When Leigh Matthews arrived at the Gabba in October 1998 the Brisbane Lions were nothing short of a rabble. The coach had been sacked, the captain had a broken leg, and the Board was in turmoil. And they were entrenched at the bottom of the ladder.
They were so bad that heading into the last round of the season they only had to stay bad for one more game to claim the prized first two picks in the 1998 National Draft.
With four wins, a draw and 16 losses they were already guaranteed the wooden-spoon and pick #1. Another loss and they would also qualify for a priority pick at #2. All they had to do was not beat the in-form St.Kilda, who sat equal third and were locked in a three-way battle for a top four finish. Win and they’d get the double-chance.
So what happened? Brisbane won by a point on the last kick of the night.
And that was only the public face of it all. Much more was going on behind closed doors. Most of it. So bad it was impossible to see any sort of quick and positive turnaround.
But turn it around they did. And 1157 days later, on 29 September 2001, the AFL basketcase of 1998 were the AFL Premiers of 2001. And two years further on they were the Premiers of 2001-02-03.
Here, as the Lions look forward to the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 2003 flag with a combined Hall of Fame dinner at the Brisbane Convention Centre on Wednesday 30 August we recount the key steps from purgatory to perfection.
Ironically, as the disasters of 1998 began Matthews was close at hand. Working for Channel 7, he had travelled with the Lions to South Africa for a pre-season game against Fremantle.
He’d witnessed first-hand the beginnings of a year which would unravel mid-season when Michael Voss broke his leg in Round 11, coach John Northey was sacked and replaced by interim coach Roger Merrett amid disharmony at the board table over chairman Noel Gordon’s handling of the affair.
But the mid-season upheaval was only the very public climax of a year from hell which, in the eyes of many, began with an independent review into the internal workings of the club, conducted by Human Resources Department of accounting giants Coopers & Lybrand at the direction of chairman Gordon.
Operating in good faith with the support of the Board, Gordon felt that there was a need for the Board, administration, coaching staff, support staff and players to have the opportunity of input into a survey of the workings of the football operation.
It was intended to assist the coaching and support staff in the execution of their duties, and was undertaken without the consent of the football department in response to what the Board considered an unacceptable on-field performance in 1997.
In an exhausting process, Coopers & Lybrand staff interviewed personally a cross-section of players and support staff. From there, they set down a survey of 52 questions into two parts. All relevant parties were asked to complete the survey anonymously, and make any criticisms and recommendations. From there came a strict course of action. New lines of communication, new decision-making processes and a new accountability were implemented.
Gordon, open in his assessment of the revolutionary program and strong enough in his support of the venture to ensure it happened, admitted at the time that a survey of this nature could not on its own change attitudes. People change attitudes, he said, But sometimes a special tool is required to make things change.
“We have set in place a structure whereby people involved have a degree of ownership in the football club, particularly the players and the decision-making process. Maybe the disappointments of ’97 will be the foundation for building in ’98. We have the best playing list in the competition – I have no doubt about that – and now I believe we have put in place a structure whereby we can give ourselves the best chance to perform to our potential,” Gordon said.
Critical to the operation was a 10-man Players Committee or Core Group, as they called it. Elected by the players, this group would represent the players’ interests in regular communications with the football hierarchy. It comprised co-captains Voss and Alastair Lynch, vice-captain Matthew Clarke, plus Marcus Ashcroft, Andrew Bews, Richard Champion, Shaun Hart, Craig Lambert, Nigel Lappin and Justin Leppitsch.
But CEO Andrew Ireland, Director of Football Scott Clayton, coach Northey and Football Manager Shane Johnson admitted six and seven years later they were against the idea, believing it gave people with a personal axe to grind an open forum to do so, almost to the point of sanctioning it. It gave people at the lower end of the club’s operation a right to have opinions on top-end matters and overall club philosophies over which they should not have been concerned.
So even before it really began the season of disaster was off to a bumpy start. And it hadn’t got any better when the Lions, in their third season under coach Northey, got to Round 10 with a 2-8 record. But worse was still to come. Much worse.
Playing 13th-placed Fremantle at Subiaco in Round 11, the 15th-placed Lions were beaten 7-8 (50) to 17-19 (121) and captain Voss, in his second year sharing the captaincy with Lynch after he’d won the Brownlow Medal in 1996, broke his leg.
The year was done. On Wednesday afternoon, 10 June, the club issued a statement confirming the sacking of coach Northey and the appointment of Roger Merrett, long-time captain turned assistant-coach, as interim coach for the remainder of the season.
It was no great surprise. Damian Barrett, then writing for The Courier-Mail, had forecast Northey’s demise. “Northey tipped for axe’ said the headlines, although Barrett only had it half right. He’d tipped Carlton assistant-coach Wayne Brittain to take over, and had confirmed via Carlton CEO Stephen Gough that although Brittain was contracted to the Blues for 1999 they would not stand in his way if he was offered the senior job.
Barrett, now AFL Media’s Chief Correspondent, added a ‘saver’. He indicated that Merrett wasn’t altogether out of the race. Two weeks earlier he wasn’t being considered, he wrote, but had firmed in the betting via his impressive job coaching the Lion Cubs (Reserves), his public silence on the coaching drama, and his favourite son reputation.
