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Ross Lyon, the Bell tolls for thee

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20th August, 2019
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Strap yourselves out. After 184 games in charge, Ross is no longer boss at the Fremantle Football Club.

Somehow of the AFL’s four coach departures so far in 2019, this one manages to be both the least and the most surprising of the lot.

On one hand it should be no great shock that a club which has failed to make finals – or even come particularly close – in four consecutive years would consider moving along its head coach.

And it’s not as if a potential seperation had not been telegraphed well in advance. Less than a month ago Lyon claimed there were ‘agendas’ at Fremantle to push him out of the senior job.

I wrote at the time; “this reads like the two parties, club and coach, have fallen a bit out of love with each other, and are headed for a messy divorce.” And here we are.

Ross Lyon

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

That messiness, perhaps, is why the news still came with the element of surprise. Fremantle’s five-goal loss to Essendon the weekend was disappointing but not entirely unexpected, and there wasn’t a rumble to heard on Monday.

Then, bang, he was gone. Lyon’s decision to hold a separate press conference, rather than attend that held by Fremantle, doesn’t speak to an amicable parting of ways, though the man himself seemed at peace.

Ross could, rightly, feel aggrieved at getting the axe. At different times this year his side has missed the likes of Alex Pearce, Matt Taberner, and big recruits Rory Lobb and Jesse Hogan.

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That’s virtually all of the most important members of Fremantle’s spine, and not to mention the fact they’ve also needed to navigate the absence of Stephen Hill for most of the year, as well as Connor Blakely earlier on, while also adjusting to the departure of Lachie Neale.

Despite having those hurdles to leap, the side has actually improved under Lyon’s leadership this year. They’ve got nine wins (with a game in hand) compared to 2018’s eight, but more significantly have taken their percentage from 76.2 to a radically improved 94.0 this year.

Perhaps it was these improvements despite the difficulties of injury that lead Lyon to claim less than two weeks ago that he was in the best coaching form of his career.

“I feel like in a real sense I’ve never coached better. Like, the whole package with my systems, with my club, delegating, calmness, the whole bit,” said Lyon.

“I personally think I’ve never been a better package and that’s why I’m enjoying it and I don’t tend to get wobbled so I’m fully committed.”

And maybe he’s not that far from being wrong. What he does next will be something to watch. But, evidently the powerbrokers at Fremantle – most visibly in the form of Peter Bell – feel differently.

Peter Bell

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Bell stepped down from his position on Fremantle’s board and his commitments in the media late last September to take up a new role as the Dockers’ football manager.

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Less than a week on the job with no list manager employed at the club, he was the driving force behind negotiations that saw Neale depart the club while Fremantle secured Hogan and Lobb.

Now not 12 months since, it’s believed Bell could step into the CEO role that will be vacated by Steve Rosich, and according to reports has already handpicked a former teammate in Justin Longmuir, currently assisting Nathan Buckley at Collingwood, to replace Lyon.

Longmuir was rated as one of the most influential people behind Collingwood’s remarkable 2018 season, and at first glance feels like an appealing option to become an AFL senior coach.

Once the leader of the playing group at Fremantle, it’s hard not to get the impression that Bell is now skippering the organisation as a whole, and making some bold captain’s calls. This would be his biggest yet.

Of course, while the argument can be made that Lyon has been a little hard done by, it’s also not difficult to see why there would be unrest at Fremantle.

Following on from Lachie Neale’s departure last year, it now seems all but certain that Fremantle will lose two more quality players in the form of Brad Hill and Ed Langdon.

Langdon is expected to ask for a trade to Melbourne when the season ends, while Hill now seems most likely to join St Kilda. His brother, Stephen, may take up a free agency offer at Gold Coast.

Impacting every aspect of this discussion is the time crunch on Fremantle to make the best of Nat Fyfe’s prime years. As our own Adrian Polykandrites suggested on Monday, they’re being allowed to slip by.

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Fyfe was just a week into the age of 24 when he last had the opportunity to play September football. He will be, if Fremantle can qualify next year, on the verge of turning 29 before he gets another chance.

Nat Fyfe Fremantle Dockers AFL 2017

(Photo by Matt King/AFL Media/Getty Images)

That being the case, can Fremantle afford to accept draft picks – even early ones – for Hill’s and Langdon’s departures? Or will they feel the squeeze to, as they did last year, replace trade talent leaving the club with trade talent coming in?

There’s numerous paths to go down there. An eleventh-hour bid for Stephen Coniglio would have to be most appealing option, but remains unlikely.

Tim Kelly is the next name on the hit list and, if the Dockers receive pick 5 from St Kilda for Hill, Geelong will look to push Kelly in their discussion.

Beyond that, Callum Ah Chee and Shai Bolton are out-of-contract local boys with the right kind of traits to replace some of the talent being lost. Perhaps, after Aaron Sandilands’ retirement, they should even consider making an approach to Paddy Ryder.

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That Fremantle finds itself in this position may not be Ross Lyon’s fault. He’s not believed to be the reason players have left or will leave the club, and with the talent he’s had available, he’s held up his end of the bargain as best as one could realistically hope for in 2019.

But these decisions aren’t made looking to the past or with an eye to what’s fair and who ‘deserves’ what. They’re made asking who is the right person to guide the club in the future.

Though I’ve got a great deal of respect and personal fondness for Ross Lyon (particularly his cheek at press conferences), I can’t help but agree that, at Fremantle, that person is not him. His gameplan simply doesn’t play to the strengths of the players on that list.

But what is true at Fremantle may not be true at every other club. I don’t believe we’ve yet seen the final spin of the coaching carousel for the AFL industry in 2019, and perhaps not yet for Ross Lyon either.

Soon enough, it may be time to strap ourselves back in.