After 113 years . . . here’s Wally

By Tony De Bolfo

Before “Sticks”, before “Jezza”, before “Turkey Tom”, before “Fev” and even before “Soapy”, the vibrantly-named full-forward Wallace Alfred Richard O’Cock stood front and centre in the first team fielded by the football club in the VFL’s maiden season of 1897.

And now, more than 113 years after he took to the field for that historic opening round match against Fitzroy at Brunswick Street, the first confirmed image of “Wally” O’Cock has surfaced, with the assistance of a descendant, Graeme Cumbrae-Stewart OAM.

Wally O’Cock was born in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Clifton Hill on June 17, 1875. His father, was a bank manager named Alfred Ferrie O’Cock, his mother, Anne Wallace, and records indicate that Wally’s paternal grandfather originally hailed from Somerset in south west England.

The dedicated Carlton website Blueseum notes that Wally was already established in Carlton’s team when the first four matches of the VFL were staged on Saturday, May 8, 1897. It also notes that Wally lined up a placekick in the second quarter of the Fitzroy match and sent it sailing through the posts – the first goal kicked by a Carlton footballer in League competition.

That July, after being laid up for a period with injury, Wally endeavoured to force his way back into the team. Initially he was overlooked for selection after failing to obtain a medical clearance, but the club registered him under the name Alfred Wallace and he promptly booted two goals in a match-winning performance against the Fuschias.

The Wallace surname is itself famous in sporting circles. Wally’s uncle Donald Smith Wallace was an MP and pastoralist who owned the respective Melbourne Cup winners of 1888 and 1890, Mentor and Carbine – and as Cumbrae-Stewart added, “the story goes that Donald got Carbine on the cheap”.

Wally’s 15 goals from ten matches through season 1897 earned him the plaudits as the club’s first leading goalkicker. He would manage a further 31 appearances for the club over the next four years, despite having been in absentia for all of 1900 for reasons unknown.

He was only a few days short of his 26th birthday when he turned out for Carlton for the last time, against Essendon at the East Melbourne Football Ground in June 1901. He later fronted for a local outfit in Preston, but his the glory days on the paddock were long gone.

“I remember Dad telling me that Wally was a nuggety little bloke with a fiery temper,” Cumbrae-Stewart said recently.

“I believe he had to give up footy after he copped a spike from a boot to his leg. He was also left with a permanent limp, which forced him to give up his work as a commercial traveller with MacRobertson’s.

“Wally moved to Holbrook to work for his brother-in-law Adam Anderson and his wife Alice who managed at property called Wentworth . . . it was probably share farming of some sort.

“He later took on his own property, but fire wind and rain ruined it and he went broke. He then started as a stock and sales agent in Holbrook, during which time he and his wife Luisa Durrant raised six children.

Wallace Alfred Richard O’Cock died in Richmond on June 14, 1951, aged 74. He was buried in the New South Wales township of Holbrook, in a grave shared with his beloved wife, who died nine years previous.

But his name, and now his visage, are indelibly aligned with all things Navy Blue.

Jesse’s Review

Hello everyone in Carlton land! It’s me, Jesse, back again to write about my favourite footy team for another year. Since I last wrote we lost one of my favourite players, Fev, but I’m getting used to our new forward line now and reckon we’re going to do okay. I have watched every match so far this year, the first three on TV (I cried when we lost to Brisbane because I really thought we had it won) and in Round 4 I finally got to see them play live over here in SA. I’m going to write about the match later this week, but for now I am just busting to tell you all about my exciting Saturday morning at the Spirit Of Carlton pre-match function!

The function was held at The Lakes Resort, just near AAMI Stadium. Many past Carlton champions were there, but I was mainly looking forward to seeing Anthony Koutoufides for the first time since he, Ang Christou and I had a kick of the footy in Melbourne last July. I had made up a special card to give Kouta, together with a photocopy of a story I wrote at school after those holidays in which I mentioned our kick-to-kick. When Kouta arrived he looked very happy to see our family – he gave me a hug and my Mum a kiss and shook my Dad’s hand and then I gave him my card with the story and a picture inside. On the front of the card was the photo that Ang took of Ang, me and Kouta. I think Kouta really liked it and he went to put it straight in his bag to keep it safe.

