“They don’t believe in us!”

It’s a powerful motivational tool to use with a team, creating an ‘us versus them’ mindset, and bringing the group together to prove the pundits wrong. I was an NBA fan for years and years and watched teams use this tool to galvanise their teams when matched against a highly-fancied opponent.

In 2016, we saw two teams overcome the odds when belief faded. Down 1-3 in the conference finals, the Golden State Warriors rallied to defeat the OKC Thunder and win the series 4-3 only to have the Cleveland Cavaliers do the very same thing to them in the finals. They said that no one came back from 1-3 down… no one believed they could do it, but they did.

In 1994, the upstart Denver Nuggets, led by the defensive monster, Dikembe Mutombo dropped the team with the best record in the league, the Seattle Supersonics, proving that the eighth-seed can knock over the number one-seed.

And just last season, the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks crashed out of the second round against the eighth-seeded Miami Heat on the back of some F-U attitude from Jimmy Butler. With MVP, Giannis Antetokuonmpo, the Bucks were considered a lock, but a team with nothing to lose is dangerous indeed.

We love a story of the underdog overcoming the odds. We watched the Rocky series, loved the rise of Keanu Reeves’ character, Shane Falco in The Replacements, and if you haven’t seen the 1980s classic basketball movie, The Hoosiers, I suggest you track it down – it’s a cracker!

Tales of the underdog rising above the odds and overcoming doubt – both from others and themselves – are the types of stories that breathe life into professional sports. They instill hope. They instill belief. And importantly, they prove people wrong.

And that brings us to the 2021 AFL season.

People believe in Richmond. They have the runs on the board, the premiership medals in their trophy cabinets and a hunger to install themselves as the greatest team of the modern era. They possess arguably the greatest finals player of the AFL era and possibly all-time, and have a cohesive, brutal and efficient team of professionals at their disposal as they seek their goal of a three-peat.

But what of the other teams? Do we believe in them? And if not, what stops us from doing so?

As we enter the 2021 season, there is a shadow of doubt surrounding the contenders; something in the back of your mind that makes you double-take and question whether they can do it. Can they overcome the odds? Are they ready? Will they fail?

The Mongrel loves a good underdog story as much as anyone else, and right now in the league, every team is an underdog compared to the reigning champs.

If people don’t believe in them, how can they use this to their advantage?

 

BRISBANE – IF THEY COULDN’T DO IT AT HOME, HOW CAN THEY DO IT ON THE ROAD?

There is no getting around this – the Lions blew a golden opportunity in 2020. It is unlikely that we’ll ever see a season like that again, and as such, unlikely that the Lions will get a series of finals at the Gabba… including the decider.

The Lions slew one of their demons in the first week of the finals, knocking over Richmond after years of humiliation at the hands of the Tigers, yet on the last day of the season, Brisbane weren’t there, beaten by the Cats in the penultimate contest.

Does Chris Fagan use the perception of the Lions as the team that blew it as a motivational tool to bring his club together? Can he harness the power of an angry group of young men wanting to prove people wrong?

Or does he allow the failure of 2020 to fade into memory as he focuses on the job at hand? What would you do? Does he eyeball players like Dan McStay and Eric Hipwood and demand they redeem themselves after their 2020 finals disappearing act? Does he challenge Lachie Neale to put this team on his back and be the type of finals player he was in the home and away season?

Or does he look at a few of the newspaper clippings that claim the Lions blew it in 2020? Does he throw this back in his players’ faces and demand they make amends?

If nobody believes in the Lions, only the Lions can change that perception.

 

ST KILDA – WAS THEIR 2020 FORM A FLASH IN THE PAN?

The Saints came out and recruited well in 2019 and 2020. They overhauled their list, allowing players like Jack Steven and Josh Bruce to head elsewhere, whilst bringing in players like Brad Hill, Dougal Howard, Dan Butler, Jack Higgins and Brad Crouch to name a few. They’ve really splurged on talent…

…. and it was not too far away from paying off in 2020, was it?

St Kilda surprised many with their two-headed ruck monster and their young and powerful defence, but things have gone a bit awry this pre-season. Rowan Marshall is hurt, Ben Paton is gone for the year and their captain had a fracture in his leg to deal with. In addition, recruit James Frawley twanged a hamstring in the AAMI series and is set to miss eight weeks.

Suddenly, the dream run is turning a bit sour, but the Saints are packed with talent, particularly when it comes to small forwards. Does Brett Ratten pull this group close together, look each one of them in the eye and tell them that no one believes in them? Does he throw down the challenge to prove the doomsayers wrong? Does he implore this ragtag group of misfi… sorry, I got caught in a Disney sports movie loop for a moment.

