For a club whose existence, along with the then-Brisbane Bears, was borne out of a desire by the then-VFL to alleviate their financial woes, the West Coast Eagles’ rise to dominance is truly miraculous. Hampered by restrictions that make the hand-outs gifted the competition’s latest additions seem even more lavish than they already were, their almost immediate rise to premiership glory was exactly what the burgeoning AFL needed.

The Eagles’ time in the VFL/AFL can be, quite conveniently, broken into three distinct eras. First, we have the original group, running from inception in 1987 to about 1998/99. Essentially, this coincides with the John Worsfold/Mick Malthouse reign at the club, and is defined by the brutally tough early days, the premiership glory of the early-mid 1990s, and the building of an elite winning culture. This period is also when the Eagles were probably at their most endearing – an upstart club trying to make it in an unfair world, while in the background slowly becoming a behemoth.

The next era is effectively the ‘party-boy/bad boy’ era, running from roughly 2001-2012/13. Like many Hollywood cautionary tales have taught us, this period starts off slowly and humbly – the Eagles at the bottom of the ladder, trying to re-instill the talent and character that had once made them so successful. Slowly their resurgence begins on-field, while worrying patterns are formed off-field. As the success of the 2005-07 team reaches its zenith, so does the off-field debauchery, leading to the ultimate collapse in the ’07 off-season. To continue the theme of the cautionary tale, the years 2008-10 provided many headaches and hangovers, while lessons were learnt and building blocks put in place for the next ascent to the (near) top. Eventually, time ran out for the true-Hollywood ending, with the Eagles ageing core succumbing to the ravages of time.

This brings us to the third (and current) era of the Eagles, running from about 2014 to present. This period is similar to the first in that it is defined by a winning culture (finals every year from 2015), some well-earned glory (2018) and some wasted years (2016, 2017 and 2019). This piece is going to focus on the period running across the last two eras – from 2007-2018 – examining the decisions made and paths taken, helping the Eagles rebuild their club from the inside out.

 

2007 – 2010: Every Journey Starts with a Step

 

The West Coast Eagles won the 2006 premiership. This is an incontrovertible fact and should not be challenged by this piece. As much as others may talk of asterisks or ‘tainted premierships’ it is apparent that if the same level of journalistic rigour was put into researching other premierships, the AFL record books would be reduced to a single page. Nevertheless, it was just a one-point win and would be foolish to claim a semblance of inevitability.

In the lead up to, and immediate aftermath of the 2006 premiership, it appeared as though West Coast were building a dynasty to at least rival their earlier reign in the first half of the 1990s, if not Brisbane’s in the early 2000s. Their midfield was unmatched, consisting of inspirational leader Ben Cousins, the electric Chris Judd, the hard-nosed Daniel Kerr, and was more than ably supported by co-stars Chad Fletcher, Andrew Embley, Michael Braun, and Tyson Stenglien; their ruck-man, Dean Cox, was revolutionising the position, combining a midfielder’s running ability with precision of both feet, elite tap work, and marking strength; their backline, headlined by dour full-back Darren Glass and versatile swing-man Adam Hunter, was rounded out by the silky-skilled David Wirrpanda and tough-as-nails Daniel Chick and Beau Waters, appearing steady at worst, and unsurpassable at best; while their forward line was, well, forward of centre. A combination of hubris, bad luck and an unhealthy reluctance to penalise misbehaving stars bought a potential dynasty crumbling down.

Almost immediately after the premiership win, things started to go sour for West Coast. An off-season trip to Las Vegas saw Chad Fletcher collapse and flat line, nearly dying from what most suspect was a drug overdose. He would spend four days in hospital before returning to Perth a changed man. In December of 2006, Ben Cousins would spend four hours in the custody of Melbourne police after having been found acting drunk and disorderly near Crown Casino. Adam Selwood, on a tour of Ireland with the International rules team, would be singled out as amongst the worst behaved players on the trip. Each of these incidents were met with little more than a shrug by the West Coast hierarchy, their attitude being that whatever the players did on their own time was their own business. Things finally came to a head in February of 2007, when Daniel Kerr pled guilty to a prior assault on a taxi driver. Though he was fined $1500 by the courts, West Coast fined him $10,000 (and suspended a further $20,000), letting the young star know that one more indiscretion would see him suspended.

If it were only those events, West Coast might have made it through the off-season intact and started 2007 refreshed and ready to do battle again. However, things were about to get worse. After missing two training sessions, West Coast’s Brownlow Medal-winning spiritual leader, Ben Cousins was indefinitely suspended, forcing the Eagles to admit that the player and the club had a drug problem. Cousins was exiled from the club for rehab treatment following the reveal of one of football’s worst kept secrets – he had an increasingly worsening addiction to methamphetamines. In April 2007, the leadership of West Coast was summoned to a meeting at AFL house where they were, in effect, read the riot act. The AFL argued that the problems of player misconduct at West Coast were far worse than any other club, and that the leaders of the club were not doing enough to curb this behaviour. It was made readily apparent to all present that this was their last chance before severe sanctions would be handed down.

On-field, however, the season couldn’t have started much better, with the Eagles winning their first six games. Indeed, but for a one-point loss to Essendon in Round 11, they would have gone into the mid-season break one game clear on top of the ladder. Despite the bright start on field, a significant issue was beginning to develop; their captain and superstar Chris Judd was showing signs of having developed the dreaded ‘OP’.

To start the season Judd was positively mesmerising, polling Brownlow votes across each of the first eight games. In the absence of Cousins, Judd had stepped up from what was already an incredibly high base to hit career-best form. A trip to Tasmania’s York Park to play Hawthorn in round nine would nearly see him rubbed out by the Tribunal – saved only by the helpful testimony of Campbell Brown. Despite avoiding suspension, the game would effectively spell the end of Judd’s glittering career at West Coast as he slowly succumbed to a groin complaint that would later be revealed to be Osteitis Pubis (OP). Yes, he would play games throughout the rest of the year (including a final which we will get to), but he wouldn’t be the same line-breaking, hip-swerving, goal-kicking midfield maestro he had been before. Where he averaged nigh on 29 touches, a goal and a quarter and two Brownlow votes a game through the first eight rounds, he would average less than 20 touches, less than a goal and accumulate zero Brownlow votes through the remainder of 2007.

With their captain subdued, their spiritual leader, Cousins, returned from sabbatical to a hero’s welcome on Saturday 21-July, just in time for West Coast’s clash with arch-nemesis Sydney. True to form, Cousins produced a masterpiece, collecting 38 disposals as West Coast defied recent convention with the Swans to win by twelve points. A mix of wins with losses through the remainder of the season saw West Coast enter the final round just 0.4% behind second-placed Port Adelaide. All that was left was for West Coast to take care of an Essendon team that had already missed qualifying for finals, and definitely didn’t have anything else to play for. Oh, except for the fact that it was favourite son James Hird, and legendary coach Kevin Sheedy’s final match. See, nothing to play for.

By three-quarter time, everything was going to script for West Coast. They held a 44-point lead over the Bombers and looked set to extend the margin and go a long way towards qualifying for second spot. As I said, Essendon had nothing to play for, and surely wouldn’t be interested in mounting a challenge, right? Well, someone forgot to tell Scott Lucas. The man who had played almost his entire career in the shadow of Matthew Lloyd, played a final quarter for the ages, kicking seven goals, nearly single-handedly dragging Essendon across the line. While he would ultimately be unsuccessful in this quest, the resulting eight-point victory to West Coast snuffed out any chance they had of a top-two finish and a home qualifying final. I’m not bitter at all, I promise.

A week later, West Coast were off to AAMI Stadium to play Port Adelaide, the scene and team of their greatest loss of 2007 – a round 15 shellacking by 91 points. This time West Coast came to play and play they did. Despite missing two integral midfielders – Daniel Kerr and Chad Fletcher – as the match entered time-on in the third quarter, West Coast led by 24 points and seemed just one or two goals away from a week off and a home Preliminary Final. Then disaster struck. With their captain hobbled with OP, their only remaining midfield dynamo – the recently returned Ben Cousins – tore his hamstring. In an image that was replicated by tens of thousands of West Coast fans across the country, Ben Cousins pounded his fist on the wall of the player’s race, as if in realisation that his and West Coast’s chances at the 2007 premiership, had been blown.