Past player from SA, Mark Naley, was there to host the show, and he remembered me from previous functions and get-togethers to watch games at the Rob Roy Hotel. He welcomed us all, including the Spirit Of Carlton boys. One was a player I hadn’t yet met, David Rhys-Jones, who was also helping to MC the function. My Mum had told me what a tough player for Carlton he was, but he wasn’t at all scary – he even gave me a hug. David talked of how Spirit Of Carlton first started about four years ago, when things weren’t looking so good for our great Football Club. He and other past players had a meeting about what to do to help the club they love during its “hour of need”, and they decided to give something back by raising money themselves to inject some funds for player facilities and equipment. They do this by having Spirit Of Carlton functions like this, and also golf days and auctions. They have spent around $250,000 on the club so far on various equipment, and plan to continue on, as they also have such fun getting together and talking about old times.

Then David asked ex-Adelaide player Chris McDermott and Kouta to come up on the stage to give a preview of the match being played that afternoon. Chris McDermott spoke about Adelaide not going too well, and said that the Adelaide supporters would “eat their own” if Adelaide were to lose today! Kouta was asked about the surprise omissions of Thornton and Waite, and he admitted that he was shocked, but that Ratts and his Match Committee would know much more than anyone else about why certain decisions are made. He thinks that our forward line is doing really well even with Fev gone and he was really looking forward to seeing Simon White debut. David then asked both Chris and Kouta for a tip – Chris picked Adelaide in a close match and Kouta, of course, picked the Mighty Bluebaggers! He got lots of cheers at saying that.

David Rhys-Jones then interviewed past champions Jim Buckley and Val Perovic. Val talked of playing footy in Ballarat, and not believing how lucky he was to be asked to play for Carlton. He reckons he’s been blessed to come to the best footy club in the land. David then said that Val holds a unique record in Melbourne of drinking 37 cans of beer in 1 hour and 47 minutes. He asked Val “what were you thinking?” to which Val replied, “I wasn’t thinking at all!”. David then asked Jimmy which of the 79, 81 and 82 premierships was the best for him, and Jimmy said the 1979 one, because that was his first. He spoke of premierships being such a bonding time for each player, having such a great respect for one another, and still all being good mates today. Jimmy said that last night he had been comparing Testimonials with Kouta and they found it quite funny – recent players have made some money from their Testimonials, but back in Jimmy’s day he had a joint Testimonial with Wayne Johnston (Mum’s first footy hero). It took them a while to find out how much money they’d made, and when they finally asked Collo about it, they were told that “Jimmy owes Carlton $1,000 and Johnno owes $2,000!”.

An announcement was then made about another past club champion who had a really bad car accident at the start of his second year with Carlton, Peter Motley. I’ve met Mots at the last two Carlton functions and I think he’s really funny and nice. He and his partner are expecting a baby in July! Mots was asked to come up on stage, and as he always does when he takes the stage, he told us all a joke. He then talked of really great memories of Carlton Football Club. David interrupted Mots to talk about the 1987 premiership, which is the year that Peter had his accident. He said Motley’s accident was a great inspiration to all Carlton players that year, and he’s sure that’s why they were able to win the Grand Final. Mots said that on the oval after that Grand Final, the Dominator and Braddles each gave him their own premiership medals………but after all the television reporters and cameras had left, they took them back!

Then it was time for some of the really big framed footy guernseys and prints to be auctioned to raise some funds for our club. The first was of David Rhys-Jones, for being the most reported player in VFL/AFL history. Mark told us David was reported 25 times, and only pleaded guilty once. David said when he pleaded guilty, he got four weeks for hitting a Melbourne runner called Peter Smith, so he never pleaded guilty again. He later discovered that the runner was Norm Smith’s son – David felt a bit guilty about winning the Norm Smith Medal after that!! The Rhys-Jones print was auctioned for $1,200.

The print of the most famous mark ever, Jesaulenko’s, was auctioned next. I wasn’t even anywhere near being alive when this mark was taken 40 years ago, but I have seen it many times over and I always pretend I’m Jezza – in fact, my nickname is Jezza! I’d love to meet him one day. His print was auctioned for $900.

A framed guernsey, signed by all players and coach of the 1982 premiership team, was auctioned for an amazing $2,050 – bought by our friend Denise! Stephen Silvagni’s 1988 Mark of the Year was the next one to be auctioned – this print was a beauty with four continual photos in the one picture. It went for $1,100.

During the break while our yummy breakfast was served to us, Kouta and I had a chat and our photo taken. I think Kouta is really special, and I have the feeling that he thinks I’m alright too!

Next up David interviewed Alex Marcou and Peter McConville. Alex came from Lalor, where Kouta & Lance Whitnall are from, and while he barracked for Fitzroy as a kid, he used to watch every Carlton game on TV (back when Jezza and Southby were playing) and he decided he wanted to play for them, too. He never forgets the day he was asked to play for the Blues, and how in awe he was of being in the same company as players like Jezza and Southby. Peter talked of the Fevola betting incident, saying “we had a few of them” – the papers would have had a field day in their time! Ken Hunter was another player in the room who could vouch for that. The President of our club, Stephen Kernahan (Sticks) arrived then and posed for a photo with me.

