SUMMARY: In 2006, the proud Port Melbourne Football Club won just 3 games and finished 13th in the VFL. The following season, the club improved their record to 7 wins, finishing 7th, but were still a long way from where they wanted to be. The problem was that Port had a group of young charges that still needed development and could not rely on any AFL club for support (Port Melbourne, along with the Tasmanian Dolphins and Frankston Dolphins are the only VFL clubs not aligned to an AFL club). It’s fair to say that the club were looking for a miracle… and thankfully, they got it when they pulled off a recruiting coup and signed the great Gary Ayres as the senior coach of the club. With Gary now in charge at the helm, the club then proceeded to win 16 games during the 2008 season, along with the minor Premiership in the process.

So how did Gary get the most out his young charges and turn the club’s fortunes around – with no AFL club support, minimal recruiting and only basic club facilities? We asked Gary in this revealing Q and A.

Background:

Gary Ayres

Gary Ayres

Gary Ayres has been a legend of the VFL/AFL for a long time. As a member of the powerful and most successful Hawthorn team of the modern era, Ayres was a fearsome defender who could also be used as an attacking midfielder when the need arose.

Ayres played 269 games for Hawthorn, was Norm Smith Medallist (best in Grand Final) in both 1986 and 1988, and was a premiership player in 1983, ’86, ’88, ’89 and ’91.

His uncompromising tough and fearless nature earned him the nickname of Conan. But Gary also had a great footy brain, and it was no surprise that he moved into coaching upon retiring from playing.

Gary started his coaching career as an assistant to Malcolm Blight at Geelong, before eventually becoming their senior coach between 1995 and 1999. In 2000, Gary took over as senior coach of the Adelaide Crows where he stayed until 2004. He later took an assistant coaching role at Essendon under the iconic Kevin Sheedy, before taking the senior coaching role at Port Melbourne (also known as the boroughs) in the tough VFL.

Rodney Eade once described Ayres as a great footballer, with a good sense of humour and a great club man.

Gary was kind enough to let us in on some of the things that drive him as a coach and gave us a great insight is his ability to get the best of the players he coaches. There is no doubt that he is probably a better coach know than when he was playing his trade at Geelong and Adelaide. He has had to stop back to a level where good old fashion coaching is what will make you successful, and not resources, money or science to a degree.

Many AFL clubs looking for a senior coach in 2010 would be derelict in their duties if they didn’t consider Ayres for a senior coaching role.

Q. How have you found the transition coming back from the AFL to a semi professional environment in the VFL?

It has been interesting. You are really spoilt at AFL level and when you have been involved at that level for a long time you become very aware of the environment that you are involved in.

One of the biggest issues is the availability of the players’ time. In the AFL, the footy is the players’ job, where as in the VFL, the players number one priority is their own work and jobs, school or university, so the football becomes a secondary thing.

Here at Port Melbourne, we can only get the players 3 nights a week, which is Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and because of their work commitments, we can only train in the afternoon or early evening, so the players do their level best to get here on time, but you can always expect a couple of phone calls from players or their bosses letting you know that a particular player may have to be late because he needs to work overtime.

Our players are very good in relation to their communication, but if I had come here with an AFL mindset I probably would have walked out the 2nd training session.

Facilities are another thing. This club here at Port Melbourne is a very traditional club. The gymnasium here only suits between 12 and 15 players and you really need to learn to adapt. I remember a wise old coach who once said you always have to adapt to the conditions, so that is what I have done.

The nuts and bolts of it doesn’t really change in relation to all football clubs, it’s really the philosophies, the core values and how the new coach wants his particular players to go, so you really need to just learn to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of this particular group and how they go out on the ground.

So a couple of the key elements [to success] are adaption and making the place an enjoyable place where the players want to come and learn.

Q. How flexible are you as the coach to the playing groups work and commitment outside football.?

You need to be very flexible. I have a philosophy that if the players are happy off the field, then they are happy on the field, so I tend to not have too many guidelines. I don’t like to have rules, because there are always rules that plenty of players tend to break so I tend to prefer to call them guidelines.

Providing the players are communicating to me, then I don’t have too many issues. I tend to be very understanding if the players give me what I want when they are here. If that happens to only be on the 2 nights out of 3, then I have to be happy and understanding of that.

For the players who want to play for money, I find that most are putting the money ahead of their ambitions to play and this competition doesn’t have a lot of money anyway. At Port Melbourne, we probably have about 7 marquee players on a list of about 55, so 44 players will play every week. All this is done in an annual salary cap of about $300,000.00 you can do your sums on what players are getting paid.

I generally leave the rehab to the players themselves, as I believe if that I ask the players to attend at TEAC Oval at 8.30am on a Sunday, I see that being fraught with danger, as I believe the players need to have some personal time for social activities. I leave it up to the players themselves to recover properly and use their own discipline. I think this process works best for us. I think the players are very good at looking after themselves anyway.

Q. You had some great success here last year as a stand alone club, which indicates the players are very happy here. Do you find that they will do their own makeup sessions if they miss training?

It’s a bit harder to arrange than say at an amateur or local club, as we can’t just send them back to the club from which they came. I generally find that they will do weights sessions on Tuesday and Thursday and go for a bit of a jog, but I like to think that our training and conditioning program gives them what they want and need. Our statistics from last year tends to indicate that that was the case.

A focus for me is to try and create a chemistry here where the players want to come and train, rather than thinking I have to come and train. This has been a strong focus for us over the last 12 months because after all, this is only a semi-professional environment at best, which is fine by me, but we try to make it as professional as possible while they are here.

