The Brisbane Lions are the perennial cellar dwellers of the AFL.
Since the ‘golden generation’ began exiting and experiencing terminal performance decline after the 2004 grand final loss to Port Adelaide, the Lions have made the finals just once – in 2009.
For a club with such rich success in its first decade in football, this mediocrity has been incredibly damaging.
Put simply, the Lions have no brand. The style of football they came to be renowned for has been lost. Even club great Jonathan Brown’s own daughter now supports Carlton. They are the closest thing football can call a joke.
This season, one win from 11 games has seen the spotlight firmly placed on coach Justin Leppitsch. An abysmal record of just 12 wins from 55 attempts can be partly excused by the complete rebuild, both on and off the field, that Brisbane have undertaken. A list turnover of over 75 per cent, and the youngest side in the competition, means expectations have been low.
They have taken some positive steps, too. Greg Swann was a coup by the club, while the fact that Leigh Matthews is on the board means that there is a clear link between the football department and those who run the club. This can only bring positive outcomes.
Further, the Lions have gone forward with plans for a new training base near Brisbane Airport, giving the club the facilities to compete with the best in the AFL.
Yet on-field results have continued to go backwards. Ten wins in Michael Voss’ final season as coach in 2013 was followed by seven in 2014, and four in 2015.
An honest account of their remaining fixtures this year gives them two, possibly three, and at a big stretch four wins for the season, which would be negligible improvement for a developing list.
Put succinctly, the Lions have hit a wall. And that puts the coaching staff on the chopping block.
Some of the football decisions made are staggering. Why make a gameplan based around counter-attacking football played through the middle from defence, when no one in the back six is renowned for their kicking?
Why play your best two kicks, Pearce Hanley and Daniel Rich, as attacking midfielders?
Why implement a strategy with a high premium on clearances and contested ball when the side doesn’t have the players to do that?
It simply doesn’t make sense, and that is the fault of the coaching staff. Players can be motivated; they can change.
Melbourne has thrived under coach Paul Roos and heir Simon Goodwin. Players have bought into the philosophy, the mantra, and are playing like a team reborn in 2016.
Players like Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw, Dean Kent and Tomas Bugg have all exponentially improved under Roos and Goodwin’s strategy, tutelage and guidance.
The Bulldogs under Luke Beveridge are another example. In one and a half seasons, he took them from a bottom four side many thought would be wooden spooners in 2015, to a top four side with the best defensive record in the competition in 2016.
Carlton under Brendon Bolton, equal on win-loss with Brisbane last year, and with what many experts called one of the worst lists of all time, is 6-5 this year, and just gave the Lions as comprehensive a 38-point win as there can be.
Under Leppistch there has been no list improvement, other than natural progression. Not one player has improved above expectations. Many, including Daniel Rich, Allen Christensen, Ryan Lester and Sam Mayes, have gone backwards.
The draftees of 2014-15 have hit a wall. Darcy Gardiner, such a promising pick up, finds himself in the twos, as does Josh Green, the leading goalkicker of the Leppitsch era.
As evidenced last year by several stories out of the Gabba and Jack Redden’s eventual departure, the coach has failed to get the players onside.
Something – almost certainly the coach and his staff – has to change.
But what is the solution going forward?
Ironically, the man who CEO Greg Swann sacked from Carlton in 2012 – Brett Ratten – might be the man to transform the Lions. While it might be difficult to lure him north, he certainly has the credentials.
The ‘Hawthorn intel’, a massive factor in the success of Beveridge and Adam Simpson at West Coast, is a box ticked by Ratten. As is coaching experience, with a moderately successful (in hindsight) stint at Carlton.
He would fit in nicely at the struggling Lions.
Another man who fits the bill – albeit not as a coach but an assistant – is Brendan McCarthy. A man underrated outside the clubs he’s worked at, McCarthy’s uncanny development of talent is unmatched, with success at Collingwood, Western Bulldogs (after he’d departed) and Melbourne this season.
He would have plenty of talent to work with at Brisbane.
A midfield of captain Tom Rockliff, Danye Beams, Dayne Zorko, Mitch Robinson, Hanley, Ben Keays, Rhys Mathieson, Christensen, Ryan Bastinac and Jarrad Jensen is more than enough for any coach to work with.
A forward line including Green and former rising star Lewis Taylor on the ground, and Josh Schache and the underrated Jonathan Freeman in the air would have most salivating.
Throw in Mayes and Marco Paparone, both of whom can play and in a variety of positions, and you have an attack that, if given the right coaching, could rival any side in a few years.
The back six needs list management, but Brisbane seems to have put the right structures in place to do that.
With Leppistch proving a flop, and the Lions languishing at the bottom, forever in a rebuild, it’s time for a change. Whatever happens, the board and CEO Swann have some critical decisions to make at the end of the year.
Decisions so critical, the wrong ones could send the club on a path to non-existence.
The Lions are already irrelevant. This summer they must put the right people in the right places.
They owe it to the fans that have stuck around.