Sticks was welcomed by David and invited up on stage to talk to us. David asked him how he balances now being President after having such a long association with Carlton as a player – Sticks said for one thing he’s no good at public speaking – “look at the voice I’m stuck with!”. He stressed that he was only there by default, and was just doing it to help out the club until someone else was able to step into the role. David then mentioned the decision to move on Fevola – David thinks its the right decision but realises it has divided the club and asked Sticks how will we go forward from here. Sticks replied that Fev’s still one of the biggest merchandise sellers at the club, and is a much-loved character. But that over the 11 years he was with us, “we’ve all saved him 25 times over behind the scenes”, and while we miss him, it can’t all be about one person. He feels we’re better off now, and really hopes Fev can get his issues sorted out. David asked about the coach and moves he’s made so far this year, and Sticks replied that the media is already “all over the coaches” this year, Dean Bailey the first week, Mark Harvey also, and now it seems to be our turn this week because we lost to our arch rival in Essendon. He said all of Carlton’s players, employees and coaches are annoyed, and are very fired up,determined to win and make amends today. He said Ratten is doing okay, that “it’s Round 3, chill out – get behind the coach” as it really peeves Sticks some of the rubbish that goes on in Melbourne about him! When talking of the upcoming match, he said that last year he came over a day before the game against Adelaide to see his Dad and catch up with the Spirit Of Carlton boys, ending up a big night with him feeling rather seedy on match day. This time he flew over this morning and is sober as a judge while the Spirit Of Carlton boys all arrived yesterday and had a huge night – Stick is doing his bit to help the team! (Kouta told my Mum he got to bed at 6.30am so it WAS a big night for them all!).

While Sticks was there the next of the remaining items was auctioned off, a framed print and signed guernsey of the man himself. This print sold for the highest amount of the day – $2,500. It was purchased by our friend Cynthia who sat at our table!

Judd’s signed guernsey was the next to go – it went for $1,700.

And then came Kouta’s print (complete with Collingwood’s Nathan Buckley in the background) and signed guernsey. Daddy had checked this out earlier in the day, and had decided he wanted to bid for it, since Kouta means so much to our family, and especially to me from the time of my heart surgery. I was quite excited about this although we didn’t think he would be the successful bidder. But he was! We got it for $1,800. Wow. It will be well looked after by us, I can assure you!

Kouta was rather chuffed that we were the ones to purchase his print – Daddy took a photo of him with me and Mummy (who reminded me that Kouta was her hero long before I came along!).

After that, several individual current player prints and fancy footballs were sold off to the highest bidder. I had been checking out the footballs, each signed by the Spirit Of Carlton boys, because they were such cool colours. They went for various amounts between $150 and $350. The last one was a gold one, and Peter McConville purchased it for $250. And guess what? He gave it to ME! Daddy couldn’t believe it. Apparently he purchased it with me in mind. How lucky am I? Mum took a photo of me with Peter and my brand new footy.

And you’ll never guess what happened next!! THIS is what I have been busting to tell you! Mark Naley got up on stage for one last official announcement. He actually talked about ME! He said that I am a special friend of Spirit Of Carlton, and that I write stories for the Carlton website. He asked me to come up onto the stage and I had to walk up the steps and stand there in front of all those people! They all clapped and cheered and I have to tell you I felt very nervous (I took my new gold footy with me for good luck). When I got up there, Mark asked me who was going to win today and I told him Carlton would. And then he asked me who my favourite player was, and I told him Chris Judd. He asked if I remembered seeing Jimmy Buckley play, and everyone laughed because of course I didn’t! He then said that one of my original favourite players was here to present me with something special, and Kouta came up onto the stage with me, holding something. When Kouta took the microphone he ruffled my hair and told everybody there that he has known me ever since I was a baby – he bent down to ask me “was that seven years ago, Jess?” to which I nodded. He said that I am actually his son’s age so he knew that, and he told the people in the room about my open heart surgery and how Mum brought me down to the club to meet him and Ratten at the time, and then he bent down to me again and said “and we’ve stayed friends ever since, haven’t we, Jess?” to which I nodded again. I was so excited and nervous I thought I was going to cry from happiness, I told Mummy & Daddy later! But instead I stood there and said inside my head, ‘don’t cry, don’t cry”, which is why I could only nod. Kouta then told everyone how he and Ang had a kick of the footy with me and Mum & Dad last year, and he said that I could kick the ball further than Ang (I can’t, really!). He then said on behalf of the past players, because they know I’m a “very special kid” and that I mean a lot to him, too, he wanted to present me with a plaque of every Carlton premiership from the past. He said there are sixteen premierships on there, with two spaces for the next two premierships, and “hopefully you’re playing in that one”. (Mum told me later no way – we need a premiership well before I get old enough to play AFL!). How exciting – I got an Honorary Spirit Of Carlton Membership from Sticks two years ago, and this year a special plaque from Kouta. Dad was pretty impressed with it, and I now like looking at all those scorelines and who we beat in all those years.

