Ross Lyon
Ross Lyon

New Fremantle boss Ross Lyon goes head-to-head with Steve Butler on where the Dockers need to improve, what he thinks of the players and why they can play finals in 2012.

SB: What are the most important things in life for Ross Lyon?

RL: My primary purpose is to be involved in my family and take care of them, that's really important. I just try to make good choices for my wife Kirsten and my kids and my primary purpose is to give them a good opportunity in life. I've got a tight circle of friends within football and outside of football who I trust. You talk about building trust in the football team and trust is fundamental to any human relationship. Once you lose that trust, it's the end of the relationship - that applies to your family, your football club and your mates. As a player, I was up and down in my application, but certainly over the years I've developed a work ethic. What I stand for now, personally and from what I've learnt, is about players taking the risk. Don't leave it to somebody else. Give a great effort, we talk about extraordinary effort, to pursue what you want.

SB: From a footy sense, what are the traits you deem most important?

RL: At the Saints, we wanted to be a great team and we pursued greatness on a daily basis. But what we understood that to be was to work incredibly hard in every moment, to make choices every moment that would take you close to that. We talk about normal versus abnormal. There's nothing wrong with being normal, the suburbs are surrounded by normal, happy people. But ultimately at elite sport, normal equals mediocrity. So the philosophy is to be abnormal and pursue greatness and be an elite team and that requires abnormal effort on a daily basis. That's what I'm aiming to bring in culturally to Fremantle.

SB: I heard Robert Shaw say they used to call you "Whispering Death" at Fitzroy.

RL: It's quite funny isn't it. That was my nickname for a while there, it's not something I'm really proud of. You look back and you did things that you think why did I do that? But it was all part of it then. People used to dish it out and you used to pass it back on. Fundamentally, the motivation was to play footy to get out of Sunday school. It really blossomed from there. I quit VFL football in 1986 after the first game at Geelong and I quit uni within two weeks. That was a really tumultuous time in my life where even my parents were a bit disappointed in me. There were reasons I did that, but ultimately I loved the game that much that I came back.

SB: What can Fremantle players expect from you and what will you expect from them?

RL: I'll hold them to account to high standards. I read a quote once, "You show me a CEO who leaves early and arrives late and I'll show you a workforce that mirrors it. But conversely, you show me one that gets in there early and leads the way with hard work and I'll show you a workforce that mirrors that as well". My common thread would be work ethic. I turn the blowtorch up on everyone, but I turn it up on myself first. I think I've got a good balance between organisation of the team and driving the team and the humanistic side. I'll bring a strong game plan, I work on the dynamics of effort, focus on effort and try to make all the talent come together so it's a powerful machine.

SB: Do you ride your football department too hard?

RL: There were some concerns. I'm (now) really comfortable with the Monday-to-Friday working of it, I think I've struck a really good balance. A key part to your dynamics and effort is keeping people accountable. Part of the way I go about it is, then next day, what did we learn? Keeping people accountable can impart some stress, but once everyone gets it, it's OK.

SB: How do you view loyalty in a football sense?

RL: Loyalty in a professional sense is working as hard as you can, but I think it's even simpler than that. People talk about integrity … how I talk to my players behind closed doors is how I talk to them face-to-face. At great clubs, there's a consistency in how people will treat you whether you're there or you're not there. That ties into loyalty as well. There's a lot of different circumstances where loyalty can be bandied around, but quite simply, it's doing what's expected. I'm really loyal to the colour. Anyone that was under the St Kilda banner, whether I was close to them or not and someone else challenges them from outside, I really went into bat for that. I support No.44 on the list as well as I do Nick Riewoldt and any of my coaches. That's what loyalty is. If you're under our banner and you're doing the right thing, I'll go to war for you. Anyone under the Fremantle banner, that's where my loyalty lays.

SB: How did you feel when Andrew Demetriou and Leigh Matthews questioned your integrity?

RL: Andrew Demetriou has done a wonderful job. He was one of the few people when everybody was jumping off the players at St Kilda and making harsh and inaccurate judgements, he stood firm. He's got stewardship of all the AFL clubs. I'm sure he likes to see stability and key people and key planks in the organisation stay because it makes his job easier. He felt some disappointment and on the surface it looks harsh. I'm really, don't know about comfortable because it's been a tough time, but the decision that was made, on the surface it doesn't really get to the heart of what's occurred over a fair period of time. I'm confident if he knew the full facts and my rationale, his personal opinion would be softened somewhat. I actually made contact with Leigh. He said it was just his personal values and belief system. I said, "In hindsight, I wish I hadn't brought you into that environment (when Lyon quoted Matthews during last week's press conference)." He said it wasn't a personal attack and I said I didn't take it personally.

