Freo hits rock bottom as Lyon faces a monumental task to restore the faith

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By , Glenn Mitchell is a Roar Expert


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    The Fremantle Dockers lack skill. Sadly, it has been a trait that has marred the club’s efforts for a lot of its existence.

    Inaugural coach Gerard Neesham sought to implement a radical coaching philosophy in the AFL when the Dockers entered the competition in 1995.

    Heavily influenced by his strong background in water polo, Neesham developed a possession style of football through his time as coach of Claremont in the WAFL – it proved successful, winning four premierships between 1987-1993.

    However, when he looked to transfer that style into AFL ranks, it failed.

    It did so, not because it contained flawed tactics, but due to the players lacking the skills required to execute it.

    His plan was all about run-and-carry. It involved holding possession in the backline, a lot of lateral ball movement and running at opponents with the expectation that teammates would put on blocks, as they did in water polo.

    Neesham’s Claremont teams – which at various times included the likes of Ben Allan, Don Pyke, Guy McKenna, Tony Evans and Derek Kickett – could execute the plan.

    The pace of the game at WAFL level was considerably slower than the one Neesham would encounter in the AFL.

    The pressure ratcheted up several cogs at the top level. In the heat of battle his troops could not execute.

    While commentating those early years with the ABC, it was evident that Neesham’s philosophy was sound but the skill deficiencies within his team made it impossible to implement it effectively.

    At times, some of the ball transference bordered on comedy, as if it was being choreographed by a reincarnation of the Keystone Cops director.

    In the end, Neesham died on his own sword. He steadfastly believed in his game plan but try as he might he could not assemble the personnel required to make it work in the cauldron of the AFL.

    In many ways, he was ahead of his time.

    When I was hosting a football function in 2010, I was seated alongside the guest speaker Jeff Kennett, then president of the Hawthorn Football Club.

    Over lunch Kennett mentioned that leading into the Hawks’ 2008 premiership season, coach Alastair Clarkson had paid his own way to Perth several times to pick Neesham’s brain.

    Hawthorn Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson

    Much of the Neesham game plan was applied by Clarkson at Hawthorn in that 2008 season.

    Clarkson succeeded on the back of a highly skilled player group that could play high possession, retention football.

    His men could hit targets relentlessly where Neesham’s too often did not.

    Fast forward to 2017 and the current Dockers’ coach is facing a similar dilemma.

    On Sunday, when Freo was hurtling towards an 89-point drubbing at the hands of Port Adelaide, eight-time All-Australian and Brownlow medallist Mark Ricciuto, said, “It doesn’t matter what game plan you have got – if you can’t execute your skills, you are going to turn it over and you are going to be chasing your butt”.

    Fremantle has suffered that fate in its two matches this season against Geelong and Port.

    The Dockers’ fate was sealed early against the Power when it conceded the first six goals.

    Lyon-coached teams are notoriously low scoring. They have been built around strangulation in defence.

    Once Port got up early by such a margin it was game over as Fremantle does not have the offensive fire power to overcome such a deficit.

    In the opening two rounds, the Dockers have bled goals – 18 against the Cats and 22 against Port.

    Alarmingly, so many of those goals have come because of blatant turnovers – 10 of the Power’s first 12 goals and seven of Geelong’s 11 first-half goals in Round 1.

    Those stats are an indictment on the current Docker list.

    Reigning best-and-fairest Lachie Neale is an interesting study. There is no doubting his ball winning ability, but sadly too many times it results in it being given back to the opposition.

    Last season he racked up an AFL record 737 disposals in the home-and-away season. Of those, 162 were classified as clangers or 22 per cent.

    This season, Neale has had 19 clangers from his 57 disposals, a rate of one-in-three.

    Neale is no orphan. This season Aaron Sandilands’ clanger rate is 48 per cent, Michael Johnson (31), Stephen Hill (27) and David Mundy (26).

    Aaron Sandilands and Tom Nicholls battle for AFL ball

    Those four players are the four most experienced Fremantle have put on the paddock this year.

    Lyon maintained the faith after the 42-point first-up loss to the Cats, naming the same 22 for Round 2.

    After the insipid showing on Sunday he announced there would be changes.

    The worry is that there is not a lot in reserve.

    Last Saturday, I commentated on radio the WAFL game between Peel and South Fremantle, a match the latter won by 43 points.

    Peel is aligned to Fremantle. Any fit player on the Dockers’ list who is not playing in the AFL, turns out for Peel.

    On Saturday, Peel managed just five goals.

    Throughout the commentary, we were bemoaning the skill errors by the AFL-listed players.

    Matt Taberner, for instance, mirrored what he has thrown up for most of his career – inconsistency.

    The week before, he kicked five straight in the WAFL. On Saturday, he kicked 1.5 with the goal coming from his sixth shot, none of which were difficult, and almost exclusively from set shots inside 40m.

    Players like Harley Balic, drafted in 2015 but hampered by injury, and the Dockers’ top draft pick last year, Griffin Logue, are both yet to debut but have shown promise in the WAFL.

    However, they will not – and cannot be expected to – make a major difference when they get the chance.

    The Fremantle board pushed their chips to the middle of the table a month before last season kicked off and bet them all on Lyon, extending his contract until the end of 2020.

    He arrived at the Dockers in 2012 as the saviour, the man who would present the club with its maiden premiership.

    It was a marriage that fitted both parties perfectly.

    Lyon had a 63 per cent win record as St Kilda coach and had taken the club to three grand finals, albeit without a flag.

    His premiership clock at St Kilda had ticked past midnight, proven by the club’s ninth, 16th and 18th-place finishes in the three seasons immediately following Lyon’s departure.

    Fremantle, in contrast, was in the ascent.

    In his first four seasons at the club it played finals footy, including a grand final in 2013 and a minor premiership in 2015.

    Last year, it all went pear-shaped. Injuries and poor form from those that took the field saw Fremantle win just four games and finish 16th on the ladder.

    Dockers coach Ross Lyon looking glum

    It came only months after the Dockers had extended Lyon’s contract.

    When he arrived at the Saints, he had a group of players that included Nick Riewoldt, Luke Ball, Nick Dal Santo, Lenny Hayes, Leigh Montagna, Sam Fisher, Stephen Milne, Justin Koschitzke and Brendon Goddard.

    He went to Fremantle seeing a premiership in its short-term future. In his second year he had that squad playing off in the decider.

    The flag did not eventuate and, of his own admission, the club is now very much in a rebuilding phase.

    Having said that, his 22 last weekend was the third oldest for the round.

    He has stated there will be changes at the selection table tonight. Just how many will be a guide to just how he views the last two weeks.

    The Fremantle board has hitched its cart to Lyon. He is still seen as the man to bring the club its first premiership.

    The club’s fans, meanwhile, are restless with social media posts showing an ever-increasing dissatisfaction.

    If on-field results continue to mirror the opening two weeks of the season the heat on both Lyon and the board will intensify.

    How long the board will last before blinking should that be the case will become one of the hottest topics in the AFL.

    Glenn Mitchell
    Glenn Mitchell

    After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.