As someone who treats the Fremantle Dockers V West Coast Eagles derbies like kids do Christmas, the weekend’s encounter was one that felt like Mark McGowan had locked Santa out of the state. Admittedly the empty stadium didn’t help but the event had a cheerless feeling in the lead up week right up to before the initial siren and it played out with a distinct sense of soullessness.
The derby used to ignite actual passion in the players and fans alike. It meant something more than the four points and the twice annual events were pivotal dates on the WA football calendar. As Fremantle supporters, we’d rise up, stick our necks out knowing full well it was fraught with post-game retaliative danger. But it didn’t deter us because we gave as good as we got and this was a substantial part of what football in the west was about.
And for a large period, the games met the hype.
Who can forget the elation of our first Derby victory in 1999, Tony Modra kicking six goals on Ashley McIntosh and the victory sealed with Brad Wira’s celebratory airplane maneuver after his third goal?
I remember all too vividly Brad Dodd doing the old ‘smell the cheese’ routine on Phil Read in the “blood will be spilled” derby in 2000.
Or in 2004 when the Wiz kicked three goals while Paul Hasleby had 30 touches and 2 goals guiding Freo to a 10-point win before collecting one of his thousand Rosco medals.
Don’t tell me you can’t recall the 2006 encounter when with just seconds to go, again the great Paul Hasleby goaled and put Freo in front after several lead changes late in the game. It should have been the double with Josh Carr winning the medal for his 26 touches, 8 marks, 9 tackles and 3 goals but the Eagle judges gave it to their Eagle man Chris Judd.
One of my all-time favourites was the Freo victory in 2007. The Carr brothers, Josh and Matthew, went after and destroyed the Eagles trio of Chris Judd, Daniel Kerr and Ben Cousins. But the focus was mainly on the latter as they terrorised Benny Cousins leaving him, in what later turned out to be somewhat of a premonition, to look like a homeless bum in ragged and ripped clothing ! For the Carr Bros efforts, they delivered a 27-point win and willingly wore $4,500 in fines between them. That’s playing for the jumper and the fans!
Fast forward to 2010 when our beloved Hayden Ballantyne took to the field and rattled and destroyed the West Coast Eagles! He put a lazy six goals on the board while helping Freo to its biggest ever Derby win, a 75-point margin at the final siren. But what made that even more memorable was the fact Ballas had the heart and the desire to do all that with a broken foot.
We’ll finish the reminiscent reel on a sad note of what feels like a still open wound. Round 20 in 2018, the ugly incident where a 26-year-old Andrew Gaff king hit an 18-year-old Andrew Brayshaw off the ball and shattered his jaw. Apart from Michael Johnson and Hayden Ballantyne who showed some retaliation and heart that day…… that incident has disappointingly since been left “unattended to” and Andrew Gaff has been allowed to forget it. It may well be the pivotal reference point that signalled the rapid decline of the rivalry.
While there were many more moments and individual contests worthy of mention, they were the Derby glory days. They were the games the nation would ensure it tuned in to, the games the players fought to play in and the games the fans couldn’t wait to witness. But what happened? Where has that ultra-excitement and nerve shaking anticipation gone? Where's the band of brothers mentality, the tribal alliances? What happened to united we stand, the one in all in mentality?
Kane Cornes’ call last week, suggesting the rivalry had become fraudulent, stung like a bugger. The understandable immediate reaction was one of vehement denial, particularly from Fremantle fans. However, while publicly we didn’t want to admit it, I think subconsciously we knew there was a large degree of truth in what he was saying.
While I personally agree with Kane on face value, I agree with him for more reasons than he alluded to. The record string of losses our Fremantle club has suffered at the hands of the West Coast Eagles, for mine, has played its part but isn’t the sole catalyst for the demise in the feeling around the derby duel.
While its personal opinion I am of the view there are a number of factors which have contributed to the dissipation of what was once a true and authentic rivalry.
In this social media existence there is, wittingly or unwittingly, an egotistical desire to be seen as superior and a fear of being retaliatorily ridiculed. Anything today written on any of the platforms is potentially there forever as a reference point for future use. Consequently, self-preservation has infiltrated the football fan space, robbing the derbies today of yesteryear hype. Put simply we take ourselves far too seriously and we're overly sensitive.
