Sport AFL Lyon’s a genius, but he needs a flag
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Lyon’s a genius, but he needs a flag

Ross Lyon
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The more the AFL changes, the more it stays the same.

Another year, and another Ross Lyon team is contending to say the least, actually charging along in front of the peloton and showing no signs of fatigue. We ought to be used to it.

On the outside few people expected it of Fremantle; too old was the catchphrase.

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But no team since Melbourne in the 1950s has gone two games clear on top of the table through six rounds, and here’s an irony: we all talk about how even the competition is, yet we tend to ignore the fact there is a big-time breakaway happening.

Fremantle has that Lyon trademark hardness and fanaticism and let’s face it, that takes teams a long way in this game.

Ross Lyon began his coaching career as an assistant at Richmond in 1996, and moved to Carlton in 2000. Photo: Getty
Ross Lyon began his coaching career as an assistant at Richmond in 1996, and moved to Carlton in 2000. Photo: Getty

Lyon is a borderline genius in my view, at least in football terms.

As a coach/manager, he has that ability to draw people along with him, coax that extra work from them, eke out every last smother and tackle.

Like Mick Malthouse, he waves an iron fist in the public arena and like Leigh Matthews, he can be intimidating.

Yet in-house, his players testify on his behalf almost without exception; even when he left St Kilda at the end of 2011, the players were disappointed.

St Kilda should never have let him go, allowed him an out clause in his contract, but that’s another story for another day. Rossy is after a flag at Fremantle and maybe he will get it.

He invented the forward press in 2009 and almost won a premiership with it; then had Malthouse recreate it and tweak it in 2010 and use it against him, denying St Kilda again.

But tactically, strategically he is in the top echelon and above all, his teams are tough to play against (in 2015, they are conceding a minuscule 62.5 points a game, No. 1 in the AFL).

He comes to Melbourne this weekend with a 65.5 percent winning record in his eighth season, which is worth pondering given that the coaching legends like Jeans (62.1), Hafey (58.7), Malthouse (56.7), Parkin (55.6) and Sheedy (53.5) look up to him.

Needless to say they have premierships to boast of, which for Rossy is a work in progress, still.

Brutally honest with self-assessment, he will know better than anyone that at some point, he needs a premiership to validate the 65.5 number; even Lyon has said it is a results-driven business.

The people who say that his game style cannot win flags are being churlish; but for the crooked bounce that eluded Stephen Milne in the drawn 2010 Grand Final his St Kilda would surely have unseated a far superior Collingwood team, and he would have been hailed as a coaching maestro.

After a stint at Sydney under Paul Roos, he landed the St Kilda job in 2006. Photo: Getty
After a stint at Sydney under Paul Roos, he landed the St Kilda job in 2006. Photo: Getty

Had it not rained in 2009 the Saints might well have beaten Geelong, an unbelievably good wet weather team, too.

Ability to score is the fulcrum of the debate about his game style, and in four grand final appearances his teams kicked no more than 10 goals.

Lyon himself has said that great teams are in the top four for both defence and attack, which is worth pondering.

Fremantle is fifth in scoring so far this year, averaging 14 goals compared with 13.5 in home and away matches last year. He is a millimetre away from what he wants.

Rossy will not win any popularity contests, not with those memorable media conferences and the barbs for the journos that began with his very first public appearance as a coach down at St Kilda in 2007.

I happened to be there, and Ross picked off his questioners with a relish I did not appreciate, so much so that I contacted him by email a few hours afterword and let him have a couple of barrels, since we go way back.

You don’t need enemies in this job, is my memory of the tone I took, trying to be constructive. Give people some respect.

What happened next is classic Rossy.

Within five minutes of punching through that email, my phone rang, and Lyon was on the other end, neither angry nor contrite, more analytical. He appreciated the feedback, he said, and would take it on board.

He still shoots down journos fairly regularly, and as a questioner, you need to be right on your game, make sure you get the words out properly, for he won’t suffer fools.

At times he goes too far, but in the scheme of things, it’s not that important. Ultimately, you have to laugh.

Hence I chuckled at this exchange with Braden Quartermaine of the Sunday Times after the Dockers beat Essendon last weekend, assuming the title of premiership favourites for the first time this year:

Quartermaine: Ross, you’ve become the premiership favourite tonight for the first time…

Lyon (interrupting): That’s not like you Braden, throwing around platitudes like that and big statements, ay? That’s okay though…

BQ: I don’t set the prices. Do you feel like you’re the team to beat now? Would you agree?

RL: Can you clarify that question? So you’re basing that question on the bookies’ market? Is that where we’re at? You’re quite funny … I feel like I’ve answered it. It’s round six, that’s all it means.

The media got its headline (Lyon plays down talk etc). Rossy got his whack in. The circle of (footy) life resumes.

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