AFL

For the Fremantle Dockers, the slow road to success has been paved with good intentions, some ugly footy and flashes of  wizardry. Finally, the club’s devoted fans have hit a gratifying purple patch. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The slow rise of the Fremantle Dockers

Fremantle Dockers players celebrate a goal during their round 12 clash with the Brisbane Lions at Perth’s Optus Stadium on June 5.
Fremantle Dockers players celebrate a goal during their round 12 clash with the Brisbane Lions at Perth’s Optus Stadium on June 5.
Credit: Paul Kane / Getty Images

In the late noughties, I asked a senior colleague, who was once the Fremantle Dockers’ chief executive, an impertinent question: Why do Freo suck so much? I wasn’t being facetious. As a Dockers fan, I was asking in a mood of despairing curiosity. After all, for more than a decade the club had seemed stubbornly untouched by the egalitarian stabilisers of salary caps and the draft system.

Freo’s lack of success, in fact, seemed aberrant when compared with the other interstate expansion teams, for whom quick success was the norm. Consider: their city rivals, the West Coast Eagles, played their first season in 1987 – and made the finals the next year. Three years after that, they made their first grand final; a year after that, they had their first flag. The Adelaide Crows played their first season in 1991, made their first finals appearance in 1993, and before the end of the decade had won two consecutive premierships. In 1997, two new teams entered the competition: the Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide. The Lions made the finals in their debut season, and in 2001 won the first of three consecutive flags. Port Adelaide had only to wait until 1999 for their first finals appearance, and were minor premiers by 2002. They had their own flag in 2004. (Some qualification is required here: the Brisbane Bears had existed since 1987; the Brisbane Lions were conceived in a merger between the Bears and Fitzroy Lions. Port Adelaide, meanwhile, was a proud and ultra-successful SANFL team, started in 1870.)

Fremantle? First season 1995, first finals appearance 2003, first finals win 2006. It wasn’t until 2013 that the team made a grand final, and a flag still eludes them. Depending upon your allegiance, the team’s symbol – an anchor – was either a great joke or a bleak omen.

My colleague graciously indulged my question. He said there was a problem of culture and gave one example to illustrate it. One evening, the players were obliged to show up at the club for a meet-and-greet with a sponsor. It was an ordinary request and the conditions weren’t onerous: be punctual, be polite and wear the team’s casual polo shirt. And some pants – any pants.

But on this one evening, a star player conspicuously defied all of these conditions. Arriving in a loud sports car, he announced his entrance with a burnout. Already late and arguably uncivil, the player emerged from his smoking chariot wearing boardies, thongs and a random T-shirt.

The problem? That the star player went undisciplined. This, my colleague said, would not have been tolerated at the West Coast Eagles, where they had the institutional confidence – reinforced by success and a swollen membership – to assert the club’s integrity. Over there, he would’ve been fined and/or suspended.

This seemed a persuasive, if incomplete, argument to me at the time: that Fremantle were insufficiently confident and respected as a club to inspire every individual’s commitment and allegiance – whether it be to game day strategy or corporate decorum. Of course, this argument left much out: scouting, coaching, list management and the attrition rates of homesick Victorian players.

In hindsight, this argument seems more than just incomplete. Around the same time, the West Coast Eagles were both excelling and cultivating a floridly dangerous drug culture. Two members of their brilliant midfield, Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr, were developing addictions that would nearly kill them, and would result in episodic psychosis and imprisonment. After a delirious club holiday in Las Vegas, Chad Fletcher’s heart stopped on a hospital bed. Michael Gardiner began wearing gang colours and refused to help police after a nightclub shooting involving his underworld mates. Ben Sharp, drafted in 2004, would blame his later imprisonment for armed robbery on a cocaine addiction begun at the club. Cousins’ mentor, the TV personality and former Eagles midfielder Chris Mainwaring, fatally overdosed in 2007 – Cousins was one of the last to see him alive. “I could tell you stories that would put your hair on end,” Fred Gere told me in 2016 about the football club. Gere was a senior Western Australia Police Force officer who investigated organised crime and outlaw motorcycle gangs – a radar upon which a few Eagles flew. “There was a culture of denials [and] I’m disappointed in how the club dealt with this stuff. But go back – the West Coast Eagles in the ’80s were in denial mode too.”

“Denial” was the word Hendy Cowan used a lot too when I spoke with him. Cowan was the former deputy premier of Western Australia, and asked by the Eagles to lead an investigation into club culture in 2007.

So, in this light, the inadequate punishment of Freo’s joker in the car park doesn’t quite add up. West Coast weren’t exactly disciplining their players appropriately either. But they were winning.