Rightly or wrongly, and for the record I believe disastrously, elements of society have blurred the lines of what is supposedly acceptable language and it has had a multi-faceted influence on the rhetoric. Those self-anointed guardians and judges of acceptable speech are continually moving the goal posts and with the dire consequences, such as the social media pile in, of even being accused of falling short of not adhering to the standards at any given time, potentially causes fans to err on the side of fearful caution.
Its no doubt an unpopular opinion with many but I personally still struggle to understand how the sticks and stones policy lost its relevance and I generally believe society would be substantially healthier if it were still in play.
The third of a multitude of reasons, and possibly one of the most meaningful, is the current inexperience of the players and their minimal exposure to playing actual derbies. That may however only account for the last two or so years but it has probably enhanced the rivalry ruin.
Sunday’s team that Fremantle put on the park saw an average of just 5 derbies per player having been experienced. But if we remove Nathan Fyfe’s, David Mundy’s and Michael Walter’s occasions the figure drops to just 2.9 derbies per player.
In this national competition when you’re welcoming imports from other clubs, youngsters from interstate and players for job security purposes, getting them to buy into the rivalry is no doubt a difficult task.
How do you get a James Aish to feel about playing the West Coast Eagles in the same way it felt to supporters only half a dozen years back? Or a Rory Lobb, a Blake Acres, a Nathan Wilson?
Quite simply the clubs need to create that culture surrounding the rivalries. Understandably the professionalism, the pressure and the finances involved have inevitably overshadowed the importance of the cross-town contest but at the same time the clubs must realise they’re in the entertainment business. They’re selling an experience.
There is absolutely room and a necessity for the Gerard Neesham, Damien Drum and Chris Connolly type promotional angle, but we’re definitely not advocating the all-in brawl flying-punch-on throwdown. Sadly though all we ever hear from coaches today is the roboticized, generic and unconfrontational “we treat it as just another game” line being rolled out. The pre-derby press conference is a painfully boring piece of contrived theatre that no one has the slightest interest in.
Say something controversial coaches! Ignite the spark, get the fire lit and then throw a jerrycan of fuel on it. And if you can't do that then sling Daniel Kerr a bag of horse chaff and a box of redheads! But at the same time its imperative you ensure your players have bought in as well.
We’re tragically losing our individuality and our uniqueness and with it our derby rivalry institution. Admittedly in this day and age it’s more difficult to keep it alive than it isn’t but it’s something well worth fighting for and if we let it disappear entirely, football and future fans will be poorer for it.
While I genuinely believe the above reasons have sadly had a marked impact, the sanitisation of the game itself and the overzealous nature of the AFL, led by their media stooges and the 24 hour footy news cycle, to crack down on anything in the industry that isn’t pure, has been as negatively impactful as any reason.
Look at what was immediately focused on post-match – the West Coast Eagle boys got pulled over the coals and were actually spoken about in the same climate as white supremacists for displaying an innocent punch-game signal. And to make matters worse, what did the West Coast Eagle hierarchy do? They immediately caved in and suggested, while innocent, the players shouldn't be doing that. The instant response should should have been telling the media and the critics, they’re the ones who should grow up!
I can’t believe I am defending West Coast Eagle players but, on this occasion, it is for the greater good and I won’t make a habit out of it.
So we can rightfully blame some or all of the reasons above but the players themselves don’t get out of the conversation unscathed either. If there were doubts regarding Kane Cornes' criticisms of Fremantle being unable to stop the recent years of Derby failure rot causing the rivalry demise, they were put to bed on Sunday.
We can create the environment and us fans can all buy in but if the players serve up that type of performance on more than the rarest of rare occasions it will have all been for nothing. A Josh Carr, Brad Dodd, Dale Kickett and Paul Hasleby midfield wouldn’t be able to save it.
To put the pep back in your rivalry step, the glide back in your tribal stride click play on a magnificent video put together by www.dockerland.com and remember what we've all let go.