Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



The history of football in Fremantle is long, colourful, vibrant and fascinating and, despite a disappointing lack of success so far, there seems every reason to expect that the future contributions made to that history by the AFL club which now proudly bears the port city's name will both conform to and enhance those traditions. Assuming they do, then genuine footballer supporters everywhere will have good reason to rejoice, although it will take a considerable amount of time before the exploits of the 'new kids on the block' come anywhere near matching those of the clubs which, for the better part of a century, flew the football flag for Fremantle.

The origins of Fremantle footy

Hypotheses aside, however, the story of football in Fremantle dates back at least as far as 1868, when a match is recorded as taking place between the Town of Fremantle and the Western Australian Temperance and Recreation Society. Although there is no record as to the type of football played on this occasion, it can be reliably assumed that it was not the game known at the time as 'Victorian Rules'. Indeed, for most of the first two decades during which organised football is known to have been played in the Perth-Fremantle area it was the English game of rugby that was favoured, with the indigenous code only gradually, indeed almost imperceptibly, finding favour.

By 1882 a total of five clubs in the Perth-Fremantle region were acknowledged as having senior status, and of these only one club, Unions, preferred the Australian, or 'bouncing', game. However, when the Western Australian Football Association was formed only three years later, its member clubs all agreed that matches should be played according to the Victorian-orientated rules of the Adelaide and Suburban Football Association, with just a few minor modifications being agreed on to address local conditions. It appears that, during the intervening time, press and public dissatisfaction with the rugby code as a spectacle had mounted, while the number of influential individuals involved in the various football clubs who openly favoured Victorian Rules had risen rapidly. One such individual was the inaugural captain of the Fremantle Football Club, Bill Bateman, who had been to school at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, "one of the cradles of the Australian game" (^1).

The first WAFA premiership was initially contested by four clubs: Rovers (precursors of the Perth Football Club), Victorians and Perth High School, all of which were Perth-based, plus Fremantle. However, Perth High School withdrew after only a couple of matches.

In 1886, a second Fremantle-based side, Unions, brought the number of clubs in the competition back to four. Bateman's Fremantle swept all before it this year, winning all 7 matches contested, most by huge margins. At season's end a representative game was arranged between 'Combined Perth' and 'Combined Fremantle', with the former winning 2.3 to 1.9 (behinds not counting in the score at this stage, of course). Such 'test matches', as they later became known, would, during the pre-world war one period of the twentieth century, become an important feature in each year's Western Australian football calendar.

In 1887, for reasons which remain unclear, the all conquering Fremantle side went into mothballs, leaving Unions as the port settlement's sole standard bearers. Three years later, Unions decided to adopt the same name as their predecessors, "because of the district" (^2). By this stage the club was, by some measure, the competition's strongest, winning flags in 1888 and 1889 as Unions, and again in 1890 as Fremantle. It would almost certainly have made it four in a row in 1891 had it not been for a rather untoward sequence of events. Football by this stage was being marred by acts of premeditated violence, both on and off the field of play, and was losing popularity as a result, as well as attracting the same kind of press criticism that rugby had had to endure in the 1880s. Things really came to a head during the 1891 season when, with Fremantle unbeaten and seemingly comfortably on course to retain the premiership, Rovers threw a controversial and ultimately disabling spanner into the works, downing the ladder leaders 1.3 to 0.7 after the umpire, Mr. Croft - a former Rovers player, no less - had repeatedly appeared to favour them. The match was played in Fremantle and, perhaps predictably, the majority of the spectators were far from overjoyed:

The game between Rovers and Fremantle at Fremantle Park witnessed one of the most disorderly scenes that have ever occurred on the football field in this colony, and but for the presence of Constable Bonner, who was on mounted duty on the ground, serious injury would have been inflicted on the umpire, Mr. Croft. As soon as the game had ended, a disorderly mob of larrikins, including many elderly men, surrounded the pavilion and asserted that the umpire had behaved with partiality and harshness towards the Fremantle team and had been unusually liberal towards the Rovers. They yelled and shouted for the umpire, the din at times being deafening, and as each member of the Rovers came down the stairs he was hooted and hustled by the large crowd. The president of the association, Mr. James, appeared (he was wearing a Rovers cap) and was mobbed. The umpire next made his appearance and this was the signal for a general rush towards him, someone on the pavilion throwing a bucket of water on him as he emerged from the stairs. The leaders of the crowd then threw him against the wall and a general rush was attempted to stem the onslaught. Matters were beginning to look serious when Constable Bonner charged the mob, but his efforts at first were unsuccessful. Knox, Wehrstedt and Bateman, members of the Fremantle club, got beside Mr. Croft and at great risk succeeded in holding back some of the more impetuous spirits. The umpire got away from the wall while mounted troopers held the crowd back. In this way, Mr. Croft got out of the Park, followed by the yells and jeers and sarcastic comments of the barrackers. The mob, seeing that the Fremantle footballers were discouraging the hostile exhibition, gradually desisted from their unseemly behavior. (^3)

