Fantastic facilities don't inevitably facilitate fantastic results

Illustration: Mick Connolly
Illustration: Mick Connolly

WHEN Geelong won the premiership in 2009, the club gymnasium was a tin shed. Today that shed houses tractors for the ground staff.

It was a state-of-the-art team - Jimmy Bartel, Joel Selwood and Matthew Scarlett's toe poke to Gary Ablett - that delivered that flag, not state-of-the-art facilities. Similarly, North Melbourne's greatest years (1993-2000) were built upon rooms that resembled public toilets.

The iconic Glenn Archer was once asked the difference between North Melbourne and his junior club, Noble Park. ''Noble Park's got better facilities,'' Archer replied.

That's not to say that in 2013 North could win the flag - or, more to the point, attract and retain the necessary players to have a chance - without significantly upgrading those portables, as the club did with the help of government funds.

But you get the point - facilities are not the panacea for any sporting organisation that has trouble winning matches, making money or both.

Today, Australian sport seems to be in the grip of what Whitlam government minister, the late ''Diamond'' Jim McClelland called the ''edifice complex,'' as footy teams invest - and receive - vast sums to build their Taj Mahals. McClelland used the term in reference to Melbourne's insecure need to have a building that projected the city on the world stage.

We got that ''look at us'' building when premier John Cain decided to invest in the construction of the National Tennis Centre more than 25 years ago. Without what subsequently became Melbourne Park, Australia would not have a grand slam event, Victorian tourism wouldn't have these two weeks to sell and we would be a country without players OR an event that attracts the world's best. One out of two isn't so bad.

But don't fall for the trappings trap. Just as Essendon's shift from the Windy Hill rabbit warren to the vast expanses of a $25 million complex at Melbourne Airport should not be oversold as a premiership-winning move to rival Billy Duckworth being sent forward in the 1984 grand final, no one should think that the new Melbourne Park - all $366 million of stage one - will herald the arrival of a new generation of Newcombes, Lavers and Lleytons.

John Cain's field of dreams worked because the object was to attract the best players from overseas, who saw Kooyong for what it was - a museum of tennis history rather than a grand slam tournament facility. He built it and they came.

Will the next phase - with those clay courts that the coaches keep droning on about - deliver players? This column is very dubious and, to be fair, Tennis Australia is selling the renovation as merely one of ''300 things'', as one insider put it, that can improve our embarrassing position on the tennis totem pole. First of all, TA needs lots of kids to pick up racquets and sufficient courts in Narre Warren and Cororooke.

How much difference do facilities make to performance? Countries without swimming pools don't produce swimmers but, as one successful AFL club's football department head observed, you really need two physical objects to win games. First is a decent oval to train on, with a surface that doesn't cause injuries. Second is a reasonably up-to-date gym. ''The rest is just trimming,'' he said.

''The personnel are far more important,'' said the footy operations chief. ''It's your people and your program.''

Collingwood's recent success has been due more to David Buttifant's conditioning expertise, Derek Hine's recruiting prowess and the coaching of Mick Malthouse and his assistants than the Westpac Centre digs. Similarly, Essendon's crippling run of soft tissue injuries last year was a case of human error rather than Windy Hill's archaic limitations.

The Bombers have logical reasons for leaving Windy Hill, which has precious little room for expansion and upgrade that the club had to address strategically. The Dons are trying to keep up with the Joneses, or McGuires in this instance, and to see them raise $19 million-$20 million has been ominous. But what else are rich clubs going to do with their money?

North, the Doggies, Carlton, Richmond and virtually every other club did well to persuade governments to fund their lavish headquarters. Tennis is singing the same tune. It is surely not a coincidence that the funding gushed after we heard stories about how Melbourne's slam might be moved to Asia, or more shockingly, to Sydney.

Where facilities do make a difference is as a shop front to show, especially to players one wants to attract, that the organisation is up to date.

But people don't barrack for a club because of facilities that they never see. Richmond won't play finals because of the Punt Road reconstruction. Serbian players didn't grow up in luxury, any more than Newk and Rochey did.

Facilities make some difference, not THE difference. To re-arrange the questionable slogan of the National Rifle Association, gun facilities don't win matches, people do.

This story Fantastic facilities don't inevitably facilitate fantastic results first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.