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The long path towards putting pride back into the Lions

Brisbane Lions fans cheers on the team during their round 13 game against the Adelaide Crows at the Gabba in Brisbane, Saturday, June 27, 2015. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Roar Guru
29th May, 2017
102
2518 Reads

It’s hard to describe the lonely existence of a Lions fan here in Brisbane – I suspect it’s rather what an endangered animal feels like, that sort of growing realisation you don’t see as many of you round anymore as you used to.

That Lions mug on Jean’s desk disappeared a few years back, around the same time the Firebirds mug appeared, come to think about it. Adam never wears his guernsey in on casual Fridays anymore. And Rose retired and took her scarf with her.

There’s a sort of nod of acknowledgment when you do meet one in the wild, roaming the streets of Brisbane during the week. A sort of mutual wry, pained, expression passes between you and a sigh is exchanged that acknowledges, yes, you’re both still hanging in there.

It wasn’t always like this of course. There was a time when the Lions were as rampant in Brisbane as their logo suggests. Huge crowds, ferocious atmosphere at the ‘Gabbatoir’, bumper stickers festooning cars the length and breadth of the city.

Nowadays though, the crowds are anaemic, the ground feels like a morgue, and the bumper stickers have all been scratched off or replaced long ago.

It’s just become sort of sad. No one actually expects the Lions to win anymore. And usually they don’t.

I know it’s fashionable to bash Queensland fans for being fairweather and say that the crowds stopped coming once they weren’t winning premierships, but that view simply doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

Between 2004-2010 average home crowds were higher than they were in the premiership years, despite only appearing in finals in 2009.

There was always a view during these years following the threepeat that the Lions had done something truly remarkable, and that it was only fair that we have our turn at the bottom again, before rebuilding and having another surge. Which would surely come in time.

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Michael Voss certainly thought so after our brief finals campaign in 2009, but 2010 was the critical year where events started to derail the dream.

The signing of Brendan Fevola turned out to be a disaster and he was sacked early in 2011, one year into a lucrative three-year contract, following a series of off-field incidents and ongoing issues with alcoholism.

Good club men like Michael Rischitelli, Jared Brennan and Daniel Bradshaw were shipped out to bring to him in, with much rancour within the club’s supporter base, particularly over Bradshaw’s departure.

The choice of Fevola was polarising as well – many female fans (including my dear mother) were outraged that the club would trash their reputation and supporter base for the cheap thrills and risky sugar hit Fevola might bring.

Voss improved on things after a dreadful 4-18 2011 season, winning ten games in both 2012 and 2013, but the board’s decision to sack him with three rounds to go in 2013, rather than risking him making the 8 and being forced to keep him on, was another fiasco.

To bring down a club legend in such a manner, without ensuring their preferred replacement was already signed, sealed and delivered, speaks volumes to the amateur hour leadership of Angus Johnson, the then Chairman.

This error was then compounded by hiring Justin Leppitsch, who turned out to be entirely the wrong candidate for the role, although it’s doubtful anyone could have succeeded given the circumstances he, a rookie coach was faced with – a player exodus that continues to this day, terrible facilities and off-field support and a player group that increasingly appeared shellshocked, mentally scarred, and numbed into senselessness by increasingly heavy losses.

Brisbane Lions coach Justin Leppitsch

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Speaking of those losses, simple numbers are the best way to illustrate the gulf between us and the rest – recently sacked coaches always say that it’s a results-based business after all.

Since the start of 2010 to today, the Lions have played 163 games, and have finished on the losing side in 118 of them.

From 2010 to 2013, we lost 57 games over 4 years, by an average margin of 38 points. Since 2014 we have lost 60 games in 3 years and a bit, and the average losing margin in that time has been 62 points. Average, mind you, average of 62 points.

This is a club that doesn’t even look like winning most games and almost never has the legs or effort to run them out against a committed opposition.

Again, I know it’s fashionable to bag out Queenslanders as fair weather fans, but by any standards and given those results and on-field performances, we’re still doing well to even get 10,000 to the Gabba.

No wonder season tickets have dried up – if you’d made an impressionable 5-year-old sit through the last seven years of home games you’d be up in front of Child Safety for mental abuse.

Average crowds during Leppitsch’s tenure took the plunge below 20,000 for the first time too – eight of our 10 lowest ever crowds all occurred in the last three years.

The casual fans long ago stopped coming – the Lions are that bad now they’re starting to take out the members.

