In an exclusive tell-all interview, the Bulldogs coach – who has just re-signed until the end of 2025 – opens up to Mark Robinson about the truth, lies and everything in between.Mark Robinson: You probably want to look towards 2023, but can we talk about 2022? How did you deal with the season and the finals loss?Luke Beveridge: It’s important you pick up your group and take your group into the future, especially when things finish in quite a dark spot at the end, and the past two years have been that way for us. So, it’s part of my job to reassure them we can go to greater heights. That’s my mandate and that’s what I’m doing at the moment. But there’s no doubt I still think about it (2022). Year on year when you don’t win the flag you always ask yourself the question whether or not you went as far as you thought you were capable of. And when games are so close, and especially when they’re elimination finals and the possibilities after that … I said way back in ‘15, I thought we could win it in our first year, and we got beaten by the Crows by seven points, and people were surprised at that. But when you think about how things turn on a dime, especially in a finals series, there’s always missed opportunities along the way. And last year, I think there was absolutely a missed opportunity to go further.MR: I looked at the Dogs at different times through 2022 and asked: Who is this mob? Where are they? Fair questions?LB: These days people look at names on paper and reputations through a midfield and think, why aren’t they winning the flag every year? But we all know you need a broader spectrum than just some names on paper. My overwhelming belief in my time is we’ve squeezed a lot out of ourselves. We’ve had some challenges on and off the field like any club does, but what we haven’t been able to do is sustain anything. There are reasons for that, there’s no excuses, just reasons for it. That’s been a frustration. But when you’re thinking about core football philosophy and the way your program runs, the way you teach, the blend you want the team to achieve in the main phases of the game, it’s been about sustaining it. Last year, and I’m not a big stats person, I don’t put up KPIs on the boards or around the rooms, but if we are to point to what really fell down it was the defensive principles of the game. The previous year, defending from our forward 50 to the whole length of the ground we were No. 1 …MR: From No. 1 to what?LB: No. 16. It’s a dramatic fall.MR: In the elimination final, you were up by seven goals and couldn’t defend in the second half. A microcosm of your season?LB: Yep. The players will tell you there’s differing match-day plans from week to week, but they all revolve around your core principles and style, and what we’ve done at different times is move away from the things that have served us well. And in the final we did that. We were really territory based in the early part of that game coming out of the back half, but then we started to look for things that weren’t there, and made fundamental errors which gave Fremantle momentum. And I think the crowd was louder than the grand final the year before, and we didn’t manage it well enough at all.MR: How much responsibility do you take for the second half?LB: I take full responsibility.MR: So, what did you learn this year?LB: It’s one of those questions where you’d like to speak off the record … but what I’ve learnt is the blends across the lines need to be on point to achieve that balance in the phases and we haven’t had it. We don’t feel like (because of injury) we had the scope to work hard enough in the main two phases of the game.MR: How are you going to balance the abundance of talls you have in the squad: English, Naughton, Lobb, Ugle-Hagan, Bruce, Jones, Keath, Gardner? Is Darcy going to play forward and is the young fella from the most recent draft, Jedd Busslinger ready to play back?LB: I think the young guys need a separate category. Sam Darcy hasn’t done a pre-season. He’s come back and he’s not ready now, he hasn’t done a main session. We all think in the future he will be a forward-ruckman or a ruck-forward, but while he’s trying to find his feet at AFL level we have to make sure he can play four quarters. He wasn’t ready for that last year. And he’s a long way away from being anywhere near the footballer he’s going to be, even for next year. Jedd Busslinger is going to be a slow burn. He’s a long way away from playing AFL footy. He’s a project. But, yeah, we’ve got a lot of depth with our keys.MR: And Naughton, forward or back? He was banged up in the back half wasn’t he?LB: He’s got legacy sort of injuries that hamper him a little bit. But he will still play front end. He’s kicked over 50 goals in the past two years and he just turned 23 last month. He’s another