Out of luck, out of time. David Noble’s prize is a North heading south

In November last year, the greats of the North Melbourne Football Club gathered at Arden Street. Legends of the club mingled with former captains, coaches, presidents, and sponsors. The mood was buoyant. The club’s debt had been wiped. Dani Laidley had been welcomed back. The number one draft pick looked ready made. “You can feel the energy, and feel the excitement in the air,” the outgoing chairman said.

But little has gone right since. The signs were there in the first practice match. North have since regressed in every area worth measuring. Their only win came against the Covid-ravaged Eagles. They’re the first team in VFL/AFL history to lose 11 straight games by more than 40 points. On Saturday night, they lost by 18 goals.

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For North Melbourne people, it must feel like their club is constantly under siege. They get the worst time slots. Prominent football people want to shunt them off to Tasmania. Footy Classified was on hand to help earlier this week with a PowerPoint presentation titled ‘The Bounce Back’. From what I could glean, it consisted of trading Jason Horne-Francis to one of the Adelaide clubs, in return for Taylor Walker (32) and Brad Crouch (a St Kilda player). From there, they were advised to trade away picks and pension off players if need be. At that point the presentation and my frontal lobe had started short-circuiting.

Back in the real world, David Noble and the entire football department were officially under review. Geoff Walsh arrived with a doleful air and considerable history. “He knows the feel of things,” Eddie McGuire said. Walsh was in the coach’s box down in Geelong. He would have liked what he saw in the first term. He would have liked the game of Luke Davies-Uniacke. But that was about it. The ball movement was torturous. They managed 13 inside 50s after quarter time. It was boys against men.

It’s impossible not to feel for David Noble. Earlier this week there was a headline in the Herald Sun: “North Melbourne coach a dead man walking”. That must be a lovely thing to read when your team is no good, and when nothing’s working. It must be a lovely thing to read when you have been nothing but upfront with your supporters, the media and the public. It must be a lovely thing to read when so many current and former coaches are struggling with burnout, when every sacked coach mentions how perilous the job is to one’s mental health.

When Noble was appointed, the former chairman said they expected to push for the double chance within two or three years. Football director Glenn Archer said the young list was every bit as talented as the vintage crop of the early 1990s “We’ll teach, we’ll educate, we’ll let them fall over and we’ll pick them up and keep moving forward,” Noble said.

But it’s not easy being a rebuild coach. Not many of them last more than two or three years. Rebuilds chewed up Mark Neeld, Brendon Bolton, Brendan McCartney, and Justin Leppitsch. In every instance, those clubs eventually came good.

Several of Noble’s players are as raw as you’ll see in league football. There’s been rumblings that he’s too harsh. He’s had to teach many of them how to play. It’s what McCartney did at the Bulldogs. It’s what Bolton did at Carlton. They were brought in to teach and to start from scratch. But when the wins didn’t come, the people in charge started saying things like “well, it’s a win-loss industry…”

Noble has had wretched luck. Three of his senior recruiters left on the same day. Paul Roos, who is supposed to be a mentor of sorts, is in Hawaii sweating on a Green Card. Jason Horne-Francis has had a torrid introduction to league football. Ben Cunnington, the heart and soul of the club, and one of the few players on the list capable of winning a contested ball, has been recovering from testicular cancer. Will Phillips, who they took at pick three in a crack draft, has glandular fever and hasn’t played a game this year.

These things often follow a similar trajectory. Board, admin, and playing group circle the wagons and rally behind the coach. They stand alongside him at media conferences. They urge patience. They give the media a clip. But the losses pile up. The external consultants are brought in. They arrive with notepads, grave faces, and carte blanche to turn the place inside out.

The newsreader Steve Quartermain hit a raw nerve on Saturday, saying North Melbourne doesn’t deserve a priority draft pick, and that its demise is self-inflicted. But if ever a team needed propping up, it’s this one. Right now, a priority pick is one in a long list of needs. They need, and deserve, a bit of luck. They need their captain back. They need to keep selling hope. They need to hold their nerve and commit, like Melbourne and Carlton did, to the long haul.

More than anything, they need to make a decisive call on the coach. The club shilly-shallied for too long over when to officially rebuild, and grossly overestimated its list. Like so many rebuild coaches before him, Noble will almost certainly be shown the door. He was probably on a hiding to nothing the moment he walked through it.