SUMMARY: Is the backline under-rated? The obvious role of the defensive unit is to stop the opposition scoring goals, but how many coaches teach their players that shots on goal by their own team are generally generated from the back half. Defenders must learn to run the ball out of the opposition scoring zone and set up opportunities for the midfield or forwards to score.

One coach who knows more than most about the transition phase is current Melbourne Football Club assistant coach, Mark “Bomber” Riley. The club is currently performing very well, with a solid defensive unit that are disciplined and hard running.

Includes 5 cutting edge strategies to developing a killer backline.


Mark “Bomber” Riley has worked extremely hard over a long period of time and thoroughly deserves the opportunity to work at the elite level. Riley started coaching country football in rural Western Australia, before graduating through the WAFL and into the AFL, at both Fremantle and Melbourne.

Riley’s role at Melbourne takes on many responsibilities and encompasses more than just overseeing the Demon’s defensive structure on game days.

“I have been working with the backline since I arrived in 2003”, stated Riley.  “Given the nature of the modern game and the ‘connectedness’ of all 3 areas on the ground (Midfielders, Forwards and Backs), we have changed our roles for season 2006. I will still be the backs coach but I also undertake a Defensive Coordinators role which encompasses the whole team.”

Riley’s C.V. makes for very interesting reading:

1987-1988 Coach Railways Football Club, Upper Great Southern Football League (country WA)
1990-1991 Coach Kellerberrin Football Club, Avon Football League (country WA)
1993 Coach Claremont Colts (Premiers) & Assistant Coach Claremont League (Premiers)
1994 Coach Claremont League (Runners Up)
1995-2000 Development Coach & Assistant Coach, Fremantle Dockers Football Club
2001-2002 Coach Claremont League (2001 Minor Premiers), (2001 JJ Leonard, WA Football Coach of the Year) & Coach Clontarf Football Academy
2003-2006 Assistant Coach Melbourne Football Club

Recently, we had the opportunity to ask him how community coaches can develop their backline and to give us some insights into how the Melbourne Football Club does it in the AFL. The answer impressed us to say the least.

Strategy # 1 – Allocate Time to Line Specific Training

Riley believes that one of the best strategies coaches can use to develop their defenders is to use what he calls “line specific training”. Here’s how the Melbourne Football Club uses it:

  • In the preseason months of November, December, January and February, Melbourne spent 1 full session per week on line specific training. In the case of the defence, defenders practice such components as marking, spoiling, defending the lead, defending the stoppage and zoning off.
  • These line specific training sessions lead into match simulation, with the Melbourne defenders working against their own forwards to perfect their craft in a real world environment. “It’s all excellent training and the players love training specific to their roles,” says Riley.
  • Melbourne adds another dimension to their line specific training by video taping sessions and providing video feedback and analysis to players on their performance. This feedback has proven invaluable to developing players in all areas of the game and has become a major part of Melbourne’s development strategy.
  • Now that the season is underway, Melbourne has reduced the training load by doing less line specific work. Instead of dedicating a whole session to line work, they simply incorporate it into their main training sessions along with other activities.

With the luxury of full time staff and players, AFL clubs have the opportunity to continually practice defensive, as well as other game day strategies.

However, Riley told us that while community based coaches may not have the training time available to them that AFL Coaches do, “they still need to understand the importance of line specific training and allow the different areas (forwards, centres, defence) to practice situations that are relevant to them.”

Strategy # 2 – Train To Your Strengths

The focus for coaches when implementing training drills for defenders is dependant on their own style and philosophies, and what type of players are at the coach’s disposal.

But Riley emphasises that while coaches can train to improve their weaknesses, they must also NOT forget to train to their strengths.

“As coaches, we can sometimes focus on ‘What we need to improve on’, too much. I remember a quote I read once that said ‘Your Strengths are the weapons you take into battle’. So don’t forget to practice what you are very good at as well”, adds Riley.

“The reigning premiers, (Sydney Swans), have quite a small backline, but their team style allows them to get extra numbers back, clog up space and then they use handball, run and carry to get the ball out of defence”, says Riley.

With all the varying types of drills for specific areas and especially defenders, the one point that Mark Riley stresses is to ‘Win the ball’.

“Whether you are a defender, midfielder or forward, the best players in any competition must have the ability to win their own footy.”

Strategy # 3 – Give Defenders Freedom To Operate

As a defender, rules are defined according to the individual coach’s philosophies. In Melbourne’s case, players are given the freedom to play their game within a broad set of parameters.

Some would say this is too ‘soft’ and that there should be steadfast team rules. But according to Riley, it’s up to the individual’s views and thoughts.

“In my mind, football is a creative game, a game of instinct, a game of split second decision making. The ball drops 6 inches 1 way and you get it, it drops 6 inches the other way your opponent gets it. Can a team rule impact those situations?”

