Just as Leigh Matthews categorises AFL coaches as those who have been sacked and those who are waiting to be sacked, it is often said that an AFL club isn’t a complete club until it has sacked a coach.
And while there are different definitions of ‘sacked’, ranging from ‘get out’ to ‘we won’t be extending your contract’, it’s been a legitimate thing since Brisbane and West Coast joined a then 12-team VFL in 1987 to begin the transformation to an 18-team AFL in 2022.
It’s never pretty and never easy on the man who is shown the door, and it was especially so when the Brisbane Bears sacked inaugural coach Peter Knights after Round 15 1989.
In a sad moment in the clubs history, Knights was terminated after the Bears copped a 74-point hiding from Geelong at Carrara to sit 13th on the 14-team ladder at 3-12, one game ahead of fellow 1987 competition newcomers West Coast.
While the football department and the playing group were 100% percent behind Knights, the owner's Paul Cronin and Christopher Skase decided they needed to make a statement.
It all came about after a massive night in club history when they turned on the lights at Carrara for the first time on Saturday night 15 July and a then-record crowd of 18,198 saw the Bears play the Cats.
Oddly, the magnificent Carrara lights, reportedly strong enough even for night cricket and more powerful than the MCG, were a new experience even for the Bears players. They had been denied a ‘dress rehearsal’ prior to the match because chairman Cronin didn’t want the impact of this historic occasion to be dulled. Instead, the home side had trained three times at minimal capacity. So, when Cronin and Albert Shire Council chairman Bill Laver pulled the makeshift lever to turn on the power it really was an enlightening experience for anyone within sight of Carrara.
But despite all the glitz and glamour of a $40,000 opening ceremony hosted by Philip Brady and including Colleen Hewett, 400 dancers, fireworks and a laser light show, it was a dark night that would see Knights dismissed four days later.
Geelong, the highest-scoring team in the League at the time, trounced the Bears 151 to 71, kicking 12 goals in the final stanza after the margin had been just 14 points 11 minutes into the final quarter.
The 74-point defeat came on top of four consecutive losses to Richmond (19 points), Fitzroy (14 points), Hawthorn (71 points) and Melbourne (14 points) and left Knights struggling to contain his emotions. He locked his players away for 30 minutes after the match and later told how earlier in the day some of them had laughed when they heard West Coast had been beaten 18 to 160 by Essendon.
At about 1.30pm on Wednesday 19 July Knights, taking a private skills session on the oval with Bernie Harris, was summoned to the board room by Cronin. With a shell-shocked CEO Ken Murphy and football boss Shane O’Sullivan sitting silently beside him, Cronin told Knights his services were no longer required. His contract until the end of 1990 had been terminated and would be paid out.
It was the final chapter in Knights’ worst nightmare. “As soon as I walked in I could tell by the look on their faces that something was up, but not in my wildest dreams did I expect what I got,” Knights, one of football’s absolute gentlemen, explained later.
“I was probably pretty naive, and I knew that maybe I might have had some work to do at the end of the season, but this wasn’t the way things were done where I came from,” he said. “Paul spoke immediately and was straight to the point. Sponsors and supporters weren’t happy, and they hadn’t been happy for weeks. Something had to be done, he told me, and my services were no longer required.
“I was dumbfounded. I said to Shane and Ken ‘what’s he saying?’ but all they could do was shake their heads. I felt like I’d just taken a dagger through the heart and I became pretty emotional. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Shane and Ken said they wanted it on the record that they did not support what was being done. I remember asking ‘who’s going to coach’ and being told it was none of my business. After that I can’t remember much about what was said.”
Knights asked Murphy and O’Sullivan to make sure news of his dismissal did not get out until he’d had a chance to contact those closest to him.
“Not long afterwards the phone started ringing. It didn’t stop. I couldn’t answer all the calls but I’ve still got the little pieces of paper on which I wrote all the messages. So many people rang which was really reassuring. Even Capps (Warwick Capper) called. “Knightsy, Capps here, no hard feelings mate, all the best,” he said. It did help me get things into perspective, and to realise that it was only football, and that I still had a lot of family and friends. That support was really important to me.”
