WESTERN Bulldogs CEO Ameet Bains believes Luke Beveridge has the tools at his disposal to rebound in 2024, dismissing any concerns regarding the relationship between the senior coach and executive director of football, Chris Grant, following a dramatic off-season overhaul at the Whitten Oval.
While Gold Coast, North Melbourne and Geelong all made significant alterations to their coaching panels at the end of last season, no club made more meaningful manoeuvres than the Bulldogs.
Bains helped lead the changes at the end of his sixth season in the role, along with Grant, following a season where the Dogs started as a premiership contender before missing out on September.
Matt Egan (coaching and performance manager), Daniel Pratt (backline coach), former St Kilda captain Jarryn Geary (leadership and development coach), and Alex Johnson (development coach) all joined the club, along with Daniel Duvnjak-Zaknich as fitness boss and favourite son Brad Johnson as a consultant.
The club made those changes across September and October before appointing former Essendon and Melbourne CEO Peter Jackson to undertake an external review of the football operations.
Jackson conducted a six-week process across the summer with the former Essendon and Melbourne CEO and AFL life member interviewing several players on the list, current coaches, football department staff and members of the club's board and executive.
Egan was subsequently promoted to a newly created role of general manager of football operations at the end of January, reporting into Grant, who remains as executive director of football. The coaching team, including Beveridge, now report into Egan, along with the high performance department, welfare and the football operations.
The departures and role changes have been a point of intrigue from afar across the off-season and pre-season, but Bains refuted any suggestion that Beveridge and Grant have fallen out since the club made the decision to move on from assistant coach Rohan Smith and embark on significant personnel changes.
"Any suggestion there is an unworkable breakdown in any relationships, including that of Chris and Luke, is frankly incorrect, as is any suggestion that role changes have been made on this basis," Bains said.
"Chris and Luke have worked together for a very long time and together, along with others, have presided over the most successful on-field period in the club's history. This couldn't happen without a strong and productive relationship.
"The club was obviously disappointed with how the 2023 season ended and the process undertaken is well-documented. Within that process there are natural tension points across our football program and the club has worked through that over the summer in making the change we feel will deliver us success.
"To be clear, Chris remains our executive director of football, remains ultimately responsible for our men's program and, as such, remains a critical leader of our footballing ambitions. The elevation of his focus into more macro areas like leadership, strategy and innovation reflects our need to better prioritise these areas, while also acknowledging the breadth of his previous remit was objectively too large.
"By promoting Matt Egan's role, it allows the program to now have someone exclusively focused on the operational and performance aspects of the program. Matt still reports into Chris and, ultimately, we think this is a structure that will allow our program to be at its best."
Recent reviews at St Kilda (Brett Ratten), Essendon (Ben Rutten), North Melbourne (David Noble) and Carlton (David Teague) have resulted in bloodshed, but Bains said the external review endorsed the off-season football department changes and recommended some role adjustments (Egan and Grant) and additions (a general manager of women's football), while outlining culture, department structure, roles and responsibilities and player and staff development as the areas to focus on moving forward.
"Unlike other reviews, ours wasn't just an external review, as we looked at things in depth internally in the immediate aftermath of the season. Significant change came prior to Peter's review. Had Peter suggested further material change then we would have confronted that and responded accordingly," Bains told AFL.com.au on the Bulldogs' pre-season camp in Mooloolaba earlier this month.
"Peter's main brief was looking at how we do things and the environment and culture around that. His feedback was really positive around the personnel that have come on board, both from their capability point of view but also culturally. There is no better illustration of that than Matt Egan, who in less than a three-month period has assumed more responsibility on the back of what he's shown in conjunction with what Peter's review suggested."
While only club icon Ted Whitten (225 games) has coached more games for the club than Beveridge (194), no one has led the Bulldogs to more wins (109), more finals wins (seven) or more Grand Final appearances (two) than the coach currently in charge. Charlie Sutton is the only other premiership coach.
But despite that imposing record, which includes the 2021 Grand Final loss to Melbourne in Perth, and despite being contracted until the end of 2025, Beveridge will start the 2024 season under the microscope following two consecutive seasons without a win in September. That is the nature of the beast. Adam Simpson at West Coast, Justin Longmuir at Fremantle and Ken Hinkley at Port Adelaide are all in a similar boat.
Bains said the internal and external reviews reconfirmed the club's belief that Beveridge is the best coach to lead the club back towards the promised land, with the coaching changes – both in and out – made to benefit the 53-year-old.
"The club's view hasn't changed that Luke Beveridge is the right coach. The process of the end of year internal review reinforced that," he said.
"The major reasons behind that remain a belief in his capability as the coach of the football club from all the key people, but most importantly, the faith and belief that the playing group and the football department staff have in him as our senior coach.
"Ultimately, all the changes that we made are designed to not only bring out the best in the program but to do what strong clubs do, and that is to support their people in the best way possible. That is obviously of utmost importance for our most senior people, the coaching being one of those. We feel as part of the decisions we made, the club is better supporting the program and Luke personally to be the best he can be."
