The seat’s warm, the engine’s running but something has gone wrong.
Taking over a footy team mid-season is a bit like trying to fix a friend’s car in the middle of nowhere. The pressure is on, even if the problems aren’t yours.
Leon Cameron’s time at the Giants started with something the young Giants were unaccustomed to at the time: overwhelming, joyous success.
On a night where the focus was on Lance Franklin’s first game with the Sydney Swans, Cameron’s Giants claimed their biggest scalp to date, thanks in part to Adam Kennedy’s third career goal ever, which sent them into the lead.
Kennedy’s goal was a sign that the floodgates had opened, and four more Giants’ goals followed in quick succession.
In just about 15 minutes, the league’s newest team — and the competition’s punching bag — had announced their real arrival against their toughest rival.
The salesman era of the Giants seemed to be over, and the substance was finally here.
Kennedy’s 13th career goal happened this year in Cameron’s last game in charge of the Giants against Carlton, nine years down a long and winding road.
In that time, Cameron steered the Giants to a grand final and two preliminary finals — about as successful as you can be without tasting the ultimate glory.
Come round 10, the Giants would have their third-ever coach.
Former Essendon great Mark McVeigh has been given the second-longest audition for a head coaching role since the turn of the century, along with a chance to make the job his.
McVeigh’s first game in charge was a win, like Cameron’s, albeit over the relatively lowly Eagles. Since then the going has gotten tougher, but the wins have slowly started to accumulate.
So how has McVeigh changed the Giants, and what does a temporary coach have to do to make the job permanent?
Acting the part
No coach who takes over mid-season gets the opportunity to get their hands on a perfectly operating football machine. Footy clubs don’t fix what isn’t broken, and successful coaches are rarely walked out of a club.
Yet only some caretaker coaches get the chance to make the gig permanent.
Since 2000, just 10 of 25 caretaker coaches have turned the acting job into the real deal — most recently, Brett Ratten, David Teague and Rhyce Shaw in 2019.
Long auditions seem to be a sign that a club is seriously looking at promoting from within.
In general, coaches need a win rate of more than 50 per cent, off more than a month of games, to be installed as the club’s full-time coach.
The last exception to the rule was the winless Brett Ratten, landing Carlton’s job after their disastrous 2007 season.
Both McVeigh and North’s Leigh Adams have a chance at meeting these marks, given their long stints acting in the big chair.
Gigantic, a big, big change
Last year the Giants made the finals, even winning their elimination final before being sent home. The start of 2022 saw a horror run, with injuries and a tough fixture to start the year.
Tactically, there were also tweaks to be made. The Giants under Cameron were one of the best sides when it came to winning hard ball, with a physical, ball-winning midfield.
Their defence has long been one of the strongest in the competition at cleaning up loose balls coming towards the goal.
Last Saturday, against the Lions, the Giants ran with five de facto tall defenders for much of the match.
“The beauty of our backs is that they have the ability to play on smalls and talls. Connor Idun, for example, is that player. [He played] on Charlie [Cameron] today.” McVeigh told ABC Sport after the game against the Lions last Saturday.
However, intercepts also help create attacking opportunities. Under Cameron, the Giants ball movement was more cautious, and had an eye on defending with the ball in hand.
McVeigh has encouraged the Giants to be more attacking with ball in hand and to use the corridor quickly wherever possible.
The gamble doesn’t always pay off, however. Against the Lions, the Giants were too aggressive in blustery conditions, with the Lions able to capitalise.
“We want to turn the ball over in our front half to score. That takes a lot of time to get that done” McVeigh said.
“Through the mid arc today, we turned the ball over too easily. We made some poor decisions when we were going forward, probably too aggressive.”
That balance is a hard one to strike for even the most-experienced and cohesive teams, let alone a relatively experimental one under a new coach.
However, the signs — so far — have been promising, with the McVeigh-led Giants scoring more efficiently off such forward intercept opportunities.
Throwing the magnets around
McVeigh has been able to stamp his own authority on the current team, using his knowledge of the players, both during his time at the club and during his stint coaching underage football in New South Wales.
Arguably, no Giants player has enjoyed a better stint under the new coach than club captain Stephen Coniglio.
“[Coniglio has] been terrific at driving our club for a long period of time. He’s having a really good year, off the back of having a good pre-season.” McVeigh said.
McVeigh has started to use Coniglio more through the middle of the ground during his time in charge. The captain has responded by becoming the most-dangerous player at stoppages in that time.
McVeigh has toyed with different players in the inside midfield mix, looking for the right balance between skilful and powerful.
And it’s not just in the middle that the new coach has experimented: Harry Himmelberg had long been a fixture up forward, kicking goals in each of the 19 games before McVeigh took over. Since then, Himmelberg has played down the back, harking back to his days playing under McVeigh for the NSW/ACT under-18s team.
Himmelberg has thrived in this role so far.
Elsewhere, McVeigh has shifted players around the park, trying to cover injuries and uncover some gems.
Sometimes, a caretaker can ask questions than an established coach can’t.
With a month of the main season still left, McVeigh has signalled that more moves might be on the horizon.
The unspoken elements are: Who will take the permanent coaching gig at the Giants in 2023, and whether McVeigh will take the interim tag off his title while some big names — such as Alastair Clarkson — circle around every coaching opportunity.
McVeigh has openly enjoyed his time as senior coach of the Giants.
“I’ve loved it. There’s a lot more things coming at you. You take the losses a lot more [personally]. This one today hurts a lot,” McVeigh articulated.
“Planning the Monday to Friday — the day to day — is something I really enjoy doing. Am I getting it right? I don’t know.
“It would suggest the last couple of weeks I haven’t. And I need to keep looking at myself and what I can do better for the players.”
The Giants face a tough run home against sides tussling for finals positions. While they have increasingly shown promising signs for the future, McVeigh’s focus is on how the club fights through first and foremost.
“I think that they’ve got to find the purpose of why you fight right to the end. I think we’ve got the players in our footy club to be able to address that in the right manner,” McVeigh stated.
“We’re a proud club. We’re a young club, but we’ve got a lot of pride within our supporters, players and staff. And we need to finish the year strongly.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC