In the AFL’s spiritual era, Luke Beveridge has Bulldogs breathing as one

A fortnight ago, minutes after they had eviscerated Port Adelaide, Luke Beveridge addressed his players. “Everyone’s got so much admiration, not just for how you’re playing, but how you’re looking after one another,” he told them. “The care for one another, and the love for one another, is the essence of our football club. You’re the essence of our football club.”

The team then celebrated with a few stubbies and a singalong. “Freedom and love,” they sang. “What he’s looking for. Freed from desire, mind and senses purified.”

It may have been a nod to their finals campaign – a torrid month spent quarantining, being shunted from state to state, adhering to comical restrictions, and picking off opponents one by one. It may simply have been a good song to dance to. Whatever it was, it had Luke Beveridge written all over it. After several years of drift, this Western Bulldogs side was under his spell again, and was playing with the freedom and vim of 2016.

Many of the great coaches – though not all – formed an extra close bond with their players. Norm Smith’s attitude, his son told biographer Ben Collins, was “you’re my surrogate sons and I’ll treat you as such”. But the language of footy coaches has changed so much in recent years. These days, every sentence is peppered with “freedom”, “connection” and “vulnerability”. It is often overplayed, of course. Footy clubs, after all, are ultimately in the business of winning. They will have you talking like a yoga instructor and then toss you aside like a pair of old shoes.

But in a competition ostensibly designed to be even, having a point of difference and telling a unique story, is priceless. All the recent champion sides have tapped into it. Increasingly, that hook is cultural, some would say almost spiritual. It’s fitting that the book chronicling the Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership was titled A Wink from the Universe. The 2018 premiers had the mantra “Head, heart and gut”. Richmond’s mindfulness coach had the entire playing list, including a devout Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Tiwi Islander and the son of a bikie, breathing as one, perfecting what she called “their intentional quadrant”.

Before the 2016 grand final, he had them imagine themselves as musical instruments in a rock band
It is the antitheses of how the previous generations of Australian men were raised, taught and coached. When I was a schoolkid, I was sized up by a legendary junior coach at a representative training session. “Another private school cunt,” he barked. That was the extent of our relationship. That was how it went back then.

The new way is welcome, and it clearly works. No coach is more attune to this than Beveridge. Like Damian Hardwick, he uses metaphors, homilies, songs, and themes. His three senior coaches – Terry Wheeler, Stan Alves, and particularly John Northey – were storytellers who would bring their players to an emotional pitch. Beveridge cultivated his own methods in the amateurs, bewitching C-graders playing for the love of the game.

As an assistant coach at Hawthorn, he was in charge of the defenders. Before a big game one day, he showed them the hostage scene from the Clint Eastwood film The Enforcer. It’s an extraordinary performance from Inspector Callahan. Armed with what Clive James called “the biggest gun not currently mounted on a battleship”, he wipes out three hoods. Beveridge’s message? Seize the initiative. Take the fight to them. Brian Lake, a troubled soul who thrived under Beveridge, told the Age in 2016: “He wasn’t your mate, and yet he wasn’t a hard arse. He somehow found that sweet spot.”

That, in many ways, is the key to his coaching. He’s more than a shaman figure. “One after another,” Martin Flanagan wrote following their premiership, “the Bulldogs players described him to me as caring. But he also has what could be termed a deep objectivity, a detachment, when it comes not only to assessing players and their roles in a team, but also to the running of a football club.” Indeed, one of the striking things about Flanagan’s book is how critical of his players Beveridge could be, particularly in his written assessments. He demands a lot of them. He is not afraid to drop half a dozen of them at once. But he never loses them. He always draws them back in. No coach defends his players in the face of public criticism as fiercely.

Before the 2016 grand final, he had them imagine themselves as musical instruments in a rock band. Each had a special talent. Each had a role to play. Each was essential to the final product. “Bring your gifts, bring your instruments, bring your voice, your song, your noise” he told them. They brought their instruments, and they brought the heat. They turned the grand final, Greg Baum wrote, “into a kind of morality play.” “Everyone felt a little better about footy, and life in general.”

This time, the Demons are the sentimental pick. They are worthy favourites. They have been the best and most consistent team all year. They have a watertight defence, a champion ruckman and crack onballers. Their list was built by two of Beveridge’s best mates, Jason Taylor and Tim Lamb.

But they qualified by beating a tired, recycled team that had checked out weeks earlier. Their opponents this week are riding a wave. They yield to none. They are fully locked in with their brilliant, occasionally baffling coach. “This is our storyline,” Beveridge told his players five years ago. “We run into the fire. Into the fury. Into the coals and where the heat is. We’ve done it three times. We need one more.” Tomorrow is a completely different dynamic. It’s in a different state. It’s with a vastly different team. But the energy, the momentum, and the sense of a coach at the very top of his game, are all instantly familiar.