So is there anything wrong with the Dockers? by Les Everett


Perth Stadium has ushered in a new era of footy in WA and maybe a new way for Freo fans to think. Photo by Les Everett.

On 3 June (the day Collingwood thrashed Fremantle at the MCG) recent Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee Terry Wallace (@thelistmanager) tweeted…

Can someone please explain to me why Freo have gone from No 1 on the AFL Ladder one year to non competitive for the next 3 years?  Sorry but they are a really disappointing club in recent times.

It was a good question. The Dockers finished on top of the AFL ladder in 2015 but in reality the demise started late in that season. Fremantle lost four of their last five home and away games and won a semi final against Franklinless Sydney. Amazingly they were in a winning position at Subiaco Oval in the home preliminary final against Hawthorn before some Keystone Cops defence sent them crashing out and into the wilderness.

Wallace was at pains to point out his query was not a reaction to the Collingwood loss. The Dockers, without Aaron Sandilands, Stephen Hill, Brad Hill and Matt Taberner, featured two players on debut that day and many with limited AFL experience – the loss was not a surprise.

The Twitter question is worth pondering. Why was the team that was so devastating in the first half of 2015 no good in 2016 and now just one of those interstate teams that is hard to beat at home and pretty useless away? We didn’t want to be casting a critical eye on Fremantle in the sorry wake of a loss… but now with two wins in a row and Brisbane at home after the bye it’s a good to time to look without the hint of overreaction.

Putting aside a possible hat-trick of the wins, the point is that since the 2015 preliminary final Fremantle has not been a contender.

Dockers fans are divided. Some are happy to point out the team is in the midst of a rebuild – seven players have made their AFL debut in 2018 and five in 2017. The positive thinkers will also point out the high list turnover – only 19 players from 2015 remain.

Other Freo fans want everybody sacked, starting with the coach. They’d throw out the president, CEO and general manager of football operations too and are happy to throw up various names who could lead Freo to glory in the wake of the clean-out.

Another response has been heard a lot this year. There’s a significant group finding it hard to stay interested. They find the style of play too stodgy, the road to goal too torturous. They feel like they’ve seen this movie before… the one with the empty forward line. They are bored.

The club needs to mindful of the fans because in the new Perth Stadium era having a membership is no longer essential… getting a walk-up ticket to the footy is easy. There don’t seem to be any signs of cultural shift yet but I’d be keeping an eye on it.

There’s a clear way to satisfy and even unite all three groups and that is to win games and despite recent events Fremantle is not doing that enough.

So why did it happen. Like many bad things in footy and life there are a number of aspects to consider. And Freo has a bit of all of them.

  • Bad luck.
  • Bad choices.
  • And maybe not as bad as it looks.

Luck has played its part. You only have to look at the current injury list and put a fit and firing Harley Bennell into the line-up to suggest the Dockers could be improved right now. Strangely the injury to the maligned Taberner has hurt the most. His absence has had a ripple effect resulting in a cobbled together forward line and Cam McCarthy playing a role he’s not up to and ultimately being a high-priced recruit playing in the WAFL. Untimely injuries to Sandilands, Nat Fyfe, Michael Walters and Alex Pearce have hurt in recent years.

So what about the bad choices? Draft/trade revisionism is an easy game to play and every club has had its share of shockers. But. If there’s one thing that makes a bad Fremantle season worse it’s a concurrent good West Coast season. I contend that three of the most important Eagles in 2018 could (should?) be Dockers. Jack Darling: was there for Fremantle to choose in the 2010 draft. Jeremy McGovern is the son of a former Docker, someone at the Dockers ignored advice and decided this kid wouldn’t be up to much. Elliot Yeo: a Freo fan who wanted out of Brisbane. Wanted to come home. Ended up with the enemy. In addition if Fremantle had watched the WAFL carefully they would have rookie listed Tim Kelly (now Geelong) and Liam Ryan (West Coast) in the 2016 draft. These are players taken from under the nose of Fremantle, often cheaply. Would the current list look better with some of those names on it?

There appears to be a contradiction in Fremantle’s list building behaviour – a tendency to look to far horizons when drafting contrasting with a bringing-them-all-back-home approach to trading. The latter strategy has worked well with Nathan Wilson, Joel Hamling and Brad Hill unqualified success stories and McCarthy, Shane Kersten and Brandon Matera pending but promising. It’s sobering to note that three inferior players were preferred to Brad Hill in his draft – all from far away. Maybe a lowering of the eyes at the draft table would be a useful strategy.

And maybe things aren’t as bad as they looked a few weeks ago especially with an eye to the future. Fremantle has constructed what looks like a premiership backline. Hamling and Pearce are capable of taking on any of the AFL’s big forwards while Wilson, Stephen Hill, Luke Ryan and Connor Blakely offer the kind of run and precision the team was crying out for even in the good years. Wilson appears to be the leader of the defence and he could be devastating once (if) the team gets really organised.

Fremantle’s trade of Lachie Weller for pick two seems like the sort of thing you shouldn’t say out loud. As a result the Dockers have one extra high quality young player in a group that looks pretty promising.

So Fremantle has a list that could have been so much better but with enough there to suggest it might get much better. The Dockers are a few wins from making the rebuild look successful and few bad losses from disaster. That should keep everyone on their toes.

We’ll finish with a quote that’s not really a quote but sounds like the kind of thing an oft-quoted senior figure at the club might say…

What people need to understand is that we’re a result-based industry. And I just want to make it clear that we’re not focussed on results, we’re focussed on process.

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