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  • Writer's pictureThe Chief

Up Off The Canvas Connor

It may be a case of me selfishly satisfying an unrelenting passion for the backing of an underdog or a simple dislike for not having a dog, under status or otherwise, in a fight; but here we are. There is something about an unfolding back-to-the-wall story that sparks my interest and tugs at my heart strings. Maybe, and probably, the adoption of, eager affiliation and affection for the underdog are a prerequisite for supporting our beloved Fremantle Dockers.

Within the Fremantle supporter ranks, those particularly with deep roots back to 1995, the individuals proudly displaying their purple allegiance inevitably have that same affection for the supporting practice and the subjects of it. The mere thought that a club with the distinct lack of meaningful historical success and in possession of the well documented empty trophy cabinet could possibly boast fifty thousand members, is as significant a testament as you’ll ever secure.

Subjecting ourselves to relentless abuse and ridicule, we take pride in wearing the hardships like a badge. Text book masochistic tendencies some would say but we know better, we occupy the desire to be part of building the ultimate authentic success, something very special however long it takes.

And while no doubt we give better than we get in the jibe jargon jam, it’s our unwavering loyalty trait based building of exceptional character, ever proving up the ‘patience is a virtue’ philosophy.

Now with that being the case, I am going to take the liberty of presumptuously suggesting that we find ourselves on the eve of yet another supportive call to arms.

We have a man at his career cross roads, a member of the purple family that to some degree will be not only unsure of his position in the team but in the wider AFL. We have one of our troops, Connor Blakely, who requires the power of the purple people’s positive projections.

In a year of limited appearance and the apparent mailed invitations to opposing clubs advertising Connor’s availability, the once touted walk up starting member of the twenty two, may literally be the quintessential man without a football club country, had he not fortuitously signed a three year contract in 2019.

Connor Blakely hadn’t yet reached the heights of the pundit’s predictions or that which his capabilities suggested so a ‘fall from grace’ isn’t an appropriate term. However, to borrow a reference from this current covid climate, analogically speaking, it’s probably more accurate inferring he personally not only ‘flattened the curve’ of his career but saw it inverted.

It’s always a curious case when a young, seemingly well grounded, up and coming career takes a turn for the worse.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Blakely. In fact it hasn’t been as plain sailing as it has been surfing, but that’s a temporary throw-away tongue in cheek comment we’ll pick up later.

After being drafted in 2014 Connor Blakely wasn’t going to make his debut in 2015 until that fateful game late in the season. Round 23, the final home and away match saw Fremantle sitting two wins clear, unable to be displaced in the race for the minor premiership.

Coach Ross Lyon pulled the now infamous move which saw an unprecedented 12 changes to the team to take on Port Adelaide. It was all in the name of finals preparation, an intentional resting of the seniors. And it must be said that considering the match, regardless of the result, had no influence on finals or ladder positions, it really was unofficially a dead-rubber. That said, despite it being within the rules, the move is still today a contentious point and a controversial topic of conversation.

Back to the man in question, Connor Blakely, who was one of the twelve ins.

Through no fault of his own, Connor probably hadn’t yet earned the call up. He was given a baptism of fire and thrust into the heat of battle in an away game, alongside a host of players lacking in experience, strength and size. Consequently and predictably Port Adelaide handed the young Freo list a near on 12 goal hiding.

Truth be known, only the players involved will know if it had any negative impact on them but looking back now it could be seen as an unnecessary risk taken and disrespectful to many of the players brought in.

A debut is a pretty special event, you only get one and usually you’re not only surrounded by seasoned veterans, you’re forward their protection when you run on to the field the first time. On this occasion there was no such protection and there was nowhere to hide for any of them. It was shades of 1995 all over again.

In that game against Port Adelaide in 2015 there were four debuting players.

Above and beyond the four debutants, a further four players had just six games of experience between them.

So effectively over a third of the team on that day collectively had just six games of AFL experience.

