The West Coast Eagles have been one of the AFL’s most successful clubs since their inception in 1987.
They have 25 finals appearances in 35 seasons, eight grand finals and four premierships, more than 100,000 members (which likely includes dogs and cats, but hey), and a reputation for demanding excellence on and off the field (well, at least on the field).
Their fans are criticised for being the chardonnay set, often by their working-class rivals down Fremantle way who likely have trophy envy, but the Eagles fans have been incredibly spoilt by sustained success.
2021 represented the first time since 2014 that the team missed the finals and apart from dark times in 2000-2001 and 2008-2010, the club has never gone more than a season without playing finals. In an equalised, competitive and salary-cap-driven league, that is remarkable.
Now, history is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing, because when they are used to success, natives can get restless quickly when things go awry.
And guess what, that time is here for the West Coast fans to face some tough times because there is a strong argument that they are in a position they haven’t been in their history – the absolute worst position, without short-term hope.
In 2000 and 2001 they had Ben Cousins and David Wirrpanda, and introduced Daniel Kerr and Dean Cox into the mix, plus their futility during those dark days enabled them to draft Chris Judd.
In 2008 they entered life without Judd and Cousins, and Kerr and Cox were well past their best, but this period saw them bring Nic Naitanui, Josh Kennedy, Luke Shuey and Brad Sheppard into the mix and this period of mediocrity resulted in them drafting Andrew Gaff and Jack Darling into the fold.
In each of those periods, they were able to blend youth and experience but a glance at their plight now is damning. By the time next season starts they will have no less than seven likely first-choice players aged 30 or older (Naitanui, Kennedy, Shuey, Sheppard, Jamie Cripps, Shannon Hurn and Jack Redden) and another two on that doorstep (Gaff and Darling).
At the other end of the scale, the crop of players aged under 25 who have shown any form of promise are Oscar Allen, Jarrod Brander, Tom Cole, Luke Foley, Luke Edwards, Harry Edwards, Xavier O’Neill, Josh Rotham, Jake Waterman, Bailey Williams and Alex Witherden. The impact of not having that first list is immense, and plenty in that second list are being given the benefit of the doubt.
Equally concerning is the fact the Eagles sold the farm to get Tim Kelly, a mature-age recruit passed over time after time by AFL teams in the draft. While Kelly was an outstanding member of the supporting cast at Geelong, in effect the Eagles gave up three first-round selections for Kelly.
In a sport driven by equalisation, that is a massive price to pay and one that is yet to pay even minor dividends as Kelly has proven to be equal parts inconsistent and unreliable. Having just turned 27 years of age, and now having the attention and pressure of being the main midfielder, it’s unlikely Kelly improves, which plunges the Eagles deeper into the abyss given all they gave up getting him.
A further negative counting against the Eagles is the game style, which has proven to be picked apart by good sides and one that is driven by Adam Simpson, who despite being a premiership coach has shown an alarming inability or refusal to implement a plan B when possession football doesn’t work.
As is being proven year after year with Geelong, as each year passes this sport is less and less likely to reward those stuck in their ways. It is a positive that several new assistant coaches have come into the fray for 2021, but the buck stops with a head coach who hasn’t shown an ability to change.
The last pillar of strength that seems to be dissipating is the home-ground advantage. The Eagles are 18-9 at Optus Stadium since winning the 2018 premiership and while that is an impressive record on the surface, they lost four of their last five games against top-eight teams in 2021 and lost their only home final held there in that time, against Collingwood in 2020.
News flash: when you are no longer a top-eight side yourself, the chances of that record turning around are bleak at best.
The avenues out of what looks like a black hole are to rejuvenate the list, refresh the coaches’ box, be very shrewd with late draft picks, or recapture the home-ground dominance.
On exposed form, and as part of a league where flexibility, agility and innovation are becoming more and more critical each year, it would be a brave man to predict a quick turnaround for this famous, mighty club. The Eagles are likely not to be flying high in the immediate future.