The defeat in itself was by no means disastrous, and when Fremantle duly won its next 2 matches to consolidate its position at the head of the ladder there appeared to be no reason why expectations of a fourth consecutive premiership should not be realised. However, irritation still rankled among the club's officials and players, and it was decided that, as a protest, the club's final 3 games of the season should be forfeited. It is not clear precisely what the players and officials felt might be gained by this move, but intense feelings and logical actions rarely go hand in hand; the upshot was that Fremantle plummeted to third place on the ladder, with arch rivals Rovers being handed the flag. The reaction of umpire Croft is not known, but might readily be imagined.

...fortune on the goldfields

Australia during the 1890s underwent its worst economic depression in its history up to that point, with many inhabitants of the eastern states heading west in pursuit of fortune on the goldfields of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. Inevitably, some of these itinerants were footballers, and when the search for gold proved fruitless, as it did for many, a fair number of them gravitated further west, to the coastal settlements of Perth and Fremantle. One gratifying consequence of this was that the standard of football being played in the WAFA improved, while there was also a corresponding decline in on field violence. Perhaps the most famous eastern state footballer to head west was Albert Thurgood of Essendon, who was arguably the finest player of his era. Known as 'Albert the Great', Thurgood spent three and a bit seasons at Fremantle, topping the Association goal kicking list in 1895 (53 goals), 1896 (57) and 1897 (27). Other prominent eastern states footballers such as Tom Wilson (ex North Melbourne), Dave 'Dolly' Christy (ex Melbourne), and the former South Melbourne pair of Harry Duggan and Dug Irvine helped make Fremantle the dominant team in the colony, and arguably the whole of Australia, for much of the 1890s. Between 1892 and 1896 the side won five successive flags and managed an overall success rate of 78.9%. It won again in 1898, but economic problems which had been simmering for some time came to a head the following season, which proved to be the club's last. In addition, several of Fremantle's more noteworthy players, including Wilson and Christy, had been founder members in 1898 of a new club based at the port, East Fremantle, which in due course would take over Fremantle's status as the leading team in the colony.

East Fremantle broke through for its first premiership in 1900, a season which also saw South Fremantle admitted to the competition, as well as the resumption of 'test' matches between Combined Fremantle and Combined Perth representative sides. Combined Fremantle emerged triumphant on this occasion by the substantial margin for the time of 55 points, 12.12 (84) to 3.11 (29) (^4).

Besides these 'test' matches, the Fremantle sides would join together on at least one further occasion. While the 1924 Hobart Carnival was taking place, the North Adelaide and Essendon Football Clubs visited Western Australia, and East Fremantle and South Fremantle combined forces to meet them. Against a weak North Adelaide side which would eventually finish sixth in the SANFL the Fremantle combination scored a narrow win, but reigning VFL premiers Essendon proved much too strong. Despite inaccuracy in front of goal, the 'Same Old' won by 49 points.

Following the admission to the WAFA of North Fremantle in 1901, fifty per cent of the clubs in the competition were located at the port. Playing initially in red, white and blue, and later in black and white, the northerners enjoyed only minimal success during their fifteen season tenure at the top level. East Fremantle and South Fremantle, however, would go on to forge one of the greatest and most intense rivalries in Australian sport;their confrontations, known as 'Fremantle Derbies', frequently produced the competition's highest attendances for the year, not to mention some of the best - and most bruising - football. The all time record attendance for a football match in Western Australia was set at the Fremantle Derby grand final of 1979, when 52,781 spectators turned up. This was just one of ten premiership-deciding matches between the clubs during the course of the twentieth century (^5).

In the period between Australia's emergence into nationhood in 1901 and the onset of world war one thirteen years later, Australian football had probably its best opportunity ever to transcend the straitjackets of parochialism and self interest which have stymied its development for much of its history. The spirit of nationalism which swept the country had a pronounced and legible effect on most sports, including football, where, for an all too brief time, there was a general and genuine desire to look beyond state boundaries and interpret the game in a national context. Alongside a fruitful and generally altruistic cross-fertilisation of ideas, the comparative lack of restrictions over player movement meant that the spread of talent between the three major football states was, by 1910 or '11, more even than it had ever been before, or would ever subsequently be.

the precursors to national football

Interstate tours by clubs became a regular feature of the football calendar during this period, as players and officials sought to affirm their own and their club's identities and significance within a national framework, whilst simultaneously fuelling their nascent sense of patriotism by means of the establishment of links with fellow countrymen in other parts of the vast, enthralling landscape that they were gradually learning to think of as 'home'. Visits to Western Australia by club sides from South Australia and Victoria were eagerly anticipated during this period, and matches against these teams often attracted attendances in excess of those for WANFL finals matches.

