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Fremantle 2020: The purple haze is clearing

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Roar Rookie
5th February, 2020
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The Fremantle Dockers have always felt a bit gimmicky to me.

It’s not really fair. It might be the obscure name, the purple and green that initially reminded me of Barney, or the old heave ho lyrics, which I always found comical to hear.

My lasting memory of Freo is watching the great Tony Modra kick an outrageous seven goals seven in a one-point victory over Richmond at Docklands in 2000. Fremantle only kicked 12 goals that day. I was just glad I got to see the enigmatic Clive Waterhouse in real life.

However, we are aren’t here to talk about kids TV shows, theme song disasters and ‘Godra’. Fremantle of 2020 are a fascinating football team.

Experiences like the show Modra put on that day are rare sight in Melbourne. Therefore as a Melburnian there is a tendency to think Freo are a minnow, unsupported and extraneous. It’s hard to notice what you can’t always see and hear.

It only takes a quick look at the comments section of my St Kilda 2020 preview to prove this is a false narrative. Freo have truly passionate fans, are well established and have a bright future. Season 2020 might not be their year, but the 2020s could definitely be their decade.

After years of drowning in a defensive brand of football reserved for strategic purists, the purple haze is clearing and the future will soon become clear.

Before we look at the on-field changes, we need to look at the off-field ones. It wasn’t technically the off-season, but you could argue Fremantle’s off-season started on 20 August with a game to go when the board swung the axe. Twice.

Fremantle president Dale Alcock and the board theatrically sacked Ross Lyon after eight seasons, effective immediately. To be fair, Lyon probably knew this was how it would end. There is no way an extension was coming after 2020 and it was Mark Harvey’s sacking that allowed him to take the reins in the first place. The Dockers had form.

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Double-downing on change, chief executive Steve Rosich also got his marching orders. According to the club it was a mutual agreement, which I am not buying. Considering it happened on the day the coach was sacked, it would be an extreme coincidence.

Maybe the chatter was louder in the West, but I was blindsided by this brutal double power play. The talk around Lyon’s walking out had been bobbing up every now and then, but it didn’t really feel it was on the cusp of being reality.

I wasn’t really overly surprised by the Ross Lyon departure itself, but more so the decisiveness and apparent aggressiveness of the change – a genuine attempt to seize their own destiny.

Ross Lyon

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

It would be amiss of me to make this sound like a knee-jerk reaction to a dying on-field year, because it certainly wasn’t. A 100-page strategic report born in July led ironically by Rosich would be the document that drove the decision. The report highlighted the need for substantial change but Rosich backed Lyon, binding himself to his tenure and ultimately creating the need for a double exodus.

I pretty much loved everything that came out of Dale Alcock’s mouth that day. He looked comfortable, firm, conclusive and oozed confidence in the decisions.

Alcock stated the decision was made “to reset the club’s course”. With a look to the future, he said: “To succeed in addressing the challenges that lie ahead, we need high performance and consistency both on and off field, so we need to change and we need to evolve.”

I liked it. It’s exactly what this club needed. It didn’t need a service, it needed a new car. It got the new car and a new garage as well.

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The 2019 off-season – trade period

Ins: Blake Acres, James Aish
Outs: Bradley Hill, Ed Langdon
Top-ten draftees: Hayden Young, Caleb Serong, Liam Henry

While I was quite buoyant on the off-field movement, the on-field changes need a little closer look to fill yourself with optimism. It doesn’t take long though. It was a significant windfall in October that lead to a pot of gold in November.

On the surface the Dockers have lost two of their better runners. Bradley Hill is all class and I am certain we haven’t seen the best of Ed Langdon. It’s a decent amount of wing talent that’s moving 3500 kilometres away. I feel Fremantle won the Hill trade mainly due to being pig-headed enough to make the Saints panic, but lost the Langdon trade.

In isolation, it does seem a tad underwhelming. In the context of the lay of the land at Fremantle it’s just a natural progression towards a new era. They are small incremental changes that aid the overall list’s development.

I am fairly impartial on both Acres and Aish. Both have shown enough without having a highlight reel worth watching. Neither has reached their ceiling but I could be reaching too, maybe this is who they are. First-round draft picks seem to forever live off the hype of their underage performances and I am still expecting these two to take the leap. I really am sitting on the fence here. They come into the best 22, but need to be better than they have shown to dramatically improve the Dockers.

The real coup of the trade period is grabbing three top-ten picks and adding assets to a solid selection of top-end talent. They are bona-fide top-ten picks as well, Freo didn’t reach here. Most phantom drafts had Hayden Young, Caleb Serong and Liam Henry in or around the top ten. Draft picks are speculative at the best of times, but the Dockers have now added three elite underage talents to the three other top-ten players picked in the last three drafts. It’s a lottery, so you do sometimes need to keep buying tickets.

