How Fremantle got Ross Lyon
The real story of how Ross Lyon blindsided St Kilda Football Club and ended up at Fremantle, SCOTT GULLAN reports.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 – St Kilda HQ, Seaford
St Kilda chief executive Michael Nettlefold had spent much of the previous week in discussion with Elite Sports Properties, new managers of coach Ross Lyon.
The season from hell had ended ingloriously, with a loss to Sydney four days earlier, and everyone at St Kilda was keen to move forward.
At the top of Nettlefold’s to-do list was to lock down a new contract for Lyon.
After months of negotiations, which had stop-started a number of times and also changed significantly, the previous morning Nettlefold finally had been informed by Lyon’s management team that the four-year deal on the table had the green light.
He would get it officially rubber-stamped at the next night’s board meeting and a press conference on the Friday would tell the world that Lyon would be at St Kilda until at least the end of 2015.
Or so Nettlefold thought.
During what had become his almost daily phone call with Dan Richardson, the senior ESP executive who had handled the negotiations, the Saints boss suddenly sensed the goal posts shifting.
“All he has told us is he wants a day or two to have a think about things,” was the message being relayed from Lyon’s management.
A stunned Nettlefold replied: “I thought it had already been agreed to.”
“We did, too.”
Twenty-four hours later, as Nettlefold was preparing for the 5pm board meeting, he got another message: “Ross is on his way to see you.”
The alarm bell that had been muffled in the back of his mind was now blaring.
There had been rumours about Melbourne having a crack at Lyon, but they had fizzled out.
He was contracted to St Kilda for next year anyway, and Nettlefold had a verbal agreement for a three-year extension on top of that.
Plus the coach had been involved in review meetings all week and had made arrangements to discuss next season with some of the key football department staff.
The meeting between Nettlefold and Lyon was short and sharp and, when the bombshell was dropped, Nettlefold was lost for words.
Lyon simply tendered his resignation, said he had another job and walked out.
Sunday, September 4, 2011 – Fremantle
IT was a fishing expedition. Fremantle chief executive Steve Rosich picked up the phone and dialled Ross Lyon’s number.
The previous day Rosich had watched another ordinary performance from the Dockers – a 46-point loss to the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium – which meant they finished the year 11th, with a 9-13 record.
While there had been excuses for coach Mark Harvey, there was a growing unease among some of the Dockers hierarchy about whether he was the long-term solution.
Harvey had another year to run on his contract, just as Lyon did at St Kilda, and the Dockers were happy to let him see it out.
But 2013 was a different story.
That’s why Rosich took the bold step of ringing the Saints’ two-time Grand Final coach.
He wanted Lyon to know that Fremantle was interested down the track if he had any desire for a change of scenery.
Lyon was receptive to the idea and the pair again spoke a couple of days later before agreeing to delay any further talks until after St Kilda’s finals campaign.
That was short-lived.
On the Saturday night at Etihad Stadium the Saints, who all season had been a shadow of the team that was a kick away from winning the premiership a year earlier, lost by 25 points to Sydney in the elimination final.
After the game Lyon took the unusual step of talking to the team in a huddle on the ground.
He knew the group that had given him so much was about to change.
Salary cap pressure and the need to rebuild meant the window of opportunity for this team had shut.
Rosich watched with interest in Perth.
The next day he rang Lyon, and the topic of a get-out clause in his contract for next year came up.
Sensing a big fish might be on the hook, the Fremantle boss flew to Melbourne.
To have any chance, his mission had to remain a secret, which is why only four other people in the Dockers organisation knew about it. They included president Steve Harris and football operations general manager Chris Bond.
Lyon was edgy.
He had been frustrated with how it had taken so long for him to reach an agreement with St Kilda, even though he had contributed to some of the delays.
Talks had commenced earlier in the year.
But as the Saints went from bad to worse in the first couple of months of the season, the coach indicated he wanted to focus on getting the club’s season back on track, so negotiations were put on the backburner.
Lyon’s desire for a long-term deal was not sitting well with the board, which was looking at a ladder that had St Kilda 15th – below expansion team Gold Coast Suns – with only one win at the end of Round 8.
At that stage the best it was prepared to offer was a one-year extension.
It figured the members would think it was bad business practice to get locked into an unconditional long-term contract, given the team suddenly was going backwards at a rate of knots.
It was not until July that contract talks were on the agenda again, with Lyon bringing to the table his third management team for the year. He had started with disgraced agent Ricky Nixon.
ESP, which is run by former Collingwood premiership defender Craig Kelly, came hard at the Saints for the four-year deal with Lyon clear on what he wanted, which involved some guarantees from the Saints in terms of football-department spending and a positive report on the financial state of the club.