In 1909, as reigning league and state premiers, the East Fremantle Football Club undertook its first interstate tour, visiting Broken Hill, where two matches were played, and Melbourne for a game against a VFL combination. The series in Broken Hill was squared, with many of the East Fremantle players expressing disquiet over the standard of the umpiring, but in Melbourne the side truly showed its pedigree, losing only narrowly (10.12 to 12.8) against a team containing a proliferation of household names (^6).

Of course, the travelling was not all in one direction. In 1910, a Port Adelaide team described by East Fremantle legend Dolph Heinrichs half a century later as "the best club 18 that has visited WA" (^7) attracted huge interest when it journeyed across the Nullarbor. As reigning premiers, East Fremantle was given the honour of challenging the visitors, and after a splendid match went under by just 12 points. Some idea of just how good a performance this was can be gauged from the fact that, at Fremantle Oval a few days later, Port Adelaide overcame a virtual state side by 5 points in a game that yielded a record gate for Australian football in Western Australia up to that point.

The 1910 season also saw South Fremantle venturing interstate for the first time and sustaining a narrow loss against Fitzroy in the only game played. Two years later, it was East Fremantle's turn to visit Victoria and take on both the Maroons and the Melbourne weather, the latter of which was at its uncongenial worst; needless to say, the match was lost, as was a game against West Torrens at the Adelaide Oval. Such interstate tours had less to do with winning games than winning friends, however, as well as reinforcing loyalty and camaraderie within the club. 

The 1912 season resulted in all three Fremantle teams participating in the finals for only the second (and, ultimately the last) time, but it was Subiaco which lifted the flag. Up to this point, East Fremantle, with premierships in 1900, 1902-3-4, 1906, and 1908-9-10-11 had been by some measure 'cock-o-the-port', a status that was emphasised with a 5.13 (43) to 3.6 (24) challenge final defeat of the Maroons in 1914. South Fremantle's moment was coming, however. In 1916 and 1917 the red and whites won consecutive flags, the taste of victory being rendered all the sweeter by virtue of the fact that the grand final opposition on both occasions was provided by their local rivals.

South Fremantle was also the first of the two clubs to provide a Sandover Medallist, with centreman Jack Rocchi taking the honours in 1928. By this stage, however, Old Easts had comprehensively re-established themselves as Western Australia's premier team, with players like Lin Richards, 'Bub' Jarvis, 'Dinny' Coffey and Clarrie Reynolds propelling them to four successive flags between 1928 and 1931. The blue and whites won further pennants in 1933 and 1937, and were the dominant force in Western Australian football in the immediate post-world war two phase. Indeed, East Fremantle's 1946 side was the only club in any of the three major football states ever to go through an entire post-war season unbeaten, although West Perth, with 4 and 6 point losses in the finals, came fairly close to upsetting the proverbial apple cart.

cavalcade of stars

Between 1947 and 1954 it was South Fremantle's turn to dominate, and rarely can a team have done so with such consummate and unremitting energy, vigour and style; the red and whites won premierships in 1947 and '48, 1950, and from 1952 to 1954, besides finishing runners up (by 3 points) to West Perth in 1951. During this period the club gained an Australia-wide reputation for excellence, with Collingwood coach Phonse Kyne declaring, after watching his side lower its colours to the red and whites:

"We all know South Fremantle would hold their own in Victorian football. They ... have some mighty fine players and have nothing to learn about system, pace and kicking - the main requirements of a first-class side." (^8)

Prominent among these "mighty fine players" were livewire rover Steve Marsh, indestructible defender Frank 'Scranno' Jenkins, evergreen ruckman Jack 'Corp' Reilly, Bradmanesque full forward Bernie Naylor, and the deceptively casual, but highly effective, half back flanker Frank Treasure.

East Fremantle's record of at least one premiership in every decade of the club's existence continued with flags in 1965, 1974, 1979, 1985, 1992 and 1994. South Fremantle meanwhile proved somewhat less successful, even succumbing to the indignity of the wooden spoon on several occasions. However, it did also prove successful in winning three further flags before the turn of the century, in 1970, 1980 and 1997. By the time of the last of these successes, though, neither South Fremantle or their century long rivals could any longer lay claim to being Fremantle's principal side, and within a couple of years there were even rumours that the unthinkable was being contemplated: a Bulldogs-Sharks merger.

