“We were competitive for three quarters, [but] fundamentally we are making too many mistakes.”
“I said to the players today: last year we were heading in the right direction, and a lot of you weren’t involved in that, but you’ve been given the opportunity the last six or seven weeks (for different reasons). . . And have you taken that opportunity? If you don’t win, and you turn the ball over more than ever, then perhaps you haven’t. . . “
“We’ll make some hard decisions in the coming weeks.”
“[We need] speed in defence, speed in the midfield, and a key forward. I imagine there’ll be more trading generally with the compromised draft.”
(Mark Harvey, Round 24 Press Conference)
It’s over for another year; Mad Monday comes too soon (again). Missing the finals and losing both the derbies might've been par for the course in the early days, but that makes for a pretty lousy season in this new era.
While he mightn’t say it often in public, it’s safe to say the coach can see the problems that brought Fremantle's 2011 campaign undone:
(a) poor final quarters in Melbourne (Richmond, Melbourne, St Kilda, Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs were all close games at 3/4 time);
(b) a lack of depth in the club’s back-half of the list (admittedly many AFL clubs would be exposed fielding these players);
(c) a need to brutally assess who can make it at this level (read: stellar WAFL form can only tell you so much); and
(d) an improvement in the speed of our defensive and midfield options - along with the all-important key forward.
Watching the side play since the SCG win, it occurred to this author that 2011 had some eery similarities to another doomed campaign: 2004.
In 2003, Chris Connolly took a young group (unexpectedly) to the finals: the supporters were jubilant; in fact, we’d never been so happy. The following year, everything looked on track for successive finals appearances. We were 11-7, chasing the last of the top four places, and hosting Collingwood at Subiaco on a Friday night. Sadly, the players didn’t turn up. Like the supporters, they must’ve started believing it was magically going to happen; that this is what good sides do, win games in the final rounds of the season and automatically roll into the top eight on reputation and promise. We didn’t win another game for the year, finishing 11-11 and missing the eight.
The 2004 v 2011 analogy can only go so far. Plainly this is a better list, almost certainly the club's best collection of talent in its short history. Also there is a clear mitigating factor in the team’s development this year - so clear this author doesn’t even need to dwell on it. Before the ‘must-win‘ game against Collingwood in Round 23, the club’s injury list read as follows:
Hayden Ballantyne - hamstring: 1-2 weeks
Greg Broughton - ribs: test
Jesse Crichton - knee: 3 weeks
Matt de Boer - knee: 5 weeks
Antoni Grover - soreness: test
Roger Hayden- leg: 3 weeks
Adam McPhee - foot: 1-2 weeks
Josh Mellington - elbow: 4 weeks
Viv Michie - foot: season
Anthony Morabito - knee: season
David Mundy - ankle: 1-2 weeks
Matthew Pavlich - calf: 1-2 weeks
Dylan Roberton - ankle: 2 weeks
Gavin Roberts - quad: season
Alex Silvagni - concussion: test
Jay van Berlo - groin: season
Michael Walters - knee: 4 weeks
Add Sandilands (who’d been on and off the physio’s table all season) and Barlow (coming back from the toughest injury in football) who did play that week, and it’s almost comical. An injury list like this affects everything; even down to what the coaches can do in training. The white flag had been raised. Mark Harvey said just as much after the North Melbourne loss in Round 22 (and as a man who physically threatened Essendon club doctors so he could play through a foot injury in the 1993 Grand Final, he would know a thing or two about playing through pain).
Was 2011 the season we had to have (so to speak)? Perhaps. Only time will tell. In the coming weeks the major newspapers will write their season obituaries, forecast their delisting and speculate on players who could move at the trade table. This author will avoid similar, partly because he isn’t connected enough to know and mostly because these players are people too: who try week in and week out to do their best and don’t deserve a lot of the nasty things the internet says about them.
Who are the players who’ve certainly improved?
(a) Nick Lower has done everything he’s been asked this year and more. A high placing in the Doig Medal count would be a just reward for a player all supporters have grown to admire;
(b) Zac Clarke. The project player has come a long way in a short space of time, moving ahead of Griffin in the pecking order and giving the team real flexibility. Comparisons to Natinui are unfair: he is just fine being himself, and if he develops Dean Cox-like endurance and kicking skills, then All-Australian honours await him;
(c) Nat Fyfe. Who can say a bad word about this kid? Has there been a young player at the club that’s caused more excitement? Taking into account the odd skill error, he is clearly a champion in the making;
(d) Luke McPharlin has had another strong year, both mentoring the young defenders and covering for the loss of Tarrant. He will be sorely missed when his time comes in the next few seasons;
(e) Michael Barlow returned to full fitness, a pretty incredible achievement in itself.
This author remains of the view our best 22 is better than a lot of teams we lost to this year: certainly Richmond, Melbourne, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs in the final game today, and quite possibly Sydney, Essendon and Carlton (who all play finals this year).
Although it's been a disappointing season in many respects, it could be worse: we could be one of the Adelaide teams; we could be GWS or Gold Coast, stacked with draft picks but handing out flyers in shopping malls to recruit new members; we could be one of those weaker Melbourne teams who bottomed out at the wrong time and face years before they mount a decent challenge.
Worst of all we could've seen our best side, with fully fit Sandis, Morabitos and Barlows up and running, fail to live up to their expectations, as they did in 2004. At least with so many players to come back, we can remain hopeful 2011 will be the exception rather than the rule; that there is a top four finish, a Grand Final appearance, or even a premiership in this group. Hopefully we'll look back on 2011 as the year we traded well, cut some fat from the list, and had a group come together tougher and better after a deflating season.
Hopefully is the operative word of course. It's up to the club and players. As supporters, we can only hope.