Fans Players

Inside the Lions’ den

This story was originally published on July 10, 2017.

Ryan Lester lined up from 20 metres out, directly in front.

Feeling exhausted after running hard to find space in the forward 50 to receive a flawlessly placed Rhys Mathieson pass, he took a few deep breaths before composing himself and starting his routine.

A chorus of boos filled the 41,000 strong crowd, but most of the fans in attendance assumed an obvious result.

As soon as the ball dropped from hand to foot, however, it was apparent that this set shot was destined to hang left, squandering a wonderful opportunity to bridge a two-goal gap early in the third quarter.

For most of this contest, Brisbane were treading water and the inevitable was going to happen at some point.

Their fighting spirit would dissipate and perhaps another game they seemingly had a chance to grasp would slip through their fingertips, or so it seemed.

“If you come and watch us play, the reality is we’re a young side and we make a lot of skill execution mistakes,” Lester says. “Mistakes where you put your hand up to your head and say, ‘What’s he doing?’”

If you’ve viewed a Brisbane game over the course of the last four months, you will have picked up on Chris Fagan’s demeanour in the coaches’ box.

Perhaps the most glaring sign of emotion came in that exact game in Round 15 at Etihad Stadium, where the rookie coach positioned himself on his knees at the back of the box in an attempt to let out his frustrations following an errant clearing kick from Tom Cutler.

Or maybe that was a build-up of issues that began not long after Lester shanked his very gettable set shot to the left when the margin was just 11 points.

The mood on Monday when players walk into training is consistent, no matter what the result is.

What the Lions have worked towards since October has been creating a positive environment, regardless of whether a victory was achieved over the weekend, or what their current win-loss ratio looks like.

So when Ryan Lester floated to the front of the pack with 1:50 remaining in the last quarter on Sunday against the Bombers and managed to cling on to an uncontested mark, just a quarter after missing the unmissable, he showed a level of poise by slotting home the sealer to cap a remarkable comeback from a 27-point deficit.

“I missed a set shot 20 metres out,” Lester said. “After the game, it was all very happy that we won and I ended up kicking a goal late in the game, but Fages came up to me and said, ‘You should have kicked that one earlier, let’s work on your goal-kicking routine this week.’ That’s an example where we see vision of him in the box going off because it’s frustrating for him, but by the time he speaks to the player he is calm and composed and wants to help you out.”

While those blunders are frustrating, Fagan will never pick a player out and lambast them for a skill error. It’s about the decision and whether it was the right judgement for the team and the way they intend to play.

“It helps not only me but the young guys by giving us confidence that we can try and hit a particular kick,” Lester points out. “If we miss it, then he won’t go off at us unless it’s a poor decision. That’s the way it has to be these days in the AFL. For players, it’s great to know you can go out there and play with a natural flare because that’s the reality of why we get drafted. We all have talent, so why not let us play to our strengths and not worry about making a mistake?”

Chris Fagan has an open-door policy, but that’s no throwaway line.

Communication and messaging are buzz words in today’s era, which can be a trying experience when accounting for a list of players that exceeds 40 young men.

Relationships are key.

“You can only pick 22 players, but guys who are playing NEAFL appreciate that what he says to them is really open and honest,” Lester says.

“Players want honest feedback about where they sit. It isn’t just that you missed out this week and other players are ahead of you, it’s listing the reasons why and being transparent. He connects well with players on a one-to-one level.”

Brisbane players are enjoying their football in 2017. That feeling is across the board.

While wins have been scarce, there is a bigger picture focus that is not only strategic, but long term.

The Lions are seeing little wins along the way, and that was obvious when the group watched a couple of edits last week.

One piece of vision showcased their early season play, the other encapsulated their last month, and the improvement was vast.

With only three wins from 15 games, it’s little victories that need to be celebrated, like quarters won. In case you’re keeping tally, they’ve claimed 18 out of a possible 60, but seven of those have come in the last five weeks.

There’s a correlation between feeling fulfilled off the field, and playing well on it.

Geelong, Sydney and Hawthorn have been well-regarded when it comes to developing players on the field, and ensuring they’re motivated in other areas.

Up north, there’s been a shift at looking at life after football and taking that more seriously.

“We’re trying to be proactive with players by sitting down with them and asking them about their interests away from football,” says Andrew Crowell, who joined the Lions in December as their Head of Personal Excellence and Wellbeing.

“We ask them what they want to do in 15 years, and also what their interests are right now. The other area is around community and identifying what they want to do there — we may have a player who has a strong interest in domestic violence, or Indigenous affairs or homelessness. If we have that information, we can communicate it to other departments and make sure that when appearances happen or there’s club visits that they can do things that are of interest to them. It’s about the players getting something out of it.”