Having said that, Melbourne still has a set of ‘non negotiable’ rules that defenders must play to, including:

  • Always spoil from behind,
  • Help your team mates at all costs,
  • Maintain a high level of effort, and
  • No whinging or blaming others (Riley calls this “The languages of the weak.”)

One area that Riley says was very important to his development as a player and coach was the opportunity to play with some of the games great aboriginal players. “I was very lucky to grow up and play with some young aboriginal players. I then went onto teaching some young indigenous blokes during my country stints and at the Clontarf Football Academy (Winnie Abraham and Darren Bolton were a couple).”

“Over this period I learned a lot from these blokes. The drills they would invent themselves, the hours spent on an oval or basketball court handling a ball. It helped crystallize my views on how I thought the game should be coached.”

“Blokes like Chris Lewis, Winnie Abraham, Byron Pickett, and Mark Williams would never have made it to the levels they did if they were judged on Beep Tests and 4km runs, or their ability to adhere to a strict code of team rules.”

This has obviously influenced Riley’s views on setting rules. “Football is a cross between science and art, and I’m a coach who coaches more towards the artistic side rather than the scientific side”, said Riley – which probably explains his preference for giving defenders freedom to operate within a broad set of parameters as opposed to setting a strict set of rules that defenders must follow at all costs.

Strategy # 4 – Develop and Practice Set Plays

It is widely believed that the limited time available to community coaches means they cannot dedicate large amounts of time to one particular area. And that the ideal time distribution is to cover all facets of the game in the time available.

Mark Riley has his own view.

There’s no doubt that the ‘set play’ components of the game have become very prevalent in the AFL, and the Melbourne Football Club is no exception. According to Riley, the plays that Melbourne practices are as follows:

  • Melbourne place a large emphasis on set plays at stoppages. “Generally games go the way of the stop plays, so this is one area that teams need to be proficient at in order to wins games of football,“ says Riley. “At Melbourne, our midfield coach Anthony Rock will practice our set ups at least once a week, sometimes twice.”
  • Other major set plays include Point Kick Ins, Defensive Zones and slow plays outside 50. According to Riley, “These plays need to be practiced regularly, however probably not as much as stoppages.”
  • Melbourne also pays attention to ball movement and style of play, which they see as being extremely important facets of the game. Most teams in the AFL now have 2 distinct ball movement patterns – ‘Fast Counter Attack’, which involves players running the ball forward from the backline as quickly as possible, and ‘Slow Counter Attack’ (or ‘Tempo Football’), which involves moving the ball forward carefully to hold possession.

Riley recommends that even at the community level, coaches still need to dedicate time to set plays, particularly in the areas above, as Melbourne has.

And one tip that Riley gives is that players will improve in these areas more if you give them a bit of ‘Ownership’ in perfecting the plays.

Strategy # 5 – Look After Players Off The Field

Another tip that Riley gives to coaches is to try and create happy players off the field – not just on it.

Psychological research and real life case studies indicate that players play much better when they have outside interests and generally perform at their best when they are ‘happy’. Which is why the Melbourne Football Club has taken a proactive approach to developing players off the field.

According to Riley, “We have a very holistic view to development at the Melbourne Footy Club, so my portfolio not only encompasses individual development of players on their football skills, it also involves off field issues such as study, employment, relationships, family, housing etcetera,”

This approach appears to be working extremely well at Melbourne. “The Melbourne coaching staff have received positive feedback from the playing group at end of season reviews, indicating that they like their coaches taking an interest in the whole person, not just the footballer”, says Riley.

For community coaches, this may mean recognising the importance of ‘social directors’ to plan off-field events and making efforts to get to know players outside of football to understand how the club may be able to help improve their personal situations. This will hopefully lead to a happier playing group, which in turn will hopefully improve performance on the field.

So How Have The Recent Rule Changes Affected The Defensive Strategies In The AFL?
When quizzed about the new kick in rule adopted by the AFL at the start of the 2006 season, Riley is very matter of fact in his assessment. “There was a lot written in the pre-season regarding the new kick in rule. It has not changed the face of the game too much, with the exception that man on man defence has become more fashionable than in previous years.

“So far scoring from kick-ins has not increased dramatically from previous years. So there was a helluva lot of fuss over nothing it would seem.”
Title photo by Flying Cloud via:

Posted by Mark Riley

Mark has been involved at several AFL clubs in a coaching capacity including the Melbourne Football Club, the Carlton Football Club and most recently for the Gold Coast Suns. Before his time in the AFL Mark was awarded the JJ Leonard WAFL Coach of the Year Award in 2002 for his time spent at the Claremont Football Club in the WAFL.

Leave a reply