Ross Lyon and Fremantle sowing the seeds of premiership glory
Fremantle have finally ‘clicked’ under Ross Lyon, and if the hard-nosed coach’s stellar record with St. Kilda is anything to go by, the competition had better sit up and take notice.
The similarity between St. Kilda and Fremantle’s respective positions when Lyon took over the reins is too obvious to be ignored.
The Saints under Grant Thomas had finished third in both 2004 and 2005 before an underwhelming 2006. The St Kilda board decided that they needed a more forensic football mind to take the side to the next level.
Ross Lyon was that mind, and his first year, 2007, saw early season on-field upheaval as he tried to implement his famous defensive structures. This led to only four wins from eleven games at the halfway mark, and the inglorious position of 14th on the ladder.
But in round twelve his side travelled to Perth to take on the second-placed West Coast at what had become the much lauded ‘House of Pain’, and recorded a comfortable victory.
This sparked a return of seven wins and a draw in the closing stretch of the season, with their three losses only being by a combined 34 points.
The blueprint had been set, the players had bought in, and a preliminary final in 2008 was followed by famous grand final losses in 2009 and 2010 that could very easily have brought two wins.
Lyon coaches hard, and the combination of that, some unsavoury off-field incidents and accompanying media coverage, and the intangible emotional toll of a playing group playing so well for so long, but without the ultimate success took its toll in 2010, and the Saints faltered.
Meanwhile, Fremantle had gone from 14th in 2009 to sixth in 2010 off the back of a young, developing list, debuting eighteen different players over the two seasons. Included in these were Greg Broughton, Stephen Hill and Nat Fyfe, who were three of Freo’s four best players in their finals win over Hawthorn. The youth was flourishing, exciting times were ahead, and opportunity beckoned.
But like the Saints in 2006, the Dockers of 2011 stumbled. Most felt that it was due to a string of injuries to prime movers Michael Barlow, David Mundy and Aaron Sandilands, and no fault of incumbent coach Mark Harvey.
Whether the Fremantle brains trust felt the same is not known, but what they unquestionably understood was that there was a better coach for their team, and moving with military precision under the cover of darkness, they orchestrated the greatest coaching coup in recent memory.
The appointment of Lyon certainly divided the football public.
Gerard Whateley, the voice of sport for the ABC, and host of AFL360, the most influential football program on television, went on public record calling both club and man “deceitful, duplicitous and distasteful”.
Personally, I applauded the manoeuvre, and appreciated and respected the cut-throat nature of it. Welcome to the world of big business, I say. If you can get the best person to get the best overall result (in this case, a premiership), then do so, and don’t think twice about it.
For those weeping for Mark Harvey, he wasn’t exactly being turfed onto the street with nothing but the clothes on his back. An estimated $500,000 payout was his compensation for what effectively amounts to a bruised ego.
But back to the footy.
In Fremantle’s first match under Ross Lyon, they brutalised the defending premier Geelong early, and held on for a memorable victory in what still stands as the most epic encounter of the year so far.
The Dockers showed a flint-hard commitment to the contest in that victory, and when they can harness that aggression and mindset consistently, they’re going to be extremely tough to handle.
In round four came a drought-breaking victory in Victoria, their first of three so far in 2012.
Lyon knew that in order for his new club to have any credibility in the eyes of the competition, they had to not just win on the road, but do it consistently. They had to transform from terrible travellers to victorious visitors. With five of their eleven wins this season coming away from Subiaco, they’re on their way to doing just that.
After thirteen matches, the customary ‘bedding in’ period for Lyon’s teachings to be absorbed, the Dockers had six wins, but with a percentage only better than the five bottom teams, all of whom more closely resemble TAC Cup or VFL sides.
But just like the Saints over the Eagles in Lyon’s first season there, Fremantle’s annihilation of West Coast on Saturday is going to be looked upon as the turning point in years to come.
It was the Dockers fifth win in a row, and announced them as not just a potential dangerous floater in the finals this year, but a legitimate premiership contender in 2013 and beyond.
They are now ranked second for points conceded, and were able to completely shut down the free-scoring Eagles, who despite their forward-line injury woes were ranked third for points scored entering this round.
Fremantle’s ability to keep the ball trapped in their forward half of the ground had all the hallmarks of St Kilda in 2009, and when they were able to escape the West Coast press, which doesn’t count as the easiest of tasks, they ran with attacking flair and quick movement.
All of a sudden with Barlow and David Mundy find something close to their best, Tendai Mzungu and Stephen Hill providing run and carry, and the return of superstar Nat Fyfe, they’ve got a midfield to win inside and outside, with enough talent to give opposition coaches something to think about.
And then there’s Matthew Pavlich.
Six best and fairest awards and six All-Australian gongs speak to his quality. He’s odds-on to add a seventh of each this year too.
But he’s never played in a grand final, and has only been a part of one meaningful finals campaign in his twelve completed seasons. He’ll be 31 at the start of next year, so time is running out.
The Fremantle behind-the-scenes head-hunters must have factored this in when they aggressively pursued Ross Lyon, and their initiative and cunning may well be rewarded.
Any Fremantle premiership is going to have Matthew Pavlich as its foundation, and therefore must occur in the next three or four years.
Based on Ross Lyon’s history, that timeframe seems just about perfect.
Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for in his mind there is nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.
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