on the boundary line by coach Ken Sheldon in Round 12 1992 or Terry Wallace’s evocative and blunt Round 17 1996 post-match address to the Dogs who had just lost to the Pies!

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