Mark Thompson - By Denis Pagan

The isolation of coaching an AFL team is never more pronounced than when things aren’t going to plan. As we know, coaches face intense scrutiny from supporters, the media, club directors, corporate sponsors and sometimes, elements of the playing group. It is therefore inevitable that at some stage the coach is going to be confronted with one of more of these groups demanding that he be replaced.      

Twelve months ago it was Mark Thompson who was put to the blowtorch when the board of the Geelong Football Club commissioned an extensive review of the 2006 season. The prolonged and at times, public, process left ‘Bomber’ in limbo and would have tested the trust and unity of that much admired and seemingly impenetrable triumvirate of president Frank Costa, chief executive Brian Cook and the senior coach.

It is better for all concerned that such reviews are kept in-house, completed promptly and that the process is transparent for the parties involved. From experience, however, I can tell you this is easier said than done!      

For all the disquiet it created, the upshot of the review and subsequent player and coaching staff workshop is that Geelong has risen from tenth to premiership favourite ahead of today’s Qualifying Final against the Kangaroos.

Mark’s character, strong principles and self belief enabled him to absorb the heavy hits directed his way during the review period. I’ve no doubt he emerged from this unfamiliar territory a better person and, Dean Laidley aside, no coach has performed better in 2007.

As a 202-game player, dual Best & Fairest, triple Premiership player and inspirational captain, Mark remains a favourite son of the red-and-black faithful. A product of local side Airport West, he progressed from the under-19s and reserves to be one of Essendon’s all-time greats. His is the classic football tale of the local boy made good.   

A leader of men, Mark was greatly admired by his teammates and respected by opponents in equal measure. Those who played alongside him speak of Mark’s selfless approach, passion for the club, determination to overcome a career-threatening knee injury and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of others. 

Mark has always been big on team spirit, group leadership and player morale. It was one of the reasons he insisted Paul Van Der Haar join the Essendon players on their end-of-season trip - two years after the Flying Dutchman had hung up the boots.  

Throughout his playing days it was rare for Mark to get flustered or lose his cool. Yet when the situation demanded it, he could deliver a spray as good as any. One notable occasion came during the half-time interval of the 1993 Preliminary Final, when the Bombers found themselves 42 points in arrears to Adelaide.  

Mark’s outburst, directed primarily at those who had played in the losing Grand Final to Collingwood three years earlier, has since been described as brutally confronting by those who bore the brunt of it. Mark’s underlying message as he implored the team leaders to find something special was that this particular group of players was unlikely to get another tilt at premiership glory.        

There’s no denying that the talented younger brigade of James Hird, Dustin Fletcher, Mark Mercuri, Joe Misiti, David Calthorpe and Rick Olarenshaw rallied in the second half. But ultimately it was the seasoned campaigners of Michael Long, David Grenvold, Paul Salmon, Darren Bewick, Peter Sommerville, Chris Daniher and David Flood (desperately unfortunate to make way for Mark Harvey in the Grand Final) who took control of their destiny to snatch an improbable come-from-behind victory. It’s football folklore that the following week the Bombers marched on to upset a highly-fancied Carlton outfit and claim football’s ultimate prize. To this day 19 of Mark’s premiership teammates remain grateful for his timely prod.      

A key outcome of last year’s post-season review at Geelong saw Mark’s workload altered to allow him to concentrate on what he does best; coaching the team and one-on-one mentoring. The appointment of Neil Balme as general manager of football operations and the role he plays at Skilled Stadium has also been significant.

Mark has subtly changed things at Geelong this year. He has employed outside facilitators Leading Teams to work closely with his senior group and established honesty and accountability as key platforms of the team’s trademark behaviours. Matthew Scarlett and Cameron Mooney are said to be among those who have benefited from this approach.

Other changes include the acquisition of David Wheadon in skill development, entrusting the playing group with responsibilities for skill enhancement, a different strength and conditioning philosophy under Paul Haines and the addition of the experienced Dr Chris Bradshaw. And with the exception of this year’s NAB Rising Star Joel Selwood, Travis Varcoe and Tom Hawkins, the improvement across the playing group has come entirely from within.         

Those calling for Mark’s head last year, and most likely again after the Round 5 loss to the Kangaroos, are no doubt now among the most vocal in lauding his achievements. That’s the nature of AFL football.  

Mark reminds me of the famous quote by the greatest middleweight of the twentieth century, Sugar Ray Robinson, when he said, “If you want to see a fighter at his best, watch him when he has his back on the canvas”.

Regardless of what unfolds this September, Mark Thompson has displayed for all to see what a truly great fighter he is.

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