Is it finally Fremantle’s year?

Date: May 22, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

pavlichRoss Lyon was recruited by Fremantle one purpose – to deliver the club its first flag.

While some coaches are employed to rebuild a list that was the not the case when Lyon was snatched from St Kilda to head up the Dockers ahead of the 2012 season. For Fremantle and Lyon it was a match made in heaven.

The Dockers obtained the services of one of the most astute coaches in the AFL and Lyon, who had taken the Saints into three grand finals, was handed a squad that was right in the mix to provide him with his first premiership as a senior coach.

He arrived in Western Australia boasting a long and distinguished CV. After a 129-game playing career with Fitzroy and Brisbane Lyon served as an assistant at Richmond, Carlton and Sydney, working under premiership coaches Robert Walls, David Parkin, Denis Pagan and Paul Roos.

In 2006 he succeeded Grant Thomas as coach of St Kilda. In five years with the Saints he notched up a 63 per cent winning percentage and took the club to a minor premiership and three grand finals – a 12-point loss to Geelong in 2009 and a draw and loss to Collingwood the following year.

That record made him the Dockers’ choice to replace Mark Harvey as club coach at the end of the 2011 season. In each of his three full seasons he has taken Fremantle to September action – 7th in 2012, 3rd in 2013 and 4th last year.

In 2012 the club bowed out of the finals race after a ten-point semi-final loss to Adelaide while 2013 saw the club contest its first grand final where it went down by 15 points to Hawthorn. Last year the club lost both its finals to Sydney (24 points) and Port Adelaide (22).

Lyon and the Dockers entered this season with the premiership clock ticking rapidly with many seeing it as the club’s last chance to snatch a flag before it starts to lose some of its most influential players.

Luke McPharlin, the 2012 All-Australian full-back is almost certain to call it quits at the end of the season. He has quite literally limped through recent years with recurring calf injuries, playing just 16 and 13 games in the past two seasons and five of the seven to date this year.

Skipper Matthew Pavlich is undoubtedly the best player in the club’s history with six best-and-fairest awards and as many All-Australian guernseys but his days are numbered. He will turn 34 in December and is on a one-year contract.

Whilst many will point to the likes of Dustin Fletcher and Brent Harvey still going around it must be remembered the extra wear and tear his body has undergone due to the arduous travel schedule the Dockers have – he has played 320 games, 30 more than the next best (Dean Cox) to have played out of WA. It is less than a 50-50 prospect of him going around again. Filling the void will not be easy.

Aside from that pair, Fremantle has several other players over 30 – heading into next season Aaron Sandilands will be 33, Michael Johnson (31), Paul Duffield (31), David Mundy (30) and potentially, Ryan Crowley (32).

To date the season could hardly have gone better for Fremantle, sitting two games clear on top of the ladder after just seven rounds. The only question mark has been the way they have often taken the foot of the accelerator in matches in which they have domianted, a prime example being last Sunday’s game against the Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium.

Despite leading by 22 points at three-quarter time they let the Bulldogs get back on level terms late in the final quarter. Similarly, a 52-point lead over West Coast at quarter-time in round three resulted in a winning margin of just 30 points and against Sydney a half-time lead of 48 points was whittled to 14 by full-time.

But, at 7-0 it is perhaps nit-picking.

Modern-day football is built around the quality of a side’s midfield and Lyon has at his command the best in the competition.

Nat Fyfe, who plays his 100th game against North Melbourne on Saturday is currently the league’s best player. He is a man opposition coaches have nightmares over – at 190cm he is the quintessential 21st century on-baller who is strong overhead, dynamic on the ground and blessed with a big motor. After seven rounds he may have already banked 15 Brownlow votes.

He does his work alongside David Mundy, Michael Barlow, Stephen Hill and the ever improving Lachie Neale. Trying to cover all of those and win enough footy yourself is the constant dilemma of the opposing coach.

One criticism of Lyon-led teams has been the inability to kick winning scores come finals time. In four grand finals, Lyon’s sides have failed to better ten goals – 9 in 2009; 10 and 7 in 2010; and 8 in 2013.

Whilst the Dockers burned several very easy shots early in the 2013 decider, Lyon was adamant leading into the 2014 season that his team needed to find two more goals on average each week.

It was an aim that was not attained as the side averaged 13.2 goals through the 2014 season, down on the 13.4 it produced in 2013. This season there has been a slight improvement with an average of 14.1 goals per game.

There is no doubting that the Dockers have the firepower with Pavlich and Chris Mayne the two primary targets with the wily and dangerous Hayden Ballantyne and Michael Walters at their feet.

Matt Taberner is becoming a third tall target while the likes of Fyfe, Hill, Neale and Danyle Pearce are averaging a goal or more per game. Come September they all need to hit the scoreboard.

The Lyon game plan will stifle most opponents but to win the big games it will still need to produce more itself.

Injuries aside, Fremantle are primed for a genuine tilt at ending its flag drought. At present the list is strong with key defender Zac Dawson likely to be fit for a return in the next few weeks. The only long-term injuries at present are Alex Silvagni who is likely to miss up to ten weeks and the perennially unlucky Anthony Morabito who is on the indefinite list.

Depending on the outcome of Crowley’s doping tribunal hearing he could be back in the back half of the year if the ban is less than a year given the back dating of his provisional suspension while the likes of Tendai Mzungu is currently forced to play in the WAFL given the form of those above him.

There is still a lot of water to flow under the bridges of the Yarra but presently Fremantle is the standout in the competition.

Should the silverware not make its way to their headquarters this season it will be one of wasted opportunity.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 21 May 2015, soliciting 33 comments