 

If Freo’s lack of success mystified me, it has made their few triumphs much sweeter. The team’s first finals win away from home came against Geelong, at the MCG in 2012, when I watched incredulously from behind the goals as Matthew Pavlich kicked six against the reigning premiers. Freo lost the next week to Adelaide, but the following season found their way to the grand final against a dynastic Hawthorn. They were now the beneficiaries of coach Ross Lyon, who had controversially assumed the role in 2011 – and then successfully applied the brutal lessons of ultra-press footy that he had learnt as Paul Roos’ assistant at Sydney. Freo became the kings of flooding – of having sufficiently athletic and manically devoted players close down all possible space.

After almost two uniquely fallow decades, Freo was finally dominant – but with a style of play that its most severe critics believed was destroying the game, and coach Lyon became a national villain. “These orchestrators, or evil geniuses, have fundamentally changed the character of the game,” wrote sports historian Stephen Alomes in The Age. “Gyms, rugby league-style tackling and aerobic capacity have created the new siege game perfected in all its ugliness by Fremantle. While … some talented players … temporarily redeem the ugliness, the game they play is not football.”

But it was footy, just as much as a modern city street that has complemented its heritage buildings with glass and steel is still a city street. Lyon designed his aesthetically ugly but formidable style upon the fundamentals, a style that derived from great advances in player speed, strength and endurance. It would be weirdly pious and self-defeating for a coach to prefer some aesthetic ideal of footy, based on a past time when there was more space on the field – largely because players weren’t in the gym all day but were instead working their farms or laying bricks.

I confess to finding rolling scrums boring to watch, and if coaches can design more fluent, attractive and effective systems – then, please. But surely the game’s development should largely be in the hands of the coaches and players, rather than the reactionary bean counters, policy fiddlers and drunkenly nostalgic fans. Systems naturally become tired, exploitable and replaced. So I say let them evolve as naturally as possible without the anxious intrusions of administrators.

As it was, Lyon’s reviled tactics weren’t enough on our sole grand final day in 2013. I sat at a vertiginous height in the MCG, alone and surrounded by Hawthorn fans, as I watched Nat Fyfe miss a sitter and wondered bitterly why Hayden Ballantyne couldn’t turn without slipping over. Freo weren’t too far off that day, and I was grateful the Hawthorn fans didn’t jeer my lonely exit after the final siren, but my team soon slipped off the pace. Fremantle were minor premiers in 2015, but the very next season fell off a cliff and finished 16th.

But if club success eluded the Dockers, they had plenty of individuals to love. The industrious and skilful Peter Bell; the spectacularly idiosyncratic Clive Waterhouse. In Pavlich, we had the greatest full-forward of the modern era to have never won a flag (apologies, Nick Riewoldt), and we watched Nat Fyfe develop from a scrawny country kid to some rare combination of wizard, Thor and Calvin Klein model.

But David Mundy I loved the most. Had he played in Melbourne, I believe a statue would have already been erected. He turns 37 next month, and is still ripping balls from centre packs, spinning out of tackles and cleanly distributing the ball into productive space. Last year, for the first few rounds, this modest veteran was up the top of the Brownlow tally. He’s now played 360-plus games and for more than a decade has run the midfield with a rare influence, grace and humility. He has done hard things very well, and quietly.

 

In November last year, Fremantle chief executive Simon Garlick boldly publicised the club’s ambitions. This rarely happens. By 2025, Garlick said, Freo will have won at least one AFL and AFLW flag, have achieved three top-four finishes, and averaged 50,000 fans at Optus Stadium. Membership would hit 80,000 and the club’s often derided symbol – the anchor – would be proudly embraced, by periodic revivals of the original jersey.

Garlick said these ambitions were not arbitrary but the fruit of serious analysis. Naturally, I was sceptical. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Fremantle sit third midway through the season, and in the past two weeks have convincingly beaten the top two teams. Their midfield has been variously creative, patient, skilful and fast – and the defence uncannily resilient. Andrew Brayshaw is a future Brownlow medallist, Sean Darcy has superbly replaced the irreplaceable Aaron Sandilands in ruck, and Matt Taberner has developed a bloody good impersonation of Pavlich. Most excitingly, the team have done this with youth – and without dual-Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe.

For me there’s still just one team in it this year: Melbourne. But for Dockers fans, it’s a delicious period of hope and pleasure. I can only pray that the future includes a statue of Mundy on Freo’s South Terrace and, finally, a flag. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Freo spirit".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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