SB: Is your integrity one of the things you're most proud of?

RL: I don't think any of us are perfect. What's integrity? Doing what you say you're going to do. Let's keep it really simple, that's what integrity is. At no stage have I said I was going to do something that I haven't done, so I'm really comfortable. Obviously (my) integrity has been raised at this point, which for me is disappointing and at some level, (it) hurts. But fundamentally, for my family and friends and players I've coached, I like honesty, I like consistency in relationships. I certainly don't associate with people who just go up and down depending on who they're with. I really mix with people who, fundamentally, you can trust.

SB: What have you seen in Fremantle's list to make you take this role?

RL: I think they've been in a transition, I still think they're in a transition. They've got three or four really top-end (players). Obviously (Aaron) Sandilands, (Matthew) Pavlich, I put (Luke) McPharlin in that and (David) Mundy. I rate (Hayden) Ballantyne really highly. There's a lot of maturity, but there's some holes as well. They came 11th. I know we talk about injuries, but at the end of the day every club has injuries. You can package it anyway you like, 11th is 11th. I don't think I've inherited Nirvana, but certainly the transition is going to continue. There is some emerging class in the midfield with (Nat) Fyfe, (Stephen) Hill, Mundy and (Anthony) Morabito coming off a reco. There's still a few who have made some inroads. But from here it's are you going to continue on? (Alex) Silvagni, (Dylan) Roberton and (Nick) Suban have shown glimpses, but they really need to be stepping up from where they're at. It's a list with a good run at it, a good game plan and everyone working really hard, we can really challenge consistently against the best teams. You've got to create a top-four opportunity and until you do that, it's incredibly difficult to win a premiership. There's some work to do, but I know the club knows that.

SB: Do you say that Fremantle are now at a more advanced development stage to St Kilda?

RL: I want to be really clear here, it wasn't the motivation. There was an assertion that I left because they were closer to a premiership, that wasn't the decision. I don't think they (St Kilda) are going anywhere for a little while, if it's done correctly.

Ross Lyon is unveiled to the media by Fremantle last Friday, flanked by club president Steve Harris (L) and CEO Steve Rosich. Pic: Getty Images

SB: How radically will you change Fremantle's game plan?

RL: I know it from the outside and I think we've beaten them the last eight (times). When we went over this year on our knees, we still came back with a 46-point victory. I think we've been able to pull them apart quite well. We obviously identified Pavlich and how to handle the clearance work and we felt we identified their Achilles heel. We put pressure on and (forced) the turnovers and went away with a comfortable result. The philosophy we had at St Kilda where we went from a top-four team that couldn't win it, to a good team with a chance to win it was when we said, "How we play is how we play no matter who we play" with some slight tweaks. I'll give them a consistent game plan that won't change from week-to-week bar some slight adjustments. Obviously a really strong stoppage emphasis, team defence and (work) without the ball.

SB: Do you see them as defensively sound?

RL: I think they've ebbed and flowed, to be honest. Obviously there were a lot of things that happened, but they sort of leaked a bit at the end. In '10, their press was stronger than it was this year. I thought it got lost a bit.

SB: Does the list allow you to implement a similar game plan to St Kilda?

RL: Look, I got the (white) board in there today and I put the positions up to see who slots where in the midfield. In my head I've got some visions for a few players to reposition them. I need to get (Ryan) Crowley back to his absolute best. In my view from the outside, he's a player who has played better than he's played (this year). Adam McPhee when he tagged Lenny Hayes was fantastic, but I see him playing that half-back role. He's a monster athlete. The injection of Ballantyne with speed through the midfield, Morabito coming back and then it's getting the best out of (Jack) Anthony, Silvagni, Kepler Bradley. Then it's really getting to know the (Greg) Broughtons and the (Garrick) Ibbotsons. (Paul) Duffield was really good against the Saints and then fell away. I feel I know them because I've analysed them twice pretty well. I know (Viv) Michie is a really exciting talent, (Jayden) Pitt, the beautiful skill and the athlete, (Jesse) Crichton from the year before. I really liked (Josh) Mellington myself, I think he's quick and he's hard, I really like (Michael) Walters' skill and hardness. But we've got to develop AFL, physically fit and mental toughness. There's a bit there to work with. Michael Johnson, he can really develop even more than he has.

