On Phil Walsh and being a man

A year ago Phil Walsh died and I wrote this. It still disconcerts me how, once we get over the shock of someone dying unexpectedly, it just becomes another story and we get used to it.

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These days men are trying to reconcile the gaps between being traditional men who are tough, who work, drink and fight, and existing as thinking, feeling beings.

Back in the 1980s anyone who reached for their water bottles in the middle of an arduous training session was considered a wimp. Now sports science is the word and knowledge has often become the new muscle at the elite level of footy – of course the body needs hydration to keep on trucking.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of muscle and toughness being non-negotiables. Therefore I suppose footy teams – and perhaps men in general – have decided these days that you may as well be tough and smart rather than simply tough.

Or maybe we can now put some (necessary or unnecessary?) emotion into it all, and go the Nathan Buckley route, in which every moment in life should be part of a constant evolving towards a goal, towards excellence, including mental and emotional excellence. But ‘evolution’ is too abstract a word, so it’s about the “journey”.

Phil Walsh had a nine-minute interview on The Sunday Footy Show on April 12 this year, after the Adelaide Crows had won their first two games of the year. I was impressed by the way he spoke. He was a man’s man, very to the point, no bullshit, someone who could keep control of a situation.
Much of what he discussed about being coach was leadership 101. He said he was big on ‘man conversations’, which meant that the players have to speak up when they need to get something off their chests.

He’d entered a club that had split with previous coach Brenton Sanderson in difficult circumstances (really, does anything ever end well?). Walsh said the first thing he did was tell the players to be men about it, were there any problems that needed addressing? There weren’t, and they moved on.

The leader leads, and isn’t an equal. Walsh described: It’s ok to disagree with some issues but then the team must commit or else it goes nowhere. You’ve got to have a relationship with all your players, you’re never going to be their friend. It’s an employer/employee relationship.

“You’ve got to find out what makes them tick, how far you can put pressure on some players, how much you need to be more of that fatherly figure. I always say pressure can break people but can push them to break records.”

It’s all stuff that is common sense yet difficult to achieve in any sphere in which more than fifty personalities are meshing, including Crows administrators. That was the rationale with which he’d selected Taylor Walker as Adelaide captain for 2015. With Tex, he said, there’s a sense of ‘Follow me or else, there are consequences if you don’t.’ That’s how collectives hold together, with discipline.

But man is not made on strength alone. “I surf. That’s my outlet, that’s my pilates or yoga.” Could men have even mentioned the word ‘yoga’ a decade ago? Even the Phil Walshes of the world need to be rounded, and need a connection. Maybe they always have had that need, but now they can admit it.

Three years ago Walsh was hit by a bus in Peru. He had never been desperate in his career before, but it was a moment to make him realise: I want to be a senior coach. He sent his wife back there to take a photo of the intersection he was hit and used it as his laptop background as a reminder to stay positive. He started learning Japanese. He tried to establish a better relationship with his son, who in the end allegedly murdered him.

I wonder if using transcendental experiences in mundane settings like laptop photos lessen their emotional effect through the repetition of routine. Mentally switching on to an emotional need, trying to replicate that sense of desperation that every moment must be used to its full, is not an easy thing to remember even if a photo of a road is staring you in the face.

Even the interview seemed more ordinary when I watched it just now for a second time. Impact is hard to maintain indefinitely, or even twice. How did Alastair Clarkson maintain it so effectively for over ten years?

I don’t take a shine to many people I don’t know, so when I did with Phil Walsh it was slightly sadder than it could have been to me, with slightly more of a personal touch. His murder became more unbelievable – when I first read the headline, I actually thought for a few seconds maybe it really didn’t happen.

Seemingly nothing can go back to normal after a man is cruelly, randomly handed death – until it simply does again. I thought I’d never get over the nagging shock of young cricketer Phil Hughes, who one minute was going about his cricket, maybe that night he needed to pick up some groceries or something, and a second later had been struck and killed, just like that.

But by the end of the summer Brad Haddin was telling admirable Kiwi batsman Grant Elliott to fuck off back to the pavilion and nothing had changed. Now to me, Hughes’ death has become simply something that happened.

Last night’s Hawthorn-Collingwood match in prospect seemed impossible. How could players go full tilt at a football when a guy like Phil Walsh has just been murdered? In the event, it was the great match, and greater occurrence, of the season.

There was no hoopla. There were no childlike club songs based on corny American dandies. It was just 44 men pushing themselves to their limits, and when the siren went they could simply rest, and be happy, in Hawthorn’s case.

Nathan Buckley has always been about recognising that people must go below what is apparent on the surface, to recognise what is truly important. When racism was an issue, he stated: As well as racism, we also need to think about and help people who are rejected anywhere, for any reason. For a guy who carries himself so strongly he is dangerously close to recognising that emotions go hand- in-hand with being human, for an industry that in the past couldn’t even reach for its water bottles.

His message yesterday read: “So sad to hear of Phil Walsh’s death. No sense to it. We are all flesh and blood. Love each other. Thoughts with all family and friends.”

I was not surprised that Buckley could come up with that but was that the l-word could come into a footy forum even in these exceptional circumstances.

I was also not surprised that he could be involved in the best gesture I’ve ever seen on a footy field. Two sets of players all got into the same huddle with two coaches arm-in- arm. It was Clarkson’s idea, told to Buckley and two experienced players who could handle the information beforehand without their game going to pieces.

They were Scott Pendlebury and Luke Hodge, a straight shooter similar to Phil Walsh. I thought the two were unusually chatty at the end, when losing players are supposed to sink into the mire rather than soak in the occasion of a match well played or reveal through body language that a loss didn’t affect them like Brendan Fevola did a few years ago. AFL players still have to be tough. They still have to act it at times, even in this PC era. I guess, losing should hurt, otherwise you don’t strive to get better. It was Buckley as a commentator who had decried Fevola’s relaxed chatting in 2008.

I loved the silence of post-game last night. I watched with long breath when each Collingwood player linked with a Hawk and they bowed head in the centre circle. As Rohan Connolly once wrote when describing Hawthorn chairing off Leigh Matthews after the 1985 Grand Final: the best moments cannot be choreographed.

Vale Phil Walsh.

 

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