2011-2014: A False Dawn, Followed by Some Hard Truths

 

The 2011 season brought with it a sense of trepidatious hope for the West Coast faithful. Would the season be much the same as previous years, with wins coming as rarely as well-thought-out AFL rule changes? Despite the lop-sided win-loss ratio, their coach at the time, John Worsfold, had been consistent in his messaging over the previous two seasons, arguing that he was building a playing group that would be top-four contenders by 2012. In a town like Perth, and for a club like West Coast, any plans for success that have an end date beyond a week in the future is taken as a sign of incompetence, so you can imagine the heat surrounding the coaches, let alone the players, coming into a new season.

They needn’t have worried, as 2011 would provide the requisite justification for the plans that had been long-gestating. Josh Kennedy and Mark LeCras proved to be a devastating one-two punch in the forward line and were joined by draftee Jack Darling to further bolster the forward half. The teaming up of Cox and Naitanui in the ruck started to pay dividends, as the older Cox wound back time to make a fifth All-Australian team, while Naitanui would start to deliver on his great promise. Things were also falling into shape in the back half, with Eric MacKenzie partnering Darren Glass to provide the club with their steadiest tall defender duo since Adam Hunter partnered Glass half a decade earlier. Throw in rejuvenated veterans Kerr, Embley, Mark Nicoski and Quinten Lynch, and round out with precocious rookie displays from Shuey and Gaff, West Coast’s return to the top seems much more likely.

Off-field, things were changing too. The hirings of assistant coaches Phil Walsh and David Teague added some much-needed tactical nous in the coach’s box. They also hired their first (and currently only) Integrity Officer, Peter Staples, a former Police Sergeant with over 30 years’ experience, highlighting the club’s determination to move on from the sins of the past.

The season would start off promisingly enough, with the Eagles falling into a pattern of essentially winning games at home and losing games away. At 5-4 after nine rounds, they were sitting in the top eight and had their fans starting to dream of a return to September action. The final three months of the season would make those dreams a reality, as the Eagles won 12 of their final 13 games to finish with a 17-5 record. Astonishingly, this was only the fourth-best record in the competition, with Collingwood, Geelong and Hawthorn all finishing above them, meaning that West Coast would travel to Melbourne to take on reigning premiers, Collingwood.

It might be helpful here to say a few words on the relationship between then Collingwood coach (and former West Coast premiership coach) Mick Malthouse and then West Coast coach (and former West Coast premiership captain) John Worsfold. It’s generally agreed that the hiring of Mick Malthouse as West Coast coach in 1990 signified the most important hire in West Coast history. He bought with him the hardness that West Coast had lacked in their early years, as well as an outsider ‘us-against-them’ spirit that sits barely under the surface of the normal West Australian football fan. Malthouse would make Worsfold the lone vice-captain in 1990, before promoting him to be captain from 1991, starting an eight-year reign (1991-1998) of captain and coach that saw West Coast make finals each year, make three grand finals and win two premierships.

Based on the above, one would assume that the two men would have a close relationship with one another, but as the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. In fact, the relationship between the two, though respectful, could be deemed ‘testy’. Much of this has to do with the way it all ended. Cast your mind back, fair reader, to September 1998. Aerosmith’s ‘I don’t wanna miss a thing’ was at the top of the music charts, men the world over were worried about getting their ‘franks-and-beans’ caught in their fly, thanks to number one movie ‘There’s Something About Mary’, and West Coast were entering their ninth consecutive finals campaign. Their form leading into the finals had been less than stellar, losing the final two games to fall from having the third-best record in the AFL to the seventh. With the funky way the finals were conducted in 1998, this meant that they would play the team that finished second – the Western Bulldogs.

With their backs to the wall, and little hope of victory, one would assume that Malthouse and the match committee would select their inspirational captain, hoping for one last gutsy effort, or at least as a fond farewell to one of the clubs favourite sons. This did not happen, as ‘allegedly’ minutes before the game was about to start, Worsfold, and the rest of the players, would receive the news that he was left out of the team that would eventually go on to lose by 72 points.  In the aftermath, players would say that they were on a hiding to nothing as soon as they ran out onto the ground, knowing that their captain was not alongside them. Malthouse would argue that Worsfold was injured for the game – a claim disputed by Worsfold. Worsfold would retire soon after the match, ending his playing career on an unsatisfying, if not acrimonious note.

All of this is to say that games between West Coast and Collingwood, already with a lot of history behind them, became extra-spicy when considering the coaching match-up of Malthouse v. Worsfold.

