Beware the baby Dockers: Lloyd
Essendon goal-kicking hero Matthew Lloyd has compared Fremantle with the second coming of the Baby Bombers, who won the 2000 premiership and became known as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
Lloyd, whose brothers Brad and Simon are key members of the Dockers’ football department, said it was only the club’s location away from Victoria which kept critics from seeing the club as the hottest rising star in the competition, well ahead of others such as Melbourne and Richmond.
But the five-times All-Australian and three-times Coleman medallist warned that the emerging team had to commit to a heavy pre-season work-load to become more physically capable against the best teams.
Geelong’s superior strength and size was palpable in a 69-point belting of the Dockers in last Friday night’s semifinal at the MCG. The Cats’ eight-goal blitz in the opening term was their best start against the port club.
Lloyd said the lesson from the reigning champs could be the spark to take Fremantle to the ultimate prize.
The former Essendon captain said the flag-winning Bombers of 2000 only started to truly believe they could emulate the 1993 feats of their clubmates after strongly challenging a star-studded North Melbourne in a 1998 qualifying final loss. The game, which pitted first against eighth under the finals system of that season, became famous as the “marshmallow match” after Kangaroos fans threw the soft confectionary at Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy.
The Bombers won five of their first six games of 1999 to storm into premiership contention, only to suffer a heartbreaking one-point loss to Carlton in the preliminary final. They claimed their 16th flag the next year.
Essendon’s 1998 team which lost to the Kangaroos had only played a total of two more games than the Fremantle side which lost to Geelong, but was, on average, more than seven months older.
“It wasn’t until the marshmallow game that we felt we really stood up and were going somewhere,” Lloyd said.
“The next year we were 8-3 at the halfway mark and thought, ‘hang on a minute, we’re just about the best team in the competition’. It happened that quickly.
“We weren’t intimidated by the opposition we were playing, we were just playing footy, and I could see a lot of that in Fremantle in the way they played. Now their strength and fitness will be their main thing and it’s that six months in the gym where they can put on those two or three kilos each.
“We came back from a position where, a bit like Fremantle, we weren’t beating the top teams but by the start of that next year we were and that gave you a strong belief because you were matching them physically and aerobically as well.
“We were under no illusions and we didn’t feel that just because we finished eighth that we were just going to get that gradual improvement.
“They can’t rest on their laurels because there are no guarantees.”
Lloyd said he had noted that the Dockers seemed to be snarling during the national anthem before they beat Hawthorn in the elimination final at Subiaco Oval.
But he didn’t see the same intent in their eyes that were staring across an unfamiliar venue at a much-vaunted opponent last Friday night.
Lloyd also believed that because of their young average age, they might need another year in their finals apprenticeship before they could truly challenge for the flag.
But he cited Fremantle’s intense pressure on the opposition and ability to produce searing run as areas where they had improved significantly this year.
He believed they mirrored many of the former playing traits of coach Mark Harvey, who won three premierships with Essendon.
“What I’ve seen in Fremantle in the last 12 months is that although there is obviously some great talent there, defensively there’s an expectation and it’s the pressure they’re applying to the opposition,” he said.
“They’re all coming through together and I feel like they’re driving each other, not only from a ball- winning and skill perspective, but also from a defensive side.
“Fremantle have made massive ground in that area and Mark Harvey played that way.
“You see it in the way Stephen Hill runs a player down or Chris Mayne and Hayden Ballantyne harass in the forward 50.
“That’s as impressive, for mine, as their attacking side and that’s where the modern game is going.
“You can’t have anyone be exposed and it’s a good sign for their future. They’ve exceeded my expectations in the way they’ve been able to hold it for the whole season . . . it’s blown me away.
“It’s a great brand the way they come fast through the corridor. They make some errors, but with their run and chase-downs and tackles, they’ve got a real thirst for the contest.”
Lloyd said the Dockers deserved a greater profile among critics as they pushed towards winning the club’s first premiership.
“If they were in Melbourne, they would be talked up as the next big thing,” he said.
“Mark Harvey and Freo don’t get the credit they deserve in Melbourne. They are the sleeping giant for next year, moreso than the other teams that get talked up here in Melbourne.
“With their corridor game style, their defensive improvement and their ball use, they’ve improved dramatically and they’re in a great frame of mind for such a young group.
“They’re evolving into a premiership threat with their culture and the team they’re putting together on the field.”