The fans were baying for blood. Here’s how Michael Voss survived at Carlton

By Jake Niall

Carlton skipper Patrick Cripps and Blues coach Michael Voss.Credit: AFL Photos

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They couldn’t move the ball or kick straight. Their vaunted ferocity at the contest and pressure had dissipated. Accusing fingers – thousands of them – were aimed at the triple premiership skipper and resurrected coach who had been hired to lead the frustrated Carlton Football Club to prosperity.

The Blues kept losing, their record finally flat-lining at four wins from 13 games. But Michael Voss did not deviate from his plan.

Michael Voss and his long and winding AFL coaching journey.Credit: The Age

He stuck to his own and Carlton’s strengths, when his team looked cooked and hordes of fed-up fans vented – a billionaire benefactor among the throng – and many called for another revolution.

Judging by the talkback tone, they didn’t want a velvet version, either.

What did Voss, poster boy for the second-chance coach, do to right the ship in his tumultuous second season?

“I don’t think he did a lot. He stuck to his guns,” said Carlton chief executive Brian Cook of Voss’ response to the mid-season crisis.

“He showed stability and he showed real solidarity. He had a plan and he stuck to it. And it was around contest and defence, and he said that all along and, you know, it’s worked.”

Voss’ response was founded on the area that he had prioritised in his second stint as a senior coach, on what was his more natural terrain than the Xs and Os of game style and tactics – leadership and relationships.

It is symbolic of Voss’ coaching that he has spent this season on the boundary prioritising feedback to players rather than in the box upstairs, where his tactically adroit senior assistant Ash Hansen is delegated with much of the game-day manoeuvring.

Carlton’s senior assistant coach Ashley Hansen gives directions to Harry McKay.Credit: Getty Images

In Brisbane, the revered Voss foundered on the rocks of micromanagement and insufficient support at the club he skippered as player. At Carlton, after learning delegation from Ken Hinkley at Port Adelaide, he would trust those at his side and underneath, such as Hansen and his line coaches.

It was leadership, not tactical acumen, that had won Voss his second crack at senior coaching.

“He’s not afraid to delegate, he’s not afraid to have an honest conversation with anyone,” Cook said of Voss, whose conversations with the club’s on-field leaders were hard ones.

It’s arguable that Voss was brave in challenging the on-field leaders, when there is natural temptation to cuddle those whom you need to keep on side.

Cook and president Luke Sayers had been bluntly told that the issue was not with the coach. Jacob Weitering, the team’s premier tall defender, carried that message to the president after the Blues, sapped of confidence and seemingly playing with anxiety, went down to Friday night’s opponent, Sydney, at the SCG, in round 11.

“It was just a simple conversation with Luke,” Weitering recalled in an interview with this masthead.

“I said, ‘It’s a player’s problem at the moment. We need to get ourselves sorted. Vossy’s doing everything he can’ and the coaches were at the time as well. We just had to implement what we were being coached.”

Carlton’s Jacob Weitering.Credit: Getty Images

That same message – “it’s not the coach” – was conveyed to Cook and the club’s board.

Sayers had gone on record saying that Voss would coach in 2024, as contracted, regardless of whether the club met the bar of making finals – a comment the president first made after the Collingwood game in round 10, which Weitering reckoned was their nadir (they would lose three more consecutively before the turnaround).

This unequivocal backing of Voss was reiterated by CEO Cook and president Sayers in more expansive radio interviews on the day of the Essendon game – an embarrassing 34-point defeat.

The Blues had planned to make a public show of support for Voss on that day, clearly mindful of the sound and fury surrounding them, including the public comments by billionaire gaming magnate and benefactor Bruce Mathieson, who had criticised the board’s and also Cook’s leadership, in an interview with News Corp. His nephew Craig, who had served on the board since 2012, would resign after the Sydney loss.

Within the club, there were concerns from some football staff and players that Voss would become yet another Carlton coaching casualty. This view ran contrary to the board and CEO’s position.

Michael Voss in June this year.Credit: Getty Images

The internal fears that Voss could be moved on before his contract was up (end of 2024) were largely founded upon Carlton’s recent cycle of sacking coaches, since Brett Ratten (2012), Mick Malthouse (mid-2015), Brendon Bolton (mid-2019) and David Teague (end of 2021) had been terminated before their contracts were completed.