The emergence on the scene of the Fremantle Dockers had, to a certain extent, already effected, if not quite a merger, then at least a unification of purpose, together with a heightened sense of shared traditions and values. The Dockers, from the start, were keen to enmesh themselves in the fabric of local football history by, for example, the establishment in 1995 of a 'Hall of Legends' which recognised and celebrated the contributions made to football in Fremantle by a range of former East Fremantle and South Fremantle identities. The inaugural inductees were East Fremantle's Jack Clarke, George Doig and Jack Sheedy, and the South Fremantle trio of Clive Lewington, Steve Marsh and Stephen Michael. New additions to the 'Hall of Legends' have continued to be made every year since.

Speculation as to 'what might have been' is a notoriously idle pastime, but had a combined Fremantle side been able to participate in some kind of national football competition at virtually any time during the twentieth century, it is hard to resist the belief that it would have been extremely successful. 

...distance generates allure

The formation of the West Coast Eagles in 1986 was heralded in certain quarters as being tantamount to a coming of age for Western Australian football. This attitude derived from the highly dubious theory that the VFL was Australian football's only genuinely 'big time' competition, and thus the West Coast Eagles, as a VFL club, would be bringing 'big time' football to a Western Australian audience for the first time.

Leaving aside the fact that the term 'big time' is so difficult to define as to be almost meaningless, it is perhaps worth taking a moment to examine why such an attitude should be so prevalent in Western Australia, thousands of kilometres from Melbourne, when in South Australia, which was geographically much closer to 'football's Mecca', it manifestly was not.

In the first place, it may be a somewhat facile observation, but one containing an element of truth nonetheless, to note that proximity often breeds disdain. Moreover, the converse of this - that distance generates allure - is also frequently the case. Dick Whittington's image of London was exaggeratedly enticing because all he had to go on was hearsay, and hearsay mingled with ambition and desire can be extraordinarily intoxicating. However, a state of intoxication is probably not the best condition in which to arrive at assessments which are objective and informed.

Neither, it must be admitted, does proximity automatically lend itself to accuracy of judgement. The inhabitants of Watford would doubtless have had a very different view of London to Dick Whittington, one in which noises, smells and faintly seen images featured strongly, but this too would have been a distortion or, at very least, would have represented only a partial view of the whole; and to have a partial view of something is part of the way to being prejudiced.

Some of the above perhaps partly explains why, over the years, at least until the 1980s, proportionately many more Western Australian than South Australian players opted to try their luck in the VFL, although the lure of the dollar should also not be underestimated. (The wage differential between VFL and WA(N)FL remained, for many years, much wider than that between the VFL and SANFL.)

This analysis of causes and origins is purely speculative, of course, but what is difficult to deny is that, for many years, there was a prevailing attitude towards Victorian football in Western Australia in which feelings of inferiority and awe featured strongly. As long ago as 1955, former Geelong player John Hyde, who had been lured over to Perth to coach Claremont, deplored "excessive WA interest in Victorian football to the neglect of the game in the west" (^9). Moreover, he found himself "constantly chiding West Australians, particularly WA's state players, for investing the Victorians with super powers" when there was "no reason for WA having an inferiority complex about meeting Victoria" (^10).

Meanwhile, East Fremantle's great ruckman Jack 'Stork' Clarke, when reflecting on a career which had seen him not only garner numerous accolades, but also repeatedly resist overtures from VFL clubs, pinpointed a key difference between Western Australian and South Australian football:

When visiting South Australia when I was playing, their heroes were South Australian and not the Victorians. It was the opposite in WA. The media in this state pandered to the Victorians too much. In a similar manner we were induced into joining the VFL - they (South Australians) hung on for as long as they could. The Victorians had great players, but we had great players here, too. And the South Australians had some wonderful players also. (^11)

When the West Coast Eagles were launched with Hollywood-style glitz the acclaim was considerable but by no means universal. Many felt, with Les Everett:

" ... that those in charge of the new VFL club believed they were the product of some sort of immaculate conception - as if football hadn't existed in WA before the Eagles came along". (^12).

While it would be churlish to deny that the Eagles have done a certain amount of good in attracting a number people to football (or, at any rate, to some of the razzmatazz surrounding football), the club has arguably done little to enmesh itself in the rich fabric of the code's local traditions, history and heritage. Indeed, if anything, it has at times actively striven, as a willing agent of the AFL, to undermine and discredit those traditions, from the misguided perspective that in so doing it is somehow augmenting its own position, identity and importance.

