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History Lesson – Walls coaching legacy beyond wins and losses


Fitzroy coach Robert Walls addresses his players at a Junction Oval training session during the 1981 season. Photo: FAIRFAX SYNDICATION

History Lesson – Walls coaching legacy beyond wins and losses

Alastair Clarkson has been the king of AFL coaches for some time now, and rightly so. Four premierships and a strike rate of nearly 63 per cent in over 300 games in charge of Hawthorn say it all, really.

But now, in his 13th season as an AFL coach, the extent of the Clarkson legacy is becoming even more apparent.

When Clarkson brought up the triple ton in Perth against Fremantle a couple of weeks back, one graphic drove the home point very effectively, no fewer than six current senior coaches having worked under Clarkson at Hawthorn.

That remarkable figure is perhaps just as good a guide to the merits of a coach as flags or winning percentages, and another reason Clarkson, like some of his predecessors is so revered.

The coaching family tree is a fascinating study, full of generational branches twisting this way and that, roots sometimes going all over the place, sometimes in a very straight line, as in Tom Hafey spawning Kevin Sheedy spawning Mark Thompson, that trifecta with 10 premierships as coach between them.

In most cases, too, the extent of the legacy goes hand-in-hand with premiership wins, and the names are obvious, like those mentioned above, Kennedy, Barassi, Jeans, Parkin and Malthouse.

But not always. And Robert Walls is the perfect example of a legacy that isn’t reflected merely in statistics.

Recently turned 67, it’s now exactly 20 years since he last coached at AFL level, his 347th game in charge of a fourth club a disastrous evening for Richmond over in Adelaide that led to his late-season removal from the post.

To an entire generation of football fans, Walls could be known simply as the guy who bobs up on Croc Media’s AFL Nation broadcasts, the Marngrook Footy Show, who hates any sign of pretence (eg. players wearing sunglasses when they’re out on the ground for a pre-game stroll), and these days splits his time between Melbourne and his house in southern France.

All of which is true, but sells incredibly short the impact he’s had not only on the game itself, but a whole catalogue of people he coached who remain key players in the football industry.

Walls was a champion player at Carlton, a mobile and highly-skilled centre half-forward who was pivotal to three premierships which helped turn the Blues from a pedestrian club into a football powerhouse known for its success, its clout and its financial riches.

That wasn’t the comfortable backdrop, however, to most of his coaching career.

While there were four years coaching the Blues between 1986-89, producing his one premiership as a coach, there were five years at an even-then perpetually cash-strapped Fitzroy.

There were five more with a Brisbane Bears outfit stuck on the Gold Coast with spartan facilities and resources, stuck with eccentric and erratic ownership and administration, and a club used as a dumping ground for rivals’ broken-down or unwanted cast-offs with seemingly little concern from the AFL.

Finally, there was a two-season stint at Richmond at a time when those at Punt Road were still counting every penny and still had a penchant for internal bickering and power plays. It’s a wonder Walls ever found time to concentrate simply on the business of coaching.

That he did, though, and brilliantly. And one flag, two grand final appearances and an overall win-loss percentage of 47 don’t even go a small fraction of the way to telling the impact Walls the coach continues to have on the game.

The “huddle”, Walls’s tactic of having his players group at centre half-back at kick-ins then breaking to all corners with valuable metres on their opponents, was for its time, revolutionary, helping push his coaching counterparts into searching for an antidote, then their own tactical advantages.

Those Fitzroy sides he coached between 1981-85 had some big names, but a lot more foot soldiers and role players who, under Walls’ guidance, formed a formidable team which came oh-so-close to a premiership in 1983, and made finals three times out of five.

Even the one premiership team Walls did coach with Carlton in 1987 provides a lesson in coaching. Diehard Blues will tell you that despite names like Johnston, Kernahan, Bradley, Madden and Rhys-Jones, the ’87 side was arguably one of the least-gifted flag teams in Carlton’s history.

Certainly in comparison to their grand final opponent Hawthorn, the Blues were at a significant disadvantage when it came to natural talent.

They lost to the Hawks in both home and away meetings that year, yet managed to turn the tables in both the second semi-final and on grand final day, Walls continuing to get 100 per cent from the lesser lights in his 22 such as Ian Aitken, Mick Kennedy, Richard Dennis, Shane Robertson, Fraser Murphy and Warren McKenzie.

Walls, however, has always had a special place in his heart for Fitzroy, his first coaching appointment. And his time there continues to provide not only treasured football memories, but on-going examples of the sporting and indeed life skills Walls provided his players.

So many have made successes of their careers beyond the football field. And not just in the AFL coaching ranks, though they’re more than well-represented through the names Paul Roos, Ross Lyon, and before them Grant Thomas and West Coast’s inaugural coach Ron Alexander.

