The East Fremantle football club is a club drenched in success. With 29 premierships under their belt, they are easily the most successful club in the WAFL and indeed the country. The club is famous for producing endless AFL stars such as Brownlow medallists Ben Cousins, Simon Black, Shane Woewodin and a runner up in Daniel Kerr, there is a distinct history and culture of winning and success bred into any young player privileged to pull on the blue and white Sharks guernsey.
So how is it that this club built on a strong tradition of winning, has not won a premiership in 17 years? The 2012 grand final was the perfect opportunity to remedy the situation so foreign to East Fremantle, with all three grades making it to the big dance. If not for a horrific first quarter where Claremont slammed on 8 goals 6 to 1 goal 1, the story could have been very different. “We just didn’t expect Claremont to come out so hard I guess,” says East Fremantle Vice-Captain Andrew Stephen. “For a lot of our guys it was their first grand final and probably didn’t know what to expect,” “We were probably overawed by the occasion a little bit,” says Stephen. After a monumental comeback in the third quarter, the Sharks just couldn’t keep up the momentum and ran out of legs, eventually going down by 26 points. What promised so much for the club, delivered so little with all three grades losing on the biggest day for East Fremantle in years.
The next opportunity to break the drought came in the form of a preliminary final in 2014 against Subiaco. All the key performance indicators for the match suggested the Sharks would come out winners, except for the most important of all, the scoreboard. The Sharks had 33 scoring shots to Subiaco’s 23 but lost by 5 points with an unbelievably and unexplainable 7 goals 26 (68) to 10 goals 13 (73). When asked what happened, Stephen was still struggling to explain how his side was so inaccurate. “We thought we dominated the game, had full control but we just couldn’t finish off,” says Stephen, scratching his head in contemplation. “When you kick 7 goals 26 you know you haven’t taken your opportunities, but in saying that, if one goal goes the other way then we win the game and no one is talking about it (inaccuracy).”
One man who is taking his opportunities this season is midfielder Mitch Boyle. After a breakout 2013 season where he played 17 league games, the hard-nosed Geraldton product believes the club is building towards a successful era. “We can definitely finish top three,” says Boyle emphatically. “We’ve got really strong players coming back from AFL, Liam Anthony (North Melbourne), Bradd Dalziell (West Coast Eagles, Brisbane Lions), J-Mac (Jamie McNamara, West Coast Eagles), guys like that and also a lot of younger guys coming through too.”
“We have the potential to beat Subiaco and Peel Thunder and finishing top three is vital with the way the finals are structured this year.”
But every top three team needs an air-tight game plan that won’t crumble under the intense pressure of finals footy. The Shark’s game plan is based around their hard running midfielders, Rory O’Brien, Jamie McNamara, Liam Anthony, Bradd Dalziell and Mark McGough. Using their elite kicking skills, they switch the ball back into the corridor when coming out of defence and run in waves to overwhelm and over-run their opponents, always backing each other up, until they find a runner streaming towards goal to hit up a forward on a lead.
However, implementing a game plan is a lot tougher than merely writing it on the whiteboard and hoping it assimilates into the players’ minds, as Boyle found out last season. “I think last year there were a few guys who didn’t really know what the game plan actually was,” Boyle says with a look of mild surprise. “This year we’ve actually sat down and gone through it meeting after meeting and reinforced it through training. So we hammered the game plan so players know what to do in certain scenarios.”
Vice-Captain Stephen agrees with the difficulty of implementing the game plan saying you need to “tweak” it every year but was coy on going into the finer details of how the Sharks play. “Generally we have the same philosophies on how we want to play the game. In terms of structures and things like that, you have to evolve with the game,” says Stephen. “So basically we try to adhere to the game plan and then let the talent take over because that’s what the best sides do.”
The next step to implement a battle-hardened game plan is to find the right players to adhere to it. East Fremantle has had huge success in recruiting former AFL players in recent years come back to the club they started, going back to Shane Woewodin (Melbourne, Collingwood) and Kasey Green (West Coast Eagles, North Melbourne) in the late 2000’s, to now with Liam Anthony, Bradd Dalziell, Jamie McNamara, Brock O’Brien (Fremantle), Mark McGough (Collingwood, St. Kilda [originally from Murray Bushrangers]), Jack Perham (Collingwood), Jayden Schofield (Western Bulldogs), and Cam Eardley (Geelong).
Eardley, one of the more recent players to come back to the Sharks from AFL ranks, was delisted by Geelong at the end of 2013 after failing to play an AFL game in two years despite his outstanding form at VFL level. “I was pretty cut obviously to get delisted but I mean it was a pretty tough team to break into at the time so I don’t have any regrets,” says Eardley with a look of resignation on his face. “I gave it my best shot and that’s all you can do.”
But when asked about his return to East Fremantle, his face lit up. “Really happy to head back,” he says. “To be back with Liam Anthony and Bradd Dalziell, we’ve had a couple of wins recruiting wise.” “Liam has come straight into the leadership role, he’s had quite a bit of feedback from the coaches and they’ve listened and I think our structures in the midfield has been a lot better than last year,” says Eardley confidently.
Stephen agrees that the recruiting by the club in the last few years has been “fantastic”. “We think we’ve got a good enough culture we back ourselves to get the better players,” says Stephen, with his customary cheeky grin. “Our number one priority is to look after our own home grown talent, and to look after our AFL guys. So if they do get delisted, they come back and play for the Sharks.” “The club really holds that dear to them,” says Stephen. The club’s recruiting from outside its own backyard has proven successful too, with Boston Williamson and Danny Charters coming across from East Perth, and the O’Brien brothers Rory and Brock coming over from Peel Thunder. Rory O’Brien being the most successful of the pick-ups for the club after winning the 2013 Sandover Medal.
But when there are players coming in, that means there are players going out. The biggest name to fall out of favour with the club is undoubtedly Aiden Tropiano. After switching to the Perth Demons at the end of 2013, Tropiano has made a blistering start to the 2015 season averaging 32.8 disposals in eight games to become one of the most damaging midfielders on the competition. When asked how the club let a player of this calibre go, Stephen revealed it was a personal choice rather than a club decision. “That was his decision to go,” says Stephen. “He was a required player at the club so it was more a personal decision for him.”
So with such a talented list, ex-AFL players on every line, an air-tight game plan, and a tough coach in Steve Malaxos to lead the way, how is it that this playing group has not won a flag? There is a distinct air of underachievement about the place to which the players agree. With one grand final appearance in 2012 sandwiched between bottom five finishes in 2011 and 2013 and a horrifically inaccurate preliminary final showing in 2014, Boyle says this group has underachieved. “Yeah definitely, we’ve got really strong players coming back from AFL and so many guys that have been so experienced, I think we have definitely underachieved.” The Vice-Captain and 2013 Lynn Medallist agrees with his younger teammate. “To a certain degree I think we have underachieved,” concedes Stephen. “We played in the Foxtel Cup grand final which was a good effort as the best clubs from around the country compete in it but in terms of getting silverware, we have definitely underachieved.” “But, we have been around the mark,” says Stephen.