From learning the piano to embarrassingly basic dinners and raising chickens, there’s a lot about senior coach John Worsfold and his successor Ben Rutten that you probably don’t know.
On the eve of the 2020 season – Worsfold’s fifth and final one at the helm of the Bombers – the pair caught up over a coffee to lift the lid on a few home truths and speak, of course, about the game and team we all love.
Below is the full Q&A, which members read first in the 2020 Essendon Season Guide sent last week.
BR: ‘Woosh’, you were very physical in your playing days. Do you think if you had ventured down the other end of the ground, you could’ve knocked me over?
JW: Well, I had a track record, ‘Truck’ (laughs). I only played forward just a quarter most games, and when I did end up going forward, I’d pinch-hit and always kick a goal. That averages out to four goals a game, so I’ve got no doubt I would’ve kicked a few on you (laughs).
JW: Truck, tell me about trying to convert your young son Jack into becoming a Bombers supporter after you crossed over from Richmond at the end of 2018.
BR: So, I obviously came from the Tigers and Jack’s most recent memories was of a Grand Final win (in 2017) so that didn’t help. But I remember coming home from our round one loss against GWS in 2019 – which was my first Essendon game – and my wife Kylie and I had bought the kids Bombers guernseys, hats and scarves to convert them over to the red and black. Keeping in mind, this was their third club in five years, so we had to pull out all the stops. We got belted by the Giants, and the feedback from Jack and his younger brother Bernie was that they didn’t want to barrack for Essendon. Lucky for us, we’ve finally talked them into it.
BR: Can you recall the biggest spray you’ve ever given?
JW: When I was coaching West Coast, we were down in Geelong playing the Cats and I gave those boys the biggest spray I had ever given at half-time. But they actually played worse in the third quarter. But by the time I was calm at the third-quarter break, they fired up and kicked nine goals to one in the last quarter to come from 50 points down and win. So, the spray didn’t do anything (laughs).
BR: Was it the lag effect?
JW: Actually, maybe it was!
JW: What about you, Truck? What’s the biggest spray you’ve ever given?
BR: I actually don’t know. I think the biggest spray would’ve gone to my kids when they were misbehaving, but does that count?
JW: What about your Staffy dog that has you wrapped around his little paws? Has he done anything that has fired you up?
BR: We have chickens at home – we’ve always had chickens growing up – but I gave my dog a big spray when I got home one evening and one of the chooks had gone missing in the yard. We were on the hunt, and this may be a bit graphic for this magazine, but we had to go looking for this missing chicken. The dog went quiet, but we ended up finding the chicken. Let’s just say she was under the plants outside. So, there was a fair spray there, and to her credit the dog has responded well and hasn’t gone near the chickens since (laughs).
BR: Chickens aside, who have been some of your favourite players to coach across the journey?
JW: It is amazing because every player brings you joy for a different reason. Whether it's because of their hard work or if you challenge them to find a way to get the best out of them, or whether you don't have to worry about them at all.
A couple of players that stand out are Dyson Heppell and Matt Priddis. You just knew that those guys had everything in order, they were well prepared and if there were any issues, they’d sort it out. But then there are the players you spend a lot of time communicating with, checking in and mapping out a program for them almost to the minute, and that is good fun as well. But overall, there are too many to name. I think I just enjoy the different challenges that every different personality brings.
JW: Your turn now, Truck. I met a Bombers supporter at Family Day in February. He had his young sons there, and he started quizzing me on how you were going to go as the future senior coach of Essendon. He then owned up and said his boys were coached by you at the Camberwell Sharks. So, I asked his young sons, ‘How does Truck go coaching you at the Sharks?’ They said, ‘Just okay!’ Do we have to reassess this succession plan? Which role do you think will be harder - coaching the Bombers or Camberwell Sharks?
BR: Well, both roles I’m sure have their different and unique challenges (laughs). But I do love coaching young kids, working out their different levels of motivations and managing the parents, too, which can sometimes be the hardest part of the job!
