Almanac Season Review: Fremantle – bring on 2017

Injuries ruined Fremantle 2016 season. That’s what you’ll hear and it sounds plausible. The three most important players Nat Fyfe, Aaron Sandilands and Michael Johnson hardly played and the most important recruit Harley Bennell didn’t play at all – promising big defender Alex Pearce broke a leg, Michael Barlow did a shoulder just when it seemed he’d found his spot. I step back from the injury explanation because the truth is the Dockers were playing like crap before the injuries struck.

 

In fact I think we need to step back to 2015. Fremantle started the season looking invincible but by the end of the qualifying rounds were the least convincing minor premiers in memory. But still they were a heartbeat away from the Grand Final. After beating an under-strength, unFranklined Sydney in the qualifying final they took it up to Hawthorn in the preliminary final and twice looked like winning. They were on top early then Chris Mayne missed a shot he would once have kicked with his eyes closed and Hayden Ballantyne got pinged for an off the ball bit of nonsense that would have been ignored if he hadn’t been involved. A two-goal turn around, the Hawks were back in the game and feeling comfortable. Fremantle came again late and had the momentum when Tommy Sheridan dropped a regulation mark on the 50, Cyril Rioli kicked a goal and then the Keystone Dockers arrived as two more kicks across the backline missed targets and resulted in goals sending Hawthorn into another Grand Final. As it turned out the 2015 preliminary final was the template for the 2016 season.

 

I put the work in at the start of the season first heading deep south to Mt Barker, home of the Krakouer brothers and Aaron Sandilands, to see Fremantle play Adelaide in a scratch match. The Dockers won, due to a super goal, but I was disturbed to realise the only thing I learned was that Fyfe is a wonderful player. Fremantle beat Geelong in the next scratchie I saw at Subiaco Oval. At the conclusion of the game I turned to my Cat-loving companion and said, “That has not given me any confidence at all.” The early signs were there – woeful attempts to get the ball out of defence, tortuous routes toward goal and horrible kicking for goal when we did get there. Sandilands copped a knee in the ribs in round three, Fyfe went down in round five and Johnson limped off in the same game. The Dockers were buggered then and might have won a few more games if not for the injuries but something else was wrong.

 

We all smile during the summer when players and coaches tell us what a great pre-season they’ve had. We long for some recalcitrant to say something like, ‘Yeah, no. This pre-season hasn’t been that good really. Dunno what it is, I just don’t feel that fit or ready to go. Thanks for having me.’

 

And, if you read between the lines or beyond the Lyons, you might just get the hint that Fremantle did not have a good pre-season leading into the 2016 season. I know nothing but I think I’ve gleaned that they…

 

  1. ‘Tweaked’ a couple of things at clearances and in particular centre bounces. And it didn’t work.
  2. ‘Adjusted’ a couple of things in the way they move the ball. And it didn’t work.
  3. ‘Emphasised’ something over something else in the general fitness/skill area. And that didn’t work either as both the thing they focused on and the other thing got worse.

 

All of this led to the Dockers, after four strong seasons and three top four finishes in a row, being useless in 2016.

 

Apart from the horrible movement of the ball out of the backline and poor conversion the Dockers of 2016 seemed to think the long high kick into the forward line was the way to go – the only way to go. That was combined with a near total lack of marking power both in attack and around the ground.

 

But hey, let’s look at the positives.

 

The common wisdom is that injury adversity provides opportunity. Some youngsters did pop their heads up out of the mire. Lachie Weller has pace, kicks well and has a sense of adventure; Connor Blakely can win the hard ball, Ed Langdon doesn’t get the ball enough but has pace and flair, Darcy Tucker kicks beautifully, Sam Collins is a strong key defender who backs himself and Shane Yarran, young in AFL experience only, is classy, aggressive and his kicking for goal is a joy. Young key forwards Matt Taberner and Michael Apeness show signs or do they just tease?

 

South Fremantle’s 1970 premiership ruckman, the late Fred Seinor, once told me in an interview that even when things are going bad you can still come off the ground, “covered in sweat, snot and blood and know you’ve worked your guts out.” So it is important to recognise those who did manage to perform at a high level…

  • Lachie Neale disposed of the ball more than anyone else in the competition this season and in any AFL season. He is to be commended for his tireless work and improved disposal. Neale is becoming an elite midfielder.
  • Michael Walters was the team’s leading goal scorer with 36 and also spent significant time in the midfield. He’s skilful, inventive and he cares.
  • Stephen Hill was required in defence and the midfield throughout the season. He just put his head down and did his job. This year might do him the world of good.
  • David Mundy’s first year as captain was a nightmare. However he battled on and provided strength and class in the midfield and defence. He looked worn out by the end of the year.
  • Lee Spurr saw a lot of the ball in his capacity of unofficial captain of the back line and is to be admired for his courage and willingness to go for his marks.

 

The make-up of the defence will take up a bit of talking time over the summer. The time has come to get Tommy Sheridan and Cameron Sutcliffe out of there – for their own benefit as much as anything – they have the talent and passion to be good players. Garrick Ibbotson and Alex Silvagni showed enough late in the year to suggest they’re still up to it and Alex Pearce, Collins and Johnson can hold key spots.

 

Fremantle Football Club managed to manage the horror season reasonably successfully. The long-term signing of coach Ross Lyon dampened sack-the-coach talk and it was very late in the season when speculation about Nat Fyfe and Hayden Ballantyne surfaced. It appears there will be many list changes and Fremantle supporters will watch with interest. Some things do make us wonder – like how we didn’t know about ex-player Andrew McGovern’s boy Jeremy at the 2011 Rookie Draft and ignored the clarion call from Stephen Hill’s little brother Bradley in the lead up to the main draft that year. Some will say such revisionism is unhelpful while others believe we can learn from history and sometimes it’s good to look in your own backyard.

 

Incredibly Fremantle’s season ended beautifully. Matthew Pavlich’s last game was a triumph – for the 700th goal, the victory and the celebration. I’m glad he stayed on for one more season.

 

Now for 2017.

 

About Les Everett

A Footy Almanac veteran, Les Everett is the author of Gravel Rash: 100 Years of Goldfields Football and Fremantle Dockers: An Illustrated History. He is the footyalmanac.com WAFL correspondent and uses the money he makes from that role to pay for his expensive websites australianrules.com.au and talkingfrankie.com and fund the extravagant Vin Maskell at scoreboardpressure.com

Comments

  1. Thanks Les, that sums up our annus horribilis well.
    I would agree the recruiting has been poor. Whose idea was Colin Sylvia? I know someone who wouldn’t even rent him a house over here because of his reputation.
    If nothing else, we can bask in the glory of Pav’s last game and win.
    I may get crucified for saying it, but I won’t be too sad if we see the back of Ballas.
    Let’s hope for a better 2017

  2. Sean Gorman says:

    Les – veracity is you middle name. fully agree with everything you say. Lorri I think Colin is a metaphor for so many things we get/got wrong. Ballas has not played well for two years but him leaving would be awful – Mayne on the other hand……..

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