With all the trouble down at Richmond, the media frenzy over the coaching futures market has already begun. And with North’s Dean Laidley out of contract at season’s end, specultation on his future will be rife.
There’s no doubt 2009 will be a critical year for the Junkyard Dog. It is now his seventh season as North Melbourne’s senior coach, and his critics in North’s supporting ranks (who are probably still in the minority) will argue that he’s had his chance to deliver. Without a strong finals appearance this year, there’s no doubt some will be calling for his head. But does Laidley deserve another chance?
Laidley came to North in 2003. In the few years preceding, North had lost all of its leadership. North’s player of the century, Wayne Carey, had been dumped by the players; Ron Casey, the much-loved club President, had passed away; Greg Miller left as CEO; and Denis Pagan was lured to Carlton for $700,000 contract. It was left to aging North administrator, Allen Aylett, to step back up as club President and hold things together.
Laidley, Collingwood’s well-respected assistant coach, was given the coaching role, due to his cheap price-tag as much as anything else. He inherited what most commentators thought to be an aging list that had out-performed itself in 2002, finishing 7th. The kick-it-to-Carey game plan was still on, despite Carey’s absence.
But more significantly, Laidley had the fewest resources in the league. Football department spending was a luxury, and players routinely chipped in to buy basic amenities. And Laidley was under instruction to delivery something. Not a premiership, that was unachievable, but a strong start to the season and an honourable finish – enough to keep the members happy, and enough to keep the club afloat. Bottoming out was not an option.
Throughout 2003-2007, Laidley had next to nothing to work with, yet he delivered more than could ever be expected. Moulding the team in his own image, Laidley’s North Melbourne embodied the club’s proud history. Disciplined, fierce and perennially underrated, no opposition team ever took North for granted. After just missing the finals in ’03 and ’04, North had a cracker 2005, routinely beating highly fancied opponents. Even when North bombed out in the first week of the finals, most North supporters were wrapped with Laidley’s season.
2006 was a dud. Misjudging the 2005 team as one on the make, NMFC used draft picks to top-up the list. Laidley also followed the flooding trend too late, and discovered the hard way that the game became one of speed and skill rather than strength and size. What was refreshing was that he owned up to it, opening stating his failings to the media.
But season 2007 was one for the ages. Widely tipped as the competition’s wooden spooners, Carey called for Laidley’s head before a game had been played. An arrangement to play three home games on the Gold Coast turned into weekly relocation speculation. The Board was divided, President Graham Duff resigning mid-year without any clear successor, and dithered for months over Laidley’s contract. But boy did he deliver. With almost everything against them, North made the preliminary finals for the first time since 2000. Never before had I felt such pride in my club – ’99 and ’96 premierships didn’t even come close.
It wasn’t until the off-field drama climaxed at Dallas Brooks Hall in December 2007 that Laidley was given the backing he’d earned. Demanding increased football expenditure as part of his renewed contract (“I want North Melbourne Football Club to thrive, not just survive”), Brayshaw and gun recruit Eugene Arocca (CEO) began working on a strategy to provide it. The football department went from 5 or 6 in 2003 to 23 full-time staff.
On the surface, 2008 was a let down, particularly against the backdrop of 2007. But as an obsessive fan, I saw new players emerge, new structures solidify and real progress among the boys. If the trend continues this year (after four rounds I’ve only seen glimpses), you’d expect Laidley to be offered another 2 years. If not, it’s still a tough call. After all that he’s done for the club, I reckon he’s earned another crack if he wants it.
But there are two big question marks hanging over Laidley’s head. First is the team’s finals record: 1 win, 4 losses. Second is his media performance. While I have always held the opinion that media performance isn’t an issue when you’re winning games, he has publicly put the heat on some of his players. First Daniel Harris, then Hamish McIntosh was put up as trade-bait. The latest is Daniel Wells, who Laidley damned as soft. Whether this is an actual issue or just a media beat-up is hard to know. But while the players continue to play for him, I don’t worry about it too much.
Finally, I have complete faith in North’s much-needed new leadership team of Brayshaw and Arocca. Whatever the scenario, they will make the right call.
But whichever way they go, I will always hold a special place in my heart for the Junk-Yard Dog. He, as much as anyone, has ensured North’s continued survival. And I will never forget the pride he has instilled in my great football club.