Four of the above eight players are no longer in the AFL system having all been delisted. Considering the likes of the remaining four, in particular Ethan Hughes, Lachie Weller and Ed Langdon, it’s difficult to assert that the unorthodox debut had any lasting negative effects. It would however be interesting to hear all eight individuals reveal their unique personal debut experiences.

Again back to the specific man in question.

With Connor Blakely going on to play fifteen games in the following 2016 year and seemingly cementing his position in the team, it does appear on the surface he took no harm from the debut. Being awarded the round 11 rising star nomination with 25 disposals and 7 tackles in the win against Essendon probably only adds weight to that claim.

The axe came swinging half a dozen games later though when Blakely’s form softened. But he regained his position for the last three matches of the season which put him in good stead for a big 2017.

Those appearances came to fruition as he played the opening thirteen games in the 2017 season and was arguably in the best form of his then short career. It felt like he had arrived and was evolving into the player it was believed he would become.

Then Wednesday the 28th June 2017, the south west surf report proved too enticing. Margaret River was calling Connor’s name, echoing inside the North Point Beach barrels. Unable to resist, we found out that the usually line toeing, disciplined defensive midfielder was indeed human. He trained at the club in the morning before reporting feeling sick, a sickness only being on top of the wide open ocean, breathing in the salty south west sea air could heal.

He was somehow found out, and by somehow we mean Captain Fyfey came to the difficult realisation that he had to put the team first, break the surfer’s code of honour and ‘drop a dime’ on his former good mate…. or dude, or bro or compadre or whatever the correct surfing lingo/term may be.

Subsequently, he was understandably dropped for disciplinary reasons. Much was made out of the incident and Connor copped a fair whack from the media and fans. Personally though I’d like to see what the reaction would have been if those throwing the accusatory house bricks at him were held to the same account and scrutiny in their daily lives.

Anyway it happened, he copped his hit, did the one game suspension, probably got a few more waves in and then he returned in emphatic style to average 31 possessions and 10 marks per game for the next three rounds.

The kick in the pants was seemingly the tonic Connor needed but what he didn’t need was the devastating season ending twice dislocated shoulder he suffered against the Giants in round 19 of the 2017 season. After dislocating the shoulder early in the game he was sent back out there where he obviously dislocated it a second time doing substantial damage which required surgery.

We’ll never know the answer but was the state of the game, being a kick the difference, put ahead of Connor Blakely’s well-being? You’d like to think not. It did though destroy his positive career trajectory and set him back substantially.

Rehab went smoothly rendering him ready for round one of 2018 and, in mirroring 2017, Blakely played the first thirteen games straight. His form was somewhat sporadic but there were several exceptional performances, namely his 30 touches and 12 marks against Essendon in round 2, his 35 possessions and 11 marks in round 8 against the Saints and his 30 disposals and 6 grabs against the Crows in round 12.

The Blakely curse then struck again. In the week leading up to round 15 injury revisited and he had to be carried from the training track after damaging a knee. And this time it wasn’t a case of Yallingupitis.

Projected to miss 6 weeks, the on the up midfielder ended up not seeing action again for not only the remaining 9 rounds of the 2018 season but the first 8 rounds of 2019 as well.

While the knee had healed it was a preseason serious hamstring incident that ruined his start to 2019. An innocuous collision on the training track saw Blakely rip the hamstring off the bone in January of that year.

Suddenly we’re all looking at Connor’s 2017 training track avoiding surfing expedition in a different light!

With a highly compromised and near on non-existent preseason, round nine against Essendon saw his 2019 on field year get underway. Blakely was able to hold his position for every remaining game but it must be said, albeit somewhat understandably, his form was patchy and there was a significant gap between his best and worst performances.

2020 saw a new coach and a new era at Fremantle and for half the season it didn’t have Connor Blakely’s name on it. Justin Longmuir had his plan, he implemented it and he shut out the external “get Blakely in the team” noise which grew louder as each game passed.

He couldn’t do much more to make his case but with the youngsters stepping in and stepping up, it was difficult to be critical of JL’s unwillingness to budge on his “earn your spot” policy.

