EXCELLENTLY prepared. Encouraging teacher and astute learner. Constantly evolving his tactics. Highly respectful of the game, the league and its players. Genuinely interested in the stories behind his players and the staff he works alongside.
These are consistent themes in how peers and players describe Gerard FitzGerald’s coaching style, characteristics fine-tuned in his tenures with North Ballarat Roosters. This is how he plans to sign off.
FitzGerald will close a coaching chapter with the Selkirk Roosters in the Victorian Football League on Saturday. He will lead the club into battle against standalone club Coburg, a team led by long-time friend and rival Peter German.
And so will end FitzGerald’s second stint at the Roosters’ helm. He marked his return in 2007, the second year of the Roosters’ partial alignment with AFL club North Melbourne, then led the club to a VFL premiership hat-trick through the next three seasons. He marked his 300th VFL game as coach in 2013, levelled then broke the long-standing VFA/VFL coaching record in May last year, and will end this season in his 345th game.
FitzGerald has never been one for using individual milestones for pre-match motivation.
Recognising player or staff achievements, absolutely, and in the appropriate forum. Usually after the game in the players’ immediate address or official post-match function. He maintains it is important for players and supporters to know club history, value club history and add to club history.
This is a stance he has maintained through his career.
“Players would not so much be disappointed but surprised if I allowed a personal issue...to get in the way of preparations,” FitzGerald said on the eve of his 300th game, two years ago. “My players know I'm not into external motivation anyway. We teach our boys how to motivate themselves.”
FitzGerald has been approaching this game with the thorough preparation and analysis he makes for any game. He vowed to coach out the season to the best of his ability, the best way he knows how. His focus has been firmly on preparing the Roosters to face the dangerous and predictable Coburg – a team, like the Roosters, outside finals but determined to finish strong. The Lions had their own emotive farewell for retiring, courageous captain Nick Carnell at their City Oval last week. But they are still playing for pride.
North Ballarat is where FitzGerald started his VFL career. FitzGerald had coached country clubs Sea Lake, Mortlake and Camperdown but was relatively inexperienced when the Roosters took him on for their second season in the VFL. He led them to two consecutive grand finals, in 1999-2000, before stepping down to try his luck in state politics. FitzGerald had seasons at Springvale (2003) and Port Melbourne (2004) and took the ‘Borough to a grand final before returning to Northern Oval to coach North Ballarat Rebels in the TAC Cup under-18s.
Hailing from Derrinallum, FitzGerald unashamedly calls Ballarat his home because of his high regard for the football club and this city.
The 2008 premiership is his favourite VFL moment. Victory put this whole region’s football in the spotlight.
“We evolved into developing a model which relied on us bringing players to Ballarat, developing local players and developing a high-quality relationship with North Melbourne. People kept saying to me that's fine but do you think you can ever be the best in the VFL with that particular model you've got there,” FitzGerald said, reflecting in 2013.
“I kept saying we could but knew we needed to win the premiership for that ultimate credibility to occur or that last barrier to us being the best.There was the uniqueness and magic of that country club, representing a provincial city, that rose to the top.”
And again in 2009.
“You get to the top of the mountain and win a premiership but someone is always going to try and replace you unless you work hard to try and get better,” FitzGerald told players amid celebrations for flag number two. “...We’ve represented a great city and we represent a great region and I reckon we’ve done a great region and city really proud.”
Then again, in 2010, with a new-look group.
Each premiership, FitzGerald attributed success to high-quality players and staff about the club. The 2008 cup did a regional tour across western Victoria, including FitzGerald’s old club Mortlake.
Roosters captains Shaune Moloney, Marc Greig and Michael Searl, all three premiership players, later attributed the golden era to the relationship FitzGerald had with his players and his aim to ensure that when the time came, all players leave the Roosters a more well-rounded, better person.
FitzGerald’s peers Gary Ayres (Port Melbourne), Peter German (Coburg), Andrew Collins (Sandringham) and his former Rebels’ assistant Chris Maple (Western Bulldogs) each described FitzGerald as a good communicator and mentor when paying tribute to FitzGerald’s career after the North Ballarat board made the shock, mid-season decision to not renew FitzGerald’s contract.
Every time The Courier has canvassed players and coaches for their views on FitzGerald and his longevity in the game, their response has always been about FitzGerald’s communication and innovation. He is admired for preparedness to change structures, routines and technology – even if operating new technology sometimes baffled him.
Ahead of FitzGerald’s 300th game, Moloney reflected on questioning FitzGerald’s call to introduce a defensive press, then the latest AFL trend, after the Roosters had won two premierships. Ultimately, the decision helped the Roosters win a third flag.
Fellow backman Greig, at the same time, said it was the same with rotations – a revolutionary concept.
“In the second grand final every player had a spell. Before that season, us backs had never come off the ground,” Greig said. “It got us an extra couple of years in the game.”
Greig is now FitzGerald’s senior assistant coach at the Roosters.
FitzGerald has spent countless hours in North Melbourne rooms on AFL match days, and talking with coaches to adapt new ideas to keep evolving the Roosters on trend and ahead of trend in AFL style. This has included instant vision analysis at half-time on game days and post match practice in mid-week training sessions.
This season when the Roosters were struggling, FitzGerald worked with his leadership group and coaches to develop a different game day approach, focusing on highlighting one per centers and new key performance areas to improve. Since their mid-season turnaround, FitzGerald has changed post-game structure to allow players more time in the rooms with family and friends – win or lose, despite strict time frames – and the results have been telling in a more inclusive, supportive environment.
There is little doubt that however this Roosters’ series finale pans out, FitzGerald will leave his players and staff as better people for his influence. In turn, FitzGerald will sign off from the Roosters a better man for the journey.