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Ross Lyon Q & A - On The Couch

Ross Lyon was a guest on On The Couch on Monday night. Ross Lyon discusses Fremantle's season in 2016

On Monday 4 July, Fremantle senior coach Ross Lyon spoke with Fox Footy presenters Gerard Healy, Jason Dunstall, David King and Jonathan Brown.

Healy: You saw a pretty exciting game, and you’re opposition for next weekend, at the MCG yesterday.

Lyon: Yeah, I flew in and watched Melbourne and Adelaide, and really enjoyed the game – really went up and down the ground quickly. After half time I think Adelaide lifted their intensity, it was quite fierce around the ball. They’ve really improved, Melbourne, and what Adelaide have done under adversity and losing Dangerfield as well, I think [Don] Pyke’s been super as a first-year coach.

Dunstall: We’ve seen a very compact top eight and a lot of teams in really good form with a lot of wins. If Nat Fyfe, Aaron Sandilands and Michael Johnson have had full seasons and hadn’t been injured, are you one of those teams that’s up there fighting for it?

Lyon: I think you’d throw Harley Bennell into that quality, no doubt about that. We’ve certainly had some challenges. What I’d say is a few of those injuries occurred after we’d been struggling at the start so I don’t want to hang out hat on that. Our best 22 up and going I think is really capable. We’ve played for long periods this year in games, interstate against Adelaide, but we couldn’t sustain it for four quarters. Around the ball at times we’ve had our starting midfield out. If you add Sandilands, Fyfe, Bennell, they’re pretty handy, and Johnson. We’ve had some challenges but that’s not the root cause of where we’re at, we don’t think, and we’d hate to hang our hat on that. What Hawthorn’s done has been amazing but I think it’s reflective of how even the competition is, and the expansion teams kicking in, and the dilution of talent. I think a lot of football knowledge being passed through – obviously the Hawks are trendsetters with the ball – a lot of clubs are using the ball a lot better. It’s all built for entertaining football, really.

Healy: You said that wasn’t the root cause. Are you prepared to share what you think is the root cause?

Lyon: I don’t think you can just put it down to one thing. We clearly thought we could mount a campaign and Harley wanted to come home. We thought, as a game breaker, his best is exceptional and for his age, we thought he could be an eight-year player. We thought with our midfield up and going, we could throw him in and put him alongside Ballantyne and Walters and he could be exceptional. We’ve analysed a lot of things. We thought we needed some invigoration and we did target David Hale in particular and then Brent Guerra came across to add to our ball use. We wanted to change our pre-season and, in hindsight, we lost some high-density running that we think has affected us. Learning that new ball use which has a premium on kicking – our ability to teach it hasn’t been as sharp as we wanted it to be and for the first time in my tenure as a coach, players at times have had some confusion under pressure and there’s even been some debate behind closed doors. Not in a nasty sense, but we’ve had to work our way through that. Thinking about it today, it’s really firmed my belief in what players need under pressure; they need to be on the one page, really flint-hard and really working together. If you have to second-guess or you have to think about an AFL field, it’s too late and the teams that don’t think about it get away from you. I think that’s what’s happened to us a little bit and I think our players and coaches would acknowledge that as well.

Healy: Does it refocus your demands of your recruiting staff to pinpoint guys who can kick, though, if that’s where the game has gone?

Lyon: I think we’re quite skilful in a real sense. I don’t think we’re the most skilful list in the competition but it’s about principles that allow them to know where the options are and what they need to do under pressure. If you have to think about it, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are - it’s too late. There’s always a premium on kicking but the restrictions in the labour force of supply is quite tight. You’re looking for competitiveness, you’re looking for athleticism and skill and decision-making and that’s why some people get picked at one and two – they’re the filters that spread the field.

Brown: In your observation Rossy, do you think most clubs are trying to play a similar game style?

Lyon: I think there’s some distinct styles, really. I probably thought that at the start of the year but you watch Melbourne, they’re really more high-handball and Adelaide kick it more. A few teams play the paddock. I don’t think Sydney’s changed too much; [they use] high numbers of handballs and kick it to [their] key forwards.  Hawthorn spread the field. I think, no doubt, [Luke] Beveridge [Western Bulldogs coach] has taken a fair bit from Hawthorn but they’ve got some own distinct signatures around stoppages. I think there’s some distinct differences.

King: Let’s go back to quarter-time, Round 10 against the Saints at Etihad Stadium. You had the boys circle you, and gave them one of the best bakes of all time. When you’re having a bad day, is it about changing behaviour, is it about the long-term or is it just about this day?