A COMPLETE AFLW RENOVATION
It isn't just the men's program in Footscray that has undergone a well-documented renovation since the end of last season; the women's program is in the middle of being entirely revamped, following the departure of St Kilda great Nathan Burke in November after the Dogs finished 1-9 in 2023 to claim the AFLW wooden spoon.
Former North Melbourne coach Dani Laidley is being considered for the senior coaching vacancy after putting her hand up for a return to the game. Laidley coached the Kangaroos 149 times between 2003 and 2009, before stints as an assistant coach at Port Adelaide, St Kilda and Essendon.
Bains said the club is currently at various stages of interviewing candidates and is aiming to appoint a senior coach within the next week, as well as a general manager of women's football and player welfare manager within the next month.
"We have been in the market for all three roles and have been delighted with the calibre of candidates interested in joining our club," he said. "It would be unfair to talk through the coaching candidates publicly, but that's well progressed and we are in the very final stage of that process.
"Interviews will commence for the GM of women's football role imminently as we finalise the shortlist for that role. An appointment for the player welfare role will also be announced shortly. In an ideal world, we would love to get to late February, early March with not only all the roles appointed, but operational."
SUPREME COURT APPEAL
Bains confirmed the club is appealing the Supreme Court ruling from November that awarded child sex abuse victim Adam Kneale $5.9 million ($3.35 million for pain and suffering, $2.6 million in loss of earnings and $87,500 for future medical expenses) in damages after a jury found the club was negligent in protecting him in the 1980s from former fundraising committee member Graeme Hobbs.
"We lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court ruling just prior to Christmas. We will wait for that court process to play out before getting a trial date for that matter. (I'm) obviously not at liberty to say too much about that specifically," he said.
"The club for well over a decade – certainly from before my time – has really grown in terms of its financial stability and our ability to navigate through COVID or other seismic events during that period has been stronger accordingly and each time the club has come out in relatively robust position.
"Clearly if the judgement doesn't change, it is a really significant financial impost. What is important to reiterate, though, is it doesn't place the long-term sustainability of the club in any jeopardy. Clearly there will be a significant detrimental impact if the Supreme Court judgement is not changed at all, but it won't come at the expense of the future of the club."
THE NEW-LOOK KENNEL
One of the major projects Bains has helped oversee during his time as CEO is the almost $80 million redevelopment of the club's spiritual home on Barkly Street. The football department has moved into the Victoria University high performance centre at the Whitten Oval, after enduring 12 months of pain with training sessions at Skinner Reserve and weights in a makeshift gym where the café once served coffee to devoted supporters wanting to catch a glimpse of their heroes and offer the match committee selection advice.
The Whitten Stand is the final stage of the construction with the administration, reception, merchandise store, museum and function space set to be completed around April if things remain on schedule.
"I think we've already seen the greatest benefit which has nothing to do with the facility but is around the connection and environment piece," he said.
"While the temporary facilities that our program worked out of last year remained at Whitten Oval, the coaches and football staff were on a different level of the building to the playing group. Interactions tended to be around the formal training elements and meetings and wasn't conducive to organic corridor conversations or a player simply grabbing a coach to chat. Even though our facilities aren't absolutely completed just yet, just being together has made a profound difference already."
60,000 MEMBERS IN 2024?
The Bulldogs surged past 40,000 members for the first time in 2017 after the club ended a 62-year premiership drought in 2016 and have been on a steady climb since then – aside from 2020 – eclipsing 50,000 in 2022 before setting a new record last year with 56,302 paid up. Now the goal is to reach 60,000 members this season.
"We've achieved record membership three years in a row. We were one of only four clubs to have double digit growth last year and we remain grateful to have such a committed and loyal fan base supporting us each and every day," Bains said.
"We remain acutely aware that our overall volume is not at the level of some of our other Melbourne-based counterparts; that's our ongoing challenge to bridge that.
"The goal for us this year is to push through the 60,000-member mark for the first time in our history. We are well on track for that and hopeful that our members continue to join up. There is a level of disappointment with how both our programs finished last year, but we have done a lot of work collectively to address that and we go into this year more confident after the changes and the review."
WILL TIM ENGLISH REMAIN AT THE KENNEL?
After re-signing star key forward Aaron Naughton for eight more years last October – the equal longest current contract in the AFL with new Port Adelaide captain Connor Rozee – West Australian ruckman Tim English enters 2024 as the biggest free agent in the pool.
Bains said list manager Sam Power is currently negotiating an extension with English's manager, Andrew McDougall from Corporate Sports Australia, with the club confident the 2023 All-Australian will recommit his future to the Western Bulldogs.
"There is definite confidence that Tim will remain at the Bulldogs," he said. "Sam Power continues to have ongoing and current discussions with Tim's manager, Andrew McDougall. We haven't received any indication other than Tim being happy at the club. We hope that our program rebounds (and) that will give not only Tim, but all of our players, confidence in the long-term on-field future of the club too."