Does he need to use this as a tool?

The Saints have depth and can cover their losses. They have class and a developing brigade of high-quality youngsters. Some might not believe in them, but watching them in 2020 and the AAMI series in 2021, they play like they believe in themselves, and that is a weapon greater than the “they don’t believe in us” schtick.

 

COLLINGWOOD – RECENT EVENTS HAVE TORN THE CLUB APART

This is the team that could, and should be using it.

They have lost Adam Treloar and Jaidyn Stephenson. They have looked on as their President stepped down amid a racism controversy, and they have, by proxy, been caught up in all this as well. Pundits left, right and centre are prophesizing the fall of the Collingwood Football Club, but can they make it work for them?

Whilst I would definitely not use the term ‘us versus them’ at any stage if I were the Pies, it’s not to say that the mentality cannot be adopted by the playing group. Why the hell not? Side by side? It can be more than just a nice hashtag on twitter during their games if the players embrace it.

It takes a skilled player manager to get buy-in from an entire playing group, but it takes an exceptional one to get a group with a bit of scarring to come together as one and present a united front in the face of more adversity. Is Buckley the man that can do this? Can he get this club… this fractured club if you read what the journos have to say (and didn’t they relish the furore initially only to write their “oh, Ed was great for the club” pieces in the aftermath)?

People are not believing in the Pies right now. They’ve been educated not to, but you know what makes them believe again?

Winning.

 

PORT ADELAIDE – DID THE CLUB GET UP FOR ONE BIG YEAR?

In 2020, Port Adelaide were set for their 150th-year celebrations. Well, they celebrated, but not as much as they’d like to.

Covid ruined the party early, preventing great numbers of supporters congregating at Adelaide Oval to pay homage to the club that has been synonymous with South Australian Football for since 1870, and then it was Richmond’s turn, pipping the Power at the post in the Preliminary Final.

Port handled the hub life and all associated with it better than others. They got ins on the board early, occupied top spot, and did almost everything right.

Almost… everything right.

Charlie Dixon was in career-best form, Zak Butters made a huge leap in his second season and they got organic improvement from guys like Trent McKenzie, who many forgot was an AFL player. Did they shoot their best shot and miss in 2020?

12 months ago, Ken Hinkley was under no illusion that his future was on the line. His team either made finals, or he was gone. Port made finals and pushed the eventual premier all the way to the line, but are they the real deal for more than one season? Or did they just get themselves up for Port’s milestone season?

The Power have people wondering which version of Port Adelaide they will encounter in 2021. Will it be the uncompromising machine that was a kick away from the Grand Final, or the flaky, inconsistent 2019 version that disappointed? Hinkley and his charges have the footy world watching their every move. No longer the hunters, they find themselves in the sights of teams climbing.

Right now it is Port Adelaide versus the world.

Just as it’s always been. Just the way they like it.

 

GEELONG – ARE THEY TOO OLD?

The Cats were overrun by the Tigers on the biggest stage in football. They were beaten for pace, they were beaten for hunger and they were beaten in the coaching box. They looked lethargic – as though the myriad troubles of the 2020 season had finally caught up with them.

So, what did the Cats do?

They retooled, and they brought in some reinforcements. However, a few questions have been raised about whether these reinforcements, or a couple of them, at least, will be enough when the legs get heavy and the season rolls on.

Chris Scott has already floated that some of his stars will be rested at points in 2021. He watched his leg-weary warriors capitulate to a rampant Richmond, led by the mercurial Dustin Martin, and he is determined not to repeat the mistake of tiring his big guns out.

But are the acquisitions of Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith wise ones, given the criticism of the old legs at Geelong, already? Can they get enough rest and recuperation to be right at the time of the year they need to perform?

Chris Scott has some work to do. Many have criticised the age profile of the team AND Scott’s coaching decisions. Some have made the “team of champions” call on the Cats – something that never sits well with anyone associated with the club.

With stars in their thirties (Dangerfield, Selwood, Higgins, Smith, Hawkins, Tuohy, Stanley.. and soon to be Blicavs and Duncan) is this the year the Cats thumb their nose at the chatter from those outside the club? Is this the season this team truly comes together and proves those wrong who think they’re a spent force?

 

GWS – HAS THE WINDOW SLAMMED SHUT?

It seems as though there is always a reason to doubt GWS.

Oh, they have no culture…

Oh, they are an AFL creation…

Oh, they fell apart on the biggest stage…

Oh, they were unable to back up their Grand Final season…

Yep, you can roll them out, year after year and people will have their doubts about them, but in 2019, they developed a culture built on an aggressive game style and they made it all the way to the last game of the season. So close, yet in the end, so far.