His ‘saver’ proved to be right after a special Lions Board Meeting was called in the immediate wake of the big loss in Perth.
It was a special meeting with a difference. Alastair Bayles, in Melbourne on business, was online from Melbourne with Victorian directors Laurie Serafini, David Lucas and Ken Levy. Gordon, Piper, Ben Macdonald, Graeme Downie, Neville Fallon and Mac Tolliday were in Brisbane, and Neville Blunt, inadvertently delayed, had given his proxy vote to Piper.
Even before the coaching position was discussed there was high drama after Gordon advised of a proposal from Piper recommending that the positions of Chairman and Deputy Chairman be spilled. And that it would be dealt with as soon as Blunt arrived.
Believing Gordon had reneged on his commitment not to push for Northey’s sacking, Piper confirmed that he did not want to make any decision on the coaching position until the leadership positions had been decided.
He explained why he believed he should be elected Chairman. Gordon voiced his disappointment, adding that only five days earlier, on the Friday, he and Piper had discussed a resolution to delay any decision relating to the coaching decision. But Gordon said the team’s poor performance over the weekend required positive action.
Gordon and Piper had spoken on the way to the meeting. As Gordon recalled later: “Alan rang me as I was driving along Coronation Drive on the way to the meeting. He said to me “I think you should resign”. I said “Why? I’m elected by the members of the Club and by the Board as Chairman. Until that changes I’ve got no intention of resigning.” I’m not the sort of person to back away from a fight. I couldn’t find any reason to do that back then, and I can’t now.”
At about 9.30am Blunt joined the meeting. Piper confirmed that he had not been lobbying for a position and believed that if Gordon was re-elected there would be greater positivity in the direction the Board was taking. It would have a stronger voice because there had been a vote.
Piper put his motion. It was seconded by Fallon but Lucas requested the motion be amended to two separate motions, effectively voting for the position of Chairman separately to the position of Deputy Chairman. This was seconded by Levy. The amended motion ‘that the position of Chairman be declared vacant’ was then considered. It was lost 4-7. Effectively, Gordon’s position as Chairman was confirmed.
Downie moved to confirm Piper’s position of Deputy Chairman. It was seconded by Fallon but Piper indicated that he would not accept the nomination. As Piper and Ben Macdonald left the room Macdonald fired a warning shot at Gordon … he had a divided Board, he said.
The Board meeting continued and a motion to terminate Northey immediately and appoint Merrett for the remainder of the season was carried 9-0. Piper and Macdonald, through their absence, had abstained. At the following Board meeting on 27 June, 18 days after Northey was sacked, the resignation of Piper and Macdonald was formally accepted.
There was plenty more going on, too. Downie, later to become chairman through the golden years, brokered a deal between Gordon and Piper whereby Gordon would see out the 1998 season and then stand down. No public challenge. No embarrassment. An exit with a little grace and dignity which Gordon more than deserved after such long and dedicated service.
A Flying Minute on 11 August 1998 confirmed the appointment of Piper, Macdonald and Pelly to the Board, and at the next Board meeting of 21 August 1998 Gordon stepped down as Chairman of the football sub-committee, thereby distancing himself from the search for a long-term coach. Downie was elected football sub-committee chairman, welcomed Piper to the sub-committee, and foreshadowed a complete end-of-season review of the football operation, with a strong focus on the medical structure.
But Piper was worried. His clear preference was for a proven coach. Someone like Matthews. Talks were already happening in the background, but the master coach’s first indication wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Piper didn’t like the continued uncertainty. He felt it was affecting the team and the club. Perhaps, he thought, it was better the devil he knew rather than continued uncertainty and the devil he didn’t know.
So, on Thursday evening, 13 August, 48 hours before the Round 20 Gabba clash with Hawthorn and two hours before he drove to Channel Nine’s Mt.Coot-tha studios to do an interview for “The Footy Show”, he invited Ireland, Clayton and Johnson to dinner.
The club trio met Piper at his Fortitude Valley offices shortly before 7pm and walked down to China Town in the Brunswick Street Mall. There, Piper dropped a bombshell. At the Chairman’s Dinner on the Saturday night he was going to announce the appointment of Merrett as coach for three years. He was initially asking for their support, but when this was not forthcoming he gave the three learned football men 30 minutes to talk him out of it. With Clayton very strong, they did.
“For the good of the club it had to be done because we had to get to the end of the season,” Clayton said 15 years later. “There were always going to be other alternatives available at the end of the year. We couldn’t afford to be locked into a coach without testing the market.”
It was the end for Merrett. And Clayton, who was collateral damage when Matthews arrived with his long-time lieutenant and soon-to-be Lions Football Manager Graeme ‘Gubby’ Allan.
Unbeknown to most, on the afternoon of the Round 22 game against Geelong, Matthews, on Channel 7 duty at the Gabba that night, had already accepted the Brisbane coaching job for 1999 after several weeks of clandestine meetings with Piper, Ireland and Downie.
He’d flown to Brisbane early to meet the Lions powerbrokers at Piper’s Dockside apartment and closed the deal with a handshake. There was still a contract to resolve and details to fine-tune, but as Matthews watched the Lions sneak home against the Cats he knew he was watching his team.