Predictions of doom and dust greeted the Brisbane Lions at the start of the 2014 season.
High draftees had left the club, there were problems at board level, and the hierarchy decided to sack the coach, their former triple premiership captain, to give another favourite son a crack at the perpetual rebuild.
Controversy also shrouded – and still does – the potential move to a new Springfield base, in Brisbane’s deep south.
From Victoria, the common train of thought was that the Lions were going backwards instead of forwards – and fast.
They were a basket case, in the process getting swallowed by their new, younger coastal neighbours in the toughest AFL market in the country.
Hopes of any form of resurgence from the Lions in 2014 appeared fanciful.
But now, with the regular season at a close, it’s evident that the positives by far outweigh the negatives for Brisbane in 2014.
Former triple premiership coach and AFL icon Leigh Matthews has joined the board, the highly credentialed Greg Swann is the new CEO, and for the second time in fiveyears, Brisbane is the home of the AFL’s Rising Star, Lewis Taylor.
The windscreen’s been fogged for Brisbane for a few years, but now the demister appears to have finally kicked in.
After accumulating seven wins and 15 losses, the Lions finished in 15th position on the 2014 AFL ladder.
They finished 12th in 2013, accruing three more victories, but for the Lions this year was always going to be a case of taking one step backwards in order to go forwards.
With the departures of highly-touted youngsters, such as Jared Polec (Port Adelaide), Sam Docherty (Carlton), Billy Longer (St Kilda), and Elliot Yeo (West Coast) over the 2013-14 summer, the drop-off was inevitable, and the questions about culture at the club were too.
Why was all of Brisbane’s young talent leaving? And what are the Lions going to do once they left?
Justin Leppitsch was signed as coach for three years at the end of September 2013, and instead of seeing the departures as a negative, the brawny ex-defender saw an opportunity for a fresh start, and in turn, to rid Brisbane of the environment that was making the kids run out the door instead of in.
As to be expected, the young Lions had a season of ups and downs.
Following some big defeats at the hands of the Gold Coast and Port Adelaide in the opening rounds, the prophets of implosion were feeling chuffed.
But in Round 6 against St Kilda, the team broke through.
More big losses were to follow, but after several honourable defeats, and memorable wins against Carlton, North Melbourne, and spectacularly against Collingwood, the pundits started to stand up and take notice of the Lions’ young stocks.
The draftees Brisbane has been able to retain are starting to become A-graders.
Merrett-Murray Medal winner Tom Rockliff is now in the top echelon of midfielders in the competition, with Irishman Pearce Hanley, as well as Dayne Zorko and Jack Redden, all coming through with real quality.
But it’s the new kids on the block that’s brought the optimism back to the Gabba.
Obviously Lewis Taylor’s had a year to remember, but fellow ‘Mozzie Squad’ members James Aish and Josh Green have been standout finds, too.
There’s a lot of work yet to be done, but for the first time in a long time, a real nucleus is starting to develop at the club.
The challenge for the Lions now is to continue to grow the good mood, and retain all of these promising young players.
And with Swann declaring Brisbane’s intent to fill a significant void in their salary cap, the reinvigorated northerners are set to be aggressive over the warmer months, with big names such as Essendon’s Paddy Ryder and Collingwood’s Dayne Beams already sparking whispers.
However, there’s not only player movement at the Lions; a change of the coaching staff is on the agenda too.
Leppitsch has begun the task of creating his own tailor-made coaching panel, recruiting former colleague Danny Daly from Richmond as the Lions’ new midfield coach.
Under the reshuffle, current midfield coach Shane Woewodin will now take charge of the Lions’ NEAFL side, while veteran Garry O’Donnell, one of Leigh Matthews’ former assistants during the premiership years, returns to the senior coaching panel after spending recent seasons in a development role.
Greg Swann wants Brisbane to be a relevant player in the football world again, and his endeavour in making that happen is already clear to see.
But with all of this positivity, the dramas surrounding Brisbane’s current training facilities and proposed training base drag on.
It’s no secret that the Lions need a new den.
They’ve outgrown the Gabba and Coorparoo training bases, and to be a highly competitive and professional entity in the competition, it’s become evident the team need their own stand-alone high performance centre.
Aside from the conflict of interest allegations now coming to light, which further weaken the Springfield move, the Lions would be foolish to shift away from the heart of Brisbane.
At a time when the club’s trying to win back and connect with their supporter base, a move away from the city’s heartland would be unwise.
The Lions are Brisbane. The Lions aren’t Springfield.
For the longevity of the club, and the retention of young talent, the need for high performance facilities is becoming critical, but an alternative closer to Woolloongabba and CBD must be sought.
However difficult or costly it may be, a more local redevelopment, for the sake of the club’s most loyal supporters, should be considered.
The saga burns ever dimmer, however, when the displays on the field burn bright.
The retirement of Ash McGrath, Brisbane’s last link to the premiership glory years, was another poignant moment this year – and in the club’s history in general.
The remnants of that almost unbelievably high watermark have vanished. But by the looks of it, the tide is finally turning to push towards it again.
For the first time in a long while, the scribes are finally starting to believe that Brisbane is getting its house in order.
And so they should.
Restoring football clubs to the top is never a quick fix and the immediate future still holds more pain for Lions fans, but they should take heart in the foundations now in place.
In football everything’s a process, and the Lions have finally found one.
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