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And for this you need to look no further than the exodus of draftees – members can handle adversity so long as there is hope, but when the very source of that hope, the early draftees, the seed corn of rejuvenation are continually crushed up and blown in their faces to start lives at other clubs, it’s at that point when even members start to question the fairness of the system and the futility of continuing to pay their money to a club that has an immensely wealthy financial backer.

When you start thinking the system is rigged against you and you’re being taken for granted, it’s not long until you make the connection that the best way to register your protest is to stop paying and stop showing up.

Where the Lions now find themselves is trapped in a death spiral, where they can’t retain players because they keep getting flogged because they can’t get any better because they can’t retain players.

There’s no foundation to fall back on. No real culture or connection with the city. Without wins there’s not much else to this club.

The club exists here in Brisbane solely because Brisbane is Australia’s third largest city and because the AFL aspires to be a national game.

The lack of an AFL club in this city would be unthinkable, no matter how terrible they are, or how bad the hammerings from rival clubs become.

If I had to nominate rock bottom in recent years, it would be the Round 20 game, away against a red-hot Adelaide in 2016 – the bleakest moment I can recall in the Lions history for two decades.

Coming off a pasting by Port Adelaide the week previous, we knew we were going to get flogged before the game even started.

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We went in as if it was a funeral. You could see it in every player’s face in the warm-up. They were bracing themselves for it, trying to will themselves to endure it.

Mitch Robinson kicked a goal in the first quarter to make it something like 38-6 to the Crows and had to yell at the boys to get around him.

Throughout the game the cameras cut to bleak looking lone Lions fans in the crowd, the bravest souls I have ever met for going to that game, for Adelaide were merciless.

Final score was 177-39. We were crushed. Annihilated. The crowd felt sorry for us as our boys walked off – apologising with their soft, embarrassed applause for making us stand out there while their boys put on a show for them.

Afterwards, the coach spoke to the media and admitted that he had no answers. That it was boys against men. He was sacked a few weeks later when the season ended. And no-one in Brisbane really noticed or cared.

Justin Leppitsch Brisbane Lions AFL 2016

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

What this game and Leppa’s demise did though, was rouse the AFL into action.

The evidence was indisputable and uncontestable. The Lions were absolutely bloody horrible, just awful, unequal and embarrassing and irrelevant, so terrible that a city of 3 million people were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist – and it was long past time to step in and sort things out.

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Roused from their Docklands citadel and seeing a situation very similar to when Melbourne finally put Mark Neeld out of his misery, they determined on a similar course of action to repair the damage.

With Paul Roos busy counting the money from his well-earned fellowship at the Demons, the AFL determined to cast a similar character in their recovery effort, and decided upon Chris Fagan, one of the chief brains behind the Hawkthorn premiership juggernaut.

Joining him on this difficult and extremely well-remunerated mission would be David Noble, former head of football at the Adelaide Crows.

Surely with a professional management team in place, and sensible proven men of grey hairs and football nous, the Lions would, in time, recover.

To which I would say the AFL must think Chris Fagan is a bloody genius and the greatest coach since Jock McHale if they thought he alone was going to be able to halt this ongoing trainwreck.

While Fagan might well have a better rapport with the players and enable them to better handle crushing defeats, he still has to face the problems that proved so insurmountable for Justin Leppitsch.

The weights room is still a dungeon in the bowels of the Gabba, facilities remain outdated and not up to required standards, key players are still getting injured, the team has too many passengers, the professionalism and attitude is better but still well off the pace, skills are still hideously inconsistent, decision making remains tentative and insecure, and unsurprisingly given all this – the crowds remain very very poor.

Also, it turns out that Fagan and Noble being nice guys and good listeners isn’t enough to persuade Josh Schache to hang around.

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Not every player wants to spend their career on a psychiatrist’s couch developing coping techniques and mental toughness to endure repeated floggings. Some of them want to win as well.

You can see Fagan and Noble have tried to address this with the most recent draft – Hugh McLuggage, Jarrod Berry and Cedric Cox are all from the same club in Ballarat – the belief is that if we can bring enough players in from the same country region, they will be less likely to leave due to reasons of homesickness and loneliness.

While I don’t mind this approach, it’s certainly not foolproof. Many of the Lions players who left in recent years had friends at the club – while I shed no tears when we shipped Jack Redden out of the club, he and Tom Rockliff were as close as brothers and yet that didn’t stop Jack from having a gutful of getting flogged every week and making tracks for the Eagles.

Additionally, such a strategy relies on keeping the players together. If they don’t develop at the same pace, you have a situation where some are playing in the seniors, some in the twos – some might be injured.