Eyebrows were raised and murmurs began when the solid bodied, more experienced mid still failed to get the call up when Nat Fyfe went out with a hamstring. Maybe they were avoiding the awkward irony of Blakely getting the wave to come in and sea Captain Fy… err I mean… see Captain Fyfe off. And considering it was during inclement weather we wonder would the ‘wet suit’ Blakely?

It wasn’t until round nine this year when finally the opportunity arrived. Connor no doubt relieved, he must also have been feeling the pressure and expectations to perform. With 23 touches in a win over the Pies, it was a sound and serviceable return and something to be built on.

Disappointingly that build didn’t eventuate. Despite holding his position in the team for the following four weeks Connor’s numbers deteriorated. He looked out of sorts, like a man who was struggling under the pressure. After just six possessions in the round 14 loss to GWS the coach tapped him on the shoulder and said take a rest for the remainder of the season.

It wasn’t the result Connor Blakely, the Fremantle team and the fans wanted but it validated Justin Longmuir’s decisions and threw a fair bit of shade over those who questioned them.

The trade whispers got louder and, if we’re to believe the reports, Blakely was shopped around. But the 2020 trade period was a buyers’ market and there weren’t the offers the Fremantle club had obviously hoped for.

So it’s an interesting dynamic heading into the 2021 season. It is a professional industry so players must realise that nothing is personal but we’re all only human and Connor would have to feel a little bit unloved and unwanted.

However, with his contract in place until the end of 2022 he now has a wonderful opportunity in front of him. There is no denying the avid surfer has a mountain to climb. He has to forget the trade period, regain his confidence, build and rectify the deficiencies and inadequacies in his game and reinvigorate himself. He has to hit the ground running and be patient but ever ready for the call up in 2021 when it will inevitably come.

With a recent report of an early return to start preseason, you get the feeling Connor well and truly is reading the play and he understands the situation. He must know several youngsters have gone past him in the pecking order and he’s now in for the mental and physical fight of his football life.

When you look at his years in isolation you could very well say he hasn’t gotten a decent run at it. He’s put together just 65 games in largely five seasons and he has never had an uninterrupted year, whether that be preseason or in season. His 17 games played from a possible 22 in 2017 is his highest to date and apart from his compromised debut game in 2015 year, his 5 games in 2020 has been his worst result.

Connor Blakely is a WA boy, he didn’t want to be traded and his desire was to stay at Fremantle. He got his wish, he’s got the safety of the still two year contract and he’ll only be 25 years of age next year. He has the very rare opportunity now to make it all happen. 2021 for the out of form defensive midfielder is a case of hitting targets, in more ways than one.

I’m not going to lie or hide from it, I’ve been critical of his skill set, or rather lack thereof. But who am I to voice criticism of Connor? I was delisted from the Armadale under 12s….. and I was 17 at the time!

The reality is though his disposal efficiency definitely needs improving, especially in today’s game. However, the guy must have been beaten up mentally, even if a self-imposed beating.

The long and short of it is I love the human stories, both the entertainment and competitive aspects of football life. I’m a sucker for a comeback narrative, a getting up off the canvas and witnessing the triumph over genuine adversity. I’m a believer in the power of positive affirmation, that we create our own realities and we benefit from forwarded positive energies.

This is where we as Fremantle supporters do our best work. We dig in, we take on the risk knowing that we may be wrong and we throw the support lifeline to our Fremantle folk who need it.

Whichever way you view it, Connor Blakely is the underdog right now. He’s up against it and he’s in a substantially deep hole. But it’s all about perspective and the glass half full realisation that the greater the depth the more glorious the victory.

The three games Connor put together upon return from his ‘surfing trip’ is a reflection of his true capabilities. Those three games should be front and centre of his aspirations and I am backing him in to return to that level.

I love the one in all in mentality, the buy in, the tight unit. We pick our teammates up and carry them. To risk going further overly theatrical, our 2021 motto should be, if even predominantly for Connor Blakely’s benefit and betterment, “No one gets left behind.”

It may well be a treacherous journey but I’ve just bought a ticket on the Connor Blakely bandwagon….. which, in this case, is probably more of a decked out Kombi Van.

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