West Coast would start their first final in four years well, kicking three of the first four goals before Collingwood midfielder Sharrod Wellingham kicked three goals for the ‘Pies, giving them the lead half-way through the second quarter. Though West Coast would continually challenge the Pies, including cutting the margin to seven points with about ten minutes to play in the last quarter, Collingwood’s class won out, with Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan combining for more than eighty disposals, and Leon Davis, Ben Johnson and Heath Shaw showcasing their elite kicking skills across half-back.

West Coast’s second final saw them play another club they had a little bit of history with – Carlton. Four seasons on from the Judd trade, the former West Coast Brownlow/Norm Smith/premiership Medallist/ex-Captain was now fully ensconced in Carlton history, having won the 2010 Brownlow medal as well as the three previous John Nicholls medals. The player that Carlton had traded for Judd, Josh Kennedy, was just coming into the peak of his career, and was turning out to be reasonably talented too, making the question of ‘who won the trade’ trickier by the game.

It would be neither Judd nor Kennedy who made the headlines early in the game, as Carlton’s fleet-footed small-forward brigade proved too dangerous for West Coast’s back-line to handle, with Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett kicking or having a hand in each of Cartlon’s first four goals. The next forty minutes saw West Coast respond in kind, kicking nine of eleven goals, Kennedy starting to flex his muscles with two of these. A late goal on the half-time siren meant that Carlton were still within striking distance at the long break, the margin having been cut-back to eleven points.

The game would follow this pattern for the second half – West Coast getting out to a handy lead, Carlton cutting the margin back. Pat McGinnity, coming on as the sub half-way through a tense final term, stood up to kick an important goal and set up another as the Eagles kicked away to a 21-point lead with seven minutes left to play. However, as West Coast fans have become accustomed to, a late charge by Carlton saw the margin cut back to just three points with three minutes of playing time remaining. West Coast would hold on, winning by three points to sew up their first finals victory since the premiership win in 2006.

A return to Melbourne the following week to take on eventual 2011 premiers Geelong proved a step too far for West Coast, as they went down by 48 points. The Cats midfield were just too strong; a theme that was becoming all too common against the best sides in the comp. Despite this, as West Coast looked towards 2012, they had reason to feel confident of a better result – their forward line had proven to be elite, their defence was strong and their ruck division was amongst, if not the best in the comp. With a bit of luck on their side, a serious shot at the premiership looked really possible.

Anyone who tells you luck is not involved in winning a premiership believes way too much in manifest destiny. Luck absolutely is involved. Did the ball bounce left instead of right? Bad luck, you lose. Did the umpire award a dodgy free-kick in the opponents forward-line? Bad luck, you lose. Did your runner get in your way when trying to take a mark? Bad luck, you lose. This isn’t to say that teams that win premierships are wholly reliant on luck – you need to balance form, injury, selections, tactics, individual needs of players, the needs of the media, ego, the fixture and any rule changes the AFL decides to make from week-to-week all before luck is involved.

This is all to say that in 2012, luck was very rarely on the Eagles side. In February, Mark LeCras tore his ACL, ruling him out for the year. In the final pre-season match, Mark Nicoski tore his hamstring off the bone, an injury that eventually would see him retire adding no more games to his tally. Before the season started, West Coast had bid farewell to almost a hundred goals from the previous season. Then, in a round five clash against Richmond, the West Coast forward line would be further depleted, as Josh Kennedy succumbed to a foot complaint ruling him out for the next four months. This left the job of leading the forward line on the muscular yet immature shoulders of Jack Darling, with recent trade acquisition Josh Hill and the tree-trunk-legged Quinten Lynch as his co-stars.

Nevertheless, West Coast would enter their Round 13 match at the MCG against familiar foe Collingwood, on top of the ladder with a 9-2 record – one of these losses being by just two points. A tight see-sawing encounter would eventually see Collingwood victorious by three points, eclipsing West Coast as the team to beat. Successive losses to Sydney and Adelaide, and a later season loss to home-town foes Fremantle left West Coast one win from top place with a round to play. Unfortunately, the team they played was Hawthorn – historic vanquishers of West Coast dreams. This was no exception. Hawthorn made sure this game was a fait accompli before half-time, entering the long break with a 38-point lead. Although West Coast would cut the deficit to within four goals halfway through the final term, they were never in the hunt and eventually lost by 25 points, consigning the team to a fifth-place finish and a home elimination final.

There are plenty of things that are overrated in football. The difficulty of a fixture being decided in November the previous year, anyone who is declared a ‘winner’ in trade week, any ‘good-call, bad-call’ segment on Footy Classified, Damian Barratt’s ‘Sliding Doors’ column; but nothing is ever really as overrated as a home elimination final. The only team that has ever won a premiership from an elimination final was the Western Bulldogs, and that wasn’t a home elimination final. AFL history, at least since 2000, is littered with examples of teams who obliterate a team at home in an elimination final and look unbeatable while doing so, only to lose the following week when they match up against a higher-ranked team. Does this mean that we should abandon the top eight, and instead have a top six, with a ‘wildcard weekend’ where 7th plays 10th and 8th plays 9th? No, that’s overrated too.

Look, what I mean to say is that the Eagles won the elimination final against North Melbourne by 96 points, but then fell short against Collingwood the following week. Am I bitter? Possibly. Should West Coast stop meeting Collingwood in finals? Maybe. Do I think the final 8 should be changed to a final 6, with a wildcard weekend for teams placed 7th to 10th? No, stop bringing that up.

West Coast approached the 2012 trade period looking to bolster their weakest division – the midfield. Since 2007, West Coast had lost Ben Cousins, Chris Judd, Chad Fletcher, Michael Braun, Tyson Stenglein and Daniel Chick from their premiership-winning midfield group, losing a cumulative nine All-Australians, two Brownlow medals, six club champion awards, and almost 1000 games experience. They had replaced them with Matt Priddis, plus youngsters Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey, Chris Masten and Scott Selwood. They were still getting good-to-great returns from the ageing trio of Daniel Kerr, Andrew Embley and Dean Cox, but knew that their time was running out.

The approach of Western Australian clubs to trade week tends to centre around trying to lure home West Aussies from over East, the belief being that it is much easier to bring a player home than take them away from their home. West Coast did just this, trading their first-round pick in the draft (pick 18 after all those pesky concessions) for 24-year-old Collingwood mid, Sharrod Wellingham, and two second-round picks for 20-year-old Saints half-forward Jamie Cripps.

On paper, the trade for Wellingham seemed like a home run. Yes, they would be giving up a first-round pick (a first-round pick that Collingwood would use to draft Brodie Grundy), but they would be getting back a guy who had played nearly one hundred games, had played in a premiership, and could do both an offensive and defensive role in the midfield. Of course, they hadn’t taken into account Wellingham’s affinity for trampolines, nor his inability to dismount from said trampoline without hurting his ankle. Wellingham would miss the first five games of the 2013 season with an ankle injury, and indeed his season would barely get going as he played just ten games for the year.

Wellingham’s fate in 2013 mirrored that of West Coast, as the highs of the previous two seasons, where the form of the team had been driven by the senior players, was shown to be a false dawn. Their senior group, the last vestige of the 2006 premierships side, had simply run out of puff and the young group that they had been building since 2007 were not yet ready to replace them. The exhaustion of the senior group is best exemplified by the retirements which were to happen at the end of the season. West Coast bid farewell to premiership heroes Daniel Kerr, Adam Selwood and 2006 Norm Smith medallist Andrew Embley. This left just four players from the 06 team on the list for the 2014 season – captain Darren Glass, ruckman Dean Cox and defenders Sam Butler and Beau Waters.

On top of this, the 2013 season would also be the last of John Worsfold’s reign at the club. In total, he had been with the club for 24 of their 27 seasons to date. His 12 seasons as coach, coupled with his eight as captain ensuring his legacy as a West Coast immortal. Indeed, he remains the only man in VFL/AFL history to captain and then coach the same club to a premiership (as opposed to captain/coach)  At a club like West Coast, which prides itself on its stability of leadership, the departure of a figure of Worsfold’s stature is enormous and it left a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

The distrust felt by West Australians towards outsiders cannot be overstated. Perhaps it goes back to the creation of the ‘Brisbane Line’ in World War 2 which would have seen Western Australia essentially left to its own devices had an invasion by the Japanese occurred which created this distrust. Perhaps it goes back further, to a 1933 referendum for secession which was agreed to by 68% of the WA public but would inevitably be refused by the Crown. Perhaps it goes back further still, to the Federation of Australia itself which left WA out of the preamble to the constitution due to WA’s support for Federation coming too late for the document to be re-drafted. Regardless of wherever it started, it is here, and it is real.

This distrust of outsiders manifests as an almost pathological hatred of ‘Vics’ when it comes to football. Seldom are Victorians embraced by WA, and even when they are (like Mick Malthouse and Chris Judd) it’s conditional. It is in this atmosphere that West Coast approached hiring a new coach. In short time, there were two stand out candidates; former West Coast premiership full-forward/premiership assistant coach Peter Sumich and former North Melbourne premiership player, and current Alastair Clarkson lieutenant Adam Simpson. Sumich had spent the past two seasons at Fremantle under Ross Lyon, helping to take the club to their first grand final in their nearly twenty-year existence, while Simpson had spent the past four seasons at Hawthorn under Alastair Clarkson, helming a midfield and forward line which had bettered Lyon and Sumich’s Fremantle for the 2013 premiership.