The club might also face the prospect of cutting one of them from the list if they don’t kick along and develop – do they get squeamish and retain them in the belief that if they cut them they might lose one of their better mates in the future (also known as the Claye Beams principle)?

My concern at this juncture is not with the talent of Fagan and Noble – I think they are the best people for the role – but with the strategy being pursued.

chris-fagan-brisbane-lions-afl-2016

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

It would appear as though the plan is to try and rebuild via the draft while modifying the approach slightly to allow for our regional difficulties.

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I feel that the problem with this approach is that if we keep trying to play by the rules of a big Melbourne club we will always lose, because we’re not a big Melbourne club.

It also takes far too much time, time we simply don’t have. Rebuilding via the draft is pointless until we have an elite performance facility available for players, as we have shown we can’t retain or develop draftees at the club in recent years based on our current setup, squad and results.

Let’s focus on facilities for the moment. Before the Lions can look to attract anyone with genuine star power we have got to catch up with the 17 other clubs.

Right now the Lions are still using 1990s era facilities when every other club is in multi-million dollar built-for-purpose complexes.

The 800 odd AFL players are a fairly tight-knit group, even if they don’t know each other all personally, and the collective groupthink among them is, why would you go to the Lions, it’s a terrible place to work and the team gets flogged every weekend in front of bad crowds.

Free agency has allowed this to occur – player veto over trades means no-one comes here who doesn’t want to, and the paucity of elite talent in the AFL has meant that anyone decent we draft or develop gets enticed out with an inflated salary from an interstate rival who can offer victory as well as money.

For the last few years not even money has been able to convince players to come here – Josh Jenkins apparently thought it was worth $250,000 a year to him not to play at Brisbane back in 2016, re-signing for that much less at the Crows, and it’s been a similar story when we’ve stuck our thumb out to try and get a lift from other players scoping out the joint.

If the facilities were top notch it would be possible to attract people – bit like a stint in minimum security prison really, you can almost forget the confinement if the surrounds are pleasant enough.

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But when the gym and showers are more out of maximum security, and a prospective signee is contemplating pre-season training in a windowless weights room in the height of summer inhaling the aroma of 30 odd sweating blokes – well, not even money has been enough to get them across that threshold.

However, it does appear that the Lions are finally close to breaking ground on the long overdue Elite Performance Facility at Springfield.

Located in the southwest of Brisbane in a rapidly growing region, this will be one of the best long-term decisions the Lions have made.

There was talk of a base out near the Eagle Farm airport a year or two ago – this would have put them in the middle of a reclaimed wetlands surrounded by freeways, runways, constant jet noise 24/7 and no houses around for miles. It would have been disastrous.

The move to Springfield and surrounding regions in southwest Brisbane, an area heavily populated by families puts them right in the middle of their new heartland.

Tens of thousands of potential new young fans of the club and code for the Lions to connect to out there, many of them first and second generation Australians with no previous affiliation to rugby league to distract them.

Space for football ovals. A training oval out at Springfield with a grandstand and plenty of open days will draw thousands of people to the club, particularly once it is used to play AFLW games.

The new Crossrail link will be completed at some point within the next 6-8 years once Palaszczuk and the PM work out who’s paying for it, and the rail line from Springfield direct to underneath the Gabba will rival the Ipswich line after a Broncos Friday game for the size of the throng.

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That’s the dream, anyway. Is it achievable? Long-term, yes, it is, but there’s a lot to do before we get there and the club needs to be outlining its plans now for the next five years to ensure that we sprint towards the finish line, not stumble over it.

The focus for the club should be to try and survive the next few years in reasonable shape, finish the facility, and try and keep building towards future success – if the Lions can get through to end of 2020 and be getting back towards finals contention, there’s every chance the club will be able to capitalise on ease of access to the stadium and the new groundswell of local support and get back towards turning the Gabba into a place people want to be at on game day.

Realistically, a facility of the size the Lions are proposing is probably finished and ready to go at some stage before the start of season 2019. Safe in that knowledge, we can go to market in trade week end of season 2018 and start looking around.

We have tried twice in the past to make waves in the trade window – 2010 saw Fevola, and 2014 saw Dayen Beams, Allen Christensen and Mitch Robinson – the first has already been covered and the latter is probably both pass and fail at this stage, given the injuries that all three have battled with at various stages.

The Lions cannot afford to get this wrong again, and indeed, given the seasoned heads parachuted into the club by the AFL, should have no excuses if they do.

