September 2022

The Pitfalls of Chasing History

Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach's legacy.

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Like the parrot pining for the fjords in Monty Python, the Broncos dynasty is dead and buried, it has ceased to be, it now sits alongside the glory days of the Eels and Raiders.

And very much like that parrot, Broncos fans are pining for that history.

But returning to the summit is rarely a smooth march. It takes guts, pain and a hell of a lot of time.

It’s been 16 years since the last Brisbane premiership. 28 years since the last Raiders premiership. 36 years since the last Eels premiership.

Too often, clubs in sport think that returning to the old days is what will revitalise them. What will dig them out of the mire and plant them back among the cream of the crop.

The Eels appointed Michael Cronin as coach in the early 90s. There have been incessant calls for Peter Sterling to coach the side ever since he retired. 

The legendary number seven has always avoided giving any such credence to the idea. He’s spoken of the 80s being the millstone around the club’s neck. A constant focus from those old enough to remember the halcyon days, somehow thinking that if they remember hard enough, the glory will return.

You can see that trend elsewhere.

Who is going to deliver the Raiders that fourth premiership? Why, Ricky Stuart is the answer you’re apparently looking for. A connection with Canberra’s illustrious past is seemingly the solution to a problem they haven’t solved for nearly three decades.

In Brisbane, well Kevin Walters won premierships with the club, so he’ll bring back the glory days. 

Does that ever really work though? Does revisiting the past to forge ahead into the future ever deliver the desired outcome?

Wayne Bennett couldn’t do it. The man who was six from six at Brisbane returned, reached a grand final and lost. Three years later he was unceremoniously marched from the club.

Across the seas and across sports, similar trends occur with similar results.

Liverpool FC, once the doyen of England’s old first division with 18 titles and an illustrious history built on being nigh on unbeatable, looked to their King nearly two decades after he had left the club.

Kenny Dalglish, the club’s former talisman, captain and manager, returned to coach the club in 2011.

Liverpool hadn’t won the title for 20 years. It would be another decade before they would end up breaking that drought.

Manchester United. The powerhouse that climbed the rungs and asserted its own history after Liverpool’s demise has too, looked to the past since Alex Ferguson retired.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, club legend, trophy winner, and eventual failure as manager. He played under Ferguson, but he couldn’t deliver Ferguson’s magic.

That brings us to what Sterling has said about Parramatta. That looking back on your own history can weigh you down to the point you can no longer support it.

To move forward, a club needs to be at peace with its past, respect it, and move on from it. Using it as a way to educate the youngsters but not have it held up as the goal.

It would be unfair to compare Dylan Brown with Brett Kenny, Pat Carrigan with Gorden Tallis, Jack Wighton with Laurie Daley.

They are all their own players.

Trying to break a drought is sometimes the very problem preventing that from happening. That teams try so hard to rage against their past that they forget the future is what they need to be dealing with.

You can’t break a premiership drought by continuously thinking about. You’ll go mad.

Some NRL teams are lucky not to be weighed down by that history.

Melbourne could look back on their first premiership in 1999, but why do that when their most recent is in 2020 with many of their current players?

The Panthers got a nearly 20 year old monkey off their back when they won their third premiership last year.

But you can also see some teams looking like they may be sliding down the path of looking at the past thinking it will deliver the future.

Des Hasler is into his fourth season in his second stint at Manly. He was head coach when they won their last premiership in 2011. That was 11 years ago now.

He may just do it, but he’d be the first coach to win a premiership at a club, leave and then return to win another at the same club since Bob Fulton when he did it in 1987 and 1996 with Manly of all clubs.

The Bulldogs have gone back to the future again. Phil Gould as head of football after last being head coach of the club in 1989.

Their last premiership was in 2004 and the 20 year anniversary is fast approaching.

The Wests Tigers, despite the fact the club has existed for fewer than 30 years, is already re-appointing Tim Sheens as head coach barely a decade after it shuffled him out the door.

His assistants and earmarked successors are former captains Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.

These appointments all rest on a safe feeling of nostalgia. Like seeing Kevin Walters in the maroon again will mean the Provan Summons Trophy magically reappears at Red Hill.

How else can they be explained? 

Everyone wishes for hope, so what better way to evoke those feelings of comfort than to turn to someone who has done it all before at the same place?

Glory days eventually pass us all by and it doesn’t matter how much you believe you will return to the promised land, sometimes that promise steals something from down in your soul.

To avoid chasing that history and forging your own, it takes a club that is willing to well and truly salute the past, leave it there and look to the future.

At the risk of sounding like a pompous pseudo philosopher, there’s that quote by Frederick Nietschze about staring so long into the abyss that the abyss stares back.

In rugby league terms, this is more like staring so long at your history you convince yourself someone from that history will fix everything for you.

The Dream Is Alive

History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.

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