Premierships are won in part through the careful blend of mature and younger players in a side. Too many older players and the team often lacks verve: too few and the lack of experience is often exposed. It’s a fine balance, one many teams struggle to perfect.
Over the past two seasons, Fremantle has been firmly in the first category – favouring experienced, mature players over blooding younger players. This fits firmly with coach Ross Lyon’s philosophy that the team does not revolve around star players: rather, every player has a role to play, and any player selected on game day will be able to come in and play the role expected of him.
It’s an approach that has largely reaped short-term success, both at Fremantle and during Lyon’s tenure at St Kilda. With five rounds remaining this season, Fremantle has a firm hold on top spot of the ladder.
Part of their success comes from the fact that they have a settled line-up; only injuries have necessitated changes to the side. However, when these changes have been made, they have generally been in favour of older, more experienced players.
The selection of young defender Alex Pearce to fill the hole left by injury to key defender Luke McPharlin was a departure from the usual Ross Lyon playbook. Usually, Lyon would select a more experienced key defender. However, injuries to usual reinforcements Zac Dawson and perennial fringe dweller Alex Silvagni necessitated the introduction of Pearce, who has performed admirably in his eight games this year.
Until this weekend, Pearce was Fremantle’s only debutant for this season. That number doubled last weekend, when Lachie Weller – pick 13 in last year’s draft – made his long-awaited debut. Weller had been performing well at WAFL level and deserved his opportunity. Having inevitably been named as the sub, Weller collected eight disposals in just under a quarter of footy.
Here we get to the heart of the Ross Lyon modus operandi. Younger players hovering around the fringes of the team – the likes of Hayden Crozier, Tommy Sheridan, Cam Sutcliffe, Matt Taberner and Jack Hannath – always seem to have to fight for their place in the side. They are the first ones dropped in favour of more senior players.
This in itself is not a bad thing: most teams would rather give games to more experienced veterans on a more regular basis, particularly when finals aspirations are on the line. However, when these young players are playing well at lower levels, and are overlooked in favour of more experienced players, one wonders where the long-term future of the team is at.
Lyon’s strategy has always prioritised short-term over long-term success. At St Kilda, Lyon selected arguably average players such as Clinton Jones and Raph Clarke each week, despite there being more talented youngsters performing well at VFL level: this was because these players were drilled at playing their role for the team.
His team-first mindset meant that every player knew exactly what their role was, and every player on the list could come into the team and play exactly as Lyon wanted. It has been a successful short-term strategy, taking St Kilda to consecutive grand finals in 2009 and 2010, and Fremantle to the same stage in 2013.
However, as a strategy focused on ensuring consistent, sustained success, it fails on many levels. Crucially, it robs younger players of development opportunities – rather than giving these players the chance to learn and ply their craft alongside their more experienced teammates, they are left to bide their time in the lower leagues.
The high level of football Lyon demands from his team cannot be sustained indefinitely, and problems arise with this approach when the older players in the team retire or move on. When this occurs, the team’s younger players are brought into the team and are essentially thrown to the wolves, being expected to shoulder most of the heavy lifting despite having little experience at the highest level.
This occurred with St Kilda in 2011 – after almost scaling the mountain in 2009 and 2010, the Saints lost star utility Brendon Goddard to free agency and saw the retirement of Justin Koschitzke, setting the tone for a host of other senior players in the following years.
The younger players who were then called upon played like deer in headlights, struggling to adjust to the tempo of AFL having not been given opportunities during the Saints’ finals years. Consequently, the Saints fell down the ladder in 2011 and 2012, before finishing in the bottom four the last two seasons.
Fremantle under Lyon appears in danger of treading the same path. Pearce aside, the changes that have been made to Fremantle’s team this year have all been experienced campaigners.
Connor Blakely and Ed Langdon – who like Weller were drafted last year – have been playing well in the WAFL. Blakely in particular has been in superb form, and would be playing in most current AFL sides. With Fremantle sitting on top of the ladder, one can understand that Lyon will do anything to secure the minor premiership and put Fremantle in the best possible position to win the flag this year.
However, would selecting Blakely over the likes of fringe players Tendai Mzungu or Clancee Pearce really be that detrimental to a team of Fremantle’s calibre? I would argue that it would inject some youthful exuberance into the team, while giving Blakely the opportunity to develop alongside the team’s midfield stars in Nathan Fyfe, David Mundy and Michael Barlow.
You only need to look at Hawthorn, the most successful team of the past few years, to see this. Young players Billy Hartung, James Sicily, Tim O’Brien, Jono O’Rourke, Angus Litherland and Dan Howe have all been given opportunities this year, which has allowed them to develop alongside the Hawks’ star players, but has not compromised the team’s success.
If Fremantle win this year’s premiership, perhaps fans can say that Lyon’s approach is worth it. However, will they still think the same in two or three years, when the likes of Mundy, Matthew Pavlich, Luke McPharlin, Michael Johnson and Aaron Sandilands have retired and replaced by young, inexperienced players?
Fremantle fans have to ask themselves: is that one elusive premiership, followed by a sharp fall down the ladder, more valuable than several years or even decades of sustained success?