Lyon: I think that was an anomaly.  I’ve been as calm and composed in the circumstances as I could’ve hoped but sometimes as a club you just cant accept things. That was about not competing and not accepting the effort that was being displayed. We spoke about [the fact] we represent our 50-thousand-odd members and we’re highly paid professionals.

King: What’s it like behind closed doors – is that the norm after a poor start?

Lyon: That was quite unique. We weren’t accepting it. We needed to man up and we needed to go out and give better effort than that. It was just about competing and that’s been our theme. We’ve always been known for our [competitiveness] and we didn’t compete in that game. We turned it around pretty quickly so it just shows we all understand there’s [a dfference between] trying and really trying. The environment has been quite healthy. I was really pleased with Michael Barlow – he’d been dropped, he’d been challenged and he came back and played well, and he said it’s a challenging environment but it’s an environment we love. You’ve got to adjust to the circumstances. It’s as challenging circumstances as I’ve been involved in on a win-loss scenario but I think the environment and how we’ve handled that’s been really quite healthy. We haven’t soured the place up and we’re just aiming to improve - It’s a pretty simple aim.

Dunstall: Do you rate the on-field leadership of the group? David Mundy was an interesting choice for captaincy. A lot of people probably thought maybe Nat Fyfe might’ve been a long-term option.

Lyon: We have had Leading Teams being our leadership consultants since my tenure at the Dockers and Ray McLean heads it up. We think he’s done a super job, culturally, helping build the framework for those harder conversations and selecting leaders and the leadership group. Matthew [Pavlich] stood down, which I think’s been fantastic for him. The players voted and it was a slight difference between Fyfe and Mundy – almost indiscernible – but in the end we could discern by an inch and David was anointed captain. When Matthew was captain, he didn’t have the amount of injuries we’ve had and [we’ve had] some changes in philosophy and a lot of changes so I think David, through adversity, has held himself together well and like all of us, we’re all under the microscope. It’s a winning business, so David Mundy, our leadership group, myself, our other coaches – we’re all under the spotlight and clearly we all could’ve done things differently. I think we’ve been pretty good, but we’d like to be better.  [Luke] Hodge and [Sam] Mitchell, who I saw when I was on the International Rules, they’re in it like an extension of ‘Clarko’ [Hawthorn Coach Alistair Clarkson]. They like assistant coaches – they know exactly what they’re doing. As much as I’ve been with the Dockers for four years, they’ve been with ‘Clarko’ for 10.

Dunstall: Who’s the next extension of Ross then?

Lyon: No doubt Nathan [Fyfe] is coming through.

Healy: Are you confident he’s going to stay long-term?

Lyon:  He’s really exerting around the club, his leadership and influence. How he spoke when he won the Brownlow, he loves Fremantle Football Club and the opportunities it’s given him, but in saying that, he wants to build to success. You’ve got to bring people along for the journey. Board members, fans, members and your best players and leaders, because they’ve got to buy into the plan. As we finalise it and decisions are made, you’ve got to bring Nathan along. If Nathan believes in that plan, and he sees success coming his way he’ll be here, I’ve got no doubt. But if he doesn’t believe in the plan and we don’t bring him along, he’d be a chance to leave. I think it’s as simple as that.

Healy: What is the plan? Are you aiming to play finals next year or is this going to be a long draft-led recovery?

Lyon: I don’t think anyone could put a timeline on how quickly you could play finals – you want to do that as quickly as you can. There’s no doubt we need to go to the draft table. I think we could load up and go and attract free agents and uncontracted players but if that failed then you’d be in a real hole. We want to take care of the present and the future at the same time. We’re currently playing all our young players, our injury list is huge, but we’ll go to the draft table and we’d like to get as many draft picks as we can. But we don’t want to sell the farm either. We would still like to play finals next year, there’s no doubt about that – we think it’s possible. Anything is possible.

Brown: It’s been a struggle to attract free agents to the club when West Coast has managed to attract some guys back from Melbourne and interstate. What do you put that down to?

Lyon: I probably dispute the free agent [comments]. They’ve attracted Ellis and we’ve attracted Danyle Pearce, who’s played every game in his four years with us. We also got Colin Silvia, who was a free agent that didn’t work. We got Dawson through the pre-season draft and then we got Bennell who was pick two in the country that wanted to come to us and come home. And then you’ve got McCarthy that wants to come. If you draw a parallel with West Coast I think you’ve got Yeo – similar to Bennell - they got Ellis from Hawthorn, who had injuries so I don’t think it’s too dissimilar to be truthful.

Brown: What about Mitch Clark who was home sick, Travis Cloke and Cale Hooker?

Lyon: I think a couple of them were long odds but you’ve got to be in it to win it and at the end of the day, if you’re in it, you’re driving up prices for everyone else.

