Five years ago, when the Adelaide Crows last failed to make the AFL finals series for a second consecutive season, the club took drastic steps.
“The time has come, we need a fresh direction … we need a new coach in place to take us there,” chairman Rob Chapman said in September 2014.
“Mediocrity — and that’s what we’ve [had] in the last two seasons, for whatever reason — is unacceptable.”
After three years at the helm, Crows coach Brenton Sanderson was sacked with two seasons remaining on his contract.
The decision was a divisive one and also set an ominous precedent.
Two years earlier, in 2012, Sanderson had taken the team to within five points of a grand final berth.
Did his departure mean every Crows coach going forward would only have two seasons to secure September action before facing the sack?
Fast forward to 2019, and current coach Don Pyke finds himself in a similar situation.
Two years have passed since Pyke coached the Crows to a grand final against Richmond, and he has two years to go on his contract — meaning he would have to be paid a hefty amount if the Crows decided to replace him.
Like Sanderson in 2014, he is also facing rumours and rumblings — of player unrest and of supporter rage.
Despite those challenges, Pyke has remained calm and philosophical in his media appearances throughout the season.
“We need to go away and lick our wounds and have a real look and see exactly what’s transpired and exactly what we need to change and fix,” Pyke said after yesterday’s disappointing 34-point loss to the Western Bulldogs.
“We’ve got some great people at the footy club — the playing group, coaching staff, high performance guys — but we’ve clearly underperformed, against our own expectations.”
The Crows’ defeat to the Bulldogs not only sealed the fates of both sides, but also the fate of cross-town rivals Port Adelaide, who only had pride to play for when they took on Fremantle at Adelaide Oval yesterday afternoon.
Like Pyke, Power coach Ken Hinkley has also failed to make the finals since 2017, and is facing intense scrutiny because of it.
“One of the problems we had was to actually create momentum this year. We were a bit of a win-loss, win-loss type club,” CEO Keith Thomas told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Ali Clarke.
Unlike Pyke, however, Hinkley’s club has given a strong commitment to keeping him, at least for another year.
“I can absolutely confirm Kenny will just keep going on his contract, as was always intended,” Thomas said.
Hinkley is contracted until the end of 2021, and while Thomas acknowledged there was an escape clause in that deal giving the Power’s management the option of reconsidering at the end of next season, the situation at Alberton seems a little more stable.
Thomas said he would be continuing as CEO — although he confirmed that players had been asked to accept deferred payments.
“We’re in a fixed-cost industry. We’ve got salary caps. It’s normal practice,” he said.
“The reality is we are a club that has a pretty narrow buffer in regards to our profitability year in, year out. We’ve made no secret of that fact.
“Membership’s down a little bit, our attendances were down but out corporate revenue’s up. We’re pretty much a break-even club.
“That’s why we’ve invested so heavily in China and in diversifying the revenue bases.”
Ricciuto lashes out at Crows fans before backtracking
For weeks fans have taken to social media to air their displeasure at the inconsistent performances of both sides, with the hashtags #pykeout and #hinkleyout gaining traction following the sides’ defeats.
Coaches aside, players have also come under fire, with Crows football director and club legend Mark Ricciuto saying his side had seemed “flat and dispirited for a while”.
“They looked confused out on the ground today, they looked like they were standing still and just not really having a crack at all,” Ricciuto told Triple M after yesterday’s game.
“We’ve got contracted players, we’ve got players out of contract, we’ve had a couple of guys announce their retirements already.”
The Crows are reportedly facing an exodus of talent.
The lengthy list of players linked to other clubs includes Sam Jacobs, Eddie Betts, Josh Jenkins, Hugh Greenwood, Alex Keath and Brad Crouch.
Richard Douglas and Andy Otten have both announced their retirements.
Tensions between the club’s management and fans boiled over yesterday, with Ricciuto lashing out at supporters.
“The club is bigger than any individual and that’s why the supporters need to back in the people who are making the decisions, that they’re making the decisions for the betterment of the club,” he said on Triple M on Sunday.
“The supporters … should back the people in and if they don’t, well then maybe they don’t need to barrack for the footy club.”
Ricciuto has since backtracked, saying the comment “didn’t come out right” and that fans were “absolutely” entitled to their opinions.
But he said the club was preparing for a probing review that would help to determine its way forward.
“The club is more important than the individual,” he said this morning.
“If anyone’s got to go, whether it’s me or Pykey or Brett Burton or the captain or whatever, whoever’s got to go has got to go.
“If I’m the problem, I’ll be gone. I’m sure if Pykey knew he was the problem, he’d be gone as well.”
Outside the club’s West Lakes headquarters this morning, Pyke said he was confident of keeping his job.
“Yeah mate, we’ll get through it,” he said.
Whether the club gives him the chance to do just that, remains to be seen.