He also wanted a significant pay rise that reflected his track record and reputation in the game.
A number of Lyon’s confidantes had suggested he should hold off re-signing for another 12 months.
They knew there would be clubs jumping out of trees to get him then, plus he would have more idea of the direction in which St Kilda was heading.
What they – including his new management team – didn’t know was the financial hardship he recently had experienced.
In 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis, Lyon had lost a seven-figure sum in a month in failed investments in an Australian mining company.
It forced him and his wife Kirsten, who had just given birth to their third child Jai, to sell everything and move back into his father’s home in Reservoir for six months.
So when a cashed-up Fremantle wheeled out a slick Powerpoint presentation outlining the riches of the club, the resources he would have at his disposal and a $3.2 million, four-year deal, in Lyon’s eyes it was an offer too good to refuse for his family.
That’s what he told Nettlefold in their brief meeting, after which he drove to ESP’s headquarters in Bridge Rd, Richmond, and told Kelly and Richardson about his secret negotiations.
They had had no idea about the Fremantle deal and there was a compelling reason why – they also managed Mark Harvey.
Lyon then went to the nearby Epworth Hospital, where Saints skipper Nick Riewoldt had just come out of knee surgery.
For 20 minutes he sat beside Riewoldt’s bed and explained why he had just jumped ship. Next stop was Brighton, where he visited another of his favourite warriors, Lenny Hayes.
I guess this is a strength to have … he (Lyon) could not give a #@$% what anyone thinks about him
By this time word had leaked out, Lyon’s phone was going berserk and the football world was in meltdown.
Back at the Saints’ headquarters in Seaford, Nettlefold had walked into the board meeting and simply said: “Ross has quit.”
Everyone in the room thought he was kidding.
No one in the organisation had seen it coming.
As Nettlefold said later: “I had every reason to believe until then (5pm Thursday) that he would continue …
“I don’t feel betrayed, but we were disappointed.”
Disappointment turned to anger after Lyon fronted the media the following day in Perth as the new Fremantle coach and said the Dockers had been able to complete in 72 hours a deal the Saints could not seal in six months.
“I sit very comfortable with my integrity and my honour,” he said.
Sunday April 15, 2012 – St Kilda Members Day – Moorabbin
LENNY Hayes is fronting the media scrum. He is the man of the moment after being best-on-ground in the Saints’ second win of the season, against the Western Bulldogs the previous evening.
But that’s not what those in attendance have come to talk about. They are here to grill him on the grudge match, St Kilda against its old coach tonight at Etihad Stadium.
You won’t be getting a bad word from Hayes about Lyon, who he invited to his wedding in November.
The players are the one group you won’t hear pan the ex-coach.
“We understand the decision Rossy made,” Hayes said. “That’s the modern game. Players leave clubs, coaches leave clubs, so there are no hard feelings there.”
Sam Fisher, who enjoyed a couple of beers with Lyon at the wedding, agreed.
“We had a few laughs with him that day. Things are fine between him and the players,” Fisher said.
Lyon’s shock departure, and then the arrival of Scott Watters and a dozen new faces in the football department, rocked the ship at Seaford initially. There is a belief that until Christmas the players were struggling to adjust.
“I reckon they were looking over their shoulder until Christmas, metaphorically speaking,” one observer said. “The break at Christmas was really significant for the group, and they came back not expecting the past to walk through the door, so to speak.”
While he has spoken to a significant number of his former players, Lyon has not spoken to any of the Saints hierarchy since he left.
Nettlefold refused to comment about Lyon this week, with a club spokesperson saying, “The circumstances to Ross leaving the club, the timelines involved and the club’s thoughts on the situation were well documented at the time. And six months on, there is nothing more to add to what’s already on public record.”
How the fans react tonight is an intriguing question. There are some who understand how good Lyon was for the Saints and that he went within a few kicks of winning two flags, which would have elevated him to one of the greatest figures in St Kilda history.
But there are probably more who will want to vent at him for jumping ship and choosing money over loyalty.
Lyon is expecting the latter. “I think I’ll wear a spray jacket,” he said this week.
“The mob will get a voice and an energy of its own. It will certainly go in a direction. What that is, I can’t control. I don’t feel I’ve got anything to prove coming back and my old player group don’t have anything to prove to me. It really is about the four points. I understand the interest.”
One thing is for certain, according to one of Lyon’s former colleagues – none of the backlash will affect him.
“I have never met anyone, and I guess this is a strength to have … he could not give a f— what anyone thinks about him.
“He will just do what’s best for Freo and for his family. Everyone can have their opinion and he won’t get flustered either way.”