The Dockers were in disarray and their rebuild had seemingly been derailed just over three years ago.
Then came an off-season, highlighted by some shrewd trades and excellent drafting, that would ultimately flip the fortunes of the club and set it up for a 2022 finals surge.
Months before that bumper 2019 draft haul, there was ample clutter and disharmony at the Dockers. There were claims of a toxic culture, which foxfooty.com.au reported about extensively at the time.
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Coach Ross Lyon and chief executive Steve Rosich were sensationally sacked after a horror 2019 campaign that was somewhat masked by a mediocre win-loss record.
While Dockers players would have to wait a half a year to respond with actions on the field, the club’s list team went to work off it.
The Dockers had previously made a concerted effort to target WA-born players to safeguard the club’s future – a strategy that had delivered mixed results. Rory Lobb, Bradley Hill, Joel Hamling and Reece Conca were seen as trade hits, but the likes of Cam McCarthy, Jesse Hogan, Harley Bennell and Shane Kersten didn’t work out for an array of reasons.
Footy boss Peter Bell and recruiter David Walls, who would later receive a promotion, took control. The club would prioritise players with great character, rather than focus on their state of origin.
The hits have flown since, both at the trade table and draft.
And it started with their 2019 trade period and draft haul, in which Pick 10 was central to a domino of key deals.
Pick 10, initially Port Adelaide’s natural first-round selection, was sent to St Kilda as part of the trade that saw Dougal Howard and Paddy Ryder land at Moorabbin and the Power acquire two separate first-rounders.
The pick was then crucial in the Saints’ bid to land Hill, who wanted out of Freo mid-contract after 52 games across three seasons. Fremantle would part with Hill, who signed a lucrative long-term deal with the Saints, as well as a future third-rounder, but received Pick 10, Saint Blake Acres and three other selections in return.
(Acres and fellow 2019 acquisition James Aish, who then-new coach Justin Longmuir was keen to bring across after working with him at Collingwood, have both become key members of the Dockers’ best 22 since.)
As much as losing Hill – a best and fairest winner – was a blow for Fremantle, it allowed the club to enter the 2019 draft with two top-10 selections: Pick 7, its natural first-round selection after Gold Coast’s priority pick, and Pick 10.
Then a week out from the draft, the Dockers completed two separate pick swaps that saw them better their hand. Fremantle traded Pick 22 and a future third-round selection to Adelaide for Picks 28, 49 and a future fourth-round selection. Then in a deal with Melbourne, the Dockers received Pick 8 in exchange for Picks 10, 28 and the future fourth-round selection they’d just received from the Crows.
These swaps gave the Dockers back-to-back top-10 selections and, therefore, the best chance of landing the high-end talent they’d identified before being forced to match a bid on Next Generation Academy prospect Liam Henry.
Come draft night, the Dockers selected Hayden Young (Pick 7) and Caleb Serong (Pick 8) – two inspired selections.
Young is now a mainstay across half-back for Freo, averaging 22.9 disposals this season. He was the fourth-highest rated player on ground in Saturday night’s elimination final win over the Western Bulldogs, finishing with 28 disposals, a kicking efficiency of 90 per cent and 11 marks (four intercept).
Serong won the AFL Rising Star award in his first season. But he’s continued to develop at a rapid rate, to the point where he’s now pushing elite AFL midfielder status. He was colossal against the Dogs in the Dockers’ comeback win, booting a telling goal in the second term and finishing with 33 disposals, 16 contested possessions and 10 clearances — not bad for a finals debut.
After the Dockers picked Young and Serong in 2019, Carlton launched a bid on Henry at Pick 9, which was matched. While the Dockers subsequently were forced into draft deficit for the next year, they still had a late selection at Pick 61 in 2019, which they used to secure Michael Frederick.
An exciting player that provides genuine spark across wing and half-forward, Frederick has kicked 26.14 in 2022 – the third-most by a Dockers player. Just as importantly, he’s applied tremendous defensive pressure, punctuated by his awesome run-down tackle on Bulldog Ed Richards on Saturday that led to Michael Walters’ match-winning goal.
The 2019 draft debt meant the Dockers slid several picks at the start of the 2020 draft. But they still used Pick 14 to land Heath Chapman, who’s an emerging star in Fremantle’s defence. That was punctuated by his elimination final performance against the Dogs that saw him finish with 27 disposals and a kicking efficiency of 100 per cent.
Thirteen picks later in 2020, they selected Nathan O’Driscoll, who sealed the Dockers’ win over the Dogs on Saturday night with a ridiculous goal. Then the next year, the Dockers selected Jye Amiss, Neil Erasmus and Matthew Johnson with their three top-21 selections. Amiss will almost certainly hold his spot for the semi-final after an impressive two-goal haul against the Dogs, while Erasmus is banging down the door at WAFL level in his first season.
And while picking up some young guns at the draft across the past three years, the Dockers have also traded in two players initially drafted in the first round: Will Brodie (via Gold Coast Suns) and Jordan Clark (via Geelong). They’re two of just four Fremantle players that have been selected for all 23 games so far in 2022, alongside Andrew Brayshaw and Luke Ryan.
The Dockers had to work a bit harder to secure Clark as he was still contracted to Geelong before they eventually settled on a deal that saw an early second-round pick change hands.
The Brodie acquisition looms as one of the great bargain trades in recent memory. As part of the deal, which saw the Dockers part with a future second-round pick – a selection that will be in the 30s at this year’s draft – and a future fourth-round pick, Fremantle acquired Brodie – the Pick 9 from the 2016 draft – and Pick 19 – the selection that was ultimately used to select Johnson.
Speaking to foxfooty.com.au earlier in the year, Dockers legend Matthew Pavlich said the Dockers list build had been “a pretty systemised and processed plan and result”.
“David Walls and Peter Bell have done an incredible job building the list,” Pavlich told foxfooty.com.au.
“It’s been a long process. Six years out of the finals is too long – and they’ve got a few wrong along the way in terms of some guys that were traded in and then headed back out – but they are back to where they wanted to be a bit earlier.
“They’re still young, so they might be actually ahead of their own schedule in terms of where they thought they might be. But that’s not to say they can’t go deep into September this year.”
The Dockers will head into Saturday night’s semi-final against Collingwood as underdogs. But considering how the club was placed three years ago, it’s a remarkable turnaround just to get to the third-last hurdle in such a short space of time.