Despite the Knights fiasco, Round 15 has been a good one for the club. They’ve enjoyed a 23-10 record – 15-7 at home and 8-3 away – and have a cumulative Round 15 percentage of 122.1
Other memorable moments include:
1999 – What a Turnaround
The Lions were still getting used to new coach Leigh Matthews when, sitting 5th on the ladder, they hosted 13th-placed Hawthorn at the Gabba in Round 15 1999. It was expected to be a straightforward win, and while the home side eventually took the points it was anything but.
At halftime Hawthorn led by 33 points. But the home side kicked a blistering 9-4 to 0-1 in the third term and cruised to victory 92 to 61.
Jason Akermanis was best afield with 29 possessions and two goals, while Matthew Clarke was dominant in the ruck, Chris Scott provided a lot of dash off half back, Matthew Kennedy did a fine job on key Hawk Nick Holland, and a young Simon Black, in his 22nd game, gave of a sneak preview of what was to come.
2006 – The End for Akermanis
The Lions beat North Melbourne by a point at Docklands in Round 15 2006, coming from 19 points down early in the last quarter to get seven points up inside the last four minutes.
It was a thriller but look in the history books and it was as if it didn’t happen. Because all the commentary in the week that followed the game was about Jason Akermanis.
It was Akermanis’ 248th and last game in Brisbane colors. Despite having kicked three goals, including two in the final quarter when swung forward by coach Leigh Matthews, he found himself dropped from the AFL side.
A statement issued under the name of captain Michael Voss confirming Akermanis’ non-selection said: “The match committee and leadership group believe that due to his lack of form and inability to meet team disciplines, standards and expectations, we have decided to take this action. Aka is still a valued person at the Brisbane Lions Football Club and an important member of our team but has failed recently to meet team guidelines on and off the field. The decision of when he returns will be determined by his willingness to embrace our ethos and in no way insinuates anything about his long-term future at the club."
Akermanis played that week with the Suncoast Lions in the curtain-raiser to the Lions’ clash with Hawthorn at Carrara, and after kicking five goals and committing himself to club principles returned to the AFL side in Round 8.
His form improved significantly, and as the Lions enjoyed a 5-1 winning run from Round 8-13 he averaged almost 20 possessions and kicked 18 goals.
On 20 July, the Herald Sun in Melbourne had published an article under the headline “Akermanis: I want to play in Melbourne” which included some explosive comments from the triple premiership star.
Again he was dropped from the side to play Hawthorn in Round 16. In a statement from the club which confirmed the decision taken by the match committee in consultation with the players’ leadership group it was revealed ‘extensive quotes from Jason have caused great concern and convinced us that he is not currently prepared to accept the team-first attitude required of all our players’. It concluded that future selection would be determined by Akermanis’ on-going actions.
In the story Akermanis had been quoted as saying there was a mere “5% chance” he would remain with the Lions in 2007, and that he didn’t need to prove his character to prospective bidders. He said Melbourne was the only city he would live in the following year.
Akermanis, who was playing his 12th season in the AFL at 29, said he expected to play another five years at the top level.
"I believe I will be playing for five more years. Clubs may be thinking, well, a 26-year-old can give us five years and 26 is better than 30. The quality you will get from me is not going to change from what it has been. I have shown this year I haven't lost a yard of pace - if anything I am getting quicker."
Brisbane beat Hawthorn at the Gabba without Akermanis in Round 16, and two days later on Monday 24 July Akermanis sought and was granted leave from the club, effective immediately and up until the end of the season. There was to be no further comment from either party.
After the Lion's season finished, Akermanis announced he wanted a trade to the Western Bulldogs.
On 9 October, the first day of trade week, a deal was done. The Lions sent Akermanis to the Bulldogs in exchange for selection #34 in the 2006 AFL Draft, which was later used to secure West Adelaide midfielder Chris Schmidt.
Happily, all is forgotten and forgiven now and 45-year-old Akermanis is a regular at Gabba games as the Lions look to build a successful era just as the Bears had done when a 17-year-old redhead from local club Mayne arrived on the AFL scene to begin a 325-game career that was both brilliant and breathtaking, colorful and controversial. Always.