Lyon tamer, ready to halt Freo’s fall
The Dockers’ new coach has made a big impression.
When asked what has surprised him the most about his new coach, Fremantle chief executive Steve Rosich says it has been Ross Lyon’s humour. ”He is quite funny. He certainly has a good sense of humour,” Rosich said this week.
”In the cut and thrust of AFL football and in the professionalism of this environment, it’s often good to have that in your repertoire.”
Rewind seven months and it was certainly no laughing matter for St Kilda when Lyon, the man who had led the club into grand finals in 2009 and 2010, stunned many by joining the Dockers just days after the Saints’ season had ended.
The move rocked the Saints and their supporters and even blindsided Lyon’s management company, which immediately split with him as it also looked after Mark Harvey, the man dumped by the Dockers despite having a year left on his contract.
Within three days of the two parties beginning talks, a deal had been clinched. Lyon had a four-year contract.
Andrew Demetriou and Leigh Matthews would question Lyon’s integrity. One media identity attacked him in a column the Dockers felt was defamatory – but Lyon opted not to take action.
But for Fremantle it was simply a recruiting coup, as Lyon is arguably the game’s best strategist.
”There was a brief conversation [with Lyon] after our season and just prior to the end of the Saints’ season that we would like to touch base after the Saints’ season,” Rosich said.
”It was really a three-day process from there. It was a quick turnaround. That was a credit to Ross but, secondly, it highlights it was a good fit between Ross and the football club.”
Said a Dockers’ insider: ”The Saints let that drag on for three months, we did it in three days.”
The Saints, naturally, had their side of the story, having offered Lyon a three-year extension. Clearly, the lines were blurred, but they maintain now they have moved on.
Which brings us to tonight at Etihad Stadium when Lyon comes face to face for the first time with his former team.
His defection was seen by outsiders as the Dockers finally getting tough. It should be remembered all four coaches in their 17-year history, plus caretaker Ben Allan in 2001, had been rookies when they took charge. In some ways, their results – they have played just six finals – show this has been a problem.
Under Rosich’s determined control, the Dockers have recently unveiled a five-year plan, one that won’t be publicly disclosed, but it’s clear an experienced mentor was seen as a key to success once it was decided Harvey had to go.
”We haven’t in the short history of our football club had the services of a proven and experienced coach. We will probably just leave it at that,” Rosich said.
Lyon has one of the more brilliant football minds, but his image was battered by the time he left Melbourne – within and outside the St Kilda Football Club.
He has admitted to not handling the media well in his early years with the Saints but learnt to realise everyone has a job to do.
He would open up to journalists he trusted, such as when he told The Age‘s Rohan Connolly of losing his sister Julie to cancer in July of 2010 and in November of that same year losing a nephew in a motorcycle accident. He continued coaching at the time, telling only his closest confidantes of his heartache.
What did hurt the image of all involved was the Saints’ ”bubble” – a tool used by the coaches to build an ”us against them” mentality and to help shield players from criticism during several off-field issues that threatened to torpedo the club.
This engendered the view Lyon was an insular character and unapproachable. This was fuelled also by tales that he would lock himself away in his office with the shutters down. That image came to typify the Saints as a club, a point made clear in feedback from supporters. It’s something the club’s media department has worked diligently to shed over summer. But tales of this kind come as a surprise to Fremantle officials.
”Those perceptions and inferences are quite a surprise for me and certainly would be to anyone here at the Dockers,” Rosich said. ”He has absolutely proven to be a great fit culturally to our football club and has been very natural in his execution of his responsibilities.
”Everyone at the club would say they have enjoyed working with Ross and he certainly has been very open and frank with all staff.”
Lyon has made it a priority to get to know all staff by first name and he has been embraced in return, and by the corporate high rollers that help to bankroll the club.
The Dockers also point out he has fronted a quarter of the media conferences the club has held since Christmas, highlighting his willingness to keep members and supporters informed. After the famously hostile welcome by Perth reporters, Lyon has slowly got to know the local media and built relationships.
There were concerns at St Kilda he too often controlled the ”message” by insisting he be the frontman at the weekly press conference for all media.
But when he was encouraged by the club to allow his assistants to speak publicly, and agreed to do so, he was accused by some in the media of hiding.
Dockers captain Matthew Pavlich has endured plenty in more than a decade at the club. As time ticks on his superb career, he wondered what the players were in for when Lyon signed on.
”Outside of understanding his success, I probably didn’t have a great expectation of him as a person,” Pavlich said. ”What I will say is that he’s been strongly influenced by certain individuals and he mentions David Parkin, Paul Roos and Robert Walls, and there’s no question he has that coaching aura about him that those three had as well.
”He’s been terrific for our footy club already and I couldn’t speak more highly of his influence on the group so far.”
Lyon has been quick to make changes, adopting what some feel are the benchmarks his Saints used in their grand final years. He discovered the Dockers were not as fit as the Saints, and made the necessary changes. Players dropped weight. Ryan Crowley, for instance, lost nine kilograms.
He insists training is always held at Fremantle Oval. The Dockers previously would travel to Subiaco for a night session if they were playing at home that week. Lyon thrives on routine, and wants his team to do so, too.
Travel routines have also changed. The Dockers flew to Melbourne on Wednesday, a day earlier than had been the custom, in a bid to improve preparation and ease a ghastly record of two wins in Melbourne from their past 27 matches. No longer is there a training session interstate a day before a game, rather just a light jog and stretch.
They will also head home on a 1am flight hours after tonight’s clash, rather than stay in Melbourne, as would normally be the case.
There has also been a change in mentality. Too often the Dockers have folded on the road, accused of being mentally fragile. Those who follow the team closely have clearly felt the ”we’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere” moniker being embraced in recent months.
To aid this, a more defensive game plan has been adopted. The Brisbane Lions, for instance, were held to a record low of 20 inside-50s in last weekend’s loss at Subiaco.
Champion Data points out Lyon’s famed defensive style has become obvious after three rounds, with the side conceding fewer disposals, marks inside 50, inside-50s and goals per opposition entry inside 50 compared to 2011. It is also giving rivals less time to find the ball in space, conceding 33 fewer uncontested possessions per match.
While the immediate focus is tonight’s clash, the Dockers have the big picture in mind.
”We have certainly set aims in our strategic plan and certainly very bold aims, but we are not in the business of communicating those externally,” Rosich said.
Surely though, this plan includes a premiership?
”That certainly is a missing piece in the jigsaw of us being a great football club, so football is front and centre of our focus,” Rosich said.
”What we are about is improving in all areas. We have a long way to go but we are certainly well placed to have Ross in the senior role as coach of our football club.”