So that was a great end to the function for me! I then had the game to look forward to………but that’s another story! I’ll be back to tell you about THAT excitement very soon!

From Jesse.

Matthews the Chief Executioner

In the late 1960s as a Carlton reserves player starting to get an occasional run in the seniors, I once had the daunting privilege of coming up against Hawthorn’s young superstar Leigh Matthews. The encounter was brief, and it left me shocked. Scarcely a half of football but it was embarrassing. I was taught a humbling lesson about what it meant to excel in elite sport.
Although we were about the same height (I played at 177cm; Matthews at 178), I was a puny 68kg next to his compressed battleship frame weighing in at 86. For some reason, I thought I possessed enough silky skills, speed and footy smarts to compete with him. But pretty quickly, I realised otherwise.

This heavyset bloke was amazingly quick off the mark, agile and simply dazzling. In my face was the reality of exceptional talent executing sublime football skills. It was a painful tutorial, but at least there was a measure of how far I still had to go. But there was even more to learn. He was winning the ball regularly and I was scarcely getting a touch. And when I did – bang! A tackle that made me gasp for air and think I was going to die, and the umpire didn’t even blow the bloody whistle.

It immediately dawned on me that this bloke hated it when an opponent of any kind had the ball and would go hard and fast at him to get it back. It hurt. In a recent conversation with Matthews, he described this facet of the game involving getting the ball back from the opposition as effort.

Based on previous experience, I’m inclined to add the words: driven desire and blessed talent both ways, with and without the ball. He calls it execution under pressure, and I fully agree. Our conversation followed on the heels of comments he made recently on television and on

In a website column, Matthews attributed the astronomical increases in handball numbers, often now outnumbering kicks in a game, to the exponential increase in interchange numbers. He wrote: “This handball footy has evolved because the pressure on the ball carrier has never been hotter. While specialist tackling numbers have honed good technique, it is the large numbers of players with the energy to surround the footy that is the main catalyst for the increased need to handball because of the difficulty in finding space to deliver an unpressured kick … “It is the use of the interchange bench to rest players regularly that enables them to play with such high energy in their spurts on the field.”

As a four-time premiership coach (with Collingwood in 1990 and the Brisbane Lions in 2001-03), Matthews explained the basis of his coaching philosophy: “My chief role was to influence talent to make the effort when it got harder, when an opponent had the ball,” he said. “At the Lions, we placed a lot of emphasis on tackling numbers. Most important was also the type of tackles, which we reviewed in video post-match.

These included our highly rated categories of special tackles in active play and missed tackles, along with the trapping-type tackles.” His other highest priority was execution. “Assuming the effort was there, the result of the game invariably hinged on how well the individual talent and the team executed when they had the ball,” he said.

Consequently, he believes one of the keys to coaching is to make sure the available talent is in the right place at the right time. He mentioned on Channel Seven recently that too much emphasis is being made of the concept of a ‘game-plan’, at the expense of the idea of execution.

He suggested the term is a convenient one being used more as way of promoting the game and not explaining it. “It’s mystifying the game,” he said. “What coaches and commentators are fond of calling a game-plan is perhaps better described as strategies, themes, principles and team rules.” When champions such as Matthews are hunting you down, there is no time to follow a script. You can only execute the best you can, and when he’s got the ball, hopefully reciprocate.
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

Sarkies – the Carltonite who went down singing

By Tony De Bolfo

This is the story of the short life and tragic death of Andrew Sarkies – Boer War veteran, Carlton Football Club committeeman and the great great grandfather of the Australian Socceroo Kristian Sarkies.

This long-forgotten tale was recently revived after Sarkies’ great grandson Geoff Sarkies recently contacted the club seeking clarification of Andrew’s role at Carlton.
The club’s annual reports reveal that Sarkies did indeed serve on the committee of management from 1907 through to 1910 – the year of his untimely death – under the Presidency of John Urquhart.

