Story by Chris Cavanagh
IT IS almost two hours until game time at Coburg City Oval.
Around the ground, the first spectators are walking through the gates as the coffee machines are set up and the canteen staff begin to prepare the day’s pies and hotdogs.
Inside the Coburg rooms, in the bowels of the grandstand, things are already buzzing.
Lions players have just arrived.
Some are pacing around the rooms bouncing footballs while others are looking at sheets on the walls analysing the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent Essendon.
At 12.30pm, Coburg coach Peter German calls all 23 players into a small room to explain the plan.
The rain has stopped but the ground remains wet and there is a howling wind.
German knows “pretty footy” is not going to be a successful recipe.
“The side that can keep their feet and numbers around the ball is going to have a big advantage,” German tells his troops.
“For me today, I think we’ve got to try and make it physical and keep the pressure up.
“We don’t want to allow them to play the precision footy game that they want to play. We can win and we can win well today if we bring the pressure.”
German’s biggest concern before the first bounce is Essendon forward Kyle Hardingham. He has tasked young defender Nathan Blair with keeping him in check, but the Lions want to get an extra number in defence at every opportunity to block Hardingham from leading up the middle of the attacking 50m and taking easy marks.
Up the other end, German demands his big forwards — Lech Featherstone, Dion Hill and Mark Orr — provide a contest.
If they can do that in the difficult conditions, the crumbers at ground level can do the rest. The meeting with the players runs for about 20 minutes.
The players are then grouped by positions for further meetings with their line coach.
Richard Peoples is the Lions’ midfield coach.
He has prepared six graphics of how he wants his players to set up at stoppages — four options for centre bounces and two for ball-ups around the ground.
The graphics are different to last week.
How players set up depends on the opposition.
“We’ve got two young ruckmen so we need to work to our strengths,” Peoples says.
“We have different setups every week, but it doesn’t always work, let me tell you.”
Players that haven’t yet been strapped up get a hand from the physios.
Today, seven players have also booked in for pre-game leg rub downs from Chelsey Kedmenec and her team.
A five-minute stretching routine is the final preparation in the rooms before, at 1.28pm, Coburg captain Nick Carnell gathers his teammates to head down the race and out on to the ground.
German casually follows a few minutes later.
The coach strikes up conversations with a few spectators, giving off a very relaxed demeanour.
There are no great pre-game nerves.
As German says, he has been in this position hundreds of times before.
“It’s kind of just a job,” he says.
“We’ve prepared them (the players) as well as we can during the week.”
The line coaches go through some final drills with their players as German watches on.
It’s not long before the coaches are off to the box and the players take their positions on the ground.
It does not take long for German’s relaxed demeanour to disappear once he takes his seat for the game.
Coaching is a stressful job, but it is no secret around VFL circles that German is an intense individual.
As he watches his side give up a goal within the opening 30 seconds of the match, his temper quickly flares.
He picks up one of the two phones in front of him to deliver a message to his staff on the bench.
“This phone doesn’t work,” he says after receiving no response.
It does not take long to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that phone is not working.
It is surprising German is delivering messages with the other phone after a few minutes, so ferociously does he slam it down after his frustration levels soar when Essendon kick a second unanswered goal.
“We do it all the time – there you go, have two goals,” the coach says.
The first quarter does not go to script.
The Lions are smashed in the ruck and, when they do have the footy, are making poor decisions and not getting enough from their forwards.
German gets on the phone again.
“Hey, listen, get a message to Featherstone, Hill and Orr that we need a contest,” he says.
At quarter-time, Essendon leads by 20 points.
In the huddle out on the ground, one of the key pre-game messages is reiterated.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” German reminds his squad.
The coaches’ box is not a happy environment.
The players are in the firing line. But as a developing side, critiquing is part of Coburg’s growth process.
Into the second quarter, there is little the Lions’ coaches can do about their struggles in the ruck against Bombers’ big man Jonathan Giles and also through the midfield.
They simply don’t have the big, hardened bodies of Essendon. Coburg’s list, after all, has an average age of just 21 this year.
“What are we going to do?,” German asks his assistants.
There are no immediate answers and, by half-time, Essendon’s lead has grown to 24 points.
At the main break, there is a sense the players are going to cop a spray. That happens. Fingers are pointed at individuals who have not given enough or have not gone hard enough at the contest.
But after German lets some steam off, it is back to the job at hand.
The game is far from over.
“We’ve got to start getting each other into the game,” he says.
“I reckon as the game goes on, they drop away. So for us, this next third quarter is everything.”
The half-time spray gets the response German is looking for.
Carnell is thrown into the midfield and has an immediate impact and Josh Cauchi kicks a quick goal to get the margin back to 18 points.
But as much as Coburg looked on top throughout the quarter, it could not convert on the scoreboard.
The Lions boot 1.5 and put one out on the full for the term, many of the misses seemingly simple set shots.
“Is it that hard to kick a goal?,” German says.
“They’re giving us every opportunity under the sun.”
The margin stood at 28 points at three quarter-time and with Coburg again failing to make the most of its opportunities in the final quarter, it went on to lose, 10.14 (74) to 6.12 (48).
It proves even the best laid plans from the coaches will not always come off.
“It’s been one of those days,” Peoples says in the coaches’ box during the final term.
“They’ve made it their day. They’ve been harder,” German replies.