Flint-hard Dockers the image of their coach
Essendon great Matthew Lloyd says the new-look Fremantle Dockers, complete with their hardened edge and defensive commitment, are now playing in the image of their coach, Mark Harvey.
And Lloyd should know, for Harvey was his mentor during their long association at Windy Hill.
That partnership developed when a teenage Lloyd joined the Bombers in 1995 just as Harvey’s career, firstly as a classy half-forward and later as an undersized but tough-as-teak centre half-back, was coming to an end.
It continued when Harvey became an assistant under the legendary Kevin Sheedy and helped teach Lloyd how to train properly and handle the on-field rigors of playing at the sport’s top level.
It’s this type of toughness and ability to educate, Lloyd says, that has helped the Dockers to a stunning 6-1 win-loss record this season, and one that will be thoroughly tested under a nationally-televised spotlight when they go head-to-head for top spot against Collingwood at Subiaco Oval on Friday night.
“One of the things I have noticed at the moment is their defence and the pressure they are putting on opposition sides,” Lloyd told backpagelead.com.au.
“A lot of that is Mark Harvey the player – the courage and commitment to the contest, more than skill.
“Over the years Freo did flashy things but they never probably have been seen as a hardened, running, committed side. I think that’s the way they are playing at the moment.”
Lloyd used Harvey, 44, as a sounding board throughout his entire 270–game career that ended last year, even while Harvey was coaching Fremantle. Now impressing all with his insight and no-nonsense comments in the media, Lloyd still chats fortnightly with the Dockers’ mentor.
“Often it’s me ringing just to say, 4-1 (win-loss record), now it’s 5-1, now 6-1, just congratulating him. He plays it down obviously because things change pretty quickly in footy,” Lloyd says.
Lloyd’s connection with the Dockers is strong on several fronts, for his brothers Brad (general manager player development) and Simon (player development coach) have key roles with a club that has made the finals just twice since its inception in 1995 and for so long has been the butt of many jokes.
That has clearly changed this year, with much made of the club’s drafting of mature-age rookies such as Michael Barlow, Greg Broughton, Jay Van Berlo and Alex Silvagni, the re-emergence of Chris Tarrant as a key defender and the leadership of Aaran Sandilands and skipper Matthew Pavlich, a man who doesn’t get the respect he truly deserves on the eastern seaboard.
Former Fremantle chairman Rick Hart revealed a major shift in philosophy and the ensuing revised battle-plan he helped develop with a raw Harvey during the dark days of 2008 has provided the springboard for the club’s success.
Hart, who experienced two finals runs entwined with much misery during his eight years at the helm before stepping down late last year, says he and Harvey had an open and honest chat as the Dockers languished in 14th position during the coach’s first full year in charge.
“That’s the important part of the process because Fremantle, as everyone knows, historically traded away draft picks because they thought they were at a stage of being more in premiership mode than what they really were,” Hart said.
“When you trade away draft picks, it’s a risky business. Often they can come back to haunt you. In the last year, the club has made it a standard to go for draft picks with youth.
“The quicker development this year I guess has been an element of surprise. I don’t think anyone would have thought they would have been 6-1 after a pretty horrific first four rounds in the draw.
“But I think the plan that was put in place and the emphasis ‘Harvs’ has made on younger players and developing players, that is the blue-print not just for this year but the next two or three seasons ahead.
“The other key, of course, was to go for some of those mature-age picks.”
This change has resulted in 23 news faces joining the playing list since 2008, with only former Bomber Adam McPhee coming from another AFL club.
Harvey’s interest in the likes of Barlow and Silvagni, strong players in the VFL level who many thought weren’t good enough to step up, in part came from his knowledge of the NFL in the US and admiration for clubs such as the Rams and Patriots who tasted success sparked by third-string quarterbacks.
“I know ‘Sheeds’ looked to other sports and ‘Harvs’ does the same,” Lloyd said.
“I know he has a lot of Kevin Sheedy in him, as a result of being under ‘Sheeds’ for so long as a player and coach. Even with some of his lines in press conferences, the way he goes about handling the media at times.”
Handling the media wasn’t initially a strong-suit, as shown when he was clearly at unease and struggled to respond authoritatively on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified a couple of years ago.
The Dockers employed a communications consultant over summer to help Harvey in this area.
“There are all those sorts of things, various training and so on, but there is nothing better than experience,” Hart said.
“There is nothing better than success. You always handle the media better if you are winning.”
Winning, along with a clear game-plan, developing youth, developing his assistant coaches and improving club culture, has all but guaranteed Harvey a new contract.
He is the only one of 16 AFL coaches out of contract this year, and the Dockers have been in no hurry to re-sign him.
Harvey’s manager Dan Richardson says there is a timeline in place but wouldn’t divulge plans.
Expect that deal to be done, perhaps sooner rather than later.
“Full marks to Mark Harvey. He was coming into a season-defining moment of his career where, if things hadn’t gone the right way, he would have been under enormous pressure, no doubt,” Hart said.
“He continued to back in his own judgment, his own policy.”
That has helped bring greater meaning to the clash against the Magpies – the only time this season the Dockers will parade on the Friday-night stage.
“It all of a sudden has become a real Friday-night blockbuster,” Hart said, stressing the “real”.
“When it was scheduled it was probably one of the highlights of the fixture but no-one could have imagined how big it would have become by round eight.”