J Brown

Brisbane will take to the field today against North Melbourne searching for only its second win of the season. Despite some competitive performances in the past few weeks, the Lions have been in turmoil both on and off the field this season.

For a team that has been so poor, Brisbane has largely escaped the scrutiny placed on some other clubs this year. Perhaps this is because the club is largely isolated from the Melbourne football bubble, or maybe it is because the Lions have been on a downward spiral for a while. Whatever the case, the Lions are in dire need of assistance to get themselves back on track.

The AFL last week announced it would step in and take on a more hands on role in running things at the club.

It’s about time too.

Off field, the Lions have been in a parlous state for a number of years, with many of these issues coming at board level. In October 2013, a boardroom split led to the departure of former chairman Angus Johnson, and as recently as last week it was announced the Lions’ CEO Malcolm Holmes was to be sacked. This instability at senior management level has done little to encourage investment in the club, which has also suffered serious financial losses. As the Herald Sun reports, the club is headed for a $2 million loss this year, has debts of $10 million, and has lost $12 million since it last turned a profit seven years ago.

Due to its financial woes, the club also boasts sub-par training facilities. This was meant to be solved with a proposed relocation to a new training base in Springfield, 35 minutes from Brisbane’s CBD. However, the AFL has since withdrawn its support of the move that would see the Lions need to acquire an extra $15 million to cover relocation costs.

Any intervention from the AFL in the running of the club therefore shapes as a positive thing. However, the issues Brisbane is now facing are part of the league’s own doing.

In its haste to ensure that competition newcomers Gold Coast was made financially viable and attractive to a robust supporter base, the AFL largely neglected Brisbane. The new team was given draft concessions, financial aid and gold-plated support, while the league largely failed to recognise that the Lions were struggling.

The biggest area of the AFL’s oversight of Brisbane’s situation has been its failure to provide Brisbane with a retention allowance to help the club keep interstate draftees. While playing for the Gold Coast has become an attractive proposition for interstate draftees given its talented young team, growing supporter base and strong management and financial positions: the once great Lions team has emerged as a less-than-desirable destination for interstate youngsters.

This came to the fore at the end of last season when five of Brisbane’s young players – players who should have headlined the club’s next generation – demanded to be traded back to their home states, such was their disillusionment with both Brisbane’s sub-par facilities and lack of managerial stability.
The loss of Elliot Yeo (West Coast), Jared Polec (Port Adelaide), Billy Longer (St Kilda), Patrick Karznesis (Collingwood), and Sam Docherty (Carlton), all former top-30 draft selections, has left a gaping hole in the Lions’ team, one that will not easily be rectified. The loss of these players gave Brisbane five early draft choices, and its selections, including young guns James Aish and Lewis Taylor, look so far to be good ones. However, injuries to key experienced personnel have meant that the Lions have been forced to play their five new draftees in the same team in more than half of their matches this season. That is far too many, and has not allowed these players to develop their wares in the state leagues, an opportunity afforded many of their draft peers at other clubs. Whilst these youngsters have performed admirably, Aish in particular, the relative inexperience of the Brisbane team has been a large factor behind their dismal season so far.

It’s going to take money, and time, before Brisbane gets back on its feet again. The AFL’s intervention at board level is a positive sign, even if it comes several months later than it should have. However, off-field improvement will mean nothing if the club continues to be beset by younger players wanting to return home. Brisbane’s best hope of improving in the long term lies in keeping its core group of current youngsters at the club. This starts with a retention allowance, and the development of a strong culture.

It’s going to be a long and slow process to rebuild the team, but for Brisbane supporters, Port Adelaide’s incredible rebirth from basket case to ladder leaders should provide hope that financial and managerial support, coupled with the development of a strong culture, shows that such a rebuild is more than possible.