Other details of Sarkies’ life was subsequently gleaned from family and other sources.
Sarkies was of Armenian extraction – his father, John Sarkies, having been born of Armenian parents in Shuska (Republic of Iran).

Sarkies’ father and mother Helen McKay married in Melbourne in 1864, the year the Carlton Football Club was founded. Andrew was born a year later.

At some point the family relocated to Scotland, and then the parents split. John Sarkies is thought to have gone to India, with Helen returning to Australia, fending for a total of nine children, working as a charwoman, and dying a lonely death in Melbourne.

When members of the Victorian Mounted Rifles 5th contingent enrolled for the Second Boer War in February 1901, leaving for South Africa in mid-February, Sarkies went with them.

The VMR was a regiment composed of Australian forces first raised by Colonel Tom Price in the mid-1880s. The regiment was mobilised at Pretoria between March 24 and April 4, 1901, and saw considerable action during the Second Boer War when it was used to combat the guerilla warfare tactics of the Boers.

Sarkies survived the war, returned from South Africa and was subsequently discharged. He remained on the strength of the Army Service Corps (Vic) as a Staff Sergeant while being employed in the Authority Branch of the Department Of Home Affairs. At some point between 1902 and 1910 he served as Secretary to the Returned Soldiers Association (South Africa) as reported at the time of his death.

During this time, Sarkies and his wife Mary Jane (nee Lalor) purchased land and built a house at 15 Royal Ave, Glenhuntly. The house was later named ‘Fortrose’ – the Fort from his military background and the Rose from his first born daughter who did not survive.

On September 17, 1910, Sarkies attended the semi-final between Carlton and South Melbourne at the MCG. The Blues went down to the Bloods by two goals, in what was to be the last game Sarkies ever saw.

At a subsequent inquest into Sarkies’ death, a gent named Arthur Springer, publisher from Black Rock, was amongst those giving evidence.

“I knew the deceased Andrew Sarkies. I met him on account of being the publisher of a football paper. I met him on the 17th instant at 6.45pm. at the MCG. He walked up to the cab rank at Jolimont and then we said to the cabby ‘What is the fare?’. He said ‘a shilling each’. I said ‘We are willing to pay the double tram fare’. He said, ‘Alright, jump in’. We got in the cab, the deceased was alright. He may have had some drink but he was not drunk. There was no one else in the cab.

On the journey to Melbourne I passed the remark to the deceased about the fare. I gave my fare to Sarkies on the way down. I got out of the cab at Princes Bridge and the deceased commenced singing a song about the ‘Boys of Carlton’. The cabbie said ‘Terminus’. I said to Sarkies ‘Come on, get out’. He took no notice so I then walked away. There was no unpleasantness in the cab between us.

Constable Anderson of Russell Street Police made the following statement to the inquest.

“I found a man lying on the roadway near Princes Bridge Railway Station at 7.15pm. He was unconscious lying behind a cab. I made enquiries there if anybody knew him, but nobody seemed to know him. I then took him to the Melbourne Hospital in a cab. He was attended to by Dr. Felstead . . . he was not able to pay for the cab No. 259. The cabman stated that he had the same man as a passenger from the Melbourne Cricket Ground a few minutes before I found him. He also stated that he got out of his cab and just fell down where he lay unconscious. I went to the hospital again at 9.15pm and he was still unconscious. He is a well dressed, and seemed to be, a respectable man by appearances.”

Andrew Sarkies was transferred to the Melbourne hospital (then in Swanston Street). There he died four days later, on September 21, 1910 from injuries to the brain and skull – the result of an accidental fall in Flinders Street near Princes Bridge Railway Station.

His body was later identified by his widow, Mary Jane (nee Lalor) Sarkies.

Sarkies was accorded a military funeral, which left Victoria Barracks for Melbourne General Cemetery by the Carlton ground. The OIC of the 5th contingent, Colonel Otter, attended the funeral along with other dignitaries.

A grand military night was later held at Spencer’s Pictures, Olympia, under the patronage of the commandant and head quarters staff, for the benefit of the Sarkies family. A special program was arranged with members of the metropolitan forces attending in full uniform, together with members of the South African Soldiers’ Association, home affairs Department, the Glenhuntly Lesees’ Association and the Carlton Football Club; with all of which the former committeeman was intimately connected.

Reliance on Stars a Blight on the System

The observations of Malcolm Blight are formed with a unique perspective: star North Melbourne forward and premiership player, coach of Geelong in three losing Grand Finals, followed by dual premierships coaching Adelaide. No less spectacular was his brief stint as coach of St Kilda and controversial dismissal. Recently, during a television broadcast, I heard Blight repeat a familiar view of his: “Even stars have bad days” and then cautioning an over-reliance on “star systems”.

