What does the future hold for Fremantle?

Date: April 22, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

046076-south-terraceThe Fremantle Football Club has gone from minor premiers last season to 17th this season with a win-loss record of 0-4.

Sunday’s last quarter capitulation at the hands of North Melbourne means the Dockers will have to buck history if they are to contest this season’s finals series.

Since the introduction of the top-eight in 1994 no team has qualified for September action off the back of four successive losses to start the season.

Whilst a finals berth is a significant stretch at this stage – the club’s last five opponents of the home and away season will be Sydney, West Coast, Adelaide, GWS and the Bulldogs – that elusive maiden premiership seems completely out of reach.

That would leave the Dockers without a flag after 22 years in the competition.

By comparison the Eagles won a flag six years after they joined the then VFL. Brisbane tasted premiership success in its 15th season; Adelaide in its seventh; and Port Adelaide in its eighth.

The big worry for those who both represent and follow Fremantle is that the flag drought may well last for quite a while yet.

Shortly after Fremantle finished the 2011 season in 11th spot, the club announced that Mark Harvey had been axed with a year remaining on his contract.

His replacement, Ross Lyon, exercised an out clause in his contract with St Kilda and arrived in WA with his signature inked on a four-year deal.

The marriage seemed a win-win for both parties. The Dockers believed they had a squad that was primed for a tilt at the flag and they saw in Lyon a coach who had the credentials to get the job done.

As for Lyon, he had taken the Saints to the season decider in 2009 and 2010 for two defeats plus the 2010 drawn grand final.

Lyon arrived at Fremantle with a 65 per cent win ratio from 71 home-and-away games. His finals record however was 50 per cent.

Lyon could no doubt see the writing on the wall at the Saints and believed his best opportunity to win a flag as coach lay out west.

His assessment of St Kilda’s list proved accurate with the four seasons since his departure from Moorabbin resulting in 9th, 16th, 18th and 14th placed finishes.

Lyon brought his defensive-oriented game plan to the west. Under his command the Dockers became renowned for their strangulation defence.

In his four seasons heading into 2016, Lyon took Fremantle to the finals each year – 6th in 2012; runners-up in 2013; 6th in 2014; and the minor premiership last year before bowing out at the preliminary final stage.

Once again, Lyon proved to be a master in home-and-away ranks with a four season winning ratio of 69 per cent. But again, he failed to fulfil his dream come finals time with a 44 per cent success rate.

The big criticism of Lyon coached teams come finals time has been the inability to kick a winning score.

Across four grand final appearances at both the Saints and Dockers his teams managed totals of just 9, 10, 7 and 8 goals.

Following Fremantle’s 2013, 15-point grand final loss to Hawthorn Lyon spoke publicly about the fact that his team needed to find greater goal-front productivity.

The tinkering to the game plan unfortunately failed to produce the desired results. After scoring an aggregate 2035 points in 2013 home and away season, the Dockers managed 2029 points in 2014 and 1857 last year.

Ahead of this season it was felt the reduction in the rotation cap from 120 to 90 per game would result in more offensive oriented football.

While many encounters in the opening four weeks have seen attractive free-scoring games, the Dockers have managed an aggregate of just 41 goals in that time.

Allied to the inability to hit the scoreboard has been an unacceptable skill level with missed targets by hand and foot producing myriad turnovers. The dilution in the side’s ball efficiency has been hard to fathom.

Like many clubs who see their premiership window ajar the focus has been very much on the now seemingly at the expense of the future.

Recruiting wise there are certainly questions over succession planning.

All-Australian full-back and 256-game veteran Luke McPharlin was for so long both the general and lynchpin of the team’s defence.

He bowed out at the end of last year with no standout replacement waiting in the wings.

Former skipper Matthew Pavlich has announced his 17th season will be his last.

The heart and soul of the club for so long, he has played exclusively in the forward half in the back half of his career, finishing as the club’s leading goal scorer on seven occasions.

Whilst Fremantle has made plays for some power forwards coming out of contract at other clubs the current cupboard does not instil confidence in the short term with the likes of Matt Taberner, Michael Apeness and Tanner Smith a long way from regular selection.

Dual best and fairest and four-time All-Australian ruckman Aaron Sandilands is not likely to go beyond 2017.

Of the likely successors to the number one mantle, Zac Clarke has 89 games behind him but his impact has been inconsistent while Jonathon Griffin has played just 79 games across ten seasons at both Adelaide and Fremantle.

Jack Hannath to date has managed to play 18 games in three seasons as an understudy to Sandilands.

The Dockers must find a ruckman of note prior to Sandilands retirement.

The Fremantle list is currently the oldest in the league yet premiership success seems a good while off.

Ross Lyon is in his tenth season as a senior coach. In the previous nine years he has failed to make the finals just once, his first year at the Saints in 2007 when the club finished ninth, just two points shy of a finals berth.

Lyon has always been seen as a finisher rather than a developer.

If the current trend at Fremantle is any indication he will have to do more of the latter in the coming years.

Whether he can successfully rebuild a team is currently an unknown.

The Fremantle hierarchy showed great faith in him prior to the season by extending his contract through until 2020.

Chances are much of that decision was predicated on the expectation of considerable success this season.

At present, Fremantle’s 2016 looks anything but a bumper year, leaving the timing of that elusive first flag one of the AFL’s great imponderables.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 21 April 2016, soliciting 104 comments