Michael Voss and the new tattoo blues

Michael Voss was in a deep hole. It was 2011 and the Brisbane Lions, the team he had captained to three premierships, had lost the first seven games of the season. He was coaching the club, and pressure was mounting ahead of a game against fellow strugglers, North Melbourne, then coached by former teammate Brad Scott.

The Lions prevailed by 14 points. After the match, Scott was asked if there was any consolation in his old club breaking the drought. Scott, as notoriously ruthless a competitor as Voss, scoffed and shook his head in disgust. “Is that a serious question?” he asked. “People don’t understand this – because you played for another club is irrelevant. We came here to win.”

Twelve years later, Voss will return to the Gabba for a preliminary final, now as the coach of Carlton. He, too, will be playing to win against the club that appointed him coach (without interviewing any other candidates) in September 2008, then sacked him in early August 2013 in a fruitless pursuit of former Swans coach Paul Roos.

That’s all water under the bridge. “I think it’s a lot of what other people talk about,” he said at the Gabba on Friday. “I haven’t spoken about it at all; I haven’t shared my story with the players at all because we’re busy forging our own and what version we want to be for the Carlton Football Club. We’ve got such a great story to tell, and we get to lean into that.”

Whatever Voss’ feelings – private or public – Brisbane Lions fans are likely to experience more mixed emotions. “Our supporters will be 100 per cent barracking for the Lions, but I think if it came to pass that Carlton got over the top of us, none of them would begrudge seeing Vossy get to a grand final and do well,” club chair Andrew Wellington said on Tuesday.

On his left ankle, Voss sports a tattoo commemorating his three premierships with the Lions. Asked if he’d ink a new Blues tattoo should his team go all the way, he grinned. “Can’t confirm. But it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t,” he said. “We’ll see how we go.”

Voss’ combination of skill, hardness and leadership means he remains a revered figure at the Lions, despite the brutal nature of his exit a decade ago. It wasn’t just the three premierships, either. Voss’ career began with the “Bad News” Bears in 1992, when they were still based on the Gold Coast. He transformed them from a punchline into a powerhouse.

Wellington also said the nature of the AFL market in Queensland – and the history of the Lions themselves – meant that crowds were less tribal in their loyalties. “Notwithstanding our Fitzroy history, a lot of our supporters have come on board either through the Bears or in more recent times,” he said. “A lot of the early Bears were players who came from other clubs.”

James Kliemt, who led the club supporter group The Lions’ Roar through some difficult years either side of Voss’ sacking, confessed to difficulties in reconciling past and present. “It is strange,” he said. “I’ve thought about this, and I just think clubs are so corporate now that they’ve lost that feeling from years gone by when the rivalries were so much more visceral.”

Four members of the legendary triple premiership Lions dynasty from 2001-03 are now senior coaches. Apart from Voss, there’s Collingwood’s Craig McRae, Chris Scott (Geelong) and his brother Brad (now with Essendon). “They can’t all coach the Lions, so you can’t begrudge them pursuing their career,” Wellington said.

Unstated in all this is a sympathy and affection for Voss that perhaps would not be extended to the Scotts, at least not to the same degree: the Lions, after all, sacked their favourite son, and the club unravelled. Earlier this year, Kliemt confessed to wincing as Voss, once again, skated close to the coaching abyss after the Blues had lost eight out of nine games.

“I actually went back and watched the media conferences that Vossy did after those games, and saw how defeated and down he was,” he said. “You could see what a tough spot he was in. And then they won [against Gold Coast in round 14], and he was like, wow, what happened there? It was lovely seeing the growth in him and the team after that.”

The rollercoaster Voss was riding brought back memories of his sacking in 2013. “It was devastating for him, and the club was not in good shape off-field at that point,” Kliemt said. “He was on a hiding to nothing; he was a young coach. He’s much more articulate now than he was then, and he has a much more nuanced perspective on the on-field versus off-field stuff.”

Failure, he said, had humbled Voss. “It was funny that the lesser lights of that Brisbane team seemed to take to coaching more naturally. [Voss] approached it like the bull-at-a-gate player that he was, and his experiences have clearly taught him that maybe a time of getting sat back on your bum is what you need to be that more well-rounded character at the end.”

In late 2021, the Lions named the playing field of their new home base at Springfield, in Brisbane’s south-west, Michael Voss Oval. Voss was honoured by the acknowledgement, but he declined an invitation to this year’s 20th anniversary celebrations of the 2003 premiership on 30 August: “He just felt it wasn’t the right look.”

McRae, however, did attend, despite Collingwood being frontrunners for this year’s flag. McRae, who played 195 games with Brisbane, was being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. “He very kindly said if they [Collingwood] can’t win he hoped we do – playing to the crowd a bit, I suspect,” Wellington said.

Kliemt reiterated what’s been a common theme of seasons 2022 and 2023: even the Magpies are no longer the hated foes of yore.

“You can’t dislike ‘Fly’ [McRae]; you can’t dislike what he’s done with Collingwood, and it’s the same with Vossy,” he said. “But it will be interesting! You’re enormously supportive until they’re playing your team.”

First published in The Age, 22 September 2023

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