Following a 2015 season characterised by heavy defeats and internal disunity, Carlton Football Club resembled a rotting carcass discarded on the highways of the AFL landscape.
Dispirited, fragmented and without a cohesive identity, the club were faced with the daunting prospect of undertaking a rebuild, and attempting to salvage something from the burning wreckage of 2015.
The man tasked with spearheading this revival at Ikon Park was Brendon Bolton, the affable assistant to Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn, given the unenviable job of resurrecting the Carlton Football Club.
Yet after starting the season with four losses, the philosophy and cultural changes promoted by Bolton have slowly come to fruition, with the Blues winning five of their past six games.
The weekend’s 19-point win over premiership contenders Geelong, showcased the values of collective effort and resilience which Bolton has instilled during his tenure.
A pre-season documentary gave an insight into the ethos which has underpinned the revival, with Bolton and the playing group adopting the mantra “get comfortable being uncomfortable”.
A draftee camp in his native Tasmania allowed Bolton to ingrain this attitude into his new players, as well as forging an immediate bond with the group whom Bolton believes could represent the future of the Carlton Football Club.
With a teaching background, Bolton is perfectly suited to coach a team of impressionable youths still in their formative years.
“When you go home for Christmas…let (your parents) know the Carlton Football Club has helped you to become a man,” Bolton said to his draftees, showing his perspective on the role of a football club as a site of social and personal growth.
Bolton also implored his players and staff to differentiate between “working for Carlton” and “being Carlton”, in the hope that they can embody the values and ethics which Bolton envisions Carlton to represent.
His communal approach is further underscored by his determination to abandon the entitlement and traditional hierarchical structures present throughout so many football clubs, encouraging younger players to hold senior figures accountable.
One anecdote that encapsulates this philosophy is when Bolton asked 150-game stalwart Michael Jamison if he believed rookie Dillon Viojo-Rainbow had the right to tell him where to go in the structure. “I expect it. We expect it,” Bolton said.
Whilst the concepts of community, accountability and responsibility are often intangible, they have proved just as valuable as any structural or strategic measures used to generate success.
However, this is not to undersell the clear football identity and system which Bolton has begun to imprint on the Blues.
Bolton has harnessed the exuberance and athleticism of a young playing group and translated it into incessant forward line pressure, with Carlton improving from an average of 56.7 tackles per game in 2015, to 64 in 2016.
The midfield and halfback line are then positioned accordingly to capitalise on hurried and erroneous kicks out of the opposition defence.
A clearly defined structure and identity has also helped senior figures Bryce Gibbs and Marc Murphy rediscover form, with both having career-best seasons.
Whilst calls of a revival may be premature, and there will undoubtedly be more uncomfortable moments, one gets the feeling that for Bolton and his Blues, these are moments to be relished.
Written by Sean Nunan.