BR: So, Woosh, word on the grapevine is that you have a penchant for some pretty basic dinners. We hear you’re known for your tomato, corn, cheese and crackers for dinner. Do you need some help in the kitchen?
JW: (Laughs) I get fed extremely well at the footy club. We’re lucky with the quality of meals we get on training days, so I get a really good feed at the club three to four times a week. Our club chef Polly does a terrific job for all of us. But quite honestly, my fridge at home in Melbourne is very empty so cheese and tomato crackers get me through for dinner.
JW: Returning to football now, Truck. Who has been the biggest influence on your football career to date?
BR: I suppose from a footy point of view, my old coach Neil Craig. I spent the most time with Neil as a coach across my journey and he taught me a lot about the team, football and actually myself. But away from football, my wife Kylie and my two boys have given me great perspective and have brought a great balance to my life. They’ve shown me the importance of integrating family into work life and having perspective as to who I am as a person, as it’s not just about being defined by football.
JW: So, on that, what’s the best piece of advice that stands out?
BR: Well I think that in this AFL world, we always want to get better and everyone is constantly giving you advice or their own opinion, be it family, friends, media outlets or supporters. But I think it’s so important to just sit down and appreciate what we’ve got and how lucky we are, how fun it is to be doing what we’re doing in such a unique team environment and industry. It’s just something all of us should never lose sight of.
BR: Let’s turn the tables now, Woosh. In 12 months from now, how do you want to be able to look back on your time at the Essendon Football Club?
JW: It’s simple, really. That the football club is in a good shape, the football program is in a good place. I want this club to go forward and to succeed. The things that fit in around that is the playing group having fun, but ultimately, the football club being in good shape across the board. Hopefully, we will be the reigning premiers - that’d be nice! But as you say, Truck, that’s an outcome, and we must put the processes in place to get there.
JW: Let’s put the heat on our fellow coaches, Truck. Who do you think is the least likely to shout a round of coffee?
BR: Outside of you, Woosh, probably ‘Harvs’ (Mark Harvey). And if he did, he would probably duck down to the local 7-Eleven and get the $1 coffees (laughs).
JW: Well, if I remember correctly, you did shout a round the other day and brought them into the coaches meeting. And you then told me you purchased one for me and proceeded to give it to someone else, so talk me through that.
BR: Well I did notice you made yourself an instant coffee without offering to make us one, so if you’re prepared to drink instant, you don’t deserve the good stuff (laughs)!
JW: That’s fair enough (laughs).
BR: So, a question without notice. Are you the only (musical artist) Ry Cooder fan left in Australia?
JW: Yes, I am. The truth is, I think I’m his only fan.
BR: I don’t even know who that is!
JW: I might be his only fan, but I’m about the only one here at the club with cool music taste. I’d like to think I’m the go-to man for music selections and dance moves.
BR: Um…we’ll leave it at that.
JW: Okay, we seem to be digressing here. Getting back to football, can you summarise your own personal coaching philosophies and maybe touch on how you’ve developed them over time?
BR: I think the most important thing that I'm going to want to do is strive to build on an environment where we can really embrace and accept the people we have at the football club, no matter who they are or where they come from, be it coaches, players or even staff. We’re a unique and special football club here at the Bombers and success is going to be due to the people we have, so creating an environment where people feel comfortable to turn up, possibly make mistakes, learn from them and feel supported - I think that’s the place we want to be at. Who knows where that takes us, but if we have people wanting to be the best versions of themselves and a place that supports that, I think we’ll be in a good spot to achieve what we want to achieve.
JW: Absolutely, they’re strong philosophies. What about your on-field philosophies? How do you want your team to play?
BR: When you’re dealing with so many people, simplicity is key. We need to ensure things make sense and people are clear in what they’re wanting to achieve. I think having fun and creating that environment that I spoke about earlier brings flair and creativity. So, simplicity, fun and care are probably the three key words overall and hopefully that’s reflected on the field.
