Sport AFL Nathan Burke: Cinderella Lions are on their way to the ball
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Nathan Burke: Cinderella Lions are on their way to the ball

Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan has got his team well drilled and in contention for a flag. Photo: Getty
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Nothing tugs on your heartstrings like a good old-fashioned Cinderella story.

Who doesn’t love to watch the underdog ride a wave of momentum towards an unlikely triumph?

We all do. It’s what sport is all about.

AFL fans had a good taste of it in 2016 when the Western Bulldogs broke their long premiership drought and the yellow-and-black army even found some neutral support when Richmond did likewise in 2018.

This year there is a Cinderella story in the making at – of all places – Brisbane, where the Lions have surprised everyone.

Most Victorians would, of course, prefer a long downtrodden southern team to be in the mix, but the fact is none of them are ready yet.

Hopefully in the next couple of years the Saints, Roos, Blues and Demons can keep heading in the right direction and reward their long-suffering fans.

In the meantime if we want an underdog to emerge and challenge for the flag, it is going to have to be the Lions. And what a story it has been so far.

Like many I didn’t rate the Lions at the start of the year.

After a 15th-place finish in 2018 I had them with an improving list and sneaking in to eighth spot at best.

Even rating them that highly it was off the back of a group of exciting youngsters yet to reach their potential, mid-range journeymen and a small influx of new talent.

On the up: Charlie Cameron is now using his talent consistently. Photo: Getty

But here we are with just four games to go in the home-and-away season and they are firmly September bound.

Who would have thought?

Undoubtedly much of the credit has to go to coach Chris Fagan. He has done so much right, it is difficult to know where to start in listing his achievements.

Firstly, he has improved individual players. Mitch Robinson and Charlie Cameron to name just two.

Both of these guys have gone from occasional good player to week in, week out outstanding regular performers.

In Robinson’s case it seems to be a change in attitude that has done the trick.

It looks like a light bulb has gone on in his head and he realises that there is a difference between just playing a game each week and playing well each week.

The same with Cameron who always had talent, but only used it to good effect sporadically. Consistency is the hallmark of all great players and he is starting to find some.

Fagan also has the Lions playing a brand of football that every player seems to be in tune with.

At every stoppage you see them pointing, yelling, communicating, instructing and, most importantly, responding to each other.

You can tell by watching that they are extremely well drilled and everyone is on the same page. That starts with the head coach.

They are also playing a style of football that will win finals. The Brisbane players manage to cope with intense pressure and wide-open spaces with equal ease.

Whatever the game throws at them, they seem to handle. When they don’t have the ball, their pressure is up there with the best of teams.

You get the sense that the less-talented players in the team understand that this is their job and they will be rewarded equally as well as the talented players for fulfilling their role.

All in all Fagan should be applauded for doing the three key things a coach should be judged on – improving individual players, uniting a team and playing a winning brand of football.

The big question is can they keep it going?

How deep is the list if they get a couple of significant injuries?

For the sake of those of us who love a Cinderella story, let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

So can the Lions match it with the experienced finalists like Richmond, West Coast, Collingwood and Geelong?

If we have seen anything this season it is that these top sides can be beaten on any given day.

Therefore I see no reason why the Brisbane Lions cannot keep rolling along and perhaps give us an amazing 15th-to-first Cinderella story.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.