Round 22, 2018

Percy Lewis, Tom Leahy and Jack ‘Snowy’ Hamilton from North Adelaide Football Club, State Library of South Australia,1921  PRG 280/1/29/154
Captain/Coach (1919-1921) Tom Leahy (centre) was later described as an ‘inspiring example’ of a captain by Mr TS Hill in 1939

Football leadership is a pertinent issue, particularly for those teams sitting closer to the bottom, rather than the top, of the ladder. St Kilda’s coach is reportedly under pressure after the lack of success on field this year and Carlton’s position on requesting a priority pick from the AFL is unclear, after winning only two games so far this season. Adelaide’s rapid decline in football success has been punctuated with their captain, Tex Walker, missing the last two games of the season with a suspension. Despite this, Crows’ coach Don Pike said he is in ‘full admiration’ for what Walker has ‘done for the team’.

Earlier this year we wrote of Carlton’s Colin Martyn, who in 1932, offered to step down as the Blue’s Captain as he was worried ‘the responsibility of captaincy interfered with his own play’. This week, rather than footy captains’ self-regulation and reflection on their work, we’re considering structures of leadership around the football captain. Let’s focus on the captain-coach position with captain-coach advocate and South Australian National Football League Secretary, Mr Thomas Seymour Hill (1893-1977).

Thomas Seymour Hill OBE (1893–1977) photograph from SANFL Hall of Fame

At the League’s annual meeting in 1939 Hill was reported as speaking about the ‘Need of Improved Leadership’. The emphasis was on the issue of who was in charge on the field. ‘In recent years’ Hill was reported as saying that ‘there has been a tendency towards relieving captains of complete charge of their teams’ during the game and ‘to subject them to acting on instructions from outside the pickets’. The news report said that Hill had ‘no desire to criticise the ability of non-playing coaches’, but he did believe that ‘for match purposes better results would be obtained with a leader clothed with full authority in the “firing line”’. Hill’s evidence based approach to footy leadership on field was that of the eight teams in the 1938 finals in Western Australia and Victoria, six ‘were under the complete charge of their captains’ (News, 28 February 1939, p7).

This generated further discussion in the press. In South Australia, the non-playing coach of West Adelaide, Bruce McGregor, said that his team’s captain was ‘in complete charge the moment the players step on to the field’. While ‘[of] course, I have a chat with him at half-time, but during a game, if he thinks moves should be made, he makes them as quickly as possible’. Ken West, a playing coach of North Adelaide, had a foot in both camps and made an argument around meritocracy: the ‘right man’ off the field can be ‘equally as good as the right man on the field’.

In contrast, the Chairman of South Adelaide, Mr C Knuckey, argued that ‘From behind the pickets, a good coach can often see weaknesses and moves that the captain might not see’. Captains on field don’t have ‘much time to think in a crisis’ even through they might be ‘doing his best’. Similarly the chairman of Port Adelaide, Mr A J Swain, boldly declared ‘[the] idea of waiting for an official on the boundary to make a decision is ridiculous’ and that ‘players should be handled on the field’. We’re not sure what Swain would make of the runners on field and phone conversations between players and coaches today, as for Swain, time was of the essence: ‘In cases where a split-second decision is necessary we have no doubt that the playing coach is the right man to make it’ (News, 1 March 1939, p11).

T S Hill was committed to his position advocating for playing coaches.  As League secretary he advocated for a Captain-Coach for the South Australian team in 1949. The advantage of someone in this role was identified by Hill as having the state team ‘under one control for training and match engagements’ (News, 11 May 1949, p8).

While captain-coaches featured in the VFL, the AFL have not seen any – yet. It was reported in July this year that Steve Hocking (AFL football operations manager and former Geelong player) believed the AFL was too ‘highly-coached’ and rather than being ‘a contest of players’ it was ‘a contest of coaching panels’. To change this the AFL was said to be considering reducing the number of coaches clubs could have.

We hope however many coaches your club has, and however many players are in your team’s leadership group, that they can all collectively follow the wisdom laid down in 1939 by the South Adelaide Chairman who said the captain and coach ‘must be working together harmoniously, otherwise both positions are useless’ (News, 1 March 1939, p11)!

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