It would be fair to say that the WA media expected West Coast to hire Sumich as head coach. Indeed, by the end of September, Kim Hagdorn reported that West Coast had all but signed up Sumich, with an announcement to come in a couple of days. The announcement did come a couple of days later, but it wasn’t Sumich, rather Simpson who was appointed to the role. At the press conference announcing Simpson’s hiring then-West Coast Chairman Alan Cransberg pointed to Simpson’s innovative thinking and player-engagement style of leadership as traits that had won him the job, and Simpson was quick to ingratiate himself with West Coast fans by commenting on how the club and its leadership was admired over East.

Off-field changes also saw the departure of Scott Burns, Phil Walsh, David Teague and Neale Daniher. Simpson replaced these with his own men, bringing across Craig Vozzo, Adrian Hickmott, Don Pyke, Brady Rawlings and Daniel Pratt to fill out the coaching and match committee ranks.

There are moments in a club’s history where they happen upon an opportunity, not through sheer hard work, but rather others bad decisions. Much has been written about Brisbane’s ‘go home five’ – the group of players who, at the end of the 2013 season, cited homesickness as reasons for leaving Brisbane. Amongst these was Elliot Yeo, a former pick 30 in the 2011 draft from East Fremantle, who had shown great speed and athletic ability at half-back across his first two seasons in maroon. A life-long Fremantle supporter, it was Yeo’s desire to join the 2013 Grand-finalists. Fremantle, believing they had a surplus of players similar to Yeo, declined the opportunity to trade for the youngster, leaving West Coast as the only bidder for his services. Pick 28 would go to Brisbane, and Yeo would don the blue and gold.

A swap of draft picks with Collingwood would see West Coast send picks 6 and 44 to the Pies for Picks 11, 31 and 49, while a third-round compensation pick acquired three years prior would go to Gold Coast in exchange for pick 43. West Coast would eventually welcome in highly-rated local midfield prospect Dom Sheed with pick 11, and tall defender Tom Barrass with pick 43, while upgrading three players, including Jeremy McGovern, to the senior list.

The first season under a new coach can always be a difficult one to read. Players are trying to get their heads around a new game-plan, while players and coaches alike are trying to build relationships with one another. Though West Coast would miss the finals in Simpson’s first season, there were enough moments to encourage supporters and show that the club was on the right track. Simpson worked hard to balance experience with youth, challenging players to add more strings to their bow.

A late season revival saw West Coast win five of their final seven games, a run that would have seen them in September action had it not been eclipsed by Richmond’s astonishing nine-win streak to end the home and away season. Increased output by the likes of Shuey, Gaff and Hurn, and elite seasons by Eric MacKenzie and Matt Priddis, the latter capping it off with an unlikely Brownlow medal win, led to confidence within the group that good times were to come.

Of course, one cannot mention West Coast’s 2014 season without mentioning Jeremy McGovern. A man who had spent the previous three seasons on the club’s rookie list before being upgraded to the senior list, turned up to the first pre-season session badly in need of a run. Simpson obliged by sending him away for a few weeks, letting the youngster know that this season could well be his last. McGovern responded by returning to the club in shape good enough to be selected in a round six match against Carlton. He’d get dropped following the loss but would return for a Round 12 clash with Hawthorn in Tasmania, and never be dropped again. There are some guys who just get football, and McGovern’s 2014 season proved he was one of those.

2014 also saw the departures of two West Coast greats – former premiership duo Darren Glass and Dean Cox. Glass, three-time All-Australian full-back, was club captain between 2008-2014, leading the players through the greatest cultural shift in the club’s history. Cox, meanwhile, was the very model of the modern new age ruckman, combining a midfielder’s tank with elite kicking skills off both sides of the body on his way to six All-Australian selections. With their departures, over 550 games of experience were lost, as well as invaluable on-field leadership. Time had come for the both – Cox was increasingly being supplanted in the team by young ruckman Scott Lycett, while Glass was feeling the pressure from young guns Will Schofield and Jeremy McGovern.

After a busy 2013 trade period, the Eagles elected not to be involved in the 2014 version, deciding instead to take their picks to the draft. They selected Liam Duggan with their first selection, hoping that the youngster would add to the group of half-backs with midfield potential they were putting together.

 

Look for the final part of this series on Friday

 

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