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

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

By Glenn Mitchell, 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.

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    The Crowd Says (65)

    • Roar Pro

      April 6th 2017 @ 8:40am
      Andrew Young said | April 6th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

      Watching a Ross Lyon coached team is a painful experience… They play ugly, dirty and boring football; thank goodness he’s never been to Geelong.

      • April 6th 2017 @ 8:55am
        DeanM said | April 6th 2017 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        I am very thankful that Geelong and Collingwood were able to beat the Saints and Hawthorn beat Fremantle. If not for those results many teams and coaches may have been trying to replicate that hideous low scoring snorefest style football.
        It is a win for Football that Lyons game plan does not hold up in September.

      • Roar Guru

        April 6th 2017 @ 9:12am
        AdelaideDocker said | April 6th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        That’s pretty much a copy + paste from your comment on yesterday’s Lyon article.

        There’s generally eight other footy games on weekends. Watch those. Nobody is forcing you to watch Freo!

        • Roar Guru

          April 6th 2017 @ 10:41am
          XI said | April 6th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          Well he’s kind of obliged to watch them when they play his team. Or when they’re in the finals.

        • April 6th 2017 @ 10:43am
          I ate pies said | April 6th 2017 @ 10:43am | ! Report

          Footy is entertainment. If, by virtue of the style they play, a team isn’t entertaining then there is a problem. No-one is forced to watch Freo, but if they don’t want to watch Freo it’s a long way back for the club. And, given the length and value of Lyon’s contract, it’s a very expensive way back.

    • April 6th 2017 @ 9:59am
      SmithHatesMaxwell said | April 6th 2017 @ 9:59am | ! Report

      Do you think a team like Adelaide would be putting up scores of 140 with Ross Lyon’s 2016/17 game plan?

      He’s tactically about 10 years behind the likes of Don Pyke or Beveridge.

      Serial underperforming veterans have played virtually every single game under Lyon’s tenure. Dawson and Danyle Pearce come to mind. They basically have no incentive to improve their performance because they have never been dropped for poor form. Young players make a mistake during games and their banished back to the state league.

      He’s killed the confidence of young players and allowed standards to plummet in established players.

      I have never seen such a listless group of players. They have quit on him.

      Lyon is now 4-21 in his last 25 games. Neeld got sacked after going 5-28 with a weaker list than Lyon has had at his disposal.

      I don’t understand the excuses still being made for Lyon. Why weren’t they made for Neeld? Was Neeld a master coach like Lyon who came along to the Demons at the wrong time?

      • April 6th 2017 @ 10:44am
        I ate pies said | April 6th 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

        4-21; sounds like the Australian middle order…sorry Anon, but Gold Coast are more listless, but only just.

      • April 6th 2017 @ 10:51am
        mattyb said | April 6th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        Anon,unfortunately I agree with this post and these figures you mention are a concern,especially if these loses start becoming more frequent thrashings.
        I agree Pearce should be dropped and I’m one of the few who is a bit of a wrap for Dawson but he needs to go to make room for Collins who played very well for Peel last week.
        In fairness I think RTB has a few credits in the bank compared with Neeld. Will you be willing to cut Lyon some slack if he starts playing the kids or is your mind made up on the Lyon matter irrespective?
        I’d like to give him a couple of weeks to change the side a bit but I’m not going to. It’s a home game this week and a chance to make some changes at home. I’m thinking five changes myself and will be disappointed if there are fewer than this.
        Dogs by 40 points but I hope Freo show some competitiveness and a lot more exuberance and I’ll be back on the Freo wagon next week.

