North Melbourne's sad scoreline so far this season may have been different had the club aggressively pursued John Longmire, one of AFL's best coaches, writes Ronny Lerner.
LET ME START by saying that Australian Football League's (AFL) David Noble could very well turn out to be a fine coach for North Melbourne (Kangaroos).
And if ex-North Melbourne coach Rhyce Shaw ever wanted to have another crack at the caper in future, he has every chance of becoming a success too. But, of course, in both instances, the jury is still very much out.
One man who is a known quantity, though, is Sydney Swans boss John Longmire.
Two years after coach Brad Scott was given his marching orders by the Kangaroos, it’s hard not to think what could have been for the struggling club had they made a more aggressive pursuit of Longmire — one of the best coaches in the AFL.
And make no mistake, the 2012 premiership coach, who has guided the Swans to three grand finals, was very much gettable. With just one year left on his contract at the time – which these days is club code for, "we might not be too sure about this bloke going forward" – Longmire was being sounded out by North Melbourne.
Longmire to the Kangaroos made a lot of sense. He is a favourite son of the club, having played 200 games, kicked 511 goals (third all-time at North Melbourne), won a best-and-fairest, a Coleman Medal and, importantly, a premiership in 1999 with them.
In a memorable interview with Fox Footy’s AFL 360 program in July 2019, the behind-the-scenes tug of war for his services became apparent.
Asked who he thought he would be coaching in season 2020, Longmire responded:
“Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m absolutely contracted to the North... to the Sydney Swans Football Club.”
Yes, his old club was certainly on his mind.
Was he using that interview as leverage to add pressure on the Swans to get him the long-term deal he wanted? Possibly. In the end, it might have worked, because Sydney eventually caved and added three years onto his deal to tie him to the club until the end of 2023.
North’s offer to Longmire was substantial — reportedly $6 million over five years. But was it enough? After all, this is one of the very best coaches in the competition that we’re talking about.
As is the way in the modern game of trading and free agency, if you want to extricate a contracted player – or coach in this case – from his current club, you have to pay “overs”. If the Kangas were absolutely fair dinkum about luring Longmire down to Arden Street, the figure should have been closer to $10 million. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, generational opportunity that could have drastically changed the fortunes of the club.
The first four weeks of this season have provided another example of how good he has been at using and developing young talent for over a decade. On the backs of Chad Warner, Errol Gulden, Braeden Campbell, Sam Wicks, Justin McInerney, Logan McDonald and Oliver Florent, the Swans have been the surprise packet of 2021 — sitting near the top of the ladder with a 4-0 record after only managing five wins all year last season.
And let’s not forget their 2016 grand final side featured no fewer than nine players picked up in the rookie draft.
Compare Sydney to North, who sit at the bottom of the table, winless after four games — their first victory doesn’t even look like it’s on the horizon. Now, I’m not suggesting Longmire would’ve ensured an undefeated start to the year for the Kangas, but such is his coaching acumen, you can safely bet they’d be putting up much more of a fight than they have been in the last couple of seasons.
Imagine how good the Kangaroos would look if Longmire had the likes of Jy Simpkin, Jaidyn Stephenson, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Tom Powell, Bailey Scott, Tarryn Thomas, Charlie Lazzaro and Will Phillips at his disposal.
Ultimately, North hired interim coach Shaw as a full-time coach and after he walked away from the job last year in unfortunate circumstances to deal with mental health issues, Noble succeeded him.
But the Swans aren’t the only team flying early in 2021. The Western Bulldogs, Melbourne Demons and Adelaide Crows have all burst out of the blocks. The Dogs are 4-0 for the first time since 2008; the Demons are 4-0 for the first time since 1994 and the reigning wooden-spooner Crows (3-1) have already matched their 2020 win tally in an extraordinary turnaround.
Port Adelaide (3-1) look like they’ll be thereabouts again in September, especially after their thrilling two-point win over reigning premier Richmond (Tigers) last week. While top-four fancies West Coast Eagles (2-2) and Geelong Cats (2-2) are experiencing some early struggles, like the Tigers (2-2). The panic button shouldn’t be pushed just yet for Richmond while the Eagles and Cats will be bolstered by key players returning from injury.
It’s still hard to get a read on Carlton (2-2) and Fremantle (2-2), who looks like a five-goal better team in Perth, while St Kilda (2-2) in many respects saved their season from falling into the abyss following a sensational 53-point turnaround against the Eagles in round four.
Youthful teams like Essendon (1-3) and Hawthorn (1-3) have shown very promising signs without reward in their win tallies, while Greater Western Sydney (1-3) showed there is still some fight left in them after their stunning five-goal defeat of Collingwood (Magpies) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).
The Magpies (1-3) look like a team going nowhere; Gold Coast (1-3) continue to struggle to deal with injuries to key players and the Brisbane Lions (1-3) are flirting with danger. They should definitely still make finals, but they had better get a move on because if their loss column continues to grow, they will have a huge battle on their hands, regardless of how much star power their lineup possesses.
However, Brisbane’s AFL Women's (AFLW) team are in a much better spot after qualifying for the 2021 grand final on Saturday 17 April.
After falling short in 2017 and 2018, will it be a case of third time lucky for the Lions in this rematch of the inaugural 2017 premiership decider?
Their opponents, Adelaide, will also be hoping third time is a charm after taking out the 2017 and 2019 flags. A victory at Adelaide Oval on the weekend would cement their status as the most dominant team in the competition’s five-year history. Despite how impressive the Lions have been, it’s going to be hard to tip against coach Matthew Clarke’s side.
Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.
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