Why you might see AFL coaches on construction sites soon

In the coming weeks, it's quite conceivable that some assistant coaches who work for AFL clubs will find themselves donning overalls on a construction site, painting houses or in another industry that isn't shut down by government fiat.

The coach of Richmond's VFL team, Xavier Clarke, has offered to help find unskilled labour for coaching colleagues, via a national labour hire company, Corestaff Group, which partners with Clarke's own labor business, Goal Indigenous Services.

When the game was closed down six days ago, Clarke and another sponsor of the coaching fraternity, John Moncrieff answered the call from Mark Brayshaw, the AFL Coaches' Association chief executive, to assist the stood-down coaches – all assistants – in finding paid work.

St Kilda's assistant coach Brendon Lade – a trained cabinet maker – has been labouring with friends and, according to the Saints, will continue to do so until the game recommences.

Already, a number of assistant coaches have shown interest in the temporary financial lifeboat offered by Clarke and Moncrieff, though Clarke said he couldn't guarantee anything. "If anything can help (in finding work), we will,'' said the former St Kilda wingman, who acknowledged he was fortunate to have a business outside of footy.

In the new "brutopia" of the AFL post-COVID 19, coaches shape as one of the parties that will cop the heaviest shirtfront.

Aside from the players, coaches are the largest group and budget item within AFL clubs. In a shrunken game, the coaches – along with secondary recruiters, conditioning staff and possibly game analysts – will have both reduced job opportunities and pay, at least for the next few years and probably for longer.

To say that "coaches'' will be among the biggest losers from football's financial crisis really means assistant coaches. The 18 senior coaches will continue to be the highest paid football figures, outside of players and remain the face of their clubs, but, in a reversion to the past, they will be managing fewer lieutenants, as the coaching panels contract.

There's about 180 coaches in the AFL system, an average of 10 per club. As clubs have to lose about $3 million from their football budgets (the soft cap falling from $9.7m to about $6.7m in 2021), the prevailing view is that the 2021 coaching panels will be cut by about a third, depending on what assistants are paid and how many have contracts for next year.

The days of "senior assistant'' coaches or directors of coaching on salaries exceeding $350,000 are gone for a while. The "extra'' line coach responsible for, say, stoppages (not just the midfield) will either be upgraded, reployed or removed.

The surviving assistants will need to be multi-skilled and less specialised; few will be retained if they coach only backmen or forwards. "Coaches will have to play tall and small,'' said one AFL official.

If a coach is paid a million dollars, he will be consuming 15 per cent of a footy's department's non-player spend next year. So only the absolute alpha coaches, such as Alastair Clarkson, have any hope of getting $1m plus in the slimmed down AFL.

Conversely, there's a few senior coaches whose position is more secure, irrespective of results – assuming there are any this year – because their clubs cannot even contemplate a payout amid a depression.

Simon Goodwin, who is among the many coaches taking a huge reduction in pay during the shutdown, is contracted to the Demons until the end of 2022. It is inconceivable that, wherever Melbourne finishes, the club could move him on with two years to run.

Ken Hinkley, whose position hinges on a trigger clause (Port needs to make finals to earn him a 2021 contract), has sacrificed salary for his club's sake and one could argue that, like many others within the besieged industry, his sacrifice ought to be repaid with an extension – assuming there is a season.

As the man charged with protecting the coaching fraternity, Brayshaw doesn't accept that a third or so of the coaching workforce is about to be surplus to club requirements. "It's a bit confronting to suddenly hear that the bottom third of coaching cohort are apparently superfluous when, only a few weeks ago, they formed an important part of the bosom of every AFL football club.

"Players have never been better looked after, so I don't accept that position.''

Players also have been "looked after'' by the AFL after their negotiation over the level of pay cuts. That the players have secured about 70 per cent of their 2020 salary cap, at worst (depending on whether games resume), leaves fewer dollars and employment for everyone else.

While it's possible that the coaching profession's contraction will be temporary and that coaching panels, cut initially to half a dozen, will expand again once the game recovers from the virus, I suspect that coaching will no longer be a career that so many ex-AFL players drift into, without tertiary education.

Coaching has never been for the indolent, nor for the easily-stressed or wounded. In the coming austerity, only those who really, badly want to coach will take on the gig.

Logically, the superstar player will be scarcer in coaching ranks (a trend that's already underway), given that they will be reluctant to drop their pay from $900,000 to a low six figure sum at an AFL club, or even fewer dollars if they wish to cut their coaching teeth in the state leagues.

Seeing them tearing at strands of diminishing hair, or burying their head in hands in exasperation, we often pose the question of why anyone of sound mind would want to be a coach.

Today, a chunk of assistant coaches will be asking themselves that question, too.

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