LIONS MASTERMINDS: The appointments of senior coach Chris Fagan (left) and football general manager David Noble have been keys to Brisbane’s revival. Picture: ANNETTE DEW.
LIONS MASTERMINDS: The appointments of senior coach Chris Fagan (left) and football general manager David Noble have been keys to Brisbane’s revival. Picture: ANNETTE DEW.

Bringing the roar back to Lions

The Lions' stunning resurgence started with two key appointments.

Chris Fagan and David Noble's arrival at the Gabba at the end of 2016 kickstarted a chain of events that have led the club from 17th to second in three seasons.

Throw in former Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge's shock - but brilliant - addition at the end of 2017 and you have a trifecta of key decision makers who have helped put AFL back on the map in Brisbane.

 

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Once a proud club, the Lions had not finished higher than 12th in the seven seasons before Fagan - a long-time assistant coach at Melbourne and the Hawks - was appointed senior coach.

It was a bit of a left-field appointment, given he was 55 and had not previously coached an AFL club in his own right.

The signing of highly-respected, long-time football person David Noble, who had been head of football at Adelaide, to provide support to Fagan - in his role as football general manager - was a masterstroke.

That is two great football people working closely together.

I was fortunate to spend one season working under the pair at Brisbane and knew straight away that they had the characteristics to turn the Lions - a powerhouse club in the early 2000s - around.

Brisbane Lions head coach Chris Fagan. Picture: Albert Perez/Getty Images
Brisbane Lions head coach Chris Fagan. Picture: Albert Perez/Getty Images

In their first season at Brisbane, the results didn't come - on the scoreboard at least.

The club finished wooden spooner with a 5-17 win-loss record.

But there were signs of growth.

Teenagers Hugh McCluggage (No. 3), Jarrod Berry (17) and Alex Witherden (23), who had been selected at the 2016 national draft, showed they would be fine long-term players.

I left Brisbane at the end of Fagan's first year in charge in 2017.

It wasn't an easy decision for me after I had spent nine years at the club and proudly captained it for two years.

Chris Fagan, coach of the Lions, celebrates with Tom Rockliff (centre) and Dayne Zorko after beating Essendon at Etihad Stadium in July 2017. Picture: Getty Images
Chris Fagan, coach of the Lions, celebrates with Tom Rockliff (centre) and Dayne Zorko after beating Essendon at Etihad Stadium in July 2017. Picture: Getty Images

Contrary to what some people have suggested, I had a great relationship with the players and coaching staff.

Some of my best mates still play at Brisbane, including captain Dayne Zorko, Lewis Taylor, Darcy Gardiner, Daniel Rich and Ryan Lester.

I bled for the club and still have strong feelings for it.

But I felt the time was right for me to seek a new challenge and I was excited at the chance to join Port Adelaide.

It - like the Lions now - is a club going places, with a good coach and host of outstanding young players.

Brisbane captain Dayne Zorko shows his desire for the contest against Richmond’s Liam Baker in the qualifying final at the Gabba. Picture: Getty Images
Brisbane captain Dayne Zorko shows his desire for the contest against Richmond’s Liam Baker in the qualifying final at the Gabba. Picture: Getty Images

Brisbane brought Hodge out of retirement in the summer of 2017 - as much for his on and off field leadership as his playing ability.

He made an instant impact.

The Lions, slowly but surely, started to move up the ladder.

With No. 1 draft pick Cam Rayner on board and speedy forward Charlie Cameron recruited from the Crows, they finished 15th - again with a 5-17 win-loss record - but their improvement, which might have escaped some peoples attention, was illustrated by their competitiveness.

Eight of their 17 defeats were by 22 points or fewer.

Remarkably, Brisbane lost five games by seven points or fewer, including four by less than a kick.

Brisbane Lions player Luke Hodge at the Gabba last month. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt
Brisbane Lions player Luke Hodge at the Gabba last month. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt

After Dayne Beams' decision to return to Collingwood, the Lions went hard in the trade market.

They targeted players to fill specific needs and secured star midfield ball magnet Lachie Neale from Fremantle and smart forward Lincoln McCarthy from Geelong.

The good mates from country South Australia have enjoyed super seasons, with Neale one of the favourites for the Brownlow Medal.

Brisbane got on a roll early in the season and has ridden the momentum to second spot at the end of the minor round.

Fagan, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a great people person who treats his troops as people first and players second, Noble and Hodge have performed wonders with an exciting young group.

Lachie Neale of the Lions gets a kick away during the qualifying final. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Lachie Neale of the Lions gets a kick away during the qualifying final. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

And where once some players were keen to get out of Brisbane, where football sits behind rugby league and rugby in the sports popularity pecking order, they are now staying and signing long-term deals.

The Lions have suddenly become a destination club with great stability.

This week they announced their entire coaching group will return in 2020, with AFL, NEAFL and development coaches signing new contracts.

"We have been happy with the way the coaching group has operated over the past three years, they've developed as coaches, while developing our players,'' Noble said.

"We strive for continuous improvement here at the Lions and the coaches lead the way in this philosophy."

Luke Hodge spoils Tiger Jack Riewoldt’s marking attempt in the qualifying final against Richmond. Picture: Getty Image
Luke Hodge spoils Tiger Jack Riewoldt’s marking attempt in the qualifying final against Richmond. Picture: Getty Image

Apart from Fagan, who last year extended his contract until the end of 2021, strategy coach Danny Daly, backline coach Murray Davis, midfield coach Dale Tapping, ruck-midfield coach Ben Hudson, forwards coach Jed Adcock, head of development Scott Borlace, NEAFL coach Mitch Hahn and development coaches Zane Littlejohn and Paul Henriksen have all committed to the club.

Fagan said: "They are a dedicated, hardworking bunch who prioritise building relationships.

"We've gone through some hard times together over the past three years, so it is great to be able to keep building towards sustained success."

The Lions' NEAFL team has hardly lost a game in three years and will contest the grand final this weekend.

The other unsung hero for Brisbane has been Zorko.

Taking over as skipper from Beams midway through last year, he sets high standards while leading from the front with his football ability - both offensively and defensively.

He is a strong leader and, with support from experienced big-game player Hodge, has played a key role in the club's resurgence.

Brisbane has been one of football's great stories this year, with the crowds coming flooding back to the Gabba, resulting in a sellout 37,478 at last Saturday night's qualifying final.

The Lions, while beaten by 47 points, had their chances to win that game, butchering a host of shots at goal in the first half when they controlled play.

They get their chance for some redemption in the semi-final against Greater Western Sydney at home tonight.

After how far the club has come, Fagan's team deserves to win at least final and I will be in its corner.

 

Stream every match of the 2019 Toyota AFL Finals Series before the Grand Final live and on-demand on KAYO SPORTS. Get your 14-day free trial and start streaming instantly >

News Corp Australia


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