Fremantle

Liam Henry, Hayden Young and Caleb Serong. (AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

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Hayden Young is the one here for me. Touted as a potential top-three pick, he gleefully fell into the hands of the Dockers at pick seven. A beautiful kick of the ball, which can be seen in his unbelievably daring kick into the corridor for Vic Country with minutes remaining in the under-18s championship that almost stole the win. I like a player who takes it on and I am pretty high on his potential as a genuine game-breaker.

The Dockers did well this off-season and if I was grading it I’d probably go a B. There was change, but no panic.

Age profile
Generally speaking, list profiles sit in two categories: ageing and competing, or young and developing. Fremantle sit firmly in the latter.

Surprisingly, this list is just about as inexperienced and youthful as currently exists in the AFL. I expected them to be slightly below the median but the Dockers are a fair bit younger than that.

Freo are the equal second youngest list in the year with an average age of 23.54, down from 23.62 last year. There is only a fraction of a year separating the bottom four teams so it’s super tight and Fremantle could easily sit anywhere from the first to the fourth youngest depending on one or two list changes. Regardless, the Dockers have copious amounts of youth.

David Mundy is the outlier, the only 30-plus player on the list who will turn 35 during the 2020 season. Forty-four per cent of the list is aged between 19-21, 80 per cent of the list is under the age of 26. If Fremantle manage to successfully develop the talent under the new regime there is no reason the Dockers can’t have a rock-solid core sooner rather than later.

The only concern may be the significant amount of heavy listing currently being done by the 27-29-year-old bracket. Nat Fyfe (28) and Michael Walters (29) are most weeks the barometer for the Dockers, and with so much youth underneath them it probably is how it has to be for now. However, without those names above and a few others from the older brigade, this list quickly falls into unwarranted comparisons with the Suns. It’s not entirely unusual for lists to look weak without top-end talent, but this is a nosedive.

Nat Fyfe

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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The positive is Fremantle’s recent results and list profile align. Sides can rarely be truly competing with this sort of profile. Combined with the second least experienced list in terms of games, we are looking at a list at the complete bottom of a development cycle. As the age trends up, so should the results.

The fixture
Fixtures for interstate clubs are always more difficult to gauge. The volume of travel means six-day breaks and where and when games are play are the most decisive factor in assessing the positive or negative of the cards you’ve been dealt.

The first thing that jumped out is the Dockers do not get more than two home games in a row at Optus Stadium all year. Honestly, I am unsure if this is common, but you have to get a good side to competently deal with that sort of continual change. Melbourne-based sides seem to get thrown into chaos with back-to-back interstate trips.

Despite this, the positives are quick to find. There are six Saturday homes games including four prime-time night fixtures and a number of other marquee matches including Geelong on Anzac Day eve. Saturday fixtures are an on-field positive – reducing potential shorter breaks – and an off-field bonanza for the Dockers. The removal of the issues getting to Burswood in peak weekday traffic for Thursday or Friday night fixtures and the consistently lower crowds on Sunday has made Saturday the sweet spot for attendance.

Double-ups against West Coast, Western Bulldogs, St Kilda, Melbourne and Gold Coast is about as good as the Dockers could hope for. There are five six-day breaks, down from six in 2019, and just four trips to Melbourne with all being against sides the Dockers wouldn’t consider walk-up losses.

It sounds good, but I am not won over by this fixture.

President Dale Alcock spoke with unconvincing positives following the fixture release.

“We are pleased to have four home night games at Optus Stadium” he said. “From a football perspective, we are pleased to have five six-day breaks”.

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I didn’t get the vibe Alcock was really that amped about what been served up. The off-field reasons for excitement are obvious and maybe that’s most important right now.

Fremantle must start strong with an opening five weeks full of winnable games. Two of the four Melbourne trips exist in this stretch and a trip to Blundstone Arena against North occurs in Round 5. In the following 17 games, the Dockers play nine games against last year’s finalists and travel to non-finalists Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Sydney and St Kilda. A final seven weeks has them play my top five. It’s going to get very testy on the run home and a handful of wins on the board will soften the blow.

Fremantle have one game at the MCG in Round 3, which is just not enough. It isn’t a 2020 issue but rather an AFL issue.

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The Dockers do get to play last year’s top four all at home. However, this fixture has an unsettling easy game-hard game vibe to it. I can’t actually find a patch where I can see them winning more than two in a row except maybe the Hawthorn-Melbourne-Gold Coast run early on, or the Carlton-Port Adelaide-Melbourne run post bye.

Crowd figures at Optus Stadium should look spectacular this year, but this fixture screams turbulence ahead.

My best 22

B: Nathan Wilson, Joel Hamling, Luke Ryan
HB: Connor Blakely, Alex Pearce, Taylin Duman
C: James Aish, Nat Fyfe, Stephen Hill
HF: Andrew Brayshaw, Matthew Taberner, Michael Walters
F: Cam McCarthy, Rory Lobb, Brandon Matera
Foll: Sean Darcy, Adam Cerra, Reece Conca
Int: Hayden Young, Blake Acres, David Mundy, Ethan Hughes

Others: Griffin Logue, Travis Colyer, Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox, Sam Switkowski, Lachlan Schultz, Caleb Serong, Sam Sturt, Liam Henry, Liam Schultz, Darcy Tucker, Bailey Banfield, Brett Bewley, Stefan Giro, Brennan Cox, Mitchell Crowden, Ryan Nyhuis

Indefinite: Jesse Hogan

OK, this took some work. Magnets have been flying everywhere. There is a lot more established talent here then I first thought. Due to injuries, Ross Lyon and plenty of youth rotating through the bottom five spots in the 22, I am not going to compare this outfit to 2019. I am just trying to look at this fresh.

On paper this looks like an outstanding side full of marvelously inconsistent players and therefore not an outstanding side but one capable of winning or losing any game. Confused? Me too.

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The back six looks solid. It was a respectable defence last year, finishing seventh overall for goals allowed and less than half a goal behind the Giants, Tigers and the Eagles. This may change under new coach Justin Longmuir but it’s a good platform to start with. A bit of natural development from Duman, the welcomed return of Alex Pearce and a reappearance of the Blakely we saw in 2017 should help keep the defence above par.

Fremantle defender Alex Pearce

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Nathan Wilson is the curious player. The type of attacking half back who makes back lines instantly more aggressive, Wilson struggles to find the ball at times but when he does Fremantle usually win. Wilson had over 24 possessions twice in 2018 for two wins. In 2019 he had over 25 possessions three times for three wins over the Lions, Bulldogs and Magpies. Just get the ball in his hands.

Fyfe goes in the centre with new addition Aish on the wing and the returning Stephen Hill on the other. I’ve always been a big Hill fan, and I don’t know whether his drop-off in 2018 was an anomaly but he starts in 2020 with a big watch and see – hopefully lots of watching and plenty of seeing.

In his time at St Kilda, Acres played everywhere – the old jack of all trades but master of none. According to Acres himself, “Longy was pretty keen on the wing role for me and I was pretty happy with that”. Acres is heading to the wing, but he is probably just behind Aish and I love Stephen Hill so he starts on the bench.

The Darcy/Lobb ruck duo is worth persisting with. I am unsure if Darcy is good enough to carry the ruck duties yet, but he needs to start playing consistently. The last two premiers have had dual rucks. If you don’t have Max Gawn or Brodie Grundy, it’s the most practical and effective option.

The on-ball brigade looks like it’ll be fairly experimental. I’ve gone with Cerra and Conca however it could easily be Acres and Fyfe just a few weeks in. Whatever it ends up, some kids need to be right in the action.

As a result, Mundy has to come off the ball. Even in the hypothetical world of best 22s the Dockers need to start looking elsewhere. He’s definitely in the 22, he just needs to be in lower realm of game influencers for the Dockers to start assessing their stocks.

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The indefinite loss of Jesse Hogan is huge loss for the club and their on-field prospects. It’s rather inconsequential in the broader context and I hope Hogan makes a full recovery.

Ross Lyon forward lines are hard to analyse. Even in their grand final year, the Fremantle forward line wasn’t elite. However, only Melbourne and the Gold Coast kicked fewer goals last year. This forward line has some deeper issues.

Walters topped the goal-kicking last year with 40 and Matera followed him with 30. McCarthy, Taberner or even Lobb has to stand up and become a goal-kicking focal point. Still, this is the best six I could pick and there is plenty of talent there, but without Hogan it lacks a genuine A-grade key forward.

Jesse Hogan

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Considering the age profile of this list, it really is a talented 22. Most AFL teams at full strength are, but I am pretty high on some of the ceilings here. I am not looking at this side as completely capable in 2020, but the fact it looks like it does right now does increase my confidence of an upward trend.

I expect many of names listed in depth to play in 2020 and the best 22 to look quite different by 2021.

Nathan Fyfe
The man is special. There isn’t much I can write that isn’t well circulated but you can’t talk Fremantle without talking Fyfe.

I still think we should be talking about a premiership player. Premiership medals aren’t awarded for shoulds, but Fremantle were dominant in big patches against Hawthorn in 2013 and were very unlucky. It’s still the only grand final Champion Data says the poorer team won on the day.

