When you compare the 2011 season narrative of St Kilda, Melbourne and North Melbourne you get three very different stories. But the fortunes of each club are all intrinsically linked to one key factor: on-field leadership.
Most commentators attribute St Kilda’s woes this year as a hangover from a disastrous off-season. While I have no doubt it plays a role, I see a more significant factor: Lenny Hayes.
Hayes is perhaps the last of St Kilda’s real leaders from the 2000s. Aaron Hamill, Robert Harvey and Max Hudghton were fine leaders in their day and would often lift St Kilda off the canvas by their bootstraps.
But their days are gone, and when Hayes was cruelly taken down at the season’s commencement it was left to Riewoldt, Dal Santo, Goddard and Montagna to carry the can. They have failed dismally.
Melbourne’s season story has followed that of Jekyll and Hyde. While sides can be forgiven for losing to the likes of Collingwood, West Coast and Carlton, it’s the nature of the defeats which reveal Melbourne’s real issues. Their best has been good, but their worst has been insipid. Much of it can be attributed to poor on-field leadership.
James McDonald was retired one season too early and has exposed Brad Green as the downhill skier he’s always been. Moloney has shown patches and Nathan Jones has potential, but the depth of leadership just isn’t there.
In reality, this has been Melbourne’s story for many years. Not since the days of Lyon, Stynes and Viney has their been a strong group of senior leaders to marshal the troops.
By contrast, North Melbourne’s outstanding on-field leadership continues to show the way at Arden St. After facing a difficult early draw and missing out on a few close matches, North Melbourne were staring down the barrel of a horror season. The media had them as good as gone.
But not for the first time in our club’s proud history, our senior boys stuck it out and have lead a revival that sees North Melbourne just out of the eight.
Brent Harvey has continued to revel in his role as captain. Drew Petrie’s season is his best to-date, transforming an uncertain forward-line into the most potent we’ve seen at Arden St since the Carey era. His ability to make an aerial contest in almost any situation has given North a massive advantage.
While I’ve been critical of Brady Rawling’s disposal, no-one could question his leadership. His selfless example, exceptional positioning and competitive spirit make him irreplaceable at present. I called for his head too early.
Daniel Wells, finally fit and amongst a midfield with a hardened edge, is showing the leadership we always knew was in him.
And Andrew Swallow, the most likely successor to Harvey, has proven he has all the makings of a club champion. His fourth quarter gut-running in the face of a rising opposition has lifted the team back into the contest on a number of occasions.
But this richness of leadership hasn’t just appeared overnight. It has come about through generations of solid leadership, and a strong football culture.
Since Allen Aylett, Albert Mantello and Ron Joseph went about rectifying North Melbourne’s football culture in the early ’70s, it is no coincidence that the club has had a succession of exceptional on-field leadership.
I recall North’s leadership group of 2005 – Adam Simpson, Shannon Grant, Glenn Archer and Brent Harvey – stealing dozens of victories for the royal-blue and white against much more fancied opponents.
But whether its Wayne Schimmelbusch, the Krakouers, Anthony Stevens or Wayne Carey, the current crop of leaders owe much to their predecessors.
For it is these club stalwarts who have shown the way football is played at North Melbourne Football Club: with passion, courage and a competitive edge.
I call it the Shinboner spirit.