Win a premiership, or ensure the future? Do the ends justify the means?
These are the perennial questions facing both football clubs and coaches. Of course, the ultimate aim in AFL is to win a premiership, and clubs will go to any lengths to win one. However, this can often be at the expense of the club’s future.
Ross Lyon’s tenure as coach of Fremantle, along with his stint at St Kilda, provides a perfect example of a system that sees winning a premiership as the absolute, which must be achieved at all costs.
With the Saints, Lyon took an arguably average team to three grand finals. His style of coaching, characterised by manic defensive pressure and ‘collective defence’, rather than isolating his defenders one-on-one, meant that St Kilda’s few stars were able to shine, whilst the rest of the team were able to play to their strengths, rather than having their weaknesses exposed.
Players like Clint Jones, whose kicking has always been criticised, and Robert Eddy found themselves able to flourish in defined roles in the Lyon system. Jones was anointed the team’s sole tagger, a role which allowed him to apply tackles and play to his defensive strengths, but which limited the liability exposed by his poor kicking. Likewise, Eddy was able to play as one of the cogs of St Kilda’s back six, which meant that his at times poor work ethic was seldom exposed.
In another team, one that played with more flair, and placed an emphasis on the importance of both attack and defence, it is highly unlikely that Jones and Eddy, and St Kilda’s other players of their ilk, would have been playing. It was Lyon’s ability to play each player in a position where they were supported and which allowed them to play to their strengths that meant players such as Jones and Eddy were part of two grand final teams. Furthermore, Lyon’s game plan meant that St Kilda was less reliant on its star players. When a player was injured, another player was able to come in and take his place, and would play their role to a tee.
Now at Fremantle, Lyon’s game plan has not changed. In previous years, Fremantle had been a team prone to leaking goals and lacking defensive pressure, despite comprising many talented players. Since Lyon’s tenure began, what has immediately become evident is the new intensity with which Fremantle approaches defence. This approach has also seen the team rise up the ladder – currently sitting fourth, Fremantle are legitimate premiership challengers this season.
However, despite the obvious advantages of the Lyon game plan, what has come to the fore at Fremantle, as it did at St Kilda, is whether the game plan is in the best interests of the club. Every club strives to win a premiership. Indeed, the chance of winning a premiership is the reason why footballers play. To question this desire would be foolish and stupid.
Nevertheless, it begs the question: does the end justify the means? Is Ross Lyon’s game plan, which favours playing players of questionable talent in pre-determined roles, and which has been largely successful, better for a club than planning for the future?
This is the question which St Kilda is now grappling with. Under Lyon, the Saints made three grand finals, one in 2009 and two in 2010. However, from 2008 to 2010, the Saints have arguably the worst drafting record of any club, with only four players – Arryn Siposs, Rhys Stanley, Tom Ledger and Tom Simpkin – remaining at the club. These young players, and those drafted in the years before and after, such as Jack Steven and David Armitage, were overlooked for games in favour of their more experienced, but perhaps less talented counterparts. It was a system that has left the Saints currently in a rebuilding mode, and with a bevy of younger players who have not been able to gain as much experience as their draft counterparts at other clubs. Under Lyon, Steven and Armitage had the makings of excellent midfielders, but were rarely given the chance to show their skills. Under new coach Scott Watters, having been given the chance to prove themselves, both have become integral parts of St Kilda’s fledgling midfield, with Steven fast on his way to becoming an A-grade talent.
Lyon’s tenure at Fremantle is just beginning, but already the same pattern is evident. Players such as Zac Dawson and Clancee Pearce have flourished under Lyon’s tutelage, but are not as naturally talented footballers. These two players are representative of the type of player who is able to come into a Lyon-coached team and play their role to success.
The Dockers boast an envious list of young talent – players like Tom Sheridan and Viv Michie would be close to commanding games in most other teams, whilst others, such as Josh Simpson, Hayden Crozier and Cameron Sutcliffe have shown glimpses of their talent. Under the Lyon system, however, these players are frequently overlooked for game time in favour of more experienced teammates.
That is not to say that young players should be gifted games, or played at the expense of those who are performing better. Young players must work hard in the state leagues and in training to prove themselves, after which time they should be considered for games.
Fremantle has several young players who have performed consistently in the WAFL over a long period, and are yet to be rewarded with a game. Michie is a prime example – although he has had a number of injuries in his few years at the club, Michie has been a shining light for Peel Thunder in the WAFL. His performance on the weekend, amassing 30 touches and seven tackles, has shown that he is capable of playing at the highest level.
The best team of the past five years, Geelong, has provided a successful model that other clubs have tried to follow. By injecting youth gradually into a team filled with experienced, skilled AFL players, the Cats have been able to ensure they don’t bottom out. Winning three premierships in five years has been a testament to their ability to develop young players in a successful culture, whilst maintaining their success.
Under Lyon, it is possible that Fremantle will win a flag. The probability of making finals in the next few years is high. The team that beat North Melbourne last round could very well be the one that takes it to its next grand final.
The problem is, what happens after that? What happens when senior players, such as Aaron Sandilands, Matthew Pavlich, David Mundy and Luke McPharlin retire? Fremantle will find itself in a stage of rebuilding, relying on inexperienced, raw youngsters to lead the team.
The irony is that, in a coaching philosophy in which any player can come in and play their role successfully, young players should be able to be given more game time without jeopardising the overall success of the team.
Blending youth with experience is always a challenge – play too much youth, and the results may not come. Play too few, and you leave yourself with a potentially bleak future. Fremantle must decide if the advantages of a Lyon system – a potential premiership – outweigh the disadvantages, namely the prospect of several years near the bottom of the ladder as they rebuild. In other words, do the ends justify the means?