I had been (and still am) intrigued by his comments on star systems, and welcomed the opportunity to discuss the subject with him. Personal experiences of star systems had shaped my understanding of football. As a youngster, I passionately barracked for South Melbourne. I recall crying unbearably when South would lose – and I cried a lot.

Salvation was an extreme devotion to the Swans’ lone and exceptional star, triple Brownlow medallist Bobby Skilton. In my book, he was best on ground every time he played and never made a clanger. No doubt many who have followed teams consistently finishing at the bottom of the ladder feel this binding scenario of regular disappointment and adulation. Perhaps the most recent example is Richmond fans and the special emotions they attributed to Matthew Richardson.
Ultimately, this is one spectrum of a star system, a situation where the ranks of the stars available to a team are spread too thinly and the backup troops struggle to fill the gap. Alternatively, Blight’s experiences are at the other end of the spectrum. Blessed with super talent, his association is with star-studded teams during his playing era and coaching involvements at Geelong and Adelaide.

My conversation with him started with me mentioning the stark contrast I found between barracking for South Melbourne and then, as a recruit, walking into Carlton and confronting a locker room of genuine stars. There was awe but, importantly, it was immediately drilled into me the ‘team’ was the star attraction and everyone involved was required to contribute their respective talents.

Blight acknowledged similar sentiments, but went further to explain his particular issues with star systems. “At Geelong, we played in three losing Grand Finals. These were good teams but, like any team, it was critical to win or at least stay on even terms in the midfield,” he said. “I felt we lost those Grand Finals mainly because our midfield was beaten on the day and this exposed our defence, which was not blessed with super talent. “We had the stars in the midfield,” he said, referring to players the calibre of Brownlow medallist Paul Couch, Mark Bairstow and Garry ‘Buddha’ Hocking, “but there was not much I could do about it. We had a lot of players in the team who had developed into set roles and I couldn’t change things around that much. “I’m of the view, if a star is struggling on the day, get him to play a different role and at least take out someone important from the opposition.”

At Adelaide, he immediately took measures to make sure the same circumstances did not repeat. Consequently, a crop of midfield stars, including Mark Ricciuto, Mark Bickley, Andrew McLeod, Simon Goodwin and Darren Jarman, spent various times rotating in different roles, either forward or back. “Ben Hart was marvellous in defence,” he said, “because he was just as brilliant attending small and tall players. As a defender, Nigel Smart could easily be switched into attack.” In two winning Grand Finals, Blight’s tactical moves are legendary, including the unexpected and successful match-up of McLeod playing in the centre on Saint Robert Harvey, ruckman David Pittman at centre half-back on Stewart Loewe, Ricciuto switching to half-back against North Melbourne and Jarman bobbing up at full-forward for a combined 11 goals in the two wins.

Based on this reasoning – and casting an eye to the present – Blight is convinced that, of the controversial trade of Brendan Fevola from Carlton to the Brisbane Lions and Daniel Bradshaw from the Lions to the Sydney Swans, it is the Swans who have benefited most. “Both are outstanding forwards who have kicked a similar number of goals over distinguished careers,” he said. “But Bradshaw is the far better proposition. He is adaptable. He can play defence as well as attack. It’s best if the star fits within the system, rather than the star becoming the system.”
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

A Theory Out of Left Field

An outlandish proposition was recently floated about the club whose colourful president is fond of wearing a flamboyant jacket. Last month, a backpage newspaper story claimed the Hawks won the 2008 premiership because the team was stacked with left-footers. I have news for the re-born left-winger Jeff Kennett. Hawthorn won the flag because it had the talent credentials and form at the right time of the season to win a flag.

Critically, its second half in the 2008 Grand Final was an absolute blinder. In contrast, its Grand Final opponent Geelong was blessed with more talent credentials and also had displayed good form, but had a shocker in the second half. That’s footy – sometimes it just happens this way.

Talented players and teams have good and bad days. Left- or right-sidedness had nothing to do with the result. For the sake of testing, let’s say it was possible to substitute Hawthorn left-foot premiership players Lance Franklin, Luke Hodge and Stuart Dew with the right-footed Nick Riewoldt, Chris Judd and Lindsay Gilbee. Would this have diminished the Hawks’ chances? No way.

