Fremantle Dockers coach Ross Lyon needs to pack his bags.
It may be a blunt statement; however it is the kind of statement which is required as the Dockers stare down the barrel of another bleak season in 2019.
The Dockers squad is a mixture of young talent and mature bodies. The likes of Adam Cerra and Andrew Brayshaw gunning the midfield with senior bulls such as Nathan Fyfe and David Mundy highlights the immense potential and skill in the playing group. Even without Lachie Neale, coming off consecutive Best and Fairest awards, the Dockers remain a potent midfield force.
Down back, senior players in Joel Hamling and Nathan Wilson, coupled with the up and coming talent in Alex Pearce and Luke Ryan personify solidity and good depth.
In the forward line, balance is once again struck between young and old. Hayden Ballantyne and Michael Walters working in tandem with Brennan Cox and Michael Apeness.
So why can’t a team with a good stock of skills and age diversity penetrate the top half of the ladder? Why can’t they even get close? The answer to such a questions must lie within a source deeper than the immediate playing group.
It’s time the Dockers head honcho Ross Lyon is put under the microscope.
A quick glimpse at Ross Lyon’s record and you’d be excused for believing the Dockers Coach has what it takes to win games of football. In fact, it would be unfair to say he doesn’t have what it takes to bank four points week in and week out.
However, the best days of Lyon’s tenure as an AFL coach are behind him.
1. The Ross Lyon game-style
It’s by no means a stretch to suggest that Ross fits the conservative mould in the context of AFL coaching. Ever the traditionalist, he places a huge emphasis on forcing stoppages, limiting free-flowing transitional football and grinding out games without accumulating a plentiful number of goals.
It’s a style that has been the backbone of Lyon’s ability to beat the best teams and reach grand finals. The Saints’ path to consecutive grand finals in 2009 and 2010, and the Dockers first grand final appearance in 2013, came off the back of defensive football.
The process of strangling opposition teams and then bursting the dam wall in the later stages of the second half of a contest is a hallmark trait of Lyon’s coaching dynamic. Ironically it seems the style which Lyon’s success is so frequently attributed to, is also likely to be his demise.
As the AFL continues to push for high scoring and free flowing affairs, the pace of games has increased enormously. Coaches and players alike have been forced into adjusting their formulas as to ensure they don’t get swamped by the frenetic nature of the new era of football.
The Western Bulldogs and Richmond Tigers are two clubs who have reaped the rewards of tinkering with their game styles and punishing teams. They played bone-crunching and penetrating football, and as a result, both clubs were able to hold the cup aloft in 2016 and 2017 respectively, benefiting from winning the ‘’shoot out’’ style of football. The pressure is still there. The tackling is still there, but a willingness to counter-attack is always present. They don’t pump the brakes when the ball is turned over.
For a reason that continues to baffle the AFL world, Ross Lyon has, and still is avoiding any avenue to change. Lyon has stuck by his slow-paced, stoppage-based routine despite the obvious signs that the AFL competition is looking at ways to increase the pace of the game further. One would think that this would necessitate a change in the Fremantle coaching philosophy.
The Dockers’ last three seasons paint a grim picture for Ross the boss, with his team winning only 20 out of 66 games, missing finals on each occasion. At post match press conferences, Lyon has continued to harp on about the “light at the end of the tunnel” for the purple army. However, unless Ross is willing to implement changes to his coaching formula to reflect the current and forthcoming state of the game, the tunnel will only look continue to look pitch black.
2. The purple circle
It doesn’t require a royal commission into the Fremantle Dockers to reveal the cultural fractures prevalent within the club.
The term ‘purple circle’ is something which should be attributed to the high-end staff at Dockers HQ.
The Harley Bennell saga has continued to bubble on all season. Just as the talented former Sun was on the verge of returning, another setback would occur. While the club has continued to cite injuries as the cause of Harley’s inability to get back on the park, his situation is symbolic of a wider problem at the club – bad management.
A culture reminiscent of strong leadership and a playing group with a strong commitment to the cause could have prevented Bennell from breaking club curfew by drinking alcohol while nursing a sore calf. A culture endorsing accountability and transparency could have seen the fallout from the Ross Lyon ‘sexual harassment saga’ been dealt with dignity and maturity.
Many clubs would have sacked their coach over such allegations of indecent behaviour but Fremantle stuck by their coach. Perhaps this approach embodies the state of their board? Spineless, out-dated and requiring change.
Unless the Dockers are revamped internally through releasing powerbrokers such as Lyon and CEO Steve Rosich, then star players will fly out the exit doors in little to no time.
3. No premiership under Ross
Sadly for Ross Lyon, his dream of achieving the ultimate prize in AFL football is as likely to occur as the AFL giving Meat Loaf the stage as part of the grand final entertainment. I don’t care what the little girl in the “Super Round’ ads says - it’s not going to happen.
Lyon got close with the Saints – an errant bounce perhaps robbing him and Stephen Milne the chance to stand on the dais and receive their premiership medals. He was close with the Dockers as well, but his all-or-nothing approach left a decimated list behind at St Kilda, and five years removed from the Grand Final loss to Hawthorn, the Dockers’ results indicate that forward planning wasn’t really part of his intentions when arriving in Western Australia either.
If Fremantle want to win a flag they need to move him on. A fresh coach – one willing to adapt as the game itself undergoes changes - may pay long term dividends for the club and allow them to hit the ground running without any looming distractions concerning the relationship between the coach and his players… and other staff.
Sometimes biting the bullet is the only way forward and this approach is particularly applicable to a club who, after a quarter of a century in the competition, cannot point to one premiership as result for effort.
The appointment of a new General Football Manager, in former club great Peter Bell, should mark the beginning of a fresh start at Docker land, but there is some serious work to be done, and some hard decisions to make. Is the ultra-defensive coach now out of his depth as rule changes look to curtail ultra-defensive tactics? Is Peter Bell man enough to tell Ross he’s not the boss anymore?
One thing for sure is the removal of Ross Lyon as coach of Fremantle will have football journalists across the land breathing much easier walking into a post-match press conference.
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