Healy: What about Matthew Pavlich? He’s your greatest ever player in likely his last year. What’s the exit strategy if one exists at the moment?

Lyon: The aim is for Matthew to see out the season. He’s as disappointed as anyone with how we’ve been but his character is exceptional. We’ve managed him on the long trips – we didn’t take him to Tassie, we didn’t take him to Brisbane and I don’t think we’ll take him to Gold Coast. He’ll go to Darwin this weekend and he’s earned that right but we went to Brisbane and had our best win interstate without Matthew, so that was great for the group to see that. He’s pretty special, we appreciate him but some of the performances in my tenure, particularly in ’12 and ’13 were just exquisite. He’s a special player.

Brown: He’s moved around alright this year – he’s had a pretty good year.

Lyon: If we supplied it better he would’ve kicked a lot more goals. I don’t think the body’s wanting. I think it’s probably been in as good a shape as my time there but I think it’s time for us to move on. I think if we were guaranteed to be up and going he could maybe [stay] but he puts in that much work to get himself up, he’s got Lauren, he’s got the kids and he’s done his MBA. It’s the perfect time for Matthew to move on for us and him.

King: What are your thoughts on the bye at the end of Round 23? What if you get an extra week off, leading into a preliminary final?

Lyon:  I wouldn’t like it at all. You’ll take a week in the middle of the year but even then, coming off [the bye], you are concerned. The pressure then comes on to bring them up. I’d be really concerned having two weeks off in that period of time.

Healy: Do you feel it’s an overreaction to the North Melbourne exits (when the Kangaroos rested seven players ahead of the finals in 2015)? I get the feeling it’s only here for one year.

Lyon: I don’t think you’re too wrong on that, Gerard. I think the intentions were healthy and I think it was a reaction to [Fremantle resting] players. But you work hard to get top four, and you work hard to get the advantage. If people finish eighth and get a week off and get to freshen up, I don’t think it’s ideal.

King: We’ve spoken about the expansion teams. How strong do you see GWS being in the next five to 10 years?

Lyon: I think we all see them in the same light, as a real powerhouse. You can’t just do it on picks, but it doesn’t hurt. And then their ability to trade; you see [Dom] Tyson running around for Melbourne and they get pick two and [Josh] Kelly – he’s a young star playing on the half-back flank – and you can lose [Tom] Boyd. You saw the team they traded out to get picks. The strategists, ‘Gubby’ [Graeme] Allan, Stephen Silvagni and Paul Brodie, who is a good friend of mine, what they did with those younger players like [Callan] Ward and [Phil] Davis and [Tom] Scully, they’re going to be around at their peak, so they’ve done it exceptionally well. At the end of the day, the competition needs them to be successful and I’m sure they’re going to be, as long as they keep driving hard for success.

King: Winning contested possession is such a crucial factor of being competitive, yet Hawthorn don’t even need to be close to breaking even to win matches. How are they such an outlier?

Lyon: They’re so good with the ball in hand. They defend so well with the ball in hand - they’re always organised when they turn it over. I think Geelong weren’t dissimilar around the clearances, they used to lose the clearances by a fair number but when they won them, they scored. At the end of the day, there’s so much ball on the outside. I think they’re really honest and hard. I think what gets lost with Hawthorn is how fierce they are when they need to be.

King: The premier of the last few years hasn’t necessarily been a standout at winning contested possessions. There’s been a few spikes in there with West Coast and Geelong a couple of times but it’s generally been pretty average.

Lyon: I think you’ve got to break the contested possession down. It’s contested marks, it’s free kicks and I think the ground-ball war is really strong. I think if you break it down centre-forward, [Hawthorn’s] ground-ball differential – they tend to even it up because they don’t allow numbers back on them. They do it exceptionally well.

Brown: A big question of all our guests has been if you’re starting a side and you had a choice of these two types of players – the big, strong key forward, like Jesse Hogan, that dominates inside 50 or a hybrid-type, like Jake Stringer, that gets up the field, kicks goals from the midfield or forward – which would you choose?

Lyon: Well Jesse’s Western Australian so he looks pretty good. I’d take the big key forward – build down the spine.

Healy: Have you had a decision on Cam McCarthy?

Lyon: He’s a contracted GWS player, so that’s the first thing.

Healy: They’ve said they don’t expect him to be at the club next year.

Lyon:  Well they’re allowed to have their opinion. He’s a Western Australian boy and he’s clearly needed the environment to come home. I think that’s what gets lost in all this. It wasn’t just to come to Fremantle, as much as he’s a local boy playing for South Fremantle. I know he’s home, he needed his family environment. The first thing is, lets make sure he wants to play AFL football again and then we’re clearly really happy to sit down at the right time with his manager and see what direction they want to take.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs