MIKE SMITHSON: Why anyone would coach an AFL team in the footy cauldron that is South Australia?

Mike Smithson
The Nightly
South Australian AFL fans are so angry right now that it’s only a matter of time before one — or both — coaches could be sacked.
South Australian AFL fans are so angry right now that it’s only a matter of time before one — or both — coaches could be sacked. Credit: The Nightly

If Australian Rules Football is a sporting religion, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a crucifixion in the wind.

Who would want to coach top-level sport in any code when you see the backlash from angry fans after a poor performance?

The men’s code is more brutal on coaches than the increasingly popular female AFLW.

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In almost unprecedented scenes, Port Adelaide’s senior coach Ken Hinkley was booed off the ground by his own supporters on Saturday afternoon.

So why does this sporting code evoke such zealous and territorial emotion?

AFL is sacred ground in Victoria, where most of the fans are concentrated, but all other States and Territories also have a devout following that locks in each Friday to Sunday during winter.

South Australia is a strange mix.

Some of the greatest stars have found this two-team state too much to handle as they’re always under the microscope from those who follow the Adelaide Crows or the equally parochial Port Adelaide Power.

Victoria has the luxury of spreading the obsession between 10 teams, meaning slightly less focus on individual players and their every movement.

NSW also has two teams, two-time premier the Swans and GWS, but most of those stars can walk the streets unhindered in a largely rugby league-loving environment.

The same can be said in Queensland for Brisbane Lions players and those from the Gold Coast Suns.

The Lions have enjoyed premiership success on three occasions and the Suns are just emerging as a powerful force, thanks to huge handouts and draft player preferences from head office.

Those stars can also slip under the footy radar as more emotion evolves from rugby league and State of Origin clashes.

Perth is also an AFL cauldron but always appears to be more “out of sight, out of mind” from WA’s eastern neighbours.

So that leads me back to South Australia and deep emotions surrounding the national football code.

Both SA teams always promise plenty but have rarely delivered.

In a combined six decades in the big league, the Crows have managed just two premierships, and the Power has a solitary flag.

Even finals have now eluded the Crows for seven long years and Port were recently bundled out of finals even when they were seemingly a shoo-in to get onto the big stage, grand final day.

Most pundits blindly tipped both teams to have seasons to remember in 2024.

What a load of bull dust, yet again.

The Crows are languishing at 15th on the 18-team AFL ladder and Port is precariously sitting at eighth.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 06: Matthew Nicks, Senior Coach of the Crows during the 2024 AFL Round 13 match between the Adelaide Crows and the Richmond Tigers at Adelaide Oval on June 06, 2024 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Matthew Nicks, Senior Coach of the Crows during the 2024 AFL Round 13 match between the Adelaide Crows and the Richmond Tigers at Adelaide Oval. Credit: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos/AFL Photos via Getty Images

So, it’s now almost a weekly occurrence for rabid fans to call for coaches from both teams to be sacked with their performances less impressive as each week unfolds.

Port’s debacle against Brisbane, six positions lower on the ladder at the time, was in a game commemorating 20 years since its only premiership against the Lions.

It trotted out its original guernsey for the home game with a near-capacity stadium of fans and many of the 2004 premiership team attending, complete with memory-evoking television exposure.

On paper, Port had everything to play for to consolidate a respectable place on the AFL ladder.

In return, players delivered one of the worst performances in the team’s history and the worst losing score under current coach Ken Hinkley.

That margin was almost 13 goals.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 22: Ken Hinkley, Senior Coach of the Power during the 2024 AFL Round 15 match between the Port Adelaide Power and the Brisbane Lions at Adelaide Oval on June 22, 2024 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Ken Hinkley, Senior Coach of the Power during the 2024 AFL Round 15 match between the Port Adelaide Power and the Brisbane Lions. Credit: James Elsby/AFL Photos/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Port is noted for its devout scarf-waving fans proudly belting out their adopted anthem, INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”, before the first bounce at home games and staying until the end, whatever the final score.

But by three-quarter time Adelaide Oval stands were half empty, as the disgusted faithless streamed out unwilling to wait for the agony to end.

Hinkley was booed twice.

The first crowd ugliness came when his live image appeared on the big screen and again when he left the ground.

How unforgiving is this coaching caper?

Both SA coaches had their lucrative employment contracts extended by two years because the clubs believed this season would define new success.

Surely that was a massive leap of faith, given past results.

Now many fans want the blood of Hinkley and Crows senior coach Matthew Nicks.

In most multi-million-dollar businesses, such a long-term lack of success would mean dismissal.

But not in SA.

Players and coaches are treated like gods when things are going well, but the tables can quickly turn.

Fans are ropeable that their annual memberships and hard-earned entry fees again seem fruitless.

Every other State thrives on SA’s long absence from genuine success.

It’s hard to swallow, but such is the current level of anger, I suspect at least one of the coaches will be nailed to the footy cross before their time is due.

Few fans from either club would be shedding too many tears.

Sport, religion, or whatever.

There’s no room at the elite level for mediocrity.

Welcome to footy-mad South Australia.

Mike Smithson is chief reporter and presenter for 7NEWS Adelaide.

He’s also been a Crows’ fan since the club’s inception and a paid-up member for the past decade.

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