It’s February 2018 and the West Coast Eagles, the biggest club in the country in regard to revenue, home attendances (against interstate clubs) and general influence over their home town, are friendless. A grim year looms.
The Eagles scraped over the line into the previous September by the narrowest margin in history, nudging the Demons out of the eight in the final quarter of the final game by the skin of their collective teeth (which equates to approximately 0.2%). In the Elimination Final, they drew with Port Adelaide forcing the final into extra time, where the Eagles advanced to the Semis by the smallest margin ever again, downing the Power on the final siren of extra time. The high flyers from the West then travelled to Sydney and were dealt a 67-point thumping by a team less Western but significantly Greater in the form of the Giants.
Two Brownlow Medal winning midfielders, Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell bid farewell, leaving what looked to be a fall from grace imminent. I mean, they overachieved to begin with, didn’t they?
The doom and gloom emerged, dark clouds appeared and the vultures circled. Essendon great Matthew Lloyd dubbed the team as having the second worst list in the competition on Footy Classified. Chris Judd, a legendary Eagle himself, agreed. Whereas, Carlton icon Robert Walls (and formerly respected pre-season tipper) backed West Coast as his wooden spooner, a title of which his former club in Carlton actually ended up claiming. Expectations evaporated, and their large contingent of loyal followers settled in for what is set to be a long year to forget.
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It’s September and Eagles’ story has taken a completely different route. McGovern, Yeo, Gaff, Kennedy, Darling, Naitanui, Hurn – why on Earth did we not rate this list again? On paper the home and away season was just about as perfect as you can get. Sixteen victories meant a coveted top two spot is claimed and considering West Coast are the only team outside of Victoria that finished in the four, these home finals are truly distinctive rather than simply played at a natural venue. They won that crucial first final, defeating Collingwood, and a home Preliminary Final at the magnificent new Perth Stadium was secured against the travelling Demons. Could they be any better set to contend for a flag – as opposed to a spoon?
Not to mention the fact they smashed the reigning champions and de facto 2018 premiers, Richmond by 47 points earlier this season, beaten the Magpies in a final, at the MCG to boot. Out of the teams left standing they have only narrowly lost to a rampaging Melbourne who had the world to play for in Round 22, and that was without mouth-watering forward duo Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling. They are also unbeaten at the MCG this season, which was seemingly the only chink in their now ominous armour, and a fact many have chosen to ignore in the lead up to the finals. Yet, if you were to flick through the Herald Sun you would be forgiven for not knowing they are even playing such is the Melbourne-centric nature of the admittedly Melbourne paper. However, Eagles fans crying foul probably missed The West Australian front page that was simply replaced with a West Coast jumper a fortnight ago.
So, the dire pre-season forecasts have been laughed aside as a Grand Final berth is on the line.
But it has not been all sunshine and roses.
If West Coast were to go on to win on the last Saturday in September, it would be a truly remarkable effort and achievement. They will have to do it without three (Andrew Gaff, Nic Naitanui and Brad Sheppard) of their best eight players taking to the field in both the preliminary final and grand final – no team in history has ever done that and won before. A tilt at the ultimate glory must be incredibly exciting for Eagles fans, it must also be incredibly frustrating knowing that they will not be able to reach their absolute best with three of their finest watching on from the grandstand. An absolute best they will probably be required to reach in order to beat Richmond at the MCG on the only day that matters.
Injury has dealt them unfortunate blows – is there a worse time of the year to hear a hamstring ping than when Brad Sheppard heard it the first quarter of a Qualifying Final? – the suspension of Gaff has been a significant – self-inflicted – wound to their premiership aspirations as well.
It’s hardly been smooth sailing off the field either. While, their on-field performances have been brilliant, their off-field efforts have been far from desirable. When an integrity services manager went all CSI Miami on a cameraman simply doing this job at the back entrance of Perth airport, the club’s inability to handle criticism was further exposed, as was its arrogance.
Tension arose between the two most powerful organisations in Western Australia who have for three decades enjoyed such as cozy relationship, Seven West Media and the Eagles. The club who has traditionally threatened and intimated WA based journalists with the “with us or against us” line suddenly lost an ally. So, when the club botched its handling of the Andrew Gaff incident, Seven West seized the moment of a rare attack on its own. Basil Zempilas was suddenly firing “culture” questions at Adam Simpson on 7News Perth, while the West Coast Eagles became the “Weak Coast Eagles” in Seven West Media’s West Australian.
A top two finish and a home preliminary final berth has somehow seen less sunshine, lollipops and rainbows and more injuries, suspensions, scandals and standoffs. Yet here they are in the final four.
As Melbourne make the long (and expensive) flight to Perth from the Melbourne bubble of self-reflection, here this word of warning.
Beware the wounded Eagle.
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