Sport AFL Let’s get physical: Malthouse tales from the trenches

Let’s get physical: Malthouse tales from the trenches

Malthouse vents his spleen - this time at one of his players.
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As someone who has worn more than his share of withering Mick Malthouse stares, seen that neatly clipped moustache bristle in indignation more often than I’d care to remember, and been on the receiving end of Mick’s patented version of the Alex Ferguson ‘hairdryer’ treatment, I must say the last week or two has brought back some great memories.

Just when we thought Mick had been neutered by the modern game, and had every one of those rough Wendouree West edges knocked off, along he comes with a few vintage performances just to remind everyone that the raging volcano inside is far from dormant. As a result, journalists have been left quivering like jellies, his staff at Carlton ducking for cover.

Malthouse shoved him up against a corridor wall and began abusing him. He was pulled away by a couple of Eagles officials.

It is a measure of football in 2014, however, that Malthouse’s recent eruptions have caused such a stir. Modern coaches are so ‘professional’ and ‘on-message’ from their well-resourced PR departments that they rarely put a foot out of place.

Yet back-page stories, and countless hours of radio talkback, have been devoted to the issue of Malthouse’s behaviour in the past fortnight and how truly appalling it is. Carlton has been told by earnest commentators to rein him in, or risk damaging its ‘brand’.

Some journalists who are greying at the temples and struggling with arthritic fingers to extract hipflasks from their jacket will recall a time when this sort of argy-bargy was all part of covering football. Mick has often been a horror to deal with, just as David Parkin, Alan Joyce, Denis Pagan and many others were only one bad defeat away from being similarly irascible.

The Malthouse stare at Footscray in 1987. Photo: Getty
The Malthouse stare at Footscray in 1987 …

Mick’s exchange with Samantha Lane a week ago was considered over the top but, compared to his regular eruptions of 20 years ago, was mild in the extreme. Yes, he was being difficult and contrary, but on the well-worn Malthouse seismograph it barely registered a blip. Maybe a 1 on the Mickter scale.

His spat with Channel Seven’s Cameron Ling, however, was much more like the Mick we’ve come to know. He showed his little legs had lost none of their zip as he paced angrily along the SCG boundary line, face taut with a barely suppressed rage, angrily jabbing the air in Ling’s direction over some perceived slight that had nothing to do with the red-headed boundary rider at all. That was vintage Mick: both irrational and angry.

... at West Coast in 1992 ...
… at West Coast in 1992 …

Yet those blow-ups were a dime a dozen several decades ago, when Malthouse was the West Coast Eagles coach, the Eagles were the only AFL team in WA, and your correspondent was the chief football writer for The West Australian. It was a combustible mix because the Eagles were winning most weeks, Mick was the de facto mayor of Perth, most people were in his thrall and woe betide anyone who tried to disrupt that cosy dynamic.

After one match in the early ‘90s, Mick had Daryl Timms of the Herald Sun up against a wall by the throat for something Timms had written.

Then in the lead-up to West Coast’s 1991 Grand Final appearance against Hawthorn – during a tumultuous week at Subiaco because the club had been heavily criticised, even locally, for placing a blanket media ban on all its players – Malthouse had been enraged by an article written by the Melbourne-based correspondent for The West Australian, Luke Morfesse.

... and at Collingwood in 2001. Photos: Getty
… and at Collingwood in 2011. Photos: Getty

Morfesse had been to Hawthorn training that week and compared the family-friendly way in which Hawthorn conducted its Grand Final week – encouraging fans to come along to Glenferrie Oval, have a kick on the oval, get players’ autographs and so on – with the relatively dour and miserable West Coast preparation.

After the match, his first Grand Final as coach, Malthouse – still angry with the world after the 57-point drubbing – spied Morfesse, made a beeline for him, shoved him up against a corridor wall and began abusing him. Before the confrontation escalated into something more ugly, Malthouse was pulled away by a couple of Eagles officials.

Imagine the response if a coach started getting physical with a reporter in the modern era.

Another flare-up that stood out occurred in 1992 when Malthouse’s West Australian state-of-origin team (he’d been adopted as a Sandgroper by then) had been well beaten by the Victorians at the MCG.

As Malthouse walked down from the coaches box, then positioned in the MCC Members Stand, he had an altercation with a member. Mick later claimed the member spat at him; the man, when quizzed by the MCC, vehemently denied the charge and said Malthouse had been the aggressor.

Who knows who was at fault; what mattered is that Mick had again lost his self-control.

Of course, as a young(ish) reporter, that kind of confrontational behaviour was initially quite intimidating. I wasn’t sure how to respond to being hectored and belittled by an AFL coach. In the end, I usually did nothing meaningful except silently brood and later think of the hundred great responses I should have made if I was thinking clearly, and feeling a bit braver.

Waleed Aly said Malthouse had never behaved as badly as Ross Lyon. That comparison is, of course, utter nonsense.

But I have no axe to grind with Mick. Undoubtedly, he’s been a bully and a tyrant, but it’s hard not to acknowledge his success as a coach. He has picked up three clubs – Footscray, West Coast and Collingwood – and delivered them back self-respect and success. Things haven’t quite worked out at Carlton as he might have imagined and that’s clearly part of the reason why he’s so antsy.

(At the risk of breaking ranks with my professional brethren, there are times when I hear nitwit questions being asked at Malthouse’s media conferences and I know exactly why he starts shifting uneasily in his seat, face reddening, with that little mo beginning to twitch. Maybe it’s something about TV reporters with too much product in their hair, leaning back in their chair as if they’re the stars of the show. Who couldn’t resist taking a chomp out of those preeners?)

Also, the estimable Waleed Aly mentioned on the ABC’s Offsiders show at the weekend that Malthouse had never behaved as badly as Ross Lyon, who once singled out a reporter at Skilled Stadium for a special dressing down.

What short memories we have. That comparison is, of course, utter nonsense. Measured against Malthouse, and his long list of indiscretions compiled over 30 years, Lyon is a novice and rank amateur when it comes to insulting journalists and generally losing his rag.

And that has led to the position Malthouse currently finds himself in. His day of reckoning has arrived: the former Eagle who can now see all his chickens coming home to roost.