        • April 6th 2017 @ 2:28pm
          Giddy said | April 6th 2017 @ 2:28pm | ! Report

          Sorry but Zac Dawson is shocking. I’ve watched him individually in all freo games since mentioning him on here last year. I hate slagging off individual players and I’m sure he is a good bloke and hard trainer, but he is the most detrimental player to a team I’ve ever seen. He adds nothing. He can’t kick, he drops marks, he falls over, he gets in teammates way and can only punch the ball. It is amazing that a team that focuses on defence could have a player like this that stays on the field for 100% of the game. The most incredible thing is that his terrible stats actually flatter him. I started watching him closely in the Adelaide game last year. His 8 disposals were all listed effective, when in fact. His 1st was to a teammates feet in the defensive goal square which resulted in a goal, another one he handballed to a teammate then ran into him and another 2 almost missed his teammate putting them under pressure. The stats didn’t include an easy mark dropped, a punch when he should have marked and a fumble that resulted in shots on goal. He also gave away 2 free kicks that resulted in shots. If you watch him closely he does this every game. He sometimes appears to be playing as the loose man in defence (I don’t know if this is cause he has lost his man) if so he should be killing it in possessions and marks. 3 things you want out a defender are a damaging kick, a good intercept mark and a good decision maker for rebounding. He is none of these things. He is a lock down defender that isn’t very good at locking down. WHY IS HE IN THE TEAM! I honestly believe they could find anyone in the state leagues that can do at least one of these things and the whole game plan will be more effective. Freo played alright in that game vs Adelaide and could probably have won, if they had any player in Dawson’s place. He may be the key reason Lyons defensive game plan isn’t working. Is it just a coincidence that he barely played in 2015 and Freo finished on top?

          • April 6th 2017 @ 3:16pm
            mattyb said | April 6th 2017 @ 3:16pm | ! Report

            Fair enough Giddy,personally I’ve always liked how he positions himself,helps teammates and how he does many small unnoticed things. I certainly understand I’m in a minority,even taking into account Freos own supporters. It doesn’t really matter anymore though as I believe Dawson’s time is up and he needs to be replaced so someone like Collins can develop.

          • April 7th 2017 @ 8:20am
            Luc Del Casale said | April 7th 2017 @ 8:20am | ! Report

            Because hes Lyons nephew. Bit you didnt know that.

            • April 7th 2017 @ 8:23am
              Don Freo said | April 7th 2017 @ 8:23am | ! Report

              He’s not.

      • Columnist

        April 6th 2017 @ 12:24pm
        Glenn Mitchell said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

        SHM, Lyon was never going to be sacked with what happened last season having taken out the minor premiership in 2015. Comparing one poor season by Lyon against a man whose entire coaching career lasted just 33 games is not a realistic comparison. Lyon had massive credits in the bank given 2013 & 2015, something Neeld never did.

      • April 6th 2017 @ 2:12pm
        MJ said | April 6th 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

        The only reason why he won’t go unless it’s of his choosing is that there’s still 3 years after 2017 on his contract. Would Fremantle’s board be that willing to find somewhere between 1.5-2 million to pay him out, then find another coach who will be under big scrutiny from Day 1 being in a 2 team town? The problem I see with Ross is that he puts too much faith in his experienced players and the youngsters don’t develop as they should.

        • April 6th 2017 @ 5:02pm
          mattyb said | April 6th 2017 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

          MJ,, have you considered that Fremantle knew they had an ageing list and that’s why they have locked away Lyon for the long haul. I think they consider him the man to bring the next group through and looking at selection that will commence as of this week,which I think is the right call and shows Ross is very much in touch with where things are at.

    • Roar Guru

      April 6th 2017 @ 11:08am
      Steve J said | April 6th 2017 @ 11:08am | ! Report

      Neale …you point to his 167 clangers … AFL stats has Neale as having only 80 clangers against his name for 2016, as does AFLtables. So not sure where you have got the extra 87 (50%+ from) ….maybe you just think thats the vibe Glenn

      Interesting to see that out of the top 10 disposers in 2016 only 2 had better disposal efficiency that Neale (Treloar and Lachie Hunter)

      His clanger count for 2017 is 8 not 19 (again confirmed by AFL stats and AFLTables), his disposal efficiency is 82.5 … better than all of the top 10 this year except Clayton Oliver at 84.5

      Maybe you should ask Ryan Buckland to read your articles that contain stats first before you publish your alternative facts …..