very young key forward. No one asks anyone to consider that before they work out whether we’re absolutely in the slot. Because I think every year we’re a chance to be the best, but it’s on the premise those kinds of guys do shoot the lights out. So with him, Rory and Jamarra, and then working out who plays around them, it’s going to be a big challenge for us.MR: So, Bruce has some work to do? Could he go back?LB: He’s going to play a bit of back through the pre-season, but I’ve said to Josh, he hasn’t lost his position outright, it was just that he came back from injury and it was tough to re-emerge after a long period out. He’s had a good pre-Christmas period, so we will get him ready just in case we need him down back, knowing full well he can play forward. But with Liam Jones, Ryan Gardner, Sam Darcy possibly, Tim O’Brien is still there as a back-up and Alex Keath is still there, there’s a lot of options. We just have to step up through other areas. The wingers are an open book. We think Oskar Baker will be good for us.MR: Is Bailey Smith an inside mid for good?LB: He has been. He might start forward at a centre bounce, and he might not always be in at the centre bounce but it doesn’t mean he’s not playing in the midfield.MR: How injured was Bontempelli at different times through 2022?LB: He doesn’t look like he’s quick but he is powerful, and he had a niggle or two which were holding him back with his power, which affected his whole game. He’s not going to make excuses, but in the end, at the pointy end, he started to play some of his best footy. But for a time he got frustrated with himself but he’s in good order now.MR: Luke, why have so many players left this footy club? Your best and fairest winner in Josh Dunkley for example? Why do they leave when they seem to be good players or have good footy left in them?LB: We’d have to go through each one and there’s probably a different reason for each one.MR: Anything to do with you and your relationship with them?LB: No. As far as instigating anything, the only one I’ve ever instigated is Jake Stringer. Everyone else, I always had a really strong relationship with. Lewis Young is a good example. Lewis was always on the fringe of being first-pick key back. We were criticised for how we used Lewis at the end of 2021, but when your key forward goes down with an ACL (Bruce) and you need another key forward to have any chance of winning the flag, you’ve got to make a pretty significant decision. Because Tim English wasn’t necessarily dominant in the ruck but was probably our next best key forward, we had to make a decision. Lewis is not a ruckman, but we had to find a way to get there, and he only went out of the side when Stefan (Martin) came back. Youngy just got a better offer and a promise of more opportunity and that’s what happened with a few players and that happens at every club.MR: Dunkley?LB: It’s a challenge to answer that question.MR: Why? How was your relationship with him?LB: Terrific. Strong. Always close.MR: So, you weren’t the reason why he wanted to leave. What was the reason?LB: He would’ve been offered a better deal, but we still offered him a lucrative contract.MR: Do you know why he left?LB: Probably the Essendon approach highlighted to him how much he could’ve possibly earned at another club, and that would’ve been part of it. I think it’s a combination of maximising your opportunity, and leveraging good form, and we haven’t been able to satisfy him as far as his contractual demands go. We did our utmost to keep him during the Essendon negotiation, and he was pretty comfortable with that but ultimately we weren’t able to stop this one.MR: The footy world always saw Lachie Hunter as a Bulldogs person, but then he lost his way with life. Did he simply need a new somewhere or did he want to desperately leave?LB: We all felt it might be good for him. He needed to implement some change in his life more than just his footy, and he’s been quite public with that. Initially, he absolutely wanted to stay, but he came around to the idea that maybe it would be good for him and his wellbeing to pursue the next part of his career somewhere else. What happened with Lachie is he had so many challenges along the way, then in your own environment people start to worry about whether or not you can trust the man and the person. He was sensitive to that and he wanted to make sure the crew over at the Demons off a new start would be able to trust him and he wanted to start on a new frontier. But if Lachie said, ‘no, no, I want to stay’, he would still be here.MR: So you put a man’s mental health over his football career?LB: Always put their own personal wellbeing and life over their footy, always do. It has to be that way. It’s part of the challenge of sustaining your run in this role. If