Dayne Beams Brisbane Lions AFL 2017 tall

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

A good starting point for the Lions would be to observe what other clubs are doing, and what we are seeing with clubs in recent years is an emphasis on bringing in some senior heads to assist with development, and provide an injection of professionalism.

Sam Mitchell went to the Eagles. Michael Barlow is now at the Suns. Jordan Lewis and Michael Hibberd at the Dees. Travis Cloke to the Dogs. Brett Deledio at GWS. And so on.

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We have tried this, but the ones we attract tend to be fringe players and depth cover only, players such as Tom Bell. Ryan Bastinac. Josh Walker. Jarrad Jansen. Anyone who can get a gig elsewhere has generally done so.

We are very much the last chance saloon and as such we do wind up with an awful lot of list cloggers who both and help and hinder the development of the club simultaneously – Bell and Bastinac have already been dropped by Fagan this season for example, and I doubt they will have their contracts renewed next time around.

My view is that the club needs to embark on an aggressive trading strategy to add more experience and culture to the squad while also trimming some of our passengers.

I do not believe that the club will succeed solely via a draft rebuild without importing players from successful clubs.

Brisbane’s history of developing players is execrable. Dayne Zorko and Tom Rockliff are about the only two homegrown players we have turned into stars in recent years.

Plenty have gone on to much better things since departing the club though. What is needed is about 3-4 established players we can put into our starting 22 to provide a critical mass of professionalism and determination, and help eliminate the lacklustre efforts we regularly see from our shellshocked veterans of years and years of mediocrity.

Additionally, it would enable us to dispense with the services of some of our depth players who we know will never make the step beyond injury cover.

Too many of our players haven’t gone on with their promise – Sam Mayes, Ryan Lester, Rohan Bewick, Ryan Harwood, Lewis Taylor, Marco Paparone, Michael Close, Jonothan Freeman, Daniel Rich – and those are just the players still on the list, I’d be here for a lot longer listing all the ones we’ve cut or lost.

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Jack Redden, Jordan Lisle, Mitch Golby, Andrew Raines, Xavier Clarke, Amon Buchanan, Travis Johnstone, Luke McGuane, Brent Moloney, Josh Green, Callum Bartlett, Todd Banfield, Tom Collier, James Polkinghorne, Matt Leuenberger, Mitch Clark, Albert Proud. Again, just a selection.

The Lions draft and trade history for the last ten years makes for grim reading. We are never going to develop players without anyone to teach them how to play which is why new facilities that allow us to attract outside, experienced players are so critical to the recovery of the club.

So who do we go after? What follows is my best attempts observation and guesswork – I’m not a recruiter and have no idea as to players’ states of mind and personal circumstances. Think of them as the sort of player we should be chasing and these are the most suitable examples.

With that said, the first club I’d be hitting up is Port Adelaide. It’s no secret their salary cap is under pressure – Hamish Hartlett was publicly hung out in the shop window with no takers only last year, one year into a five-year deal.

On top of this they’re behind in the draft, with their first rounder this year coming our way. Offloading a player and the possibility of getting a pick back is a no-brainer for them and one player I’d like to see us ask about from them is Brad Ebert.

27 years old, off contract at the end of 2017. Has already changed clubs once, having come from West Coast so he’s no stranger to relocating. Some say he’s a bit one-dimensional – perhaps at Port he is, surrounded by razzle dazzle talent, but at the Lions he would be a priceless asset.

A durable, hard-running midfielder, setting high standards in attack and defence. Just had a new baby. Surely a good offer from the Lions, job security and the prospect of raising the kid in the warm climes of Brisbane could be appealing as he approaches the latter half of his career.

More to the point he looks like the sort of guy who wouldn’t mind training at the Lions next year while the new facilities are still being built. I reckon we could get him for four years at around $500,000 a year and sweeteners, and unlike Chris Mayne he wouldn’t have any problems holding down a spot in the starting 22.

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Another one to look at around the end of 2018 is David Armitage. Former Queensland boy. Very valuable player to the Saints. Contracted until end of 2019.

Understandably they probably don’t want to lose him, and it’d cost a bit to get him out of there. But let’s say in 2018 the Saints are kicking along quite nicely, players are developing well – Armitage will have turned 30 and probably has 2-3 years left in him.

Maybe the Saints and he might want to talk if we came knocking with our first round pick and a sweetener. If that Saints premiership looks a bit elusive – or even better, has already been won – maybe he might be persuaded to come north.

Certainly at that age and from that background he would be a perfect addition to our midfield, and would drive improvement and commitment from our young players.

