When Brian Cook was CEO of Geelong, he had a folder on his computer for all the vicious emails he received from fans, coterie groups and board members. He labelled it “Assassins”.
It’s easy to forget just how dire things were at the Cats when he took over. The coach and captain walked out. The team was useless and the club had no money. Garry Hocking was forced to change his name by deed poll to ‘Whiskas’ to rustle up 100 grand. “The organisation had no structures, no layers,” Cook told writer James Button. “It was like a local footy club.”
In the depths of Covid, he took on the Carlton job. The Blues have had more five-year plans than the Soviets, but this felt different. “This is a significant pillar of the club’s reset strategy,” president Luke Sayers said. “My first focus,” Cook added, “will be on connecting with as many people as possible, and making sure we are aligned on how we are going to push this football club to achieve the success it is striving for.” A few days later, Michael Voss was appointed coach. The day after that, John Elliott died. The old Carlton was dead.
With a slick new regime and a team ready to pop, Carlton were flying at the halfway point last year. The captain, Patrick Cripps, was in career-best form and the Blues were a great team to watch. The entire club had its swagger back. But they’ve since won just eight from 21 games.
Their final fortnight of the 2022 season was a textbook study in how a football club can drive a supporter base to the brink. In the final two minutes of the Collingwood game in round 23, the look on the face of broadcaster and supporter Andrew Maher was a neat snapshot of the Carlton condition. It was the look of a man doing deep, emotional calculus. How do I hold it together here, he seemed to be thinking as the Blues slid to a one-point defeat. How do I resist the urge to exit the box, and throttle one of the 60,000 Collingwood supporters celebrating like loons? How, in the name of Jumping Jesaulenko, did my team lose that game?
This week hasn’t been as desolate as that. But Cook’s assassins are out in force. On Friday, Australia’s pokies king Bruce Mathieson went nuclear in an extraordinary interview for the Herald Sun. “We are run pathetically,” he said. “I don’t think there is a future under this management.” The team, mind you, was still in the eight. But the wolves were at the door.
What Carlton needed was an easy kill, a game off-Broadway. Instead, on Saturday, they got Marcus Bontempelli and the Western Bulldogs. They delivered a putrid first half where Harry McKay, Jesse Motlop, Sam Walsh and Cripps all ballooned set shots. They recovered to win back all the energy of the crowd, the motivation and momentum, and the lead. Yet, in a blink, they forfeited four goals and the game.
Carlton people are frustrated. Every Blues supporter has been here, and heard it all, before. They keep turning up but the mood at games oscillates between sullen, cautiously hopeful and irate. The online reaction after a loss like Saturday is vicious. The coach, the game-plan, even the captain – they’re all in the gun. It takes you aback. If social media was around when Cook was at Geelong in 2006, it would have been similar – all the pieces are there, so why do we keep being beaten? What is wrong with this place?
“Expectation is a privilege,” president Luke Sayers said in the wake of Mathieson’s interview. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe far too much has been expected of this Carlton team. Maybe they’re too slow, sloppy, easily picked apart and reliant on Cripps. Maybe there’s too many talented but dumb footballers in there who don’t lower their eyes or have poor situational awareness. Maybe they’ve been overrated all along.
There an assumption with Carlton that the good times will come, and come soon. They’ve got Cripps, Voss, two Coleman medallists in Charlie Curnow and McKay and heaps of upside. They’ve got a list built brick-by-brick, high-draft-pick by high-draft-pick. But what happens if it never comes and last August was their final shot? What if Cripps never plays in a final? What if all this finishes in a dead end?
That’s why Carlton is on edge and why pokie barons, publicans, podcasters and powerbrokers are rumbling. At Geelong, Cook called them “high yield protesters.” But Carlton’s assassins have more clout, more rage, and more expectation of success. Cook has to somehow placate them, temper expectations, and avoid the cycle of hope, hype, letdown and backlash that’s defined and handicapped Carlton for two decades.