The Purple Impostors

Easter Sunday 2003 saw the Fremantle Dockers play the best game of football in their short history.

Sports writers in the southern states have made a big deal of the Freo forward line in this game – and it was impressive.

The glaring truth of this game, however, was that it wasn’t at all like watching a Fremantle match. It was more akin to watching the Fremantle players playing for another team. They played real football yesterday, not “Freo Football”.

Easter Sunday 2003 saw the Fremantle Dockers play the best game of football in their short history.

Sports writers in the southern states have made a big deal of the Freo forward line in this game – and it was impressive.

The glaring truth of this game, however, was that it wasn’t at all like watching a Fremantle match. It was more akin to watching the Fremantle players playing for another team. They played real football yesterday, not “Freo Football”.

In their formative years, Freo suffered under the megalomaniacal coaching regime of Gerard Neesham: “Give me the players, and I’ll make them stars” was his catch-cry. The problem was, what they got were a boatload of hacks.

The biggest problem in those early years was a significant lack of anything resembling a forward, and Fremantle compensated by developing a strange style of football. They would attempt to run the ball by quick handballs and over-posession into the forward line, where a midfielder could take a shot from 30m out.

It worked, to some extent. We probably finished higher than we should in the first 2 years, given our list. Nowadays, our list (on paper) is one of the best going around, but Fremantle never abandoned Neeshamism.

Anyone’ who has watched Freo in the last 2-3 years, since their list has been upgraded, would notice their play characterised by overposession over all parts of the ground.

What this results in on game day, is frequent turnovers matched with ineffectiveness of the forward line. Exasperating the problem was the fact that 2 players with foot skills more suited to Sunday League, in Sean McManus and Troy Cook, were our midfielders, and neither were willing to kick the ball long to a marking forward (because they weren’t good enough).

Bell and Hasleby have previously showed a willingness to get the ball moving quickly, but they didn’t always get the posession, and they too sometimes fell victim to the “Neesham Trap”. Luckily for fans of the purple, a bit of underhanded dealing from Cameron Schwab enabled us to hold on to the one player who has taken it upon himself to teach the team how to play footy: Matthew Pavlich.

The first 10 minutes of yesterday’s match looked a lot like the same old story. Freo gets the ball out of the middle, runs it to 50, then one handball too many results in a quick turnover and the opposition rebounds with a goal. It was a 15 point deficit and the TV was in danger of being bricked.

Then, thankfully, Pavlich had enough. He got the ball and roosted it into the forward line. A forward took a mark, but missed a relatively easy shot. Not to be denied, Pavlich goaled twice himself from outside 50. The game had begun for Freo, and they never looked back.

Watching Fremantle yesterday was like watching Essendon or the Kangaroos at the height of their powers. When we got the ball, players didn’t fuck around looking for a handball just for the sake of it. They kicked the ball, and they kicked it long, giving our forward line a chance to do their job. And they did it.

Peter Bell, recruited from North because of his skills as a ball winner and goal-kicking crumber, kicked 3 goals from – wait for it – crumbing in the forward line. This is the first time since he played at Freo that he resembled the All-Australian midfielder we paid for.

Troy Simmonds continued his utter dominance of the ruck. He was overlooked at Melbourne in favour of Jeff White. Like White, he is capable of dominating around the ground. He also frequently roves his own ball in the clearances, and posesses a great leap and tap that the dinosaur types can’t counter under the new “Primus Rule”.

Simmonds only fault is that he isn’t a prolific pack mark, which sometimes leaves us in a trouble during point kick-outs, or on the rare occasion that the opposition Ruckman decides to man up. He is, without a doubt, one of the most underrated players in the AFL – and easily one of our top 5 players.

Everyone was astounded with his performance yesterday. The thing is, he plays like that every week, but usually the rest of the team manages to fuck up his good work.

Chris Connolly has gotten a good rap in the west since he took control of the Dockers, compliments that I believe have been largely undeserved. He didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to breed out the Neesham game, but to be fair, it could be the case that he was trying, but the players couldn’t help themselves.