The thousands of Western Australian football supporters who found such an attitude anathema were desperately hoping for salvation through the agency of the state's second V/AFL club, the arrival of which was tacitly acknowledged as inevitable almost from the moment of West Coast's conception, immaculate or otherwise. However, would a second club be any more likely than the Eagles to identify itself with the state's true footballing heritage? The emergence of the first South Australian AFL club, an essentially soulless corporate entertainment machine, the Adelaide Crows, would have done little to encourage optimism (^13). Why should Western Australia's new club be any different?

...the second club would be based in Fremantle

The first good news came with the announcement that, the misgivings of some of the Perth-based WAFL clubs notwithstanding, the second club would be based in Fremantle, which had been a major hotbed of the code for over a century. Moreover, there was an intense historic rivalry between the football teams of Fremantle and those of Perth, a rivalry of a type that football - indeed, any kind of sport - at every level thrives on.

Eventually, it was decided that 1995 would be the year of the new Fremantle team's induction into the 'big time'. Traditional football supporters were given further heart when, from a shortlist of three candidates - Robert Shaw, Ken Sheldon and Gerard Neesham - for the club's coaching position Fremantle ignored pressure from the AFL to appoint a man with previous AFL experience and went for the only one of the trio without it. As coach of Claremont Gerard Neesham had built up an impressive portfolio of achievement - 11 wins in 14 finals matches, four premierships from six grand finals, and an overall success rate of 70.4% - and had developed an innovative 'chip and draw' style of play which featured similar counter attacking principles to sports like soccer, hockey, basketball and, more particularly in Neesham's case, water polo (^14). He also defiantly ignored some of the major tactical trends that had emerged in football in recent years, such as tagging. However, Neesham's theories and style remained untested outside Western Australia, a fact which, in the view of some, including some Western Australians, automatically discredited them. Neesham though was having none of it:

"Graham Cornes is the ideal answer to anybody who believes that a new coach must have AFL coaching experience .... (Neil) Balme's another. The bloke played a lot of AFL football (sic.), but his coaching background and strategies are all based on football in South Australia." (^15)

Initially, however, the club was faced with a much more urgent problem than who to appoint as its first coach - what emblem to choose? Suggestions ranged from the bizarre (Doctors, Seals, Sea Lions), through the predictably Americanised (Dolphins, Mariners, Marines), to names which were intended to evoke something of Fremantle's heritage (Wharfies and Dockers). In the end, it was the name 'Dockers' which got the nod - not that any Fremantle wharfie worth his salt ever used such a term, but somehow the resonance seemed just right. With purple, red, green and white announced as their official colours, all the Fremantle Dockers needed was a team.

Fremantle, unlike West Coast, was not accorded any significant draft concessions by the AFL, and its recruiting task was made even more difficult by virtue of the fact that its most logical source of talent, the WAFL, was, in terms of playing resources, at its lowest ebb in living memory, indeed arguably ever.

In Gerard Neesham, however, a man with unrivalled knowledge of local playing stocks, the club arguably had the ideal person to spearhead its recruiting initiatives. Of the forty-one players who comprised the Dockers' initial squad, the overwhelming majority - twenty-nine - hailed directly from the WAFL, while even the eleven-strong 'ready made' AFL contingent possessed minimal league experience. Of this latter group, the most noteworthy catches included Hawthorn's 1991 best and fairest winner Ben Allan, who would skipper the Dockers in their debut season, strong running midfielder Andrew Wills and powerful defender Stephen O'Reilly, both from Geelong, the versatile Peter Mann from North Melbourne, and prolific possession winner Scott Watters from Sydney. In keeping with the overall tenor of the squad, all bar Wills hailed originally from Western Australia, as did six of the other eight recruits with previous AFL experience.

The first official outing for the new team took place in Darwin, one of Gerard Neesham's favourite close season haunts, where the Dockers lost to the Northern Territory by a point. Several weeks later, the purple, red, green and white colours were unveiled to an adoring public at East Fremantle Oval, with a full scale practice match against Essendon. Despite the employment by visiting coach Kevin Sheedy of some provocatively controversial tactics, Fremantle won with ease, prompting the Western Australian media, with inane predictability, to launch into hyperbole:

Flamboyant, dazzling, powerhouse, historic, brilliant, exciting, dynamic and fleet-footed were some of the descriptions used.