SB: Are you looking forward to working with Aaron Sandilands?

RL: Well, he's a real weapon isn't he? He's no-nonsense and he's mentally tough with injury.

SB: I imagine that will make you a little more proactive at the stoppages?

RL: Yeah, a little bit. Like really how the Saints were in '09 with (Steven) King and (Michael) Gardiner. To get your hand to the ball like Sandilands .. you just see what (Dean) Cox and (Nic) Naitanui have done for West Coast. That surge-momentum footy is a real weapon.

SB: Were you strongly considering Mitch Clark for St Kilda and do you want him at Fremantle?

RL: Earlier in the year I was advised we had a fair bit of money freed up at St Kilda, so he was one we were looking at for that other power forward-ruckman, which he clearly is. I really rate him highly and I think at 23 he's really ready to blossom. If you listen to the noise in the market and he's a West Australian, there's some interest there.

SB: What about Zac Clarke?

RL: I saw him running around on a wing against Brent Harvey and I thought, "Gee, that's unique". So he must have some running power. He's been exposed to games, which is good. He's one I'd like to know more about, but he'd have a big future at Fremantle.

SB: So you want to keep Ryan Crowley?

RL: Yeah, I was going to ring him today. I've seen him play some really good football. (He's) familiar with go-with and work-off roles and I'd love to see him get back to his best.

SB: Jonathon Griffin?

RL: I've been told he wants to stay, to be honest, and I value ruckmen really highly. We'd have to work through that.

Lyon and skipper Nick Riewoldt after the grand final replay loss to Collingwood last year. Pic: SMG Images

SB: Do you see Matthew Pavlich as more a midfielder or a forward?

RL: I think he's under-rated in the east, he's really led a club off its knees as its marquee player. You get the sense of his great pride in Fremantle and he's refuted overtures. He's really dangerous forward so if we can get enough support around him, I'd rather use him more forward and flick him through the midfield than the other way.

SB: Do you think you can challenge for the finals in your first year?

RL: Well, that's the aim, obviously. Am I confident? Yeah, predicated on the fact that we do the work and we commit. I'm not talking about normal work and just rolling up. I think there's going to be some challenges, no doubt, but I'm more confident with the experience I've got than I was five years ago. I came in (to St Kilda) a little bit naïve … mechanically really sound, but probably tried to change too much straight up and really hindered us in the first half of '07. I learnt about strong leadership and holding people to account. I come fully equipped to the Fremantle job.

SB: You were the AFL Coaches' Association coach of the year in '09. All 17 coaches seem to be tight, did that make it hard for you to see the fall-out over Mark Harvey?

RL: I'm not sure it's that tight. I think we all feel for each other because it's a unique position with unique scrutiny and pressure. Sometimes the industry reaps what it sows. The pressure and the scrutiny put on AFL coaches ... sometimes the expectations and reality are far apart. To see Rodney Eade, three prelims and an average year and gone, to see Neil Craig, what he'd done, and then Dean Bailey, it shakes you up and you feel for them. I certainly texted those (coaches). The wheel can turn pretty quickly so I think there's a mutual respect. It's not a brotherhood of regular contact, but I think there's a mutual understanding of the pressures of the job and the pressures on your family. But you know what, we're all big boys and we choose that. Specifically in relation to Mark, he was a great player at a great team and he was incredibly tough. We shared some time together and we know some mutual people and I know his wife, Donna, was so down-to-earth and supportive around the '09 finals series. The human side of it is really tough, but at the press conference, I certainly wasn't going to sit there and patronise Mark because I didn't think it was appropriate or the right time. That was really a no-win situation. Certainly, you come in eyes wide open, but it's really important to reiterate I didn't create a position. Basically, I was head-hunted and accepted an offer. I certainly have great empathy for Mark and at the right time, I'm sure we'll run into each other. One ounce of common sense would tell you it would be inappropriate for me to contact Mark Harvey and his family at this time. It would be offensive … it's illogical.

SB: Do you reflect on your time at St Kilda fondly?

RL: I take great heartache away with the disappointment and how close we got. There's certainly some deep scarring on a personal level. I really respect and admire their work ethic, their mental toughness and the effort that they gave to their senior coach and their members.

SB: Was it untenable for you to stay at St Kilda because of relationship breakdowns?

RL: I think in the end my decision tells you that I thought it was best to go.

Lyon addresses his players during St Kilda's grand final loss to Geelong in 2009. Pic: SMG Images

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