There’s more former Walls charges who’ve coached with success as AFL assistants, men like John Blakey and Brad Gotch, or at junior or amateur level, such as Peter Francis, Leon Harris and Leigh Carlson.

Two more Walls disciples, Scott Clayton and Matt Rendell, have been among AFL football’s most successful recruiters. Michael Nettlefold and (until recently) Gary Pert have been AFL club chief executives. Mick Conlan was a one-time chief executive of Queensland football. Another couple in Laurie Serafini and Ross Thornton have served successfully on the Brisbane Lions’ board.

Garry Wilson has become a successful entrepreneur. Two more favourites in Bernie Quinlan and Richard Osborne were for years highly-visible faces in the football media via Channel Seven, and Alastair Lynch, who played his first two years in Brisbane under Walls, still is on Fox Footy.

Walls was a famously hard taskmaster as a coach. There are tales often re-told, such as the infamous night on the Brisbane training track when the wayward Shane Strempel was made to box up to eight Bears teammates in an attempt to teach him respect.

That, however, was a different era. What I know of the Walls I’ve worked alongside in print, on radio and on television over the past 20 years is that he is fiercely intelligent, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and enough sensitivity in his reading of character to have been able to make any adjustment necessary to suit the times.

Some former coaches continue to have many long-lasting and close relationships with their charges long after their tenure. It seems significant to me that those that Walls enjoys with the players he coached, particularly at Fitzroy, are as plentiful, and tight, as anyone I’ve ever dealt with in the game.

He’s great company, Wallsy, a funny bugger with a heap of great stories to tell. But he’s a lot more than that, too. And when they talk about coaching legacies, for a lot of people his will stand as proudly as that of any coach you care to name.

12 Comments
  1. Great article RoCo, although I think he’s losing the plot now, re- Dangerfield comments, and for the record, I’m a Carlton supporter

  2. Enjoyed the article Rohan…can remember Robert Walls as a very astute and tenacious coach and would’ve loved him at Collingwood when Tommy Hafey was sacked….keep up the great work Rohan

  3. Enjoyed that piece RoCo. Missing your work in the age, thinking of cancelling my age subscription as it ain’t what it was…now with so many good journo’s gone. Cherrs

  4. Great article, Rohan. I’ve always loved the coaching family tree concept. I reckon there’s a heap of stories in it. The number of coaches that can be traced through the tree back to Hafey is amazing – even Clarkson (via Neil Balme) can be traced back to him.

  5. Hi Rohan,
    Great article. I’ve thought for sometime i’d like to see the linage of football coaches. Drawn like a family tree. See where all the knowledge comes from. Trace Clarko back to John Kennedy ect. Think it would be a great graphic that could be added to over the years.
    thanks for doing Footyology.

  6. Would like your thoughts on Gerard Neesham. I know that his recruiting let him down but I would argue that the his ground-breaking method is the foundation of the way footy is played now.

  7. Great article, in my experience Rob is a great bloke, very funny that doesn’t suffer fools.
    Keep up teh good work, The Age’s loss is everybody else’s gain.

  8. He taught me at Park Orchards primary school in grades 5&6 when he was coaching Fitzroy and bought the same skills to his teaching. Was undoubtedly the most popular and respected teacher in the school. We would play “6 catches” and if we could catch six good hits of a tennis ball in a row he would buy us all a lemonade icecream from his own pocket. He never made it easy for us but we thought he was the ducks nuts! He didnt like me much though….good judge of character apparently!

  9. Always enjoyed Robt Walls comments and columns. He built the team that became Lethal’s Lions, if anyone deserves a statue at the Gabba, it’s him.

  10. Always respected what Rober t Walls achieved at Fitzroy even though I was in primary school in the early to mid eighties.
    If Fitzroy had have won the 83 flag I’m sure Fitzroy would still be around. My memories of the Roys of this period and the 86 seasons and as a young supporter then my hopes were for a premiership with this team.

  11. Well done Rohan. Have enjoyed your heighten profile of late. The preface to ‘Rounds of our lives’ on Marngrook are up there with the wit of ‘Sam the Sub’ from the Coodabeens’. Robert Walls. Where do I start. Along with Brett Ratten, the other great travesty sacking of the (recent) clumsy Carlton era.

    Wonderful player and coach. If I could pick three people to critique the Blues for me, he’d head a panel along with David Mackay and Sergio Silvagni

    Best wishes

  12. Good luck Rohan on the new venture. You deserve every success. I enjoyed reading about Wallsy. Always wrote thoughtful articles by him in the Age rather than the same old that we get now. Only problem with Wallsy is his dislike of the bombers & Sheedy by it probably goes both ways.

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