The (Fremantle) tactics were said to be baffling, cat-and-mouse and revolutionary. (^16)

Fully aware that, when all was said and done, the encounter had merely been a practice match, played at a fraction of the intensity of the 'real thing', and with absolutely nothing hinging on the result, Gerard Neesham's assessment was somewhat more realistic:

"We did well but we know the opposition was undermanned. We physically have a long way to go and we really dropped off in the last half of the game." (^17)

By the time the season got underway a month and a half later some of the Dockers' stamina and staying power deficiencies had clearly been addressed. In round one, the team was drawn to play Richmond at the MCG, and at three quarter time looked down and out, trailing 7.9 (51) to 10.15 (75). However, in the closing stanza the whole side lifted to outscore the Tigers 5.4 to 2.3, and fall short by just 5 points. With the Fremantle players seemingly still full of running it would appear that only lack of time prevented what would have been an historic triumph. The club's inaugural home match the next week followed a similar pattern. In front of a crowd of 24,398 at the WACA the Dockers rounded off the game with 4 final quarter goals to 2, ultimately finishing just 9 points adrift of an Essendon combination that, unlike on its pre-season visit, was at full strength, and acknowledged as one of the powers of the competition.

Fremantle's first win arrived the following week, as a desperately poor Fitzroy team was comprehensively swept aside to the tune of 43 points at the Western Oval. The Dockers were playing with a verve and a panache that were capturing the imagination of football supporters throughout the land. Ultimately, of course, when evaluated in terms of finals appearances and premierships, Neesham's methods were unsuccessful, but that they were revolutionary is hard to deny. Moreover, it is intriguing to speculate on what the Fremantle Football Club might have achieved, using Neesham's methods, had its list been stronger. Neesham's success using 'chip and draw' tactics with Claremont in the WAFL was arguably based more on the fact that the players he had at his disposal were among the finest in the competition than on any inherent superiority in the tactics themselves.

The Dockers' first home win, which once again derived largely from a powerful last quarter, came in round four against Geelong, and already it was clear that the side would not be jostling with Fitzroy for the wooden spoon, as had widely been predicted prior to the start of the season.

In round seven, Fremantle produced a superb performance to overwhelm and thoroughly bamboozle Sydney at the WACA. The Dockers' final tally of 25.13 (163) would remain a club record score for eight years. Despite the defeat, Sydney coach Ron Barassi could not help but be impressed, suggesting that:

"Neesham's innovative and exciting brand is the first major change to football style in 20 years", adding, "if the Dockers make this year's finals series, all clubs in the national league would be sure to change and follow Neesham's attacking strategies. They work the ball up from their backline and they are very patient with the ball. They are well drilled to create space and to run, not all of them run though. They play through their quick runners. Their running players are their targets and they are very quick guys. It will take a while to work it out, and if there is a counter to it then we'll all be doing it." (^18)

The Freo style was also, in its way, quintessentially Western Australian - which, if anything, was the factor that ultimately became its Achilles heel, for accepted football 'wisdom' had long ago decreed that there was only one way to achieve success in the modern game, and that was by adhering to the tried and tested Victorian principles of power, pressure and, above all, physicality. Within this context, occasional flamboyance on an individual basis could be allowed, and even admired, but in the increasingly homogenous and hermetically sealed world of the AFL it was unthinkable that a whole team should endeavour to transcend accepted strictures and norms and expect to accomplish anything of any real significance.

"...that promise remained unfulfilled"

Fremantle ultimately won eight of its 22 matches in 1995 to finish thirteenth. Peter Mann achieved a noteworthy 'double' by winning the inaugural best and fairest award, and topping the club goal kicking.

In 1996, the side finished thirteenth again, albeit with one fewer win, but in 1997 it came within the proverbial ace of making the finals, only to be ultimately de-railed by injuries to key players during the vital closing phase of the season. The Dockers went into the final match of the year, away to the league's bottom side Melbourne, knowing that, if other results went their way, a victory would secure a place in the eight. As it was, all the other results did go Freo's way, but the Demons were in uncompromising mood, and after a close first half they raced away to score a convincing 40-point win.

"We just had too many people who played badly today, some through injury, some through a lack of focus and belief," observed Neesham. Nevertheless, he was far from disconsolate. "This year has been quite heartening. The fact that we won 10 games with the amount of injuries we've had, well, it was a promising year." (^19)

Sadly, however, that promise remained unfulfilled. In 1998, Neesham's last year as coach, the Dockers plummeted to second from last on the ladder, a result which, despite 71 goals from the new idol of the Fremantle fans, Tony Modra, was repeated under Damian Drum the following year. Season 2000 saw the side playing a steelier, and ultimately somewhat more effective brand of football to move up the ladder to twelfth place with 8 wins. A nucleus of extremely promising youngsters, notably the Norwich Rising Star winner of 2000, Paul Hasleby, rebounding defender James Walker, the Longmuir brothers, Justin and Troy, and the highly skilled and versatile Matthew Pavlich, gave everyone connected with the club much apparent cause for optimism. However, in 2001, Fremantle began the season with an unprecedented sequence of 9 straight losses, precipitating coach Damian Drum's unceremonious and somewhat distasteful sacking; former club captain Ben Allan took over the coaching reins on a caretaker basis, but was unable to prevent the team sliding to its first ever wooden spoon.

The 2002 season brought a fair measure of improvement under new coach Chris Connelly, with Fremantle rising to thirteenth on the ladder with 9 wins, before qualifying for the finals for the first ever time in 2003, and ultimately finishing seventh. After a highly promising start to the 2004 season, however, during which the unprecedented luxury of a top four place looked to be well within reach, the Dockers somehow conspired to lose their way, and in the end suffered the agony of missing finals participation altogether after a last round loss to St Kilda. The 2005 season saw the side finish tenth, effectively marking time. Nevertheless, the feeling persisted that the team had still to scrape the surface of its considerable potential, a feeling that was borne out in 2006 when the Dockers finished the home and away season in irrepressible fashion to qualify for the finals in 3rd place with a 15-7 record. A convincing home semi final win over Melbourne was arguably the single greatest moment in the club's history to date, but the fact that it was sandwiched between away losses to Adelaide in a qualifying final and Sydney in a preliminary final meant that that elusive first premiership remained frustratingly just out of reach.

Fremantle entered the 2007 season as one of four or five teams popularly regarded as having a realistic chance of claiming the flag. However, an upset opening round loss at home to Port Adelaide was a prelude to a year of immense frustration during which the side managed just 10 wins, which was not even good enough to secure a place in the finals. Even worse followed in 2008 as the Dockers slumped to third from last after managing just half a dozen victories for the year, a result that was duplicated a year later.

Fremantle qualified for the finals for the second time in 2010 and the club's first ever finals victory was promptly achieved at the expense of Hawthorn.

However, a week later reigning premier Geelong proved comfortably superior, ousting the Dockers from premiership contention with a 20.15 (135) to 10.6 (66) semi-final triumph. A disappointing 2011 followed, prompting the Fremantle hierarchy to sack coach Mark Harvey and install St.Kilda's Ross Lyon in a move that shocked the footy world.

Under Lyon, Fremantle produced some good football in 2012, winning 14 out of 22 home and away matches to qualify for the finals in seventh place. Elimination final opponents Geelong were widely expected to be too strong for the Dockers, especially in that the match would be played at the MCG. However, Freo produced a stunning opening term to be 36 points up at the first change. Thereafter the Cats made a semblance of a comeback but the Dockers were never headed and ultimately won by 16 points, 14.12 (96) to 11.14 (80).

Fremantle also began the following week’s semi final against Adelaide well, leading 4.1 to 1.3 at the first change, but the Crows, playing in front of their home crowd, fought back tenaciously, and ultimately triumphed by 10 points. The consensus was that the Dockers had made big strides in 2012, laying the foundations for a possibly concerted and legitimate assault on the premiership in 2013.

And so it proved, with Fremantle going within one win of as breakthrough flag triumph. It remains the greatest season in the club’s history. Third after the home and away rounds the Dockers met Geelong in a qualifying final at Kardinia Park and repeated their 2012 success, easing home by 15 points after a tense, claustrophobic contest. Their triumph meant that they were through to a home preliminary final in which the opposition was provided by Sydney. In a match of great intensity, indeed almost savageness at times, the Dockers proved too tough for the Swans, and by the last change they had the match in their keeping, leading 11.12 (78) to 5.5 (35). Perhaps forgivably they then took their feet off the accelerator in the last term but although the Swans outscored them there was never any suggestion that they would be overhauled. Final scores were Fremantle 14.15 (99) defeated Sydney 11.8 (74), a winning margin of 25 points.

The Dockers were through to their first grand final against arguably the only team in the AFL who could match them for toughness, Hawthorn. Unfortunately for Ross Lyon and his tenacious and talented playing group Freo were inexplicably lack lustre early, and ultimately left themselves with two much to do.

In front of a huge crowd of 100,007, the Hawks looked good for most of the day before being put under pressure by an inspired third quarter from the Dockers.

In the end, experience told as Hawthorn held off a late charge from the Dockers to seal their 11th VFL/AFL flag.

