The Dockers fan I wish was here
WITH Fremantle sitting second on the AFL ladder, I believe it’s only fitting that this column be dedicated to Matt Price.
A wonderful writer and wonderful bloke, Matt is best remembered for his clever and often humorous coverage of federal politics for The Australian.
He was also such a strong Fremantle supporter he wrote a book about the club and had it launched by then prime minister John Howard, resplendent in a Fremantle scarf.
I had the privilege of getting to know Matt during the decade he ghosted my column and our weekly chats during the footy season were a real pleasure.
Tragically, Matt died 2 1/2 years ago from brain tumours at the age of 46. I remember the love he felt for his wife, Sue, and their three children and the passion with which he followed the Dockers.
Matt would be overjoyed that seven games into the season, Fremantle has lost just once and has the rare privilege of hosting a top-of-the-table match against Collingwood at Subiaco tonight.
It is a privilege Fremantle thoroughly deserves after playing some outstanding football at home and on the road this season.
This highlights just how quickly things can change in football.
The doom and gloom which many pundits felt for Fremantle and its coach Mark Harvey at the beginning of the season has gone.
The same can be said about Melbourne under coach Dean Bailey after three impressive wins this season and two narrow losses against last year’s preliminary finalists Collingwood and, last weekend, the Western Bulldogs.
Am I surprised with Fremantle’s imposing start? It’s easy in hindsight to say: no.
The Dockers may have won just six games last season, the same number they have already notched up this year, but in 2009 they lost five matches by 15 points or fewer. That’s too many close games to be dismissed for this year. They may have finished 14th on the ladder but that lowly position did not highlight how competitive they were.
And their recruiting has been outstanding. Everyone says they fluked Michael Barlow but they took the risk of drafting him from VFL team Werribee as a mature-aged rookie.
Clubs often fall into the trap of drafting rookies from their backyard given the uncertainty of whether they will even play senior football. It’s more convenient. The player is on less money and there are less hassles regarding accommodation and whether a player has a job or is doing tertiary studies.
Fremantle had the guts to transplant Barlow to the other side of the country and now he is recognised as one of the players of the season so far.
On the other side of the coin there is Nathan Fyfe, 18, from up the road at Claremont who was taken high in last year’s draft and has fitted in beautifully.
They resisted drafting Daniel Rich, a wonderful player picked up by Brisbane, but instead chose Stephen Hill who, like Rich, has all the hallmarks of a 200-game player.
Given his pace and poise, Hill is perfectly suited to playing at Subiaco and has gone up another notch with his ability to adapt to interstate venues.
Aaron Sandilands was also taken as a rookie and is now the best ruckman in the competition.
Another mature-age rookie, Alex Silvagni, has slotted straight into their side.
And the big bonus is the return of the AFL’s 2008 Rising Star Rhys Palmer, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
The rapid development of Freo’s recruits and the sudden success they have brought to the club has taken the pressure off Harvey, who was under constant and intense scrutiny as a Victorian coach in WA.
It appears that Fremantle’s “grand final” has moved beyond simply beating West Coast in the derbies each year.
The Dockers are now showing a hunger and ability to play well against all sides, which was highlighted last Saturday night when they beat Brisbane in Brisbane for the first time in the club’s 16-year AFL history.
Matt Price would have been beside himself with a result like that knowing Fremantle now has a genuine top-four look about it.
This is no fluke. It is the result of strong, stable, clever recruiting.
Tonight will be a real test for Collingwood. We haven’t played Fremantle at Subiaco for a couple of years so we are heading a little into the unknown.
Both sides are coming off good victories and a six-day break so recent form and circumstances are well balanced.
We are all excited by the challenge. I’m just sad Matt won’t be there to watch it.