The AFL industry is brutally cutthroat.
David Noble is no longer North Melbourne’s man, meaning the club will now begin its search for a fourth full-time senior coach in five seasons.
That’s despite the Kangaroos on Saturday producing their best performance in three months, almost knocking off a finals-bound – but ultimately fast-finishing – Collingwood.
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Despite Noble being just one-and-a-half seasons – or 38 games – into his tenure.
Despite inheriting a young and inexperienced list that’d been gutted severely as the club embarked on a heavy, intentional rebuild.
Despite chief executive Ben Amarfio declaring in late May “he‘s our man”.
Despite Geoff Walsh’s much-publicised four-week review only entering its third week.
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Yet even before Walsh was brought back to the club temporarily, you sensed the club’s hierarchy had already made its mind up, for the numbers were ugly and too hard to ignore.
Noble departs the Kangaroos after a tumultuous tenure and with the equal-second-worst winning percentage of all VFL/AFL coaches to coach at least 30 games: Five wins from 38 games. His 5-1-32 record was the same as Allan Hird’s during his St Kilda stint in the mid-1940s. Only Fitzroy’s Kevin Murray (0-34 between 1963 and 1964) holds a worse ratio.
Noble’s tenure started horribly in 2021 with eight straight losses by an average margin of 51 points, including a bad Good Friday loss to the Bulldogs by 128 points. There were signs the tide had turned between Rounds 9 and 19, winning four games and drawing one against the Giants.
But those 10 weeks were the only light for Noble in ultimately a dark and forgettable stint.
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North finished the 2021 season with four straight losses. And after a gutsy Round 1 performance against Hawthorn and a scratchy win over West Coast the next week, the 2022 season would prove to be an unmitigated on-field disaster, losing 14 consecutive games. The first 13 of those losses was by an average margin of 63 points.
Dual All-Australian Kane Cornes last month labelled the current Kangaroos side “one of the worst teams in the AFL era”.
The first loss of the losing streak was a 108-point thumping to Brisbane. Herald Sun journalist Jon Ralph reported weeks later on Fox Footy’s On The Couch that Noble had delivered a fierce spray to his playing that was “personal enough in nature” that some players were left “shell-shocked” and “even a bit emotional”. And after receiving feedback from the players that he may have gone too hard, Noble reportedly apologised for his actions days later and vowed to change his approach to providing feedback to his players.
While Noble’s job wasn’t necessarily in jeopardy at that stage, it was perhaps the first indicator that all was not right at North.
The 13th loss, though, may have been the final straw for the Kangaroos’ hierarchy, going down to Geelong by 112 points at GMHBA Stadium. The stats were horrible that night. After booting three goals apiece in the first term, the Cats kicked 18 goals from 58 inside 50s across the final three quarters – compared to North’s two goals from 13 entries.
Post-match, Fox Footy’s Leigh Montagna said “don’t blame the players”, pointing to Noble’s “mixed messaging” at half-time then full-time about the Kangaroos’ ability to make in-game adjustments.
Just before the start of the third term, Noble told Fox Footy: “We felt that we didn’t own the ball enough in that (second) quarter. When we had possession, we probably went for too much on our kicks … Our uncontested marks and control in the first quarter were really good, so we‘ll try and go back to that this quarter.”
But asked in his post-game press conference about where the game changed after quarter-time and where it fell down for the Kangaroos, Noble told reporters: “It’s funny, we were just talking to the players about how to adjust the game. As the game moves, we‘ve got to be able to adjust to that.
Montagna said Noble’s half-time comments left him perplexed, telling First Crack: “It‘s really surprising. That’s on the coach. He has to understand the game situation and pass that message on, particularly to a young playing group.”
In the midst of the losing streak, North lost the majority of its list management team, with Mark Finnigan, Glenn Luff and Ben Birthisel all resigning within weeks of each other. The club stressed all three resignations were three separate scenarios, but Brownlow Medallist Gerard Healy labelled it a “a worrying turn of events” for the Kangaroos, telling 3AW’s Sportsday: “Mid-season walkouts point to a much, much bigger issue than wins and losses.”
Noble also urged North fans to look for small year-on-year gains in key defensive indicators, such as points against, losing margin and percentage. But as the 2022 season played out, the gains turned into greater losses.
AFL 360 compared North Melbourne’s performances under Noble after Round 14 last year and Round 14 this year. The Roos had lost more games and by bigger margins, lost more quarters, conceded more points and recorded a worse percentage.
All the indicators that Noble had asked Roos fans to judge the team on were worse.
And with The Age reporting “several players” were considering their futures at the Kangaroos “if changes weren’t made” as part of the review process, it’s little wonder the club acted.
Ultimately, Noble was always up against it.
Dual premiership Kangaroo David King said coaches that are at the helm for the start of rebuilds rarely experience long tenures. And most rebuilds usually start at a higher base than the one Noble was given.
He inherited a list that’d been intentionally cleaned out. The Kangaroos delisted 17 players across the past two off-seasons as part of a significant rebuild, while experienced players such as Ben Brown (Melbourne), Shaun Higgins (Geelong) and Robbie Tarrant (Richmond) had all been traded across the past four years.
The Roos, subsequently, had several early draft picks. But the recruitment of Will Phillips over Logan McDonald in 2020 and the conjecture over Jason Horne-Francis’ future after the club took him with Pick 1 last year has dominated headlines.
Noble has always been a well-respected figure throughout the footy industry. After stints as an assistant coach, he was headhunted to be Brisbane’s football boss when Chris Fagan was appointed coach in 2017, with the duo spearheading the club‘s surge back up the ladder. Previously, Noble spent a decade at the Crows where he contributed to eight finals campaigns, beginning as a senior assistant coach and finishing as football operations general manager.
AFL legend Leigh Matthews last week said Noble was “an outstanding football manager”, even suggesting the Roos could ask Noble to move from senior coach to football boss.
“I don’t know whether David would want to do it, I don’t know if North would want to do it. But either way if David Noble goes, they’ll appoint another coach,” Matthews told 3AW’s Sportsday.
“This is a really poor team at the moment, so you need some people with credibility in the organisation in my view.”
Noble was appointed by North Melbourne in November 2020, with the club opting for the experienced campaigner over assistant coaches.
He remained staunch until the end, telling reporters after the loss to Collingwood: “I believe in what I’m doing. I believe in the group that we’ve got … having been around the block; I think I’ve got a clear idea as to what needs to happen.”
The hope was Noble would bring much-needed stability to the club after a tumultuous 2020 season that ended with Rhyce Shaw stepping away as senior coach for personal reasons.
Ultimately, Noble leaves with the Kangaroos arguably at their lowest ebb.