A lofty reputation for fostering and expediting the development of young players was a key factor in Brendan McCartney’s appointment as Western Bulldogs coach at the end of 2011. After almost 50 games in charge, that reputation is being reinforced by the club’s subtle improvement.
In McCartney’s first 30 matches as coach, the Bulldogs won only six matches as they grappled with the transition from the established core of players that took them to top-four finishes in 2008, 2009 and 2010 to a troop of young successors. Towards the end of that period McCartney said those results did not accurately reflect the improvement of his inexperienced players, both individually and from a team perspective.
“The time will come quite soon where we’ll start to get more reward for the hard work we’re doing around the ball,” the coach said 11 months ago, when his team had only one win and seven losses.
In the Bulldogs’ past 18 matches, however, their results have started to catch up to the coach’s positive appraisals.
Since round nine last season, the Bulldogs have won as many games as they have lost: nine. It is a superior record to that of their latest opponent, Carlton. While the Blues won a final last year, benefiting from Essendon’s exclusion, they have won only eight of their past 20 matches.
Given the lack of immediate success at the Bulldogs after McCartney’s appointment, the coach said it was “a nice progression” for the club to have parity in their win-loss ratio for their past 18 matches, nearing a full season.
“We were [early last year] going better in some areas that, historically, stack up pretty well in the way you go about building a team. Are we going a lot better? I don’t know. There’s still some areas in our game that aren’t where we’d like them to be. We’re working at them in training. We think we’ll get a little bit more improvement in a couple of key areas that do stand up well,” he said on Thursday.
“I just think we’re tracking along OK. We’re not doing anything brilliantly well [but] we’re becoming a good, solid footy team that more often than not turns up to play.”
The coach, however, was adamant he and his players would not get complacent at having emerged from the foot of the ladder two months into 2013.
“The second you get comfortable with that you get a kick in the backside, so it’s game on again this week for us,” he said.
While the Bulldogs are yet to win the contested-possession differential this season, McCartney said the margins were narrow enough not to bother him. Rather, he said he was pleased with the approach of his players to winning the ball in contests.
“It’s probably a promising sign that we’re maybe not as reliant on it to produce results [as previously], which is a good thing. But we don’t want to get too far away from what our blueprint is. We’ve been building a brand of footy here for about 24 months and I won’t be changing it too much,” he said.
McCartney was similarly nonplussed about personnel changes at win-less Carlton for Sunday’s twilight match at Etihad Stadium, but conceded it would be the Blues, rather than his Bulldogs, who would be the subject of the vast majority of public attention ahead of the match.
“We’re probably going into a game where about 0.1 per cent is going to be about us in the build-up. We don’t mind not being centre stage. We’re just going to prepare [as usual]. There’s still four points on offer for us this week – I think we can get them as well.”
McCartney said he was hopeful there would not be any physical repercussions, in terms of fatigue or injury, from having played in shockingly sandy conditions at Canberra’s StarTrack Oval last weekend, but said that would not be evident until they faced the Blues.
“Training’s training – it’s a certain intensity. You can do all our wellness and recovery methods, but it’s not until you get into a game and see whether legs are turning over or not [you get an indication]. We’re hopeful we don’t get the spinoff with soft-tissue injuries,” he said. “It wasn’t an ideal surface. You probably wouldn’t want to play too many games on it I would have thought.”