The West Coast Eagles’ season is almost over. What if the past two months have been the start of the team’s descent into its darkest timeline? Where does the suffering end, and happiness begin again?
Last week for The Roar I broke down West Coast’s season, their issues, and how coach Adam Simpson and the rest of his off field crew were hoping to address them. It was the glass half full way of dealing with the reality of an ageing team that might miss the final eight, hot on the heels of their last two finals performances being about as meek as one of those Tibetan space monks from Futurama.
Then they lost to Port Adelaide, at home, in a second half capitulation that would have made North Melbourne proud. And now I don’t know what to believe.
The getting was good for a while. Nic Naitanui’s knee injury in Round 22 last year opened up a hole in the space-time continuum, which our universe was sucked into (didn’t you notice?) and the only thing that changed was West Coast’s destiny. Also Trump, but look that’s not important right now.
The timeline to date has a number of key events: their 2015 Grand Final loss, Nic Naitanui’s ACL injury, the recruitment of Sam Mitchell, Josh Kennedy’s is-it-a-calf-is-it-an-Achilles injury. We join the timeline today, at West Coast’s selection meeting.
Buckle up. It’s going to get nasty.
13 July, 2017: Josh Kennedy is named to play for West Coast in Sunday’s derby, replacing Eric Mackenzie. Drew Petrie retain his spot, and Jeremy McGovern goes to the backline. All is right with the world.
14 July, 2017: West Coast post a positive video of Naitanui exercising in a Washington State gym run by XTSports, with the ruckman able to jump and land unimpeded off of his left leg. He had travelled to the US a week prior, in this time line on the advice of Sam Mitchell who recommended this particular group
16 July, 2017: The Eagles are obliterated in the derby, losing by ten goals. Nat Fyfe has 40 disposals and kicks four goals, while Michael Walters kicks ten against an oversized West Coast defence. The real bad news out of the game though is Josh Kennedy, who appears to reinjure his lower leg in the first minute of the game. Eagles coach Adam Simpson provides no guidance at his post-match press conference.
July 17, 2017: Perth media report Kennedy’s scans suggest a torn Achilles tendon. West Coast deny the reports, ominously stating they will review the results of scans later on that day.
July 18, 2017: The Eagles announce Kenney has torn his Achilles, and will require surgery and at least 12 months rehabilitation given his age. An anonymous source leaks a report prepared for the Eagles following Kennedy’s injury in May shows there were concerns about the potential for this to occur.
July 19, 2017: At his regular mid week press conference, Simpson concedes the Eagles took a risk bringing Kennedy back because the club saw their season as on the line. Simpson abruptly stops the press conference when asked whether he is feeling the heat as a result of the team’s mediocre season.
July 23, 2017: West Coast eek over the line against the Pies on the back of a seven goal haul to Drew Petrie. Matt Priddis has a terrible game, gathering just 10 possessions and giving away four free kicks. Sam Mitchell plays his best game for the club: 35 disposals, 10 clearances and 12 score involvements. Moving to 9-8, West Coast still find themselves just outside the eight.
July 24, 2017: Naitanui returns from the US, boldly declaring to the media pack waiting for him at the airport that he will play against the Brisbane Lions in the upcoming round.
July 26, 2017: On AFL360, Sam Mitchell is asked about his playing future. He gives a cryptic answer than indicates some tension with West Coast, implying that he is keen to move into the coaches box but that the Eagles – headlined by Simpson – want him to play another year.
July 27, 2017: Naitanui is not named for West Coast, nor the East Perth Royals, for the weekend’s game. The Eagles go in with an unchanged line up for the first time in 2017.
July 29, 2017: Around lunchtime, Naitanui, Andrew Gaff, Petrie and Mitchell are spotted entering Chutney Mary’s on Rokeby Road in Subiaco.
July 30, 2017: West Coast put in their worst performance as a collective for the year, losing to the Lions 127-65. Brisbane expose West Coast’s weakness around the ball, and continually punish their slow movement from the defensive half of the ground. Simpson uses his post match press conference to call out the team’s “mature leaders”.