Port Adelaide would inevitably produce a thrilling comeback, hitting the front eight and a half minutes into the final quarter and never ceding the lead, winning by just three points. Bruised, battered and heartbroken, West Coast returned to Perth determined to try and keep their season alive against eventual opponent Collingwood. Selection would almost damn the Eagles, with Cousins and Kerr being joined by skipper Chris Judd on the sidelines. Only the returning Chad Fletcher would provide the midfield with any semblance of help.

The second final would play out in eerily similar fashion to the first, the major difference being that it wasn’t a hamstring injury that would prove their downfall, but a fatal coaching decision. Darren Glass had held Collingwood spearhead Anthony Rocca to just one goal through the first two and three-quarter quarters. An ill-timed rest on the interchange bench for the Eagles full-back would see the under-sized Adam Hunter out-muscled by the Collingwood full-forward, and with another goal to Travis Cloke late in the third quarter, a lead that had been as much as 22 points five minutes earlier, had been whittled down to four.

The final quarter was an epic contest, with both teams trading goals before the final siren eventually sounded to confirm the result matched that of its 1990 predecessor – a drawn final between West Coast and Collingwood. Unlike 1990, extra time would be given to decide a winner on the night. Collingwood, with fresher legs and a midfield not missing their three best players, ran out victors, prematurely ending West Coast’s season and their shot at a dynasty.

I’m almost certain that this is all that needs to be said for West Coast in 2007 – nothing else of note could surely have happened … oh wait, that’s right. If March to September had been event laden on-field, they were just an amuse-bouche for the main course that was West Coast post-finals 2007.

Two days after their season-ending loss at the hands of Collingwood, on September 16 2007, Eagles captain Chris Judd announced what had always seemed inevitable – he would be returning to Victoria for the start of the 2008 season. In the weeks following this announcement, as West Coast scrambled to try and salvage what they could for one of their greatest players ever, four clubs were announced as potential homes for Judd – Collingwood, Essendon, Melbourne and Carlton. If this was as bad as the post-season period got for West Coast – their captain electing to leave – that would have been one thing. But the situation was about to get a whole lot worse.

In the early hours of 1 October 2007, ambulances rushed former West Coast star Chris Mainwaring to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and were ultimately unable to revive him. The gutsy wingman, who had played an influential role in the Eagles 1992 and 1994 premiership successes had died at just 41 years of age from a seizure following an overdose of cocaine. While the death of a star of the 1990s may seem inconsequential to the events of a team in the mid-late 2000s, the fact that ‘Mainy’ was a close confidant of Ben Cousins, and indeed had been visited by Cousins the hours leading up to his death, was enough to send the media into overdrive.

Twenty-four hours later, Chris Judd announced Carlton, with their promising young squad and offer of a Visy ambassadorship, as his preferred destination. Forty-eight hours after Chris Mainwaring’s funeral, and after a week and a half of some haggling, West Coast and Carlton agreed on a deal that would see West Coast send Chris Judd and Pick 46 in the 2007 National Draft to Carlton, and in return receive young West Australian forward-ruck Josh Kennedy, Pick three and Pick 20 in the 2007 draft. If West Coast were to know what was to come, they may have tried to package up their own Pick 13 with Pick three and use them to try and acquire an established talent to fill the Judd-sized hole in their midfield. If they were to know what the future held, they may have made other moves, trading out established guns who still had currency for younger home-grown, and potentially home-sick, talents to take their place. Hell, if they knew what was about to happen, they may have just decided to shut up shop, and take their bat and ball and go home. But of course, they didn’t know what was around the corner – no-one ever does.

On 16 October 2007, five days after the Chris Judd trade had been completed, and only eight days after Chris Mainwaring’s funeral, Ben Cousins was pulled over by police in the Perth suburb of Northbridge, and his car was searched. Upon completion of the search, the police charged Cousins with drug possession. Just twenty-four hours later, after a history of indiscretions which included a fracas with a team-mate, alleged links to gangland figures, and running from a booze bus, West Coast cut loose their troubled star. In a sad footnote to all of this, the drug charges against Cousins were dropped by WA police two days after his arrest.

In less than seven weeks, the Eagles had gone from being the reigning premiers, trying valiantly to reclaim their title and coming up heartbreakingly short, to a club in complete disarray. They had lost two of their best players ever and one of their icons had died, leaving the club and its culture teetering on the brink of collapse. West Coast’s hierarchy could have been fooled into thinking that this was as bad as it could get. They were about to find out that there is always more space at the bottom of the barrel.

Later, in November 2007, the AFL announced that it would commission retired Victorian Supreme Court Justice E William Gillard to prepare a report on the club’s inability to deal with players drug-related transgressions. In his report (which was eventually leaked to the media in 2017), Gillard noted that, since 2001 the Eagles had the worst record of off-field player misconduct in the AFL, and that the club’s drug culture could be traced back to the year 2000, citing 34 separate events of alcohol or drug-related misconduct by Eagles players. He argued that the club’s inability to deal with these issues stemmed from “success, arrogance, [and] a belief that what the players did in their own time was their own business.”

The report by Justice Gillard also notes that West Coast players argued that they “do not choose to be role models. They do not wish to be role models. They do not have an obligation to behave as role models in public.” This opinion, he noted, was made most prominently by Judd and Cousins, and with those players no longer at the club he was satisfied that “the playing group at West Coast now has [no] senior player who have those views.” Justice Gillard would later state that “the club’s approach to discipline during the period 2001 to 2007 failed to instill a sense of responsible behaviour and led to a culture which played a significant part in the … illicit drug taking.”

Gillard finished his report by noting that, since November 2006, the Eagles executive board had begun to put into place “a number of educational programs, formed committees to strengthen discipline, engaged professionals to assist in discipline and to warn of the dangers of illicit drug taking … [t]he club is to be congratulated on its efforts and encouraged to continue them. The results to date have been good.”

Buried within the report was one example of the changing culture at West Coast. Following the heart-breaking extra-time loss against Collingwood in the semi-final, Worsfold’s post-match address acted as a line in the sand, highlighting that “the club will not tolerate players, no matter how good they are, who are undisciplined and likely to misconduct themselves thereby diverting attention away from the aim of every football club which is to win premierships.” Worsfold was quoted as saying (in a reportedly belligerent manner) that “he would rather die than take a drug”, and pointed the finger at several players (namely Cousins, Kerr and a raft of others) who he believed were responsible for the club’s premiership defence ending two weeks early.

The cleanup, which started with the club sacking Cousins, continued when West Coast said goodbye to premiership half-back, and occasional Cousins confidant, Daniel Chick. Despite several acts of heroism on the field, Chick’s conduct off the field contributed to the increasingly correct perception that many senior players at West Coast acted as a law unto themselves. Though trying to right their wrongs, the off-field events of 2007 ensured that the terms ‘drug culture’ and ‘West Coast’ would be forever linked.

The 2007 draft offered the club an opportunity to try and rebuild their depleted midfield with youth. The Eagles recruiting team attempted to fill these holes, overlooking Victorian midfielders Patrick Dangerfield and Callan Ward, to instead take homegrown talent Chris Masten with pick 3, before using pick 13 on South Australian Brad Ebert and Pick 22 (acquired in a pick swap with the Western Bulldogs) on Adam (and Troy and Joel) Selwood’s brother, Scott. While these three players would turn out to be good players in their own right, none of them would fill the holes left by Cousins and Judd.

If the off-season was tough, West Coast’s on-field 2008 season didn’t start much better. A pre-season hamstring injury to their only remaining bona-fide midfield superstar, Daniel Kerr, meant that a midfield unit that had spent the better part of the last four seasons as the envy of the competition was now significantly depleted. Though Kerr would return for the start of the season, he wouldn’t last much longer, only playing 11 games in 2008. Combined with the off-season departures of Cousins and Judd, and sudden dips in form from Chad Fletcher and Michael Braun, the Eagles greatest strength had suddenly become a weakness.

To top this, the team seemed to lack the passion, zeal and indeed, the arrogance of earlier West Coast teams, succumbing meekly to a 4 and 18 record and finishing second-last on the ladder. Where once they been warriors seeming incapable of defeat, they now appeared a broken unit, too tired to go to the well one last time. A particular low-light for the year was a round 13, 135-point hammering at the hands of Geelong, a game that saw over half of the Cats’ team rack up 20 touches each while their coach watched on eating a ham and salad roll. Interestingly, the 38,414 West Coast home fans who turned up to that game would be their highest non-Derby crowd until round 22 the following season, which saw the return of prodigal son Ben Cousins, this time in Richmond colours.

The post-season retirement of premiership wingman Michael Braun signified a further departure from the halcyon days of two years earlier. Braun, himself being once mired in controversy (though not of his own making – former Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis had ridiculously intimated that Braun had taken the performance-enhancing drug, EPO), had succumbed to the effects of over a decade’s worth of hard running, announcing his impending retirement midway through the season. In a sign of just how much things have changed, the 2008 trade period saw only six trades completed, with West Coast remaining unmoved, electing to go to the draft with the hand they acquired finishing second-last.

Much has been written about the 2008 draft, particularly the number 1 and number 2 picks, so this piece won’t need to spend too much time on it. Except to say that, in the event West Coast did have the number 1 pick, they would still have taken Swan Districts ruck-phenom Nic Naitanui every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. At pick 18, West Coast selected explosive midfielder Luke Shuey, while at later picks they overlooked Naitainui’s close friend, Michael Walters, and future stars Rory Sloane, Dan Hannebery and Dayne Beams, electing instead to draft Ashley Smith and Jordan Jones.

Off-field, changes were afoot too. An attempt to hire the Brisbane Lion great Michael Voss as John Worsfold’s number two were nixed when Leigh Matthew’s announced his resignation as coach of the Lions. Voss, unable to resist the lure of coaching his former team, took the job soon after it was offered. Not to be perturbed, the Eagles were ultimately successful in luring west recently retired Collingwood champion Scott Burns as an assistant coach, and former Melbourne Demons coach Neale Daniher as football manager. These changes saw West Coast’s match committee get its biggest shake-up since Worsfold took the reigns as coach in 2002.

Season 2009 was one of extremes for West Coast. It saw the departure of premiership quartet Adam Hunter, Chad Fletcher, Tyson Stenglein and David Wirrpanda, while also seeing the emergence of a new crop of players who seemed to promise that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

The strangeness of the season can be no better summed up than by West Coast’s Round 13 20-point victory over the reigning premier Hawthorn. A night that was characterised by torrential rain, the game was in the balance about 10 minutes into the last quarter. It must be said that, up until this point in the game, Nic Naitanui hadn’t registered a kick, and was coming off his debut the week before where he only had three. They say moments can define a career. I guess for Nic Naitanui, that ‘moment’ lasted the remaining 20 or so minutes of the match, as he proceeded to turn a game that nearly threatened to be washed away, into an event the likes of which West Coast fans (and I’m sure their marketing department) would only ever dream of. Naitanui intercepted, Naitanui burst away from players half his size, Naitanui even tried to bounce the ball on what had effectively become an extension of the Swan River. He set the game alight, kicking the three winning goals and set West Coast’s fans hearts aflutter, inspiring a love affair with the dreadlocked Fijian that continues to this day.

Outside this moment of brilliance, 2009 seemed to be following the script of the season before it – a big loss at the hands of eventual Grand-Finalists, St Kilda, and several games whose result seemed to be decided by some woeful kicking at goal by West Coast. On the bright side, the season had seen the emergence of some young players of the future – Mark LeCras, Josh Kennedy and the aforementioned Nic Nat. But just as it seemed another four-win season was on the cards a round 18 home game against Essendon saw things just click. Over the next five games, West Coast would lose once – a 74-point thrashing from Adelaide – while a combination of their youngsters and more experienced players lifted them from the worst record in football to an eventual eleventh-placed finish.

While on-field, these late season wins were cause for celebration, off-field the recruiting and drafting team must have been silently fuming. Five weeks earlier West Coast were in possession of pick 1 in what would become the last uncompromised draft before the admission of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney would see them swallow up most of the top ten picks for the next half dozen years. Now they were in possession of pick 7. Oh well – it’s not like a generational talent went before pick 7 in that draft.

West Coast would overlook two other highly rated local prospects, Kane Lucas and the mature-age Lewis Jetta, instead taking half-back Brad Sheppard with their first pick as they sought to try and rebuild their increasingly leaky defence. With their two picks in the 20s (one theirs, and one acquired in a three-team trade involving Mark Seaby, Brent Staker departing West Coast and Bradd Dalziell joining the blue and gold), West Coast took Gerrick Weedon and Koby Stevens, overlooking home-grown talents Mitch Duncan and Ben Stratton. Who said drafting was a science?

If the ending to the Eagles ’09 campaign had instilled a sense of optimism amongst West Coast supporters, they were about to realise that sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train. Where they were once full of hope and optimism at the end of 2009, winning four of their last five games, finishing the season with a skip in their step and a song in their heart, season 2010 would ensure that the pain, misery and embarrassment they had experienced at various times over the past two seasons (largely as a result of their own sins of the past) would continue for one season longer.

There was one highlight for West Coast that season – one. Mark LeCras. In a season where they finished dead last on the ladder with only four wins, LeCras would prove his class kicking 63 goals for the year and finishing third in the race for the Coleman Medal. He would also set Docklands alight one night in a rare victory for West Coast, kicking 12 goals against Essendon; a ground record that stands to this day.

That win would be sandwiched between a seven-game loss streak and a six-game loss streak, leading to West Coast’s first ever Wooden Spoon. Interestingly however, and perhaps as an indication of what was to come, West Coast would finish with a for and against scoring record not too dissimilar to sides sitting just outside the eight, suggesting that though the win-loss tally was bad, the rebuild was starting to take effect. Indeed, they may have considered themselves just a pick one away from fighting their way back to the top. About that…

As was previously mentioned, the start of the last decade saw the inclusion of two new teams into the AFL – the Gold Coast Suns in 2011 and the Greater Western Sydney Giants in 2012. As part of their introduction to the competition, and as a way to try and speed up their developments as new clubs, the AFL granted both clubs access to the elite underage talent at the top of the draft. This meant that, over the next few years, if you were a team at the top, that pick in the mid-teens may blow out to the early twenties, and if you were at the bottom, that top two or three pick may now become a pick 10. Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney would account for 24 (or just under half) of the top ten picks across the next five drafts – 2010 to 2014 – and looking further, 15 of the top five picks across these drafts would be making their way to the new expansion clubs.

With this amount of elite young talent off the table, sides finishing in the bottom four or five spots from 2010 onwards would be at a significant disadvantage in trying to rebuild through the draft. An example of this is that West Coast would find itself needing to wait until the fourth pick of the draft to be able to make their first selection – the first three going to the Gold Coast. A priority pick granted to West Coast (apparently for continued poor seasons, though the more conspiratorial could argue that it was compensation for missing out on the much-vaunted first pick of the draft) would mean that the club would also have two picks in the twenties to round out their draft hand.

Most premiership teams can look back at one draft as an important milestone in their journey. Think Hawthorn in 2004 – their haul included Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis – or Geelong’s 2001 draft – their haul included Jimmy Bartel, James Kelly, Steve Johnson and Gary Ablett jnr – or even the Western Bulldogs 2012 draft – their haul included Jake Stringer, Jack Macrae and Lachie Hunter – as examples. Coming off their first ever Wooden Spoon season, West Coast’s recruiting team made every post a winner, selecting Andrew Gaff at pick four, Jack Darling at pick 26, Scott Lycett at pick 29 and Jeremy McGovern in the rookie draft. The impact of at least two of these new recruits would be felt almost instantly.

 

Part Two – “2011-2014: A False Dawn, Followed by Some Hard Truths” coming Wednesday.

 

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