Michael Voss celebrates Carlton's semi-final win over Melbourne on September 15, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

EVERY day for two months during Carlton's early-season slump last year, coach Michael Voss wrote a question in his journal to start his morning. As Carlton lost six straight games and eight of nine between round five and 13, finals aspirations appeared shot and the focus turned sharply to Voss' future as Blues coach. He, too, looked at himself, but for different reasons.

"One of the really important questions I'd write down every single day for about eight weeks was 'What type of leader do I want to be today?' and I started with that one question every single day," Voss told AFL.com.au.

"I used my journal and reflected and I've since read back on those notes. I hope no one gets a hold of them but it's interesting to read those notes back because you've got to put yourself in a vulnerable position about what you're actually truly feeling and sensing and then you have to go to work on it. That was my way of getting control back of the situation."

Carlton didn't just take control back; the Blues grabbed it, popped it under their arm, took three bounces, kicked it to Charlie and went on a magic run to the preliminary final, returning to the finals for the first time in a decade and getting within reach of what would have been their first Grand Final since last century.


Backing in Voss and his team saw Carlton stabilise, going on a nine-game winning streak before its famous finals wins over Sydney and Melbourne, a distinctly different feel to their round 13 drubbing at the hands of rivals Essendon. During that period, as commentators and fans called for change across all sorts of places, Blues bosses resisted. As did Voss.

"Through that time when you're not going so well you're constantly asked 'What are you going to change? What are you going to change?'," he said.

"Actually one of the hardest things to do is not to change, keep following through, doubling down on your habits, being consistent in what you do, having the time away to find what to change and what to keep the same. That's pretty important.

"We backed in our environment was really sound. That was the feedback that we were getting loud and clear. We made some tweaks to how we trained. Certainly the players brought another level of intention around the defensive part of our game at that midway point.

"I just had to work out that I needed time. And I didn't know if I had time. But it was time I was going to take and I was going to be patient with what happened and that to me was important. They were going to be ready when they showed they were ready, it wasn't going to be because I was forcing it down their throat.

"When they were ready they were going to accept the information and execute what was needed. We were probably fortunate they got ready when we needed them to and we got rolling."

There were no secrets to the turnaround. Gun midfielder Sam Walsh's return to better fitness after off-season back surgery was a major factor, Charlie Curnow continued to hit his straps and won his second straight Coleman Medal, Tom De Koning re-signed and found his place in the finals as a marking forward option when resting in the ruck and new faces Ollie Hollands and recruit Blake Acres made the wings their own. A stack of others found their groove. Defensively they bought in.

But the Blues also wanted to better recognise and reward their role players, conscious that improvement was coming from them more than their established big names (of which Carlton has perhaps the most talented leadership group heading into 2023 in captain Patrick Cripps and vice captains Walsh, Curnow and defender Jacob Weitering).

"One of the real realisations was about giving our role players status and that's what we have gone after," Voss said. "We've been good at that but we haven't been great at that."

Carlton coach Michael Voss and players during a team photo ahead of the 2024 season. Picture: AFL Photos

The coach describes the finals as an "audit" – "and you can't ignore the audit" – and said the defeat to Brisbane, after kicking the first five goals of the preliminary final, had exposed areas to focus on over summer. They became more efficient in the second half of the year but still felt restricted by good sides in parts of their game. Voss wants his team to "double down" on its strength at the contest and to stay as committed to its defence. "You might hear me say that a few times this year," he said.

You also expect Voss will be answering plenty of questions about premiership hype and hope throughout 2024. The Blues have developed their list over a number of years and multiple rebuilds to be in the flag window and Voss wants to embrace the excitement about, and within, his side.

"I think we did last year. I don't think we need to rewrite history. Our expectations have always been quite high internally. People from the outside now, because they've seen a bit more evidence and body of work, they trust us a bit more. I thought last year they still didn't trust us a hell of a lot. We probably weren't the reliable team. They knew we were making progress but reliability factor was low," he said.

"We were up against it and copping it left, right and centre, which is fine, and then we found our way through that, which is tough and rare to do, especially with the focus of what this club brings and historically has brought. But for the club to remain stable, and provide strong leadership through that period of time, says volumes for how committed we are to this transformational change that we're going through and what we're determined to execute.

"For that to happen, part of that has got to be about success. Part of that is embracing the excitement that should come for that. I don't think we should hose it down. But at the same time it would be foolish for us to live there. You asked me about lessons from last year and maybe there was just an eye for what was going to happen into the future. And the reality is we haven't even become a great home and away side yet. That's our reality."

Michael Voss watched on as his team leaves the field after the preliminary final match between Brisbane and Carlton at The Gabba on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

He is on alert for any signs of complacency that the next step is going to come naturally.

"I haven't sensed it and as you can imagine my radar is well and truly up on that. I spoke at the end of the year and I think it's really important because it's been a considerable time but if 2022 was a little bit about the hurt and historically it's been about the hurt, to me it's about the hunger now.

"You can go one of two ways when you experience a bit of finals. You can get a taste of it and that's enough, or you can get a taste of it and that makes you hungry.

"I look at those intangible markers that don't live on a page. There's no GPS unit that tells me that they're on, my eyes tell me we're doing the work and you can't substitute that. We're not looking for the easy way through it."

Michael Voss ahead of the preliminary final between Brisbane and Carlton at The Gabba on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Voss puts himself as part of that. At the end of a lows-then-highs season, he took a breather. He went to Fiji on holiday and also did some study overseas at New York's Columbia Business School. But it all starts again quicker than ever, with the Blues facing his former club Brisbane in Opening Round at the Gabba. Voss is in talks over a two-year contract extension that would take him to five years with the Blues after five years as Brisbane's coach. In between, there were eight seasons with Port Adelaide as an assistant.

"I hope this comes out the right way but I've sort of separated my Brisbane coaching journey and then the Carlton journey because it's so different. Part of it is clearly time. I was 33 or 34 then and it's been replaced by a 48-year-old and I'm a little bit wiser with a few more experiences under the belt," he said.

The wild ride of 2023 is perhaps Voss' biggest coaching experience yet – it's readied him for a season in the premiership spotlight.

"Even if you are winning like we were towards the end, we were able to generate momentum and it's still the emotional rollercoaster of 'Can we keep it?' There's injuries and all the things that go on behind the scenes that no one even sees or knows," he said.

"I describe high performance as like a knife's edge. It can fall to the left or fall to the right and sometimes you turn up on a day and you think it's all OK and you have two or three spanners thrown at you and your day changes very, very quickly and that's what a high performance environment is all about."


If his contract will be done before the start of the season

"Possibly. One of the things you'd like to do as a coach is remove every distraction but you don' t get the chance to do that, especially in today's landscape. Someone's a free agent, someone's out of contract, you're chasing someone, there's points galore and I guess the coach is one of them. I'm confident enough it will get sorted out. If that takes a little bit extra time then so be it, but it will be one of those things that would be nice coming into the season and know that it's done. But if it takes a little longer then so be it."

His nerves catching a throw from NFL champion quarterback Tom Brady recently at an event

"I got a little toey. I took the cufflinks off and rolled up the sleeves and I thought 'I'm not dropping this otherwise I'll never live it down'. I was prepared to dive on nails to make sure I caught it, but thankfully I caught it and his throw was of course perfect. The rest is history. I was actually struggling to pick up the flight because I was standing in the dark and he was standing in the light. That would've been my excuse had I fumbled it, but I get to say that I caught it. It was a good experience. We always like to think we hang around other elite athletes and success leaves clues and all these cliches that you hear but he's obviously been the top of his game for 23 years so it was nice to rub shoulders with him."