There are activities and sports in which left- or rightsidedness is an advantage, due mainly to specific factors. Military statistics confirm that left-sided soldiers have a higher chance of getting killed in battle than their right-sided counterparts, primarily because of right-biased weaponry. Notwithstanding Phil Mickelson’s win in last week’s United States Masters, elite golf is another activity treating lefties poorly. The availability and range of left-sided clubs is limited. Hence, promising right-sided youngsters get all the advantages of access to equipment and coaching, and it is rare to see a left-hander on the professional golfing circuit.

Across all societies worldwide, the general population comprises about 90 per cent right-sided people. As such, life isn’t always easy for the minority 10 per cent. Indeed, in darker times, leftsidedness was often frowned upon as freakish and sinful. I recall a time not so long ago, before coach Terry Wallace took the reins at Richmond, when coaching staff blamed the club’s woes on too many leftfooters in the team.

Prejudice can also lead to strange conclusions. For instance, it is often claimed leftfooters kick the ball differently and faster, flatter and more accurately than right footers, despite the fact there is no reliable evidence or reason why this is the case, other than a right-sided perceptual view of the world.

Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times and I can gladly declare the adorable Sherrin is not biased to one side (like a lawn bowl) and the alignment of the centre circle, centre and goalsquares and scoring sticks are set perfectly plumb. A goal kicked from the left or the right pocket is worth six points and, over time, the number of goals kicked from either pocket is, I predict, about the same. The configuration of an AFL ground is a marvellously open and expansive canvas in which the result invariably boils down to a glorious mix of talent, tactical nous and luck.

If there were an advantage either way for either left- or rightfoot kicking, it would most likely appear in goalkicking statistics. Because the general population is represented 90 per cent and 10 per cent rightand left-sided respectively, it is reasonable to assume at least one of the 10 all-time leading goal scorers is a left footer – Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd. (Stats buffs are encouraged to test this proposition of one in every 10 by scouring through the goalkicking records).

The reason Hawthorn has had recent premiership success with an abundance of left-foot players is better explained by a coaching and recruitment philosophy that is non-preferential. The Hawks looked at talent on genuine merit, rather than lopsided views of counterparts. A similar occurrence of illogical bias once concerned indigenous players. How many were overlooked by recruiters in the past? Now, ignorance of indigenous talent is perilous for the career of a recruiter.

Perhaps, occasionally wheeling to the left rather than the right does have some tactical advantage. But it is surprisingly short-lived. Hawthorn, beware! It is in the nature of elite opponents to adjust, shut down and counterattack, catching off guard an opposition overly committed to one side of the ground.
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

Too much tackling means too little attacking

Did too much tackling hurt St Kilda’s chances of winning last season’s flag? It is possible, if chasing tail came at the expense of creativity? For example, in the first 11 home and away rounds, the Saints set AFL benchmarks for combined defence and attack, with an average of 68 tackles a game and 106 points scored.

However, in their next 11 games, the pendulum tipped notably in favour of defence with an even higher tackle count of 76 a match while their scoring dropped to 94 points per outing. This swing continued during their three finals, when they registered 81 tackles a game and averaged only 69 points. St Kilda’s 2009 achievements, based on its supreme defensive effort, prompted a growing chorus hailing tackle counts as a critical measure for winning games.

However, the evidence says otherwise. Using the tackle-count ‘winner’ as a guide to who will win games is tricky. First, the published numbers are only raw statistics. There is no separate classification as to relative effectiveness. And second, even a simple calculation such as the table of average team tackles for 2009 highlights why raw tackle numbers don’t count as much as often assumed. Yes, St Kilda’s season average of 72 is significantly higher than the rest (see table), but premier Geelong ranked only sixth. The Western Bulldogs, Collingwood and Adelaide all made the final eight and ranked just below the competition average for tackles.

A plausible correlation between team tackling averages and premiership ladder success does not exist. Never has. The reason is simple. It’s generally better to have the ball than not have the ball and tackling is often an indicator of being second-to-the ball, chasing tail and an overly defensive mindset.

Various studies by respected sport mathematicians have confirmed this principle. Taking into account all games played in a season, these studies confirm that winning the tackle count results in just a whisker above a 50-50 chance of winning a game. A more recent study by sport mathematicians goes further in challenging tackling assumptions. The record-breaking average of 124 a game in 2009 compared to the combined previous three-season average of 103 a game does not mean tackles have suddenly become more important for winning games.

His correlations between tackle differences and score margin for each of the past 10 seasons shows no significant change occurring. A more plausible explanation for this leap in tackling in 2009 is the concurrent increase in the number of handballs, ineffective kicks, interchange and rugby-style scrimmages of play creating more chances for tackling. Greater insight is possible if there were a distinction between the quality and significance of tackles. But this is not officially available and the current definition is rather vague: When a player stops an opposition player with possession of the ball from getting his kick or handball away in a legal manner, or reduces the effectiveness of the opposition’s disposal.