Q. Were you able to bring back some ideas from your time in the AFL to improve the facilities for the players?

Unfortunately not.  It just comes back to money. This club here is very rich in tradition, but because it is council driven, it is very difficult to get anything in relation to 21st century facilities. We are certainly hoping there will be something down the track, but at the moment we have to improvise and do the very best that we can with what we have got.

It’s hard because primarily the people involved at the club are volunteers and do it because that what to get involved and have some kind of satisfaction and enjoyment from just being here and helping. The players are very respectful and mindful of that. The fee for a water-boy or property steward or a forward scout is next to nothing and they just do it because they love the environment. We are mindful of keeping the volunteers happy so we tend not to put too much of an impost on them as we realise they have other things to do.

Q. Gary, you have obviously played and coached at the highest level, spending time at Geelong, Adelaide and of course, Essendon, under Kevin Sheedy, what made you want to come back and coach at this level?

I got involved basically because I just wanted to. I had two years of sitting back and watching other coaches do their thing and especially seeing Kevin Sheedy and the way he went about his business, it gave me great confidence to know that the things I was doing were on or about the mark. Kevin was a great coach, was very successful and had the runs on the board. He did the job for 27 years, so I felt good, thinking, well, that’s close to the way I would go about things.

Sometimes I thought well maybe I have done some things closer to the way he did them, it may have meant I may have stayed in the game, but in the end, I just wanted to roll the sleeves up and get back into that competitive environment again. That in itself was very important for me personally.

Sometimes ego’s can get in the way, due to the environment that you have been used to, but the ego just needed to be put in the back pocket and get on with the job.

It’s been super that I have had a group like the one I have, who have been dedicated and not put any restrictions on just how good they can be. They have just been a delight to coach and have been very receptive to a lot of change in a short period of time, so that makes it enjoyable.

That has been important, because training is just something that has to be done and let’s face it, no one really enjoys the pre-season, and no one has been smart enough to develop a fitness work, so the hard work has to be done. The guys have been very aware of that, and as most people would be aware the last summer period has been hellishly hot, so it is important to be very aware of the players’ requirements. With daylight savings, 5 o’clock is almost the warmest part of the day, so for the players not to complain and just get on with the job, you know you have got a pretty good group.

How much talent your group has, well that’s for the coach to extract, but I believe that during that period, the player has to be his best coach, in order to be the very best he can be. He is the person responsible for putting the right food inside, making sure he is hydrated, making sure he gets enough sleep, understanding when enough alcohol is enough, because we can’t be with him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q. How did the club react when they heard they would be getting the great Gary Ayres as coach of Port Melbourne? Everyone is aware of your formidable playing record, so they must have been over the moon to secure your services?

I would like to think that they were reasonably happy. The club had probably had 2 years of treading water really. They were last in 2006 with only 3 games won, and that was the first year they had become a stand alone club. In 2007, they won 7 games and ending up making the finals, which is an anomaly really, considering that you only needed to win 7 games to make the final 8 in a 14 team competition.

So the club went from winning 7 games and one final, to winning 16 games and becoming minor premiers in 2008, making the Grand Final, so we had taken major steps forward as a club.

We didn’t mess too much with the playing group that was here, and didn’t have a big influx of recruits. We added Dylan McLaren and Cory McGrath who had both had AFL experience, and the rest was purely development from within, so that made the coaches very pleased as we have been able to help this group take another step forward.

As we are unable to just go out and recruit due to financial constraints, it’s important to develop and environment that promotes growth and development.

Experience takes time to amass, and one thing I learnt off Kevin Sheedy is that it is not about the amount of games played, it is about the time played.

One of the best ways we could encourage the group was to break it down to just that, time. When we made the finals, we  promoted the fact that the next 6 hours (3 games) could be the most satisfying time of your footy life. Six hours doesn’t amount to a lot of sacrifice considering all of the work they had done over the year, if you want to be successful. That was the theme that we drove here.

The players had a lot of ownership and I probably went the opposite to the way the previous regime coached.

I believe that all coaches have different ideas, beliefs and strategies, but you have to look at your playing group and work out how you are going to get the best out of what you have to work with, so you may have to be flexible.

You need to identify how to get the best out of each individual, because I believe that if a player is confused, you won’t get the best out of him on match day. If you give him a role, and he understands that role and the picture you are trying to paint, then he will go out onto the ground and do what you want him to do.

At the end of the day, the coach’s role is to get all 22 players painting the same picture, and if you can do that, you will be a lot closer to getting where you want to go.

Conclusion

Some of the main points from Gary’s interview that we made note of were:

  • Create an environment that is enjoyable and where players come to learn and train because they want to, not because they feel they have to.
  • Be flexible to your players needs, so long as they communicate with you and do the right thing by your club.
  • Adapt your philosophies and strategies to the strength and weakness of your playing group, as well as to the conditions and facilities that you have at your disposal.
  • Empower your players and give them the responsibility to be their own coach on such extra-curricular activities as weight training, recovery and skills.

Of course, there are so many other wonderful points in Gary’s interview. But we will let you extract those for yourself.

In the meantime, Coach AFL would like to thank Gary Ayres for his time and efforts to not only build the Port Melbourne Football Club, but for also sharing some of the powerful lessons he learned during his AFL coaching career with grassroots coaches from around Australia (and the world for that matter) to help make football better for the future.

Looks like the Borough is in good hands. Good luck for the rest of the season Gary.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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