In the 2nd half yesterday, Connolly finally did the smartest thing he’s done since he’s been at Freo: He sacked Trent Croad as full forward, and put him in the back line.

Croad is an immensely talented athlete, but as a forward, he’d make a good headless chook. He doesn’t have a natural understanding of where to lead, he doesn’t try to create a contest if he can’t mark the ball. Most problematic though, is that he just isn’t a particulary good set shot for goal inside 50.

Say what you like about forwards, but the common denominator of all the great forwards is a reliable shot on goal inside 50m. Lloyd and Carey are obviously superstars, but would they be as good if they only shot 50% inside 50? I doubt it. A less talented player – say Scott Cummings, made a pretty good career for himself primarily on his kicking ability. In most other respects he was average.

When Justin Longmuir first played in the forward line, comparisons to Brad Ottens were common. He played ruck and forward, and like Ottens, he never missed from inside 50m. Subsequent surgery on his legs have dropped into the simply “good” range rather than outstanding, but he is still as good a kick as Croad is.

Croad’s athleticism is wasted at full forward. The best role for him is in the James Clement mould – Take on a tall forward and run off him at every opportunity. Instead of using his 60m drop punt to take wild shots at goal from the boundary, he should use it to drive the ball into attack. Like Clement, he can also take the odd shot from the arc when running forward.

Croad played precisely this role while at Hawthorn – and did it well. A running, long kicking back flanker is something we’ve never had at Freo. We wasted a couple of hundred g’s trying to recruit Fabian Francis for the role.

Our backline continues to be a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. For some reason, Connolly continues to select 2 of the luckiest hacks ever to play AFL in Dion Woods and James Walker at half back. Neither of these two would get a game at any AFL club, and with our list, they shouldn’t be getting a game at Freo.

Walker and Woods are both quick, to be sure. The problem is that their skills are awful. Woods skills seem polished, but he’s so monumentally stupid that he always seems to take the wrong option and turn the ball over if it is at all possible. Walker is just not up to AFL standard, and never has been. Both players are physically weak and get pushed off the ball way too easily.

How Walker has survived so long at Freo is a mystery to me, but I guess is indicative of the lack of ability we used to have.

Apart from Woods and Walker, the problem with our 2 midfielders remains. McManus and Cook are in the side primarily for their hardness at the ball – Their skills are terrible, Cook in particular kicks like a girl, and doesn’t have any evasive skills to make up for it.

There is obviously a place for players who play that way. John Worsfold did it for his entire career, and so did Gary Hocking – although Hocking had a fair bit of skill as well. The problem with Cook and McManus is that they just aren’t hard enough.

If you are trying to fill the “hard man” spot in the team, you have to be hard all the time. Running back into a pack and getting poleaxed, then getting up may seem inspirational, but it doesn’t actually help the team in any way. One of these guys needs to step up and take on the mantle of enforcer in the team.

Tim Fleming’s hit on Hasleby at the MCG last week is a good example of what that sort of play can do for your side. Terry Wallace and other coaches have pronounced Fremantle to be a team with “no physical presence”, and thats what Cook and McManus need to provide. Last year we lost Leigh Brown and delisted Brendan Fewster (which was a mistake IMO), who previously were our 2 main body players. Croad can also provide this kind of presence if he plays in the back line.

As you can see, I’m not entirely infatuated with Chris Connolly yet. I believe that the change in play style that was evidenced yesterday was brought about by the emerging stars (Specifically Pavlich, Hasleby and Medhurst) more so than the coach.

If he can get them to play this way every week, Fremantle will be a top 4 side. If McManus and Cook can make the step up to become valuable players again, then we’ll be even better. Fremantle’s playing list, in my opinion, would be a top 4 side if they weren’t hindered by the negative Neesham-culture that persists there.

For argument’s sake, here’s how Freo would be lining up if Yobbo was the coach (and there’s a strong grass-roots movement that believes he should be.) Luke Mcpharlin is injured and would definitely come directly into the side, probably at the expense of Haddrill or Polak. You can have a go yourself on the magnetic board at Dockerland.com

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