Often the subjectivity of calling tackles within an acceptable range of accuracy is a challenge, notwithstanding the sophistication of today’s software capture systems. Now, with the aid of technology, identifying the relative effectiveness of tackles can be done. The highest rating should be awarded to any tackle resulting in a direct turnover of possession (frees for included), stoppage, goal-saver or match-saver. The next grading are tackles that effectively ruin a kick or handball, when the player in possession has prior opportunity.

A critical distinction here is the tackle occurs when the play is active. Far more problematic is classifying the large volume of tackles occurring in the frequent rugby-style scrimmages of play when a player takes possession with little or no prospects and is immediately wrapped up. No one doubts the Saints’ brilliance in all three categories of tackling and I am sure they will continue on this path in 2010. But they must also rediscover their creative genes. They have two remarkable stars showing the way creatively and defensively – Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt.
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

Making Sense of the Moves

At half-time in the 1970 Carlton- Collingwood Grand Final, coach Ron Barassi nodded and said: “Hopkins, you’re on”. I kicked four goals in the second half and since have been known as the game’s most famous reserve or ‘bench’ player.

Forty years ago, it was considered a risk to interchange an uninjured player early in a game, because the rules did not permit a player to return to the field after coming off. The coach’s call that day was both daring and desperate – and ultimately, it was rewarded. I immediately understood the call as a privilege and a rare chance, and I’m proud I kept my end of the bargain.
You might think, then, that I’m all for rapid-fire bench action, but not in the form it takes today. Honestly, I’m as confused as anyone (coaches and players included) as to what’s happening on and off the bench. Today, often a player will kick a goal and run straight off the ground – an alien concept to players of my vintage.

In another era, there were only three things a player did after kicking a goal: he’d stay silent for fear of getting belted by a grisly backman; he’d bum-tap a teammate and say “Thanks mate” for helping set up the goal, or he’d run around yelling “Come on fellas”. (Now, we might be on the verge of seeing the first git pull his jumper over his head and take a running summersault after booting a goal.)

In my previous role with Champion Data, the AFL’s official statistics provider, I was involved in setting up the monitoring of interchange numbers. We started recording them in 2006, and there was an average of 92 a game. The exponential increase since is staggering – last year, there were 182 a match, on average. Likewise, the increase in football department staff using technology in an attempt to make sense of it all is also confounding.

At a typical game today, each club has a bench manager and specialist fitness and conditioning coaches sitting on the sidelines, next to an AFL interchange steward assisted by the reserve umpire and an official statistician. In each coach’s box, there are at least two places (often more) assigned to assistant coaches and statisticians monitoring interchanges and match-ups. At least two official game statisticians watch from the media box. Supporting this Avatar style production are four main technology systems and respective back-up technicians, available in various degrees and configurations, depending on the demand from clubs and media: the software for capturing and reporting numbers and players, computerised whiteboards, bench manager reporting software packages along with GPS devices and reporting software.

It looks impressive, but is it overkill? Although it seems head coaches generally support unrestricted limitations on interchange rotations, I have been hearing private concerns from some. Foremost is the view key coaching decisions are increasingly being overtaken by fitness and conditioning personnel, instead of being made by those with football knowledge – the men charged with making tactical decisions.

With so much technologically generated data aimed at the box, by the time a coach’s decision is conveyed to the bench, a series of other interchanges may have already been triggered by a software package. The end result is a match-up swirl close to impossible to track, or verify, by anyone.

Apart from selected key position match-ups and hard tags, the rest can look like an extreme example of chaos theory. As a fan, I like tracing the moves of players and coaches seeking tactical advantage. The current interchange frenzy denies this. Indeed, other football codes such as soccer, rugby league and union and American Football feature rules limiting player substitutions, partly designed so that fans can make genuine player-on-player assessments. Barassi’s 1970 Grand Final substitution is high on a distinguished list of memorable coaching moves credited with changing the course of the game.

But game theory dictates there is a better chance of winning by maximising the on-field time spent by the best 18 players available – maximising their respective skills – in the context of pressure being exerted by the opposition. Getting it right is the challenge for coaches, and watching it unfold is an intriguing study for fans. Right now, simply being able to make sense of the chaos has become the hardest thing to do.
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

Vale Ron Austin

The Spirit of Carlton Past and Present was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Ron Austin, Rod Austin’s father.

The SOC would like to extend its deep condolences to Rod and his family at this difficult time.