JW: That’s great and I completely agree, Truck. Also, I know you believe in a good balance between strong and consistent defence which leads to scoring opportunities.
BR: That’s right. I am probably biased, but I'm more of a defence-first coach, making sure we’re able to control the opposition to a certain extent in the way they attack. If we’re not chasing 120 points every week on the field, it makes life a little bit easier. Then, hopefully we can springboard some attack on the back of strong defence and contest work.
JW: And as you touched on before, that by no means takes away the opportunity for any player to show their individual creativity and flair.
JW: It’s not just about dour defence, punch-the-ball-out-of-bounds play. It’s about defending hard as a group.
BR: For sure. And I’d like to think I did model that as a player, too – creativity and flair and the ability to just run, a real hallmark of my game (laughs).
JW: (Laughs) Yeah to be honest, I really couldn’t pick the difference between you and Eddie Betts on the field for the Crows!
BR: I even got mixed up with Andrew McLeod down half-back at times because we were so fast (laughs).
BR: OK, Woosh, you’re going to be hosting a dinner party – clearly you won’t be cooking based on what we know – but name three people you would invite over and why.
JW: I don’t like these questions!
BR: Is that because you wouldn’t even host a dinner?
JW: (Laughs) OK, maybe I’d invite Ry Cooder to get the tunes going. But I would invite Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and my old teammate Guy McKenna. One of those three I just can’t make any sense of - you can work out who that is. But maybe Ghandi could cook because I certainly won’t be. What about you, Truck? In the leafy suburbs on your side of towns, who would you invite to dinner? And a word of advice, maybe please leave the chickens aside.
BR: (Laughs) Well, I’d be on the wood-fired pizza oven and I wouldn’t invite any fussy eaters. So, I’d have Roger Federer. I like the way he goes about it and that’d be unreal to have the all-time greatest tennis player at your place. I’d also have Ricky Gervais just to lighten the mood and give us all a roasting, and maybe someone like Donald Trump to start a lot of interesting discussion (laughs).
JW: (Laughs) I think Ricky would have a field day roasting him.
BR: He’d have a fair bit of material with Donald there!
BR: Alright, last one - you’ve been a senior coach for many years now across two clubs…
JW: …I’ve always been one to feel like I’m a life learner and want to continue to grow and learn from other people. Thanks for reminding me! (laughs)
BR: You’re welcome! But in all honesty, how do you balance the pressures that come with the responsibility of being a senior coach and switch off from this all-consuming industry. What do you do that grounds you?
JW: Well, it’s certainly not cooking! But I do try to exercise most days. I aim to do that first thing in the morning and get it done for the day, but I also try to stimulate myself by doing things outside my comfort zone. I don’t know how to play the piano, but I’m trying to learn bits of it and that’s a challenge. Plus, it’s the understanding that if someone from the media has an opinion, or if a supporter yells across the fence at the grounds, you must keep perspective that it’s just their opinion. It’s the way they’re seeing the world and I hope they go home feeling better about themselves that they’ve been able to unleash on me.
BR: You’re a good Samaritan.
JW: (Laughs) Exactly! But it is just that (an opinion). Keeping perspective is key.
BR: I agree, and I’ve seen first-hand you do that incredibly well.
JW: Last one - what excites you most about the 12 months ahead both personally and from a team perspective?
BR: I think it’s the challenge and opportunity to work closely with you and learn from you, as well as working with the players to hopefully blossom as a team this year. I’ve always been one to feel like I’m a life learner and want to continue to grow and learn from other people. I’m sure you’re the same, Woosh, but if you can have players reach their potential out on the field and hopefully be better people walking out of this place than they did walking in, I’ll enjoy that the most and we can’t lose sight of that.
JW: Well, that covers your interrogation about the Camberwell Sharks. Good work, Truck.
BR: Thanks for the chat, Woosh. I’m off to Google who Ry Cooder is.