Years ago I worked with a former CEO of the Freo Dockers. For months I desperately wanted to ask him: what’s wrong with us? The Dockers shunned the gentle, egalitarian cycles of success in the league. We were stubbornly, anomalously awful. Come 2004 we had been around for a decade but had reached the eight only once—and we no longer had the excuse of immaturity. Not that that argument ever had much muscle: West Coast were minor premiers within five years and premiers in six. It took Port eight seasons to hoist the flag, and their intra-city rivals Adelaide just seven. The Dockers have now taken 18 seasons just to reach a grand final.
And so as the two of us drove to a function one night, I finally asked him: why do we suck? The numbers didn’t lie, they spoke of structural dysfunction. Something resistant to good luck. Something that doomed the club if left uncorrected. And his response? “We have never had a really strong coach. Someone strategically gifted, but also remarkable with players. Someone bold, respected and can impose a certain culture. A Malthouse or a Sheedy.”
True enough, I thought. Clubs need a strong captain and coach who, through a combination of gifts—athletic, strategic, emotional, ethical—can cohere competing personalities and styles. The agent of that coherence is most often mutual respect.
Still, I thought, it seemed too simple. The idea that a new coach might immediately reverse the ennui. But, the ex-chairman told me, without that influence you have chaos. And he told me a story about Jeff Farmer.
At the end of 2001 Farmer was traded to Freo from Melbourne. He’d scored 259 goals for the Dees, and acquired the nickname “The Wizard” for the freakish creativity of so many of them.
But Farmer was a thug. In 2004 he pleaded guilty to bashing his girlfriend; he was later convicted of assaulting a bouncer. There were other acts of social deviance, but they were often met with equivocation from Docker management. Here’s ex-coach Mark Harvey on Farmer after another “incident”: “You just don’t like to deprive people and supporters of their best players.”
The illustrative story this ex-CEO gave about Farmer was this: the Freo players were told of an obligatory meet-and-greet with a corporate sponsor. They were told to arrive at their ground’s function room punctually, and wearing neat attire—Dockers polo and jeans would suffice. No boardies, no thongs.
Well, Farmer shows up late and drunk, obnoxiously announcing his arrival with burnouts in the car-park with his sports car. He was wearing—you guessed it—board shorts and thongs. He was petulant and loud and did everyone a favour when he left early. Again, the smell of burnt rubber.
What happened to Farmer? Apparently nothing. The old CEO told me standards weren’t sufficiently enforced and Farmer’s destructive presence never corrected. Thugishness, disrespect and cocky insularity were free to infect club coherence. A good coach, he said, would’ve punished him severely. Under a better coach, he thought, it would never have happened.
Now it’s 2013 and Freo are in the Grand Final. The captain Matthew Pavlich has said Lyon is the best coach he’s worked for. Luke McPharlin has said that the whole team has “bought into” Lyon’s philosophy, and “if you’re not buying in you stand out like a sore thumb, because the critical mass of players are.”
Lyon has introduced a ruthlessly effective system, and engendered sufficient respect for players to assume their respective roles within it. So it’s not just about strategic acumen—it’s also about a culture of camaraderie that disinclines messy freelancers. The sum—it’s hoped—might become greater than its parts.
It didn’t seem likely that a man who had assumed the coaching gig so scurrilously could have created such a culture. If you recall, Lyon had allowed his management to seek a deal with St. Kilda even while he was secretly dealing with Freo. Neither Lyon’s agent, his players or Freo’s coach Mark Harvey knew. It was as ruthless as his defensive press, and he ended his time with the Saints without an honest farewell to the players. Commentator Gerard Whateley wrote: “Lyon’s defection from St. Kilda to the helm of Fremantle will stand as the low point on a football landscape riddled with dishonesty and treachery.”
So it’s hard to reconcile that with the strong, successful culture of today’s Freo. Is it simply that Lyon’s will has been imperiously imposed on the club? It’s more likely this than Lyon’s culture coming from an empathic touch. And once his system began paying dividends, the players “bought in”. Success begets success.
There’s something else that’s difficult to reconcile. Here’s Whateley again on Lyon’s brand of footy: “The Dockers will be driven to such uncompromising and relentless footy as has been the Saint’s trademark. But those who are honest and don’t curry favour will declare it borderline unwatchable.”
For every Dockers fan who nakedly considers Lyon Ball a triumph solely because it’s successful, there’s another footy fan that thinks Freo’s defensive grid isn’t just throttling its opposition’s forward line, it’s throttling the game’s spark, spontaneity and fluidity. It’s chosen effectiveness over beauty.
And for every Freo fan who celebrates Ryan Crowley as the game’s best tagger, there’s another fan who considers Crowley a cynic, someone paid to vandalise the flair of the game’s best players.
All of which is insupportably romantic. Crowley has a role to play—his club and its culture demands it. The price of success is his villainy, and he’s willing to pay it.
There’s something else to be said about Lyon Ball. Anyone who watched Freo school Sydney last week didn’t watch a dour, bloodless performance. The second quarter was astonishing. No, it wasn’t Hawthorn’s artful aggression. Nor was it the Suns’ weird, joyful childishness. It was fanatical—but the ferocity was exhilarating. Here were wild-eyed and hungry men hurling themselves around an oval in perfect, ultra-aggressive harmony. Bugger beauty, here come the Freo Dockers.