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Back to what Fyfe is: a dual Brownlow medallist, three-time All Australian, three-time best and fairest, and club captain. Fyfe is an extraordinary player. In 2019 he led the league in regular season contested possessions (17.55) despite being tenth for overall disposals (29.15). He’s tough, which is no surprise to anyone who saw him literally play a game of football with a broken leg. Fyfe is the type of player any side can build around, and Fremantle are getting a second crack at it.

Nat Fyfe

(Photo by Kelly Defina/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

I do have a frustration with one aspect of his game: I want him kicking more goals. Fyfe has kicked over 20 goals in a season just once in his career. Last year Fyfe kicked 16 goals, which is right on par with similar midfielders of stature and role, but Fyfe always seems more ominous in the forward 50.

Fremantle haven’t been in a position to rest Fyfe in a forward pocket very often, but he comfortably has the ability to kick 30-plus goals in line with the likes of Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield. He’s a different type of player Fyfe, but he’s more than capable. The Dockers need to conjure a plan that enables us to see Fyfe roaming one on one in the forward 50 more often. If it works, it changes everything.

The coach
This will be very brief. It’s a good thing Ross Lyon is gone. Four straight years of missed finals and a general stench of missed opportunity lingered over his reign.

I know very little about Justin Longmuir as a coach. Nine years as an assistant with finals-competing sides in West Coast and Collingwood means he has done a worthy apprenticeship.

The coach movement is a positive change for the Dockers and Longmuir’s upside is a bonus.

Justin Longmuir

Justin Longmuir has swapped his Collingwood tracksuit for a Dockers one. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

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Expectations and predictions
Under Lyon over the past few seasons, Fremantle were reluctant to fully let the narrative of a rebuild wash over them. The word “rebuilding” was certainly said, but Lyon often argued the side was better than it appeared and his tactical wisdom ensured his side stayed above its likely expected wins. It made expectations very fluid from week to week.

This year, expectations are low. There won’t be any top-eight predictions that include Fremantle, which is a good thing, because there shouldn’t be any expectations. It’s going to be trial and error for a little while and that’s okay.

The Dockers should feel upbeat. Breaking up can be hard even if you are the one doing it. Some breakups are harder than others, but regardless there always comes a time when you stop thinking about your old partner. For Fremantle, they stopped thinking very quickly. They moved on, and picked up three top-ten picks on the way.

Prediction
I think they’ll have eight wins and 14 losses to finish 13th or 14th.

This list is better than that and Freo aren’t worse than last year. However when I look at that 22, I keep seeing it for the end product and not the now. I am looking at the draft version and imagining the final report. Unfortunately we currently only have the draft.

As its only single-figure wins we are talking, these are the games Fremantle could win: Round 3 vs Melbourne (MCG), Round 4 vs Gold Coast (Optus Stadium), Round 8 vs Adelaide (Adelaide Oval), Round 10 vs St Kilda (Marvel Stadium), Round 12 vs Sydney (SCG), Round 14 vs Carlton (Optus Stadium), Round 15 vs Port Adelaide (Adelaide Oval), Round 16 vs Melbourne (Optus Stadium), Round 20 vs Gold Coast (Metricon Stadium), and Round 21 vs St Kilda (Optus Stadium).

That’s ten games. I have given them 50 per cent of those, and added in two or three wins because of Fyfe, the travel factor for interstate sides and the general mystery that is sporting results.

The wins and losses ultimately won’t really matter for Fremantle in 2020. No injuries to their younger players, visible improvement in development, Longmuir finding his feet and a change in culture and identity is worth more than a win or two at this stage.

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Final thoughts
Ross Lyon’s parting words post-sacking included this line: “They’re a big strong club, a powerful club and the flags will come”.

I half agree with Lyon here. They aren’t truly strong or powerful yet, but they are big enough and if they pull the right strings the flags will come.

Fremantle fans spoke with their feet in recent years with membership dropping by 7.5 per cent from 55,639 to 51,431 from 2018 to 2019 – one of only four sides who recorded a drop. The board wasn’t having it by the end of 2019 but some fans had seen enough by the end of 2018. It’s hard to accept mediocrity when it just feels like you’re running on the spot.

The faithful should accept whatever is served up this year. It’s a less emphatic AFL equivalent of trust the process. Fremantle won’t win eight games a year forever.

The fixture, an extremely young and inexperienced list, a bunch of mercurial players and an off-season of sweeping change means a lack of consistency is almost unavoidable. However, this is where all great sides start: a messed up puzzle that the box says will fit together but it’s just going to take some time and a bit of luck. If things go your way, you can certainly finish it quicker, but there is a slow methodical approach that is often successful.

The purple haze is clearing in the West, and you can just start to see what it could look like.