At various stages over the past 15 years Carlton have been beset with the following ills: inept recruiting and list management, questionable coaching appointments and sackings, a divided board and a hefty debt.
But each of these ailments either has been addressed or can be overcome relatively soon. The playing list – the source of so much angst for so long – will eventually become strong, given that the Blues have belatedly embraced the draft and, in time, weight of early picks will drag them up.
Culturally, the Blues have accepted that their old ways – throwing money at players (or coaches), sometimes in brown-paper bags – no longer cuts it in the modern AFL. Admittedly, the brutal removal of Steven Trigg as CEO and messy courting of Simon Lethlean had more than a hint of old Carlton, albeit the hierarchy did retreat and finally appointed Cain Liddle via an uncharacteristic process.
The most persistent and difficult problem facing the club isn’t finding midfielders or a key forward; it’s finding – or reconnecting with – an absent generation of fans.
Today, Carlton’s membership sits around 40,000. Even in the best of times, that number has never reached beyond just over 50,000.
The most revealing comparison, however, is with the club that the new CEO came from. Richmond will break its membership record of 75,777 next week and will probably set a new benchmark for the competition during 2018.
The Tigers, of course, were always going to generate an obscene bandwagon once they had a sniff of their first flag since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But their crowd and membership figures were impressive before the flag and this awakening wasn’t built on success alone.
Richmond’s fans are the most engaged of all the big clubs in the competition. When you compare the underlying supporter bases, the Tigers – by their own admission – are clearly smaller than Collingwood and Essendon and on the most recent research (which could change post-flag), they were still less numerous than the Carlton tribe.
One of the differences between the clubs is revealed by the nomenclature and branding of the supporter bases. Richmond has the ”Tiger Army”, while Collingwood owns the ”Magpie Army”. We never speak of the “Blue Army” or even “Blue battalion”, despite their abundance (Essendon, while less branded, is certainly fierce and active).
The Richmond and Collingwood armies are notorious for getting carried away and, on occasion, can be destructive to their clubs. The Tiger fans were famous for flooding the talkback lines with invective, incinerating membership cards; one dumped a parcel of chicken manure on Danny Frawley’s doorstep.
In 2016, as the Tigers fell down to 13th, two separate groups – comically redolent of the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian – plotted to overthrow the Richmond board.
If the lamentable “Focus on Footy” challenge made the Richmond tribe look ridiculous – and reinforced the stereotypes (except that these guys wore suits and surgeon’s kit) – it demonstrated yet again that Richmond people cared.
As one Richmond official put it, the uprisings at least showed “you’re getting your fan connection right”
Anger is preferable to apathy, passionate is better than passive, and the concern for Carlton is not that hordes will be storming the barricades to overthrow the regime. It’s that they’ve found other interests and can’t be figged turning up.
The disconnection between the Blues and many of their fans is a slow-burn problem with historic roots.
Richmond can be likened to the Chicago Cubs, in that belonging to the tribe supersedes winning. The supporter is central to the club identity. The same applies, to a lesser extent, to Collingwood, who are defined by an up-against-them psychology and treat victory like a form of revenge against everyone.
The Carlton tribe, by contrast, was long wedded to the notion that the Blues are ruthless winners, who will achieve success, by hook or by crook; that they will not tolerate defeat for long. Unfortunately, many supporters won’t tolerate defeat for long either.
Further, there’s an argument that Carlton has been a top-down, rather than a bottom-up club. The long shadow cast by billionaires and other benefactors – Richard Pratt, John Elliott, Bruce Mathieson – might have led fans to think that their financial support is less crucial.
When they found themselves in times of trouble, Carlton’s first instinct has been to turn to benefactors (see Pratt in 2007). The Blues have never suffered the indignity of rattling tins. Maybe they’d be better placed if they had, instead of passing the hat around Raheen.
New CEO Liddle ran the membership program at Tigerland and has seen how the Tigers connect with their people, how they manage members via the digital space – Richmond’s are also the most digitally engaged, according to AFL research.
Liddle’s priority must to be find a way to energise the base, without relying on winning games. He must find and foster a new kind of Carlton supporter: the patriotic member.