Most people in Adelaide will remember the moment that they heard Phil Walsh had died. For me, I had just stirred from my sleep and rolled over to check the time on my phone. Ten minutes earlier I had received a text message.
“Phil Walsh is dead.”
The immediate aftermath of Phil’s death has been well documented. The incredible outpouring of grief across the AFL. Players arm in arm. Crows scarves dotting the crowds at AFL games across the nation. Thousands of tributes left outside the Adelaide Football Club.
But Phil’s death has had a lasting impact on the Adelaide Football Club that still manifests today.
“This is formula one footy. If you want to drive safe, you’re going to finish last.”
Phil’s first game as head coach was a glimpse into what would become the norm for the Crows over the coming seasons. Fast, attacking and entertaining football.
The Crows went into that game against North Melbourne as underdogs. North had made the preliminary final the previous year, and had quality players on every line. While most gave the Crows a puncher’s chance, I don’t think anyone was prepared for the attacking, breakneck football that saw them in front by ten goals at the main break. It was a dramatic shift from the previous years under Brenton Sanderson. It was, as Phil put it, formula one footy.
As the football evolves and the defensive press turns the game into a 36 man rolling maul, Phil’s consideration for playing a brand of football that didn’t just win games but was also attractive is more relevant than ever. Pitting Dangerfield and Fyfe head to head in a matchup against Fremantle made people from across the footballing world take note of an otherwise forgettable game. Fans come to the games to see their teams play a brand of football that is exciting and engaging, and for Adelaide, their trademark high scoring brand of football all began in Round One 2015.
When Adelaide plays its best football, Phil’s influence is easy to see.
“Man conversations mean speaking your mind, even if you may not get what you want, so everyone knows where you stand on issues.”
I remember it clearly. The 2015 Elimination Final. Tex. Ball in hand streaming down the wing of the the MCG. Calmly assessing all before him while the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy.
That single play is emblematic of the man Phil Walsh chose to be captain.
The skill to win the ball. The intent to push forward. The poise to weigh up his options. The selflessness to pass to a teammate.
People who don’t follow the Club will never grasp exactly why Tex is so revered by the Adelaide faithful. He is loyal to a fault, and unapologetically in love with his club. When these traits play out in the media, they come off as foolish, ill-considered or arrogant.
There were mumblings amongst the fan base during 2014 that Tex could be the next captain of the club. Dangerfield and Sloane were both acting co-captains while Nathan Van Berlo recovered from injury, and both would have made fine choices to lead the club into the future. But it was a game in 2014 at home on a Saturday night against an in-form Collingwood that gave a glimpse of things to come. This was Tex’s comeback night, after a year away from the game recovering from an ACL tear.
AFL fans will remember the game for the mild controversy that occurred when the half time siren was drowned out by a rabid Adelaide Oval crowd. Crows fans will remember the game for Charlie Cameron’s electric debut performance. But some will remember the different way the team carried itself now that Tex had returned to the field. He didn’t kick a goal that night, but the team felt different with him out on the field. They played with a different edge. It was an important sign of things to come.
2014 was a year to forget for the club. Brenton Sanderson was famously sacked the day after Andrew Fagan began as CEO with two years left to run on his contract. Thoughts immediately turned to who would be the next coach, but fans were also ready for a new captain. While many thought it was a two horse race between Patrick Dangerfield and Rory Sloane, some were gravitating towards Walker. Still, it was a genuine surprise to most when Phil Walsh made his first significant action as coach and appointed Tex as captain.
There will always be those who say that Tex isn’t the right man to lead the club. He is a polarising figure, lambasted for his passion in a time where the mainstream media continues to ask for more access and more personality from players. But the Adelaide Football Club fans know that Tex bleeds for the club, and there isn’t a more important quality in a Captain.
This past weekend’s game against West Coast showed the best and worst of Taylor Walker. It also highlighted why he is still the best man for the job. Disappointing and out of touch in the first half, his team looked like they were ready to say goodbye to season 2018. But in that last quarter, Walker stood up. And with him, the team breathed new life into their season.
Tex as a leader is Phil’s most enduring legacy. A man who came into his own in the wake of Phil’s passing, with an ability to not only bring a broken group of young men together, but to propel them to new heights. He has had an impact on the Adelaide Football Club in a way that can only be matched by Mark Ricciuto, Andrew McLeod, Malcolm Blight and indeed, Phil Walsh.
“Success doesn’t come looking for you. There’s no secret recipe. What is required is a combination of hard work, elite standards, attention to detail and a fierce competitive spirit.”
I drove to Melbourne on my way to the 2017 Grand Final. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Crows fan using the long drive to reflect on where the club had been and where it could be going.
I expected the Crows to win on that final Saturday in September. They didn’t. That’s life.
At the time, I felt as if I had been robbed of something. Given the resilience that the players had shown through the difficulties of recent seasons, it felt like a win on the MCG would be the culmination of Phill’s legacy. It was fate. The team were supposed to walk out on the ground and cement themselves in AFL history.
Of course, looking back now, the reality is that nothing is promised. Richmond fans themselves would have been feeling, quite reasonably, as though they were a team of destiny. And so it came to pass that Adelaide were denied their third Premiership in humiliating fashion.
The disastrous 2018 season reinforces that when your opportunity presents, you have to take it. In this competition, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is given. While those words are repeated in almost every single post game press conference, it took the Grand Final loss for me to truly appreciate their gravity. Being good isn’t good enough. Success won’t come looking for you. You have to be ready to take it when it comes, and you only get that opportunity through hard work, elite standards, attention to detail, and a fierce competitive spirit.
Given the recent events that have transpired at the club, one could be forgiven for thinking that Adelaide have let their chance at success slip, but to me, the issues stemming from the Collective Mind camp and injury crisis provide an opportunity. An opportunity to evaluate and assess every person within the club from the top down. Do they have what it takes to hunt the success that the club deserves? And if they don’t, does the Club still have the confidence in their convictions to move them on. Only time will tell.
“I want this to be an authentic footy club, as simple as that. I don’t want to be about spin. Actions speak louder than words and this is what the Adelaide Football Club will be about.”
The Adelaide Football Club is the greatest club on earth. It captures the imagination of a football mad town like no other. There is a genuine buzz that takes over the State following a win. Adelaide as a city has grown over the past four years, and central to that growth is the love the city has with the its team.
Phil Walsh made the city fall in love with its team again. His first press conference breathed new life into a club that had gone stale. His brutal assessment of the faults of the club and what needed to be done to fix them struck a chord with fans who were sick of a club trying to spin any criticism it received. You only have to look at the unrest from members at the recent handling of the Collective Mind saga to see that Adelaide fans will no longer put up with the club trying to spin the narrative.
There was an innate sense through Phil’s first preseason that the club had found its next premiership coach. It was not to be. But he did bring with him a set of standards – elite standards that became ingrained in the culture of the club. While the team no doubt strives to achieve those standards every day, the biggest shift has been in the mindset of the broader fan base. The fan base expect more. Indeed they demand more from this club.
Phil’s short time at the club will have lasting effects long after all of his players have retired. His passing brought with it a true turning point in the psyche of the club, it’s members and fans. It was the moment when the Adelaide Football Club matured.
In the nine months he was coach, Phil Walsh turned the Adelaide Football Club around. He set the club on a path towards the ultimate goal. They haven’t completed that journey yet, but when they do, I know that every player and supporter will be thinking of Phil as the final siren sounds.
Phil Walsh made me fall back in love with the Adelaide Crows.
He made such an impact on so many. But perhaps most importantly, he was a son, a brother a husband and a father.
And he is missed.