      • Roar Guru

        April 6th 2017 @ 11:45am
        Steve J said | April 6th 2017 @ 11:45am | ! Report

        BTW nice to see the AFL caught up with Neesham 13 years afterwards

      • Columnist

        April 6th 2017 @ 12:15pm
        Glenn Mitchell said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:15pm | ! Report

        Apologies Steve, you are quite correct. I read the wrong column on AFL Tables … CL rather than CG.

      • Roar Guru

        April 6th 2017 @ 12:23pm
        Peppsy said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        Looks to me like he mixed up clangers and clearances on afltables

        • April 6th 2017 @ 1:31pm
          dontknowmuchaboutfootball said | April 6th 2017 @ 1:31pm | ! Report

          Not just with Neale. Looks like it’s for all the players he’s lambasted.

          In fact, it looks like there are at least 8 teams across the two rounds with a worse clanger to disposal ratio than Freo. Could be more as I can’t be bothered crunching the numbers. The worst culprit appears to be Sydney (121 clangers from 710 disposals). Port Adelaide’s efficiency it worse than Freo’s.

          So how much stick can we put in Mitchell’s analysis?

          For my money, it’s not the clangers that’s the (main) problem but the sudden drop in pressure, especially forward pressure.

          • Roar Guru

            April 6th 2017 @ 3:10pm
            Dalgety Carrington said | April 6th 2017 @ 3:10pm | ! Report

            I’m with you on the clangers not being the be all and end all dontknowmuchaboutfootball.

            Also as you pointed out yesterday it’s got all the hallmarks of a team feeling it’s way, most are new at playing together, they’re in a bit of a transition/experimental phase with gamestyle and getting the mix right personnel-wise. Getting more mobility and pace in the team will be invaluable in the current environment.

            That would mean Dawson, Griffin, Johnson and Sutcliffe all replaced by younger and/or more mobile types.

          • Roar Guru

            April 6th 2017 @ 4:31pm
            Steve J said | April 6th 2017 @ 4:31pm | ! Report

            Its the same with free kicks

            Unless you know where the clangers were committed or where the free kick was paid then the impact of that is just a stat

            A free kick that breaks momentum is not the same as a free kick to the team in possession that does nothing (you know when the team is streaming away with the ball and the ump blows for a free kick and then calls play on at the same time)

            Same with a clanger.

            Freo’s clangers are ones that seem to result in a goal 3 seconds later (Johnson kicking to Hawkins, Sandi missing Hill with a handball etc)

            A clanger that misses your team mate but hits an opposition player who is under the pump anyway may just result in a disputed ball.

            Stats tell half the story

    • April 6th 2017 @ 12:13pm
      Mickyo said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

      Real pity about the Neesham game and tactics, it was bloody exciting to watch, it was the polar opposite of Lyons game style which quite frankly is s good cure for insomnia and horrifically ugly to watch.

      Freo fans like it when it worked because it delivers wins, fans of teams barrack for the team not an exciting game to watch.

      Lyon can’t change and the AFL has attempted via subtle rule changes to destroy his negative tactics

      • Columnist

        April 6th 2017 @ 12:18pm
        Glenn Mitchell said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

        It has been proven by Clarkson & Hawthorn that the Neesham game plan was effective with the right personnel. It would have been fascinating to see how he would have gone with a high skill team.

        • April 6th 2017 @ 12:59pm
          Mickyo said | April 6th 2017 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

          The Claremont WAFL team was a Good team but not that good.

          Neesham needed a few freo boys but low and behold all the Jackovitchs, Sumiches and East Freo boys were at the Eagles.

    • April 6th 2017 @ 1:16pm
      Gecko said | April 6th 2017 @ 1:16pm | ! Report

      If other unskilled teams can still be competitive (eg.the Pies and Tigers), why can’t Freo be competitive?

      How could a game plan that took Freo to a GF only a few years ago be so out-of-date in 2017?

      Perhaps all that is needed is a tweak to the game plan and a few games under the belts of returning players like Bennell, McCarthy and Fyfe.

    • Roar Guru

      April 6th 2017 @ 1:22pm
      sheek said | April 6th 2017 @ 1:22pm | ! Report


      Thanks for that. Excellent article to read.