‘A really good fella’: It’s hard not to barrack for Ratten

Carlton fans and even a few people still involved at the coalface of that club may well be feeling a touch wistful about Brett Ratten today.

But plenty of navy blue-bloods and people attached to other clubs will be pleased for Ratten. If you know Ratten, as this columnist does, it's hard not to barrack for him to succeed.

Whatever his strengths and foibles as coach, Ratten reeks of decency. "He's always been a really good fella," was the plain description of Mark Riley, a former assistant coach at Carlton, Melbourne and Gold Coast and friend of 'Ratts'.

Brett Ratten has realised his potential as a head coach at St Kilda. Credit:Getty Images

Ratten was sacked, in the ruthless Carlton way, after an 11-11 season in 2012 that came on the heels of three consecutive finals appearances. Carlton has managed to break-even or do better on win-losses only once in the subsequent eight years – an outcome that reflects the club's scorched-earth rebuild.

Ratten was a talented, but relatively inexperienced coach at Carlton. He didn't delegate as well as he might have, finding it hard to trust some key lieutenants. He poked his nose into areas that senior coaches should leave alone, in part because he'd worn the jumper with distinction and felt it was his club.

Today, Ratten is the first coach to guide St Kilda into the finals since Ross Lyon in 2011. His career and life journey since 2012 have changed him, and improved him as coach.

Carlton hired the raw, talented young coach and discarded him before he developed into the best version of himself. Their timing was askew.

St Kilda hired an older, wiser man who, in addition to a career setback, had endured the horrendous trauma of losing his son Cooper, then just 16, in a car accident during the 2015 season when he was working under Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn.

Crucially for Ratten, happenstance meant that he was hired as caretaker coach after Alan Richardson finished up with six games left last year, albeit the Saints knew Ratten was capable of taking over from when they hired him as an assistant for the 2019 season.

Ratten is an earthy, warm person. He's a touch quirky and has an emotional edge, which I think has resonated with the St Kilda players. He doesn't speak a remotely corporate language. It's unlikely he'd produce a polished power-point presentation that ticked all the management school boxes.

His presentation to the Saints was actually coaching them last year, when he won the support of the players and made it difficult for the club to hire anyone else – a scenario that also unfolded, most dramatically at North Melbourne, and also Carlton.

Brett Ratten has developed a people-first coaching style. Credit:Getty Images

Ratten was highly conscious of where he had come up short at Carlton and has sought to address those failings at St Kilda. He's delegated more effectively, trusted both those who report to him and his general manager of football Simon Lethlean, who has presided over a dramatic remaking of the football department.

The Saints feel that Ratten has been the right coach for the pandemic, too. Whereas many coaches need to get away from the players and staff and would find the hub suffocating, club insiders say Ratten, who loves company, has been energised by the being in a hub for months on end.

He's treated the players as people-first, then footballers, in keeping with the new holistic culture of openness and vulnerability.



Ratten believed in Jack Steele. He told Steele that while he'd been a tagger, he felt that Steele was good enough to be freed from that constraint and to be a primary ball-getter. Steele's elevation to a potential all-Australian this year has vindicated the coach's call.

He had faith in Nick Coffield, too, when it was by no means clear that Coffield would cut it as a long-term player. "I'm going to play you," was his message to Coffield.

Ratten has the right foils in David Rath, a cerebral assistant coach who exudes an analytical rather than passionate/emotional approach, and the well-organised Lethlean, who runs a tight ship in the football department.

Riley, who was Ratten's version of the King's hand in Game of Thrones at Carlton (where the outcome for coaches has been very Games of Thrones) – outlines three factors in his friend's growth as a second-time senior coach. "You mature as you get older and you learn life lessons" he said.

"He's had tragedy of losing his son, which puts the game of football in real perspective … Then he's had the technical learnings of working with a great modern day coach [Clarkson, who had Ratten from 2013 until the end of 2018]."

If the resurrection of Ratten's senior coaching career is an uplifting story amid the sea of COVID-19 misery, it also contains a lesson for the AFL clubs, which have been so loathe to re-hire any coach deemed to have failed.

It remains an indictment on the supposedly rigorous coach-hire processes that Neale Daniher, who managed the miracle of coaching an impecunious and oft-fractious Melbourne to six finals series and a grand final, did not coach another club.

Ratten's successes, should they continue, might represent more than just a change at St Kilda and in his coaching approach. He might just prove what American sports have long known: That failing once doesn't mean you can't succeed in your next coaching gig.

For that reason alone, every sacked coach should be barracking as hard for him as St Kilda fans.

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