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Lyon’s coaching legacy is taking a hit as Fremantle falters


Fremantle coach Ross Lyon at Geelong last Saturday. The Dockers failed to kick a single goal in the final three quarters. Photo: AFL MEDIA.

Lyon’s coaching legacy is taking a hit as Fremantle falters

Rohan Connolly    

AFL post-match press conferences seldom offer much of interest beyond the usual clichés, but you had to raise eyebrows at what transpired when Fremantle coach Ross Lyon faced the media on Saturday after his team’s 133-point humiliation at the hands of Geelong.

After having been smashed on the road yet again, this time conceding a record 23 consecutive goals to its opponent, and scoring a paltry five behinds for the entire game after the 26-minute mark of the first quarter, Lyon, understandably, wasn’t in the greatest of moods.

But asked a perfectly reasonable question about whether Fremantle’s rebuild was on track, Lyon got a little narky, first claiming the question wasn’t appropriate immediately following a game (it was), then asking the reporter how long he thought a rebuild should take.

He demanded a specific time frame when the reply was “a few years”, and when offered “3-4 years” then asked who had managed a rebuild in that time.

Well, right now, there’s a fair argument Hawthorn has managed one in around one year. Sydney and Geelong over the past decade have effectively rebuilt whilst not even deemed to be rebuilding such has been the smoothness with which they have introduced steady streams of fresh faces into their line-ups whilst remaining near the top of the ladder.

It’s a far longer process for Carlton, of course, but then the Blues have over three years changed, literally, an entire senior list. Fremantle hasn’t. In fact, of 44 players in 2018, there are still 19, nearly half, who were on the Dockers’ books in 2015, when they were good enough to finish on top of the ladder and finish one win short of a grand final. That’s a big difference.

List debates can drag on endlessly with a catalogue of statistics to suit various arguments, of course. But what isn’t debatable given Lyon’s tetchiness and the ineptness of side’s performance at Geelong is the pressure he’s feeling and the extent to which his coaching reputation has taken a hit.

“Why hasn’t Lyon come under more scrutiny?” is a question impatient Fremantle supporters are now regularly asking. The size of that reputation and a sizeable contract with two years left to run is the double-barrelled answer to that question.

But the credits are starting to erode. The grumbles about Lyon’s capacity to build a list rather than capitalise on one already in place that emerged even back in his final year at St Kilda in 2011 are resurfacing.

And the trademarks of Lyon’s coaching ethos, steely defence, hardness at the ball, disciplined execution of an easily defined game style are for Fremantle too often these days barely recognisable.

Even when he took St Kilda to within a Matthew Scarlett toe-poke then an odd bounce of the football from two successive premierships in 2009-10, the one knock on the Saints was perhaps a shortfall of skill at the bottom end of the 22.

St Kilda, though, was able to cope with that as that bottom end became at the very least handy role players, their jobs in a carefully-managed team more important than their individual abilities.

The Saints were never heavy scorers, but were incredibly hard to score against. Ditto Fremantle in Lyon’s first four seasons with the Dockers.

In seven seasons between 2009 and 2015, only once did a Lyon-coached St Kilda or Fremantle finish lower than second in the rankings for fewest points conceded. Significantly, though, in the same period, only once did those same successful sides finish higher than seventh for points scored.

And as Fremantle plummeted incredibly from an 18-win season in 2015 to just four victories the following year, the scoring dropped away further, and the defensive side of the Dockers fell apart. Under Lyon, Freo had finished second, first, second and second for fewest points conceded. Since then, those equivalent rankings have been 14th, 15th and a current 15th.

Yes, this is a vastly different line-up from that which challenged for the flag in 2015. But three years down the track, the keys to Fremantle’s performance are the same.

Six of the top 10 in last year’s best and fairest – Lachie Neale, Nat Fyfe, David Mundy, Michael Walters, Michael Johnson and Stephen Hill – played in the 2015 preliminary final. Ten players part of the team so abjectly humiliated at Geelong on Saturday were on that Freo list three years ago.

Since 2016, Fremantle has handed 18 players an AFL debut. It sounds plenty, but it’s only as many as Sydney, one more than Geelong and three more than Hawthorn, all about to head into yet another finals campaign. Even just last year and this year the Cats with 15 have launched as many careers as the Dockers.

Lyon on Saturday pointed to Fremantle’s eight wins for the season, and superficially, it seems an adequate enough return for a developing team. What isn’t is the Dockers’ complete lack of competitiveness away from Perth.

Their road record is now a dismal 1-8, with an average losing margin of 62 points. Can a team good enough to win eight games ever have been that diabolical away from home? And that continued disparity between best and worst is a big red flag.

The Dockers have now lost 19 games over three seasons by 50 points, 15 of them in the past two seasons. That’s one complete stinker every three weeks. Their average losing margin this season is 54 points. Carlton, Gold Coast and St Kilda have won two, four and four games respectively, half as many. But their average losing margins are substantially less.

Whichever way you slice or dice it, the excuses for Fremantle are running out. And while Lyon’s lofty reputation might allow him more leeway to get away with playing diversionary games at press conferences, the excuses are starting to run out for him, too.

1 Comment
  1. Good article. Just to counter balance a few points.
    “Fremantle has handed 18 players an AFL debut. It sounds plenty, but it’s only as many as Sydney, one more than Geelong and three more than Hawthorn”
    Fremantle used 2nd and 3rd round picks in last 2 years on 21-24 year olds with AFL experience. Hamling, Hill, McCarthy, Kersten, Wilson, Matera. So on top of 18 debutants, you can add those 6

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