Luke Beveridge’s Bulldogs have the smell of AFL history about them

Luke Beveridge’s Bulldogs have the smell of AFL history about them

Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, at quarter-time of a C-grade suburban grand final, I watched a rookie playing-coach address his players. Team talks at that level are often a shambles. The Churchillian rev-ups fall flat. Player-coaches in particular are usually so knackered they can barely string two syllables together.

Luke Beveridge was different. His players were a mix of shapes, sizes and talents. They had got themselves too fizzed up and had spent most of the first quarter playing with 17 men. The coach did not rant. He did not overload them with information. He demanded their eyes. He ticked a few of them off. He calmed the rest of them down. He did not look like a lovey-dovey coach. He looked like the sort of bloke who spent his Saturday afternoons deadlifting and stewing. But he told them how much he loved them, how much he believed in them. His players, who were all playing for nothing, were fully locked in with him. Back in 2006 footy coaches – and Australian men generally – didn’t really talk like that. They didn’t talk about vulnerability and connection. “I’m an emotional beast”, he said many years later. “I cry watching cartoons.”

Halfway through the third quarter they were eight goals down. They were playing AJAX, who represent Melbourne’s Jewish community. But St Bede’s/Mentone rattled home to win. In the dying minutes, the coach took two clutch marks across half back. He never played again but kept coaching, winning the B-Section premiership the following year. They then won the A-Section flag, upsetting the better resourced and connected clubs from the top end of town. Beveridge, who was working for Austrac, an intelligence agency tracking the flow of dirty money, figured he might have a future in the coaching caper.

I thought about those St Bede’s/Mentone days during Saturday night’s extraordinary semi-final at the Gabba. I thought about those amateur premierships, which Beveridge says mean as much to him as the 2016 AFL flag, as he repeatedly made his way down to the Bulldogs bench to touch, to cajole, to convince his players they were good enough. In an age where coaches refer to their players as ‘key stakeholders’, where prospective coaches lobby for their roles on footy panel shows, I thought about what makes a good coach, and how much that has changed. Beveridge, who eschews all corporate comms speak, remains a players’ coach, a leader with an incredible knack for persuading unremarkable young men to do extraordinary things. As his dad said following the 2016 Premiership – “I think Luke may have persuaded a few of them that they’re a bit better than they are.”

Beveridge often talks about chess. The king and pawns, he says, all go back in the same box. All his major pieces delivered on Saturday night. Jack Macrae played perhaps the best game of his career. Marcus Bontempelli, as always, was a joy to watch. Caleb Daniel, who could pass as one of Beveridge’s C-grade flag winners, was almost architectural in the way he used the ball.

But when Brisbane brought the heat, it was several lesser, occasionally maligned Dogs who stood up. Bailey Smith, who looks like Fabio and sometimes kicks like him, broke the game open. Josh Schache, who has been all at sea for most of his AFL career, and whose card seemed to have been stamped following the Richmond game earlier this year, kicked a critical goal. Tim English, who looks far too delicate to be playing this uncivilised game, finally threw his weight around. Laitham Vandermeer, who should be checking into The White Lotus with a name like that, scrambled the winning behind. The Dogs caught a lot of breaks on Saturday. The umpiring definitely went their way. But to convince his bottom six players they belonged on that stage, and to get them to stand up when it was their turn, is the mark of a great coach.

After healing a broken club, rejuvenating a demoralised playing list and winning a premiership from seventh,, Beveridge and his Bulldogs lost their way. “I think they’re a one-year wonder,” Leigh Matthews said. Their manic brand was impossible to sustain. Beveridge was increasingly snippy with some of the more objectionable members of the press. He was irritable and distracted and the team played accordingly. They were knee-capped by GWS in the 2019 Elimination Final. They left last year’s Elimination Final on the table. Even this year, after dominating for several months, they seemed to have spluttered to a stop.

But Beveridge is in his element and, at his most deadly, when he’s written off; when he can reset, reengineer and get on a roll. This Saturday, he squares off against Ken Hinkley, another heart and soul coach. Hinkley comes from dairy farming stock. His team play an uncomplicated brand. Beveridge, a keen surfer, seems to have caught another wave. On Saturday night, his team will be unfancied in the market and a long way from home. But we’ve heard that song before. They have the smell of history about them, and they’re in the best of hands.