you don’t, you can lose the rest of the group pretty quickly.MR: Ever feel you’ve lost the group, Bevo?LB: I would have to say I’ve never lost them.MR: What’s the greatest misconception about you, Bevo, bearing in mind people said there were issues with you when your assistants, Steven King and Ash Hansen, departed at the end of 2021?LB: The problem is people just drum up ideas and rationale that are just fiction. And this is a prime example. We come out of the hub in 2020, and Kingy thinks he needs a sea change. While he’s up there, he speaks to Mark Evans (Suns chief executive), and says ‘if you need a coach, I’ll move the family up here’. I was so supportive of that because I was really grateful for what he’d done. He’d been with me from the start and been an enormous contributor. That’s how that happened. Ash got a terrific offer from Carlton and we should’ve been able to match it financially. But if you’ve got aspirations to be a senior coach, it’s good to go and work in another environment, and Ash felt that way. We were supportive, but again, do we lose a good contributor and a great person, absolutely. But we got in two sensational people in Marc Webb and Matthew Spangher who have been outstanding.MR: How do you feel the coaching industry is going when a bloke like Brett Ratten is sacked after being recently reappointed?LB: It’s disturbing, absolutely disturbing for Brett and his family, but to think the people who initially backed him and contracted him, and who did a backflip …. there had to be pressure from certain divisions for that to happen I would’ve thought on the people who initially made the decision. I’m really sad for Brett but also for the Saints that they weren’t able to see that through and say ‘we’re still backing Brett in regardless of an opinion here and an opinion there’.MR: How much did you need a Brendon Lade type to join the club as a senior assistant?LB: We believed we wanted to bring someone in who could help nurture our rucking players. We did need another full-time coach, so when we discovered Brendon might have itchy feet at St Kilda, we dived in pretty quickly to coach our midfield but also the opportunity to spend some time with our rucks.MR: Is it a misconception you don’t like the media or is it in fact that you don’t like parts of the media?LB: It’s a misconception. I had a conversation with one of my players the other day and I said, what you’ve got to understand is for 100 journos or media personalities, 99 might write a negative piece if you’re not going so well, but they will equally want to write a positive piece when you’re going well. Occasionally, you will get one or two who will get nasty, but the advice I gave was don’t treat them all like the one or two you’re filthy with. And I’m exactly that way, I respect everyone’s role in the media. But what I am is paranoid about what my players think of me, absolutely paranoid. So the less I do, the less outspoken I am, the better off I am here. That’s the way I feel. Even with this piece, I’m reluctant to do them because they are about me. My life is public enough, I don’t want it to be any more public. And the other thing that happened is when the pandemic hit, the AFL made decisions around budgets and most of us had to re-prioritise and what I didn’t have time for was the narrative that wasn’t necessarily true or time spent with people close to me who go through the daily and weekly struggle of being emotional around my situation, so the less media I do the better it is for everyone.MR: Did you ever give the Tom Morris spray any thought a week after it happened or did you actually go into some depth about what happened?LB: I still think about it.MR: Do you regret it?LB: I regret the way it was done, where it was done, how it was done, I regret all of that. The one thing that conflicts with those regrets is the protective nature of my personality, and how I felt at the time about the seriousness of what had happened. If I had my time again, if we had known the circumstance of what was happening in the door when I walked in, we would’ve been more prepared. But absolutely it was the one time in my eight years when I felt I let my club down, myself down, because others had to wear some of that criticism, not just me, and that’s what I felt most guilty about.MR: I wrote an article the next day asking: RUOK? Were you?LB: I get that and the perception of my wellbeing at the time. No doubt there was a build-up of emotion. It wasn’t as though I was struggling in any significant way other than the frustration around some of that stuff that was going on. I was totally fine, but I was significantly hampered afterwards with the fallout. And I’m just hoping that people have some level of appreciation for how I was feeling based on what happened in the aftermath to the other party. But I get that every media person in the land thought ‘hey, if he’s having a go at one of us, what’s to stop him from having a go at someone else’. That’s not the way I roll.MR:Try not to take offence with this next question, but coincidences in this world can be quite unbelievable. Did you know anything of the Tom Morris audio before it was released the next day?LB: No. I didn’t know anything about it.Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge has been labelled “embarrassing” and called on to apologise for launching an extraordinary attack on a journalist following last night’s AFL season opener. It came after Fox Footy reporter Tom Morris published a story saying Bulldogs player Lachie Hunter would be omitted from the side for round one. What followed next was a chaotic period where in the space of 24 hours, Mr Hunter went from reportedly being out of the team to back in the team, then was relegated to being a medical substitute. He was finally included in the line-up just minutes before the opening bounce in the match against the Melbourne Demons. In the post-match press conference, Mr Beveridge criticised Mr Morris for his article, calling it “gutter journalism”. “You’re an embarrassment to what you do, mate; you’re an embarrassment,” Mr Beveridge said. MR: Have you spoken to Tom since?LB: No.MR: Will you?LB: No. You always give people chances when you’ve known them for a while. I’ve found it hard, when people have gone hard, to forgive and move on unless someone has come to me later on and said let’s work this out. But, no, there’s no need for me to be in contact.MR: Some observers say Beveridge is a good coach, but he’s never finished top four. Does that annoy you or do you even care?LB: If the glass is half empty, or if you’re trying to pick at someone and that’s the angle you want to take, well, OK, take that angle. I don’t get emotional about it. But we want to finish top two and we haven’t been able to do it. And that gets back to your capacities and capabilities of that year. Do you believe if you squeeze everything out of yourself you can get there? I always start with that belief that we can, and it’s always disappointing when you don’t. I expect to finish high up, I expect that we’re going to play off in a grand final, and they’re thoughts I want to put in my players’ heads.MR: When, after the elimination final loss, did you pick up your players emotionally and begin to take them forward.LB: Day two back here.MR: Sorry, after the actual game. Was it Monday, Tuesday?LB: The Wednesday afternoon was when we really spoke about it as a group, about the year and about the game included. It was a pick-me-up exercise but a realistic talk about the future and what the expectations were when they left the building, of each other more than anything. I don’t believe in rubbing anyone’s noses in it because it’s your own nose you’re rubbing in it.MR: Misconception or truth that you have too much power at the Bulldogs?LB: Who says that? You know who says it, just the one journalist. It’s made up. Over the years, you strike a balance of delegating responsibility which I feel like I’ve done pretty well. When Marcus Bontempelli or Jack Macrae or Ed Richards get up at the presentation night, they thank the people they’ve worked closely with, they don’t thank me. And when they do that, I think it’s fantastic.MR: The “Real Luke Beveridge’’ is not a bad headline, separating the lies from the truth.LB: People who know me say, how are you going? Because they know it’s just bulls***.MR: So, people make a lot of stuff about you?LB: Maybe because I’ve struggled with my life being a bit more public and maybe at times I’ve tried to make it less public when you can’t. And maybe it’s forced people to start a different narrative.MR: Where’s footy heading in 2023?LB: There’s no doubt the appetite around the financial pieces to the game have influenced the spike in performance. The AFL will tell you they are about two things, the broadcast and who’s watching, and the gate, and everything else matters but not compared to those two. So, when it comes to your own club, what matters is your membership and your supporter base, and what sort of football they’d like you to play, and your corporate partnerships and whether they are proud to be on your apparel and be worn by your constituents. When I first started, I already had that appetite of risk (football), we played a pretty ballistic style, and clubs have just continued to push the boundaries on that. Everyone is influencing each other, and each year one or two teams are doing it better than the others.MR: So, what’s next?LB: Clubs will continue to challenge each other with speed, and that’s what people like to watch.
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