Fremantle could not reproduce the same early pressure they had used to ground Sydney in the preliminary final.

Kicking for goal was a difficult process - in the first half Fremantle had 12 shots but kicked only one goal, with five behinds and five missed efforts.

Hawthorn led by two goals at quarter time and by 23 points at the half.

The Dockers hit back in the third term, booting 5.4 to 3.3 to sow some doubt in the hearts of the Hawks.

But a couple of bad final term misses for Fremantle stopped the chance of an upset, and Hawthorn sealed a first premiership win since 2008. [^20]

Having reached their first grand final, and performed with some credit, Fremantle were widely expected to kick on, but in fact the years since 2013 have been inordinately disappointing, albeit in contrasting ways. The Dockers again made the finals in 2014 but bowed out of the flag race with straight sets losses to Sydney and Port Adelaide. In 2015 they won the AFL minor premiership for the first time and started their finals campaign well with a hard fought 9 point win over Sydney at Subiaco Oval. This result ensured that the Dockers would have home advantage for their preliminary final, which proved to be against Hawthorn, but the Hawks stunned Fremantle with a gutsy 27 point win. Midway through the final term, with the Dockers mounting an emotion-charged comeback and trailing by just 9 points, Fremantle defender Tom Sheridan dropped a straightforward mark at centre half back allowing Cyril Rioli to swoop in, collect the loose ball and kick a relatively easy goal. The heads of many of the Freo players visibly dropped, and the Hawks gained a stranglehold on the game.

The hangover from the 2015 preliminary final loss arguably lasted for the whole of the ensuing season, with the Dockers managing just four wins to plunge to third from last. Statistically, it was the club’s second worst season ever, and the first time in his five year coaching tenure that Ross Lyon had failed to steer his charges to a finals berth. In 2017, despite looking likely finalists during the middle part of the season, Freo lost every game between rounds 10 and 15 en route to another depressing return of just eight wins from 22 matches and 14th place on the 18 team ladder. The 2018 season was similarly disappointing with the Dockers again finishing a distant 14th. A year later there was marginal improvement as the Dockers rose one place on the premiership ladder before improving slightly again in 2020, when they came 12th. Whether this five season sequence of poor results proves to be a precursor to a period of decline or a fleeting aberration remains to be seen.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from writers.

  1. The Footballers by Geoff Christian, page 6.
  2. Ibid, page 10.
  3. Ibid, page 12. This is an allegedly contemporary report of the incident. However, the source is unspecified.
  4. Behinds had been counted in the score in Western Australia from 1898, one season after the innovation was first introduced in Victoria and South Australia.
  5. East Fremantle won six of these matches and South Fremantle four.
  6. These included: Jim Sharp of Fitzroy, who was renowned as the finest defender in the VFL; Collingwood's champion full forward, Walter 'Dick' Lee, who had topped the VFL goal kicking list in each of the previous 3 seasons, and would go on to do so in total on 10 occasions (including 1 shared); brilliant Carlton centreman Rod McGregor; and Melbourne's dashing forward Vince Couttie.
  7. Celebrating 100 Years of Tradition by Jack Lee, page 65. Port Adelaide would later defeat Collingwood for the club championship of Australia, highlighting the evenness of standard in the game at the top level at this time.
  8. The South Fremantle Story 1900-1975 Volume 1 by Frank Harrison and Jack Lee, page 81.
  9. 'Sporting Life', October 1955, page 39.
  10. Ibid, page 39. 
  11. Quoted in Football Greats of Western Australia: Volume One by Anthony James, page 21.
  12. The Clubs edited by John Ross and Garrie Hutchinson, page 164.
  13. For example, in its official literature, such as annual yearbooks and so forth, the word 'Adelaide' was consistently and conspicuously missing from the club name; as far as the club was concerned, it was actually the (Major Sponsor's name)-Crows, a self-image which proclaims much about the organisation's real aspirations and attitudes, not least in relation to the rich football history of the state it was supposedly representing and endeavouring to augment.
  14. Neesham played top grade water polo for nineteen years.
  15. 'Inside Football', volume 24 number 7, 8/4/94, page 26. Cornes had coached Adelaide to the previous season's preliminary final, while Balme would do the same in 1994 with Melbourne.
  16. From a story by Jack Lee in the 'Fremantle Gazette' of 17th February 1995, under the heading 'Little General' Gerard Truly Realistic.
  17. Ibid.
  18. 'Football Plus', volume 1 number 15, 10/5/95, page 15.
  19. Fremantle Dockers 1997 Yearbook, page 55.
  20., 28/9/13, retrieved 14/10/16.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.