“I think the Collingwood game was a turning point of we were understanding we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Weitering said. “Sydney felt like we made some changes but didn’t get the result.

“And Essendon [round 13] was a real gut punch, because of the occasion. Essendon, [we] probably needed to win. It was very reminiscent of Brendon Bolton, sort of that period of time, we lost to Essendon and he was moved on and everything was, you know, shook up again.”

What is evident from talking to Weitering, Cook and others within the club not authorised to speak publicly and who talked off the record, is that the club hierarchy’s public affirmation that Voss was safe was a relief, that some players and staff had experienced one sacking or review too many.

“They’d been through it before,” said Cook of the players and staff who’d endured coaching/CEO turnover. “They didn’t want to go through it again.”

Weitering said: “I think if you’re going to do that [sack the coach] … you’re probably saying to the club, to the supporters, to the players that you’re taking one step forward and two steps back, or three steps back even, and that’s not great if you want success.”

Cook said he and Sayers had underestimated the impact on the players of their public statements supporting Voss staying in his role. Sayers, subsequently engulfed in separate controversy due to his past stewardship of PwC, has said little since that time.

“When that was said to us, to Luke and I, to the board, I think we were a little surprised,” Cook said.

“We probably didn’t fully comprehend how important it was how the players saw the commentary from Luke and I in particular, in the media.

“We thought they were a bit more protected than that. There was obviously some susceptibility there, some sensitivity, OK, and we didn’t pick up on [it].”

Weitering said of the external pressure’s influence: “The less noise there is the better … I mean, this is a noisy club.”

Weitering credits Cook, Sayers and football boss Brad Lloyd for standing firm in the face of the outside heat. “And then Vossy is the obvious one … a leader of men, very good balance between relationships and understanding you’ve got to get the job done.”

Michael Voss during his time as Brisbane coach.Credit: Getty Images

Carlton’s season stands as one of the most unusual, a six-game losing streak followed by nine consecutive victories and a surge to September.

Yet Cook cannot pinpoint what caused this 180-degree turn. “We knew what all the stats said … those measurements have turned around completely. But if you said to me what has been the reason they’ve turned around, I couldn’t tell you the reason.

“Maybe confidence.”

Weitering said there were many reasons for the turnaround – the players’ campfire conversation at Ed Curnow’s surf coast beach house has been widely cited as important – but that the Blues had focused on their strengths, contest and defence, instead of trying to be what they were not.

Patrick Cripps celebrates with Michael Voss.Credit: AFL Photos / Getty Images

“Last year our pressure and our contest was very good for the first half of the year and it dropped away. I guess our make-up of the team definitely centre around those things and we just weren’t playing that way.

“The campfire conversation is one that was brought up recently. But Vossy was very strong on our identity and how he wanted us to play, and simply you can’t just have a coach saying it, the leaders need to both say it and drive it.”

Weitering said during the slump the Blues had been poor offensively and average defensively.

“I think the funny thing is we were working more on the offence than we were the defence, which is our strength. It starts at contest.

“We were talking too much about how we were moving the ball rather than actually defending it. You need your leaders to drive it.”

Cook was struck, too, by Voss’ optimism in the face of those continued defeats. “He was really consistent. He kept on saying the same things … But he was also confident of getting out of it. I’m not sure he ever planned on winning nine in a row after losing five or six in a row. He was always optimistic.”

Weitering called Carlton “a slightly impatient club historically” in what strikes as an understatement. As the game’s longest-serving CEO, with five flags to his name at West Coast and Geelong, Cook carried a mandate to cure the Blues of their quick-fixing and provide stability.

Voss, in Cook’s telling, has imported another trait that is most un-Carlton-like and which the club has adopted an official value in its mission statement: humility.

Voss’ humility was evident in his football journey. He did not give up on coaching after the failure as an untried and inexperienced coach in Brisbane. He spent seven years in what others might consider exile, retooling and educating himself.

“He’s brought that value with him. He is the prime example of humility in our footy club,” Cook said.

It has never been Voss’ way or the highway at Carlton. It has been about carrying people with him, as Cook has made plain.

“I’m just glad Vossy went about it the way he did,” Weitering said. “And I don’t think there was any other way.”

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