I’d consider this one unlikely but I think we’d be mad not to at least make enquiries if it looked possible. Let’s make the hometown lure work for us for a change.

David Mundy. Another player who’s contracted until the end of 2018 – triggered a one-year extension with Freo. Bit of a wait and see this one – but if there’s any chance Freo decide to cut him while he’s still got a year left in him and he was keen to play on we’d be mad not to pick him up.

He’s a tremendous professional and even 12 months of a fading Mundy would be worth a lot more than two years of Bastinac or Bell.

David Mundy Fremantle Dockers AFL 2015

(AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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On a similar note, albeit contracted to the end of 2019, Kieren Jack is another we should keep an eye on. A player from a successful club with a great ethos and culture. Would be a great addition for a couple of years.

They’re all old men I hear you say. Well, yes, they are (or will be). But Leppa got it right when he said it was boys against men, and realistically even with brand new facilities we’ll struggle to pick up marquee talent – we are much more likely to be able to pick up dispensable veterans by valuing them more than their current club, and we could appeal to their love for the game by emphasising the vitally important work Brisbane requires them for.

But I’d also like to see us go out and try to get a high-profile marquee player if we can, and try and create some hype back around the club again – and with that in mind, here’s a name from left-field we should be after.

Jason Johannisen.

I know, the chances of him coming to the Lions are virtually nil, particularly before the facilities are constructed.

But look at what he offers – the Lions’ Achilles heel has always been transitioning out of our own 50 because of poor kicking and lack of pace.

A player like Johannisen with his speed, booming kick and his run and carry would help solve a lot of those woes as well as take the heat of some of our lesser lights who have struggled to shed tags for years, particularly Daniel Rich.

He’s off contract at the end of 2017 for anyone who hasn’t been following the news. The dogs, with all their stars to juggle and a host of players coming out of contract, can probably offer him around $500,000 a season.

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I think our recruiting strategy at this time and place can only be that of Kerry Packer’s legal recruitment strategy in Howzat! The Story of World Series Cricket…

“You give me the name of the top bloke, I call him, I offer him more —-ing money than anybody else, he drops everything and comes to work for me.”

If you’re yet to be convinced, look at him. Flair, athleticism, skill, dyes his hair blonde, unusual surname – first name Jason, hell – teach him to do a handstand after a win and he’d bring ten thousand through the gates for nostalgia reasons alone.

Jason Johannisen kisses the AFL Premiership Cup

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

So there you have it. My grand design to make the Lions great again. Honestly, I’d settle for relevant and no longer terrible, really.

But I do think regardless of what happens that 2017 is a key year for the Lions, where the club needs to grasp the nettle and actually admit to the people of Brisbane how bad they are – something they have never really acknowledged – and take steps to start rebuilding a once proud club that has fallen into ruin.

The Lions have never wanted to publicly admit their plight because they’re worried about people not wanting to come along to games – but honestly, if anyone in Brisbane isn’t aware the Lions are garbage by now, they’re either a deaf mute or a member of the AFL commission.

The club and the AFL’s high-handedness and refusal to acknowledge reality has been typical of the lack of communication to their constituents in recent years.

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A big part of the reason why the people have Brisbane have turned their backs particularly in recent years has been the feeling that they’ve been taken for a ride by the AFL and ignored as a succession of players walked out, a club fell into debt and facilities lagged massively behind their rivals.

The Lions’ relentlessly upbeat attitude on social media jars against the perpetually negative on-field results and performance, and already I can see people querying why the Lions bothered to bring in Fagan if we’re already 1-8 after the start of the season and still being flogged by plenty.

There is a very real risk of him being hung out to dry before he can do his work, if the powers-that-be don’t get together this season and announce what their plan is to address the problems that still stand between the Lions and a return to competitiveness.

I have done my best here to outline what I feel could be a possible path forward, in terms of broad strategy.

Certainly steps have already been commenced that I agree with but as I have explained, there is a great deal of work left undone.

If the Lions cannot yet show some fight on the field, at the very least they need to start showing some off the field and begin demonstrating to the people of Brisbane that they are in this for the long haul, and do have a strategy beyond crossing their fingers and hoping the AFL backs a dumptruck of money up to the front doors of the club and they start winning again.

The move to Springfield needs to form the cornerstone of an integrated regional strategy to rebuild the fabric of the club and the supporter base, and this needs to be communicated to the people of Brisbane to show them that there is hope for the future with this club, because right now hope is something that is in very short supply at the Gabba.

Let’s put some pride back in the Lions. It’s been absent for far too long.

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