Perhaps these developments seem simplistic and obvious to outsiders, but the fact of the matter is that the Brisbane Lions haven’t excelled in this department in the past.

The caring and nurturing environment that exists now simply wasn’t apparent previously. There was a level of impatience and inconsistency towards strategy and direction.

“Having someone like David Noble come on board has fine-tuned things,” Crowell continued.

“We communicate better with different departments and it’s those little things that he has been able to bring to the table that have structured us up in better fashion.”

One question that now gets bandied around the club is, ‘If you don’t perform over the weekend, what’s your release from football during the week?’

Jack Frost spends a day at a V8 Supercar mechanic, Marco Paparone designs t-shirts, Mitch Robinson has bought into a barber shop, Claye Beams, Darcy Gardiner and Sam Mayes are doing apprenticeships.

“At the end of the day, we’re all adults playing AFL,” Lester explains. “We don’t need a school-like environment. It’s about you making the right decisions for you and your football, on and off the field.”

While the football club has bought into the playing group and shown more care, it’s imperative that those who take to the field do the same.

Both Fagan and Noble have implemented Leading Teams into the football department, which interestingly enough, was a method the Lions had in place nearly a decade ago, with varying success.

The most recent iteration began at the start of this season, and continues on a monthly basis.

The leadership group will meet to discuss, and there are all-in meetings that cover the entire playing group.

While Lester says, “It’s not rocket science,” he does stress the importance of recognising aspects that haven’t been fruitful previously.

“It is acknowledging behaviours in the past that haven’t been helpful to us, and being able to realise that they’re hindering us as a club and as a team, and being able to turn them around. Most of it is common sense, but once you actually fix a couple of things the culture of the place shifts, and ours has dramatically.”

Fagan came to the club with a blank canvas when it came to his new players, but the most excruciating decision came relatively early in his tenure.

Tom Rockliff had captained the group for two seasons, but relinquished the captaincy as Dayne Beams was appointed to lead the club in 2017.

Rather than sulk, Rockliff came back to club in elite condition and performed perhaps his most notable act of leadership behind closed doors.

A close friend of both Pearce and Cian Hanley, Rockliff played a supportive hand as the brothers dealt with the toughest moment of their young lives, as Crowell explains.

“Many people would have known about the Cian and Pearce Hanley situation with their younger brother passing away. Tom took a real leadership role there — he was our go-to person in terms of bouncing off ideas related to how we should talk to the players and also a lot of support to the Hanley family. He’s a great fella and he has learnt a lot in the last couple of years.”

One of the great problems for Brisbane has been player retention, and it reared its ugly head for them at the end of 2013.

Sam Docherty, Elliot Yeo, Jared Polec, Billy Longer and Patrick Karnezis all requested trades to their home states.

Through those various moves, however, the Lions have yielded Lewis Taylor, Tom Cutler, Dan McStay and Nick Robertson — all of whom have enjoyed a consistent run in the senior team.

McStay recently signed on for an extra two years, and their No. 2 selection from the 2015 draft, Josh Schache, showed his commitment by extending until 2019.

“There’s a lot of boys that have come up from interstate, and I think the environment we’ve created here is really positive,” Crowell contends. “They want to be here, and they’re really clear on where we’re going. I’m pretty sure the players now actually know that the club cares for them as people.”

Speak to those close to Schache, and they’ll tell you that he battled while deliberating on his decision.

The constant media speculation — the talkback radio discussion, airtime on various AFL TV shows, column inches and of course, the back page of The Age that depicted him in a Richmond jumper — all affected a 19-year-old who was making an impossible decision.

While a large contingent of reporters had his leaving papers all but signed, the Lions never lost faith in their young cub.

They were honest, open and supportive, and let it be known that if he needed a spell at any time, that wish would be granted.

Brisbane weren’t making decisions out of panic due to the speculation, they made calls based on what was right for a teenager.

“We were catching up regularly with Josh to make sure things were going well at home,” Crowell added. “We had consistent conversations with his family to see how they were going. Josh was talking to me about how he was going off the field — whether he was physically or mentally flat, and how he was coping with what he had to consume on social media.”

In May, and around the height of the speculation, Schache took some much-needed time away from the club in his home town of Seymour.

And while the external noise bordered on the ridiculous, the internal feeling never wavered. A couple of days after returning north, he put pen to paper on a new deal.

“Both Josh Schache and Dan McStay were big signings for the club, and particularly Josh,” said Lester.

“For him to stay sent out a message that there’s a good culture, despite the fact that at the moment he’s playing NEAFL. It was really powerful for us as the Brisbane Lions to become relevant again in the AFL world.

“The reality is that we’ve been lost in the last four or five years because we haven’t been finals contenders and we’ve struggled to retain players. Teams probably come up to the Gabba and see it as a chance to get some good weather and get an easy win.

“I feel like we’re on the right path.”