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It is one of football's arch ironies that, in addition to providing arguably its greatest, and certainly, in an individual sense, its most highly decorated, player (Haydn Bunton senior),New South Wales was also the birthplace of the VFL's most successful ever coach.
Born in Botany Bay, James Francis McHale moved to Victoria at the age of five and so was brought up playing Australian football rather than rugby. As a senior player, he represented Collingwood 261 times and, although not the most brilliant player of his day, he was a good centreman and a player of extraordinary cunning and nouse. His reading of the game and his assessment of opposition players were legendary, even early in his career. He was quite speedy, regularly working on his running during the summer months, and strong. He was an excellent ball handler, a capable mark and a reasonable kick, though he was sometimes criticised for punting the ball high into forward line rather than using low, direct passes. Overall, his skills, combined with his forceful play, helped make him one of the most competitive centremen in the League. (See footnote 1)
He brought the same intelligent approach to the coaching sphere in which he took his bows in 1912, while still very much a player, and although it would probably be fair to observe that it took him some time to find his feet, once he had retired as a player he took the coaching art to new heights.
Between 1912 and 1949 Jock McHale coached the Magpies in a total of 714 VFL premiership matches, of which 467 were won, and 10 tied, giving an overall success rate of 66.1%. Collingwood contested no fewer than seventeen premiership deciding matches, whether grand finals or challenge finals, during that time, winning eight of them, including a VFL record four in a row between 1927 and 1930. McHale's legacy to the club he loved transcended mere statistics, however; for half a century he was part of the essential fabric which made Collingwood what it was, and every Collingwood coach since has been forced, to a certain extent, to operate in his shadow.
In terms of style McHale's approach to coaching in many ways pre-figured that of the modern game, whilst in other ways it was classically and quintessentially of its era. Football, to McHale, was basically a simple game, which hinged on the physical contests between individuals; the team whose players won the majority of these individual contest would emerge victorious from the match - it was as simple as that. Neither was McHale much given to concocting complicated strategies and team moves; his role, as he saw it, was primarily to inspire and motivate his players. However, where he verged more closely on the modern approach to coaching was in his employment of a range of assistants, each of whom would specialise in a different aspect of the game. It was down to these assistants to address the nitty gritty elements of team training and planning, leaving McHale free for what he perceived as the more important duties of breathing fire and brimstone, and overseeing team selection.
For much of Jock McHale's reign this formula worked to a tee; indeed, with minor modifications the McHale approach to coaching has, until comparatively recently, been successfully adopted by numerous other coaches, not just in Australian football, but in a wide range of other sporting activities.
During Jock McHale's coaching career the Collingwood Football Club became Australian football's, and indeed Australian sport's, most famous and instantly recognisable club. He gave the club not only unparalleled success, but also a unique aura. Since his retirement in 1950, the success has all but evaporated, but the aura still, to a certain extent, remains, testimony more than anything else to the indefatigable contribution of one man.
Author - John Devaney