Now, a new challenge for the Giants has materialised – a season without the man that led their goal-kicking for the last nine seasons. Surely they can’t win without him, right?

Right?!?!

The Giants have a point to prove in 2021. Leon Cameron, re-signed despite the ordinary 2020 season, has a point to prove. Toby Greene, Stephen Coniglio, Callan Ward, Tim Taranto, Josh Kelly, Harry Himmelberg… they all have something to prove, and that is a nucleus that others can rally around.

The GWS Giants are afterthoughts in the minds of many, but a concerted, collective approach would be just the ticket to tap people on the shoulder and say “remember me?” right before dropping them on their backsides.

The Giants needed to re-embrace the unsociable football that made them so formidable in the 2019 finals series. It was the football that saw them maul the Bulldogs, and fight out gutsy wins against the Lions and Magpies. And it is the attitude, when embraced by the whole club, that will see them rise once again.

Can the Giants do an “us versus them” arc in 2021 and make it work? Every story needs a good villain – it might be time for GWS to start wearing the charcoal hat and become that which others perceive them as, anyway.

 

WEST COAST – IS THIS REALLY THEIR LAST CHANCE AT GLORY?

It must rankle a few Eagles to hear their names come up in what can only be described as a premature obituary. Josh Kennedy, Shannon Hurn… they have been absolute warriors for the club, but a slow start to the 2020 season saw people start to use the ‘R’ word when describing them.

And hell, they may have even thought about the end, themselves, but it is one thing to walk out a door on your own terms. It is another to have a few sets of hands in your back to help you on your way.

With two champions of the club at 33 years old, and, similar to the Cats, other stars ticking over the dreaded 30-year-old mark, the Eagles are in a situation where their window really may be closing. Maybe it is time to prop it open for one last glorious September.

It’s not as though anyone at West Coast needs help in distancing themselves from the rest of the competition – ask anyone from WA and they’ll happily tell you they are different to the rest of Australian – some would say better than the rest. And so it is with the Eagles.

West Coast have a bottom line that other clubs would kill for. The most affluent team in the land, they… let’s be honest, have a bit of a superiority complex, and that can work for them in this instance.

Put yourself in Adam Simpson’s shoes. You have this group that is capable of winning the flag sitting in front of you. You pull out the most recent Herald Sun footy magazine and start thumbing through it. You don’t say a word. Not one.

You stand and move to the whiteboard and start listing teams. Richmond – 8, Geelong – 4, Brisbane – 3, Port Adelaide – 3, Western Bulldogs – 1

Then you pause, look at the group, scanning the faces of the players, assessing where they’re at before turning back to the whiteboard.

West Coast Eagles – 0

Not one of the “experts” has tipped the Eagles for the flag. You throw down the magazine before the group.

“They don’t believe in us!”

And the fire is lit.

 

WESTERN BULLDOGS – DO THEY STILL HAVE A SOFT UNDERBELLY?

It takes a while to shake a tag like this.

In the 2019 finals series, the GWS Giants flat out beat up the Bulldogs. They didn’t just fix them up on the scoreboard; they targeted Marcus Bontempelli and put the kind of physical pressure on him that walked a very fine line between what was acceptable and what was stepping into dangerous territory.

And they won.

The Dogs, after a rampaging run to the finals that had several people thinking a repeat of their 2016 campaign may occur, were shellshocked, their only response coming by way of youngster, Rhylee West, who flew the flag. There was no Tom Liberatore and no Mitch Wallis in that team. It was as though the Dogs left their bite in the grandstand with them.

Fast forward two seasons and Luke Beveridge’s charges have changed the face of the team. With one of the more dangerous midfields in the caper, a solid defence and an attack that (health permitting) could cause huge problems for the opposition, they appear well placed.

Yet the spectre of 2019 remains.

Are the Dogs still the team that was manhandled by the Giants? Did they shed that image when the two teams met again in Round Three, 2020 where to Dogs stood up to the pressure? Or are you not yet convinced?

The talent is there – that much is obvious. But is the heart? Do you believe in this Western Bulldogs team, yet?

 

The Tigers might be purring at the top of the AFL tree. They sit with three flags in four seasons and look to better that in 2021 with one more to the trophy cabinet, but the teams mentioned have a claim, as well.

What will it take for you to believe they can get it done? Or, will you feed the beast that drives a group onwards? Proving people wrong is a great motivator, and there are several AFL teams in 2021 looking to do just that.

You don’t believe in them? That’s exactly what they want.