SAY IT slowly, so you can take it in. A Fremantle premiership. Is it possible, or plain unthinkable? Hard to get your head around? You bet it is.
The idea that the Dockers, butt of cruel jokes for most of their 16 years in the AFL, could go to the top of the summit is still not sinking in with the football public.
But the process goes like this: Mark Harvey’s team ticks another box each week (the most recent was the merciless hammering of North Melbourne; previously it was a win over Geelong and away triumphs in Brisbane and Sydney), climbing all the way to second. The public raises its eyebrows but remains sceptical.
Even the punters are finding it unreal. TAB Sportsbet has Fremantle at $11 for the flag, fifth in betting behind Geelong, St Kilda, Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs. While there have been splurges on Harvey’s team (one November punter had $350 at $101 odds to win $35,000), the money has come mostly at a trickle.
Sportsbet offered $101 for a Fremantle flag before the season but has held just $4500 on the prospect. ”They are by far and away our best result,” said Gary Davies, TAB Sportsbet’s Victorian media manager. ”People believe that they can make the top eight. But they’re sceptical about a Fremantle flag.”
The previously vilified Dockers will have to be content to be the eyebrow-raiser of the season for now. All of which is better than the pre-season perception that they had no form (14th, 14th and 11th in the past three seasons since a preliminary final appearance in 2006), that the coach was under pressure and that even if the talented kids like Stephen Hill showed up, it would take time.
At closer range, people are not so surprised. Robert Shaw puts much of the improvement down to a philosophy adopted in 2008. At the time, Shaw was on the coaching staff, but he has since returned to Melbourne. He has not forgotten the meeting at the club two years ago when Fremantle’s direction was set. ”There were 15 blokes in the room, the board, the whole lot,” recalled Shaw yesterday. ”The decision was ‘we’ve got everything out of that group. We’re going to start again through the draft because in two or three years’ time, two new teams are coming in. We can get a head start on the rest of the competition while we’ve got this window’.”
Shaw believes the decision, driven by Harvey, is paying dividends now. ”It’s resulted in Rhys Palmer, in Stephen Hill in [Anthony] Morabito, [Greg] Broughton, [Hayden] Ballantyne, [Matthew] De Boer, [Chris] Mayne, [Nathan] Fyfe and all these blokes. What you’re seeing now is a team that had a two-year head start on the rest of the competition.”
Mark Duffield, longtime football scribe and chief football writer for the West Australian, sees a club that has changed dramatically. The key, he says, is that Fremantle has stuck to what it said that it would do. ”Harvey copped a lot of flak last year but they just played those kids,” said Duffield. ”It got really difficult when they only kicked one goal in Adelaide, and people said it was embarrassing. But they forget that there were 11 first-year players out on the field.”
The precocious youth is blended with a core that includes superstars like Matthew Pavlich and Aaron Sandilands, and hardened seniors in Luke McPharlin, Chris Tarrant and Paul Hasleby. ”They’ve always had a very talented core,” says Shaw.
Duffield says Fremantle is a tougher club to deal with from a media perspective; that this actually reflects the notion of a tighter club. ”There was a general feeling that the club had to harden up. They’re tougher to deal with now. They only allow a few people to talk. They’re big on controlling what comes out of the club. They’re tougher all round. In terms of on-field, Harvey has demanded ‘if you don’t play hard, you don’t play’, so he can take credit for that.”
Harvey put a premium on players who would compete; more subtly, he has set aside players who made poor decisions or could not kick well. Stephen Dodd and Byron Schammer, regulars in previous seasons, are languishing in the WAFL for this reason.
It’s often said that good footy clubs boast stability, but in Fremantle’s case there has been a revolution at all levels. Chris Bond (head of football) and Simon Lloyd (development) have reworked the playing list but the Dockers also have a relatively new president (Steve Harris), chief executive (Steve Rosich) and coach (Harvey is in his third year).
In this case, change has been for the good, although Duffield believes there is a reality check coming. ”I still think second [place] is too high. They’ve had a few things go their way. They’re four-to-eight kind of thing. From now, I would have said a good result is to make the top six, host a final, win a final and get two finals of experience. Any more than that is a bonus.”
Shaw, who retains a soft spot for the Dockers, is more optimistic. ”If they get a home final and win it, I’ll tell you what: they’ll get to a grand final. Don’t worry about that. I only see them getting better.”