August 3, 2017: Ahead of an elimination game against St Kilda, Sam Mitchell is sensationally dropped, while Nic Naitanui is again not named. Pressed earlier in the day, coach Simpson said the club was taking a “comically conservative” approach to Naitanui’s return to the team, particularly given the recent events with Kennedy.
August 6, 2017: Another disastrous performance from the Eagles sees them go down by 88 points to the Saints. Half way through the third quarter, Nic Naitanui cryptically tweets “change”.
August 26, 2017: What loomed as a top eight shaping match up just six weeks prior turns into a Saturday twilight fizzer between Adelaide and West Coast. Prior to the game the Eagles announce they will not be offering new contracts to celebrated veterans Sam Butler and Mark LeCras, while Matt Priddis announces he has decided to retire rather than play out his one year contract. Unable to rally for the occasion, the Eagles are shredded by a fully fit Adelaide, ending the season with a 10-12 record and an unflattering percentage of 90.5 per cent. Naitanui does not play a game, missing the entire season.
August 30, 2017: The Age publishes a story that suggest Andrew Gaff is set to request a trade home to Victoria, with Hawthorn or Carlton his preferred destinations. The story includes an account of player discontent at the game style of coach Simpson.
September 10, 2017: The Sunday Times runs a front page headline: FRACTURED. The accompanying story quotes anonymous sources expressing a lack of confidence in coach Simpson’s management style and game plan, and lauding the influence of Sam Mitchell on the playing group.
September 11, 2017: West Coast CEO Trevor Nisbett calls an impromptu press conference, announcing the contract of West Coast coach Adam Simpson had been terminated with one year to run. Justin Longmuir takes over as head coach, and signals his intent to allow Sam Mitchell to join him as the team’s senior assistant coach immediately. Later that day, Drew Petrie announces his retirement and that he had been invited to become the team’s forward coach following a reshuffle of portfolios. Simpson heads to Collingwood as a senior assistant to a newly re-signed Nathan Buckley.
Some time passes, and it looks as though the turmoil is over. Over a barrel, the Eagles end up trading Andrew Gaff to Hawthorn for the Hawks’ 2018 first round pick. It is the only significant move of the Eagles’ off season, with the club taking eight picks to the national draft in an effort to bring in some more young players.
November 12, 2017: XTSports, the group Nic Naitanui had spent time with earlier in the year, is linked to a network of sports scientists in the United States that is implicated in an experimental blood doping regime. West Coast deny Naitanui received any treatment of that nature in his time with the group.
November 23, 2017: The night before the draft, Sam Mitchell is spotted with Alastair Clarkson and Luke Hodge in a Sydney eatery. Quizzed on draft night, Clarkson and Mitchell suggest it was just an opportune time for a catch up. On the night of the draft, West Coast, Hawthorn and GWS embark upon a complicated pick swap which sees Hawthorn’s 2018 first round pick return to it as well as West Coast’s 2018 first round pick.
Fast forward to February 2018, and the Eagles enter the new year without any of the hype of recent seasons. With the top end of their midfield decimated, few pundits give the team any hope of making it back into the top eight. On the plus side, Nic Naitanui has been performing better than ever, and Sam Mitchell appears to have revolutionised the team’s game plan around Luke Shuey, Dom Sheed, Elliot Yeo and Liam Duggan through the middle of the ground.
After three straight preseason wins – albeit one of them in the AFL’s horrific failure of an AFLX exhibition tournament – it looks as though things might be turning for the Eagles.
In the opening weekend of the season, Nic Naitanui makes his long awaited return to the league as a derby opens the New Perth Stadium. He obliterates Fremantle almost singlehandedly, winning 63 hitouts – 24 to advantage – 12 clearances and kicking five goals. West Coast win the game by 37 points, and the Eagles shoot up to sixth on premiership betting lines.
It doesn’t take long for the sheen to wear off. A week later, materials published as part of a WADA trial of XTSports implicate Naitanui in the consortium’s experimental treatments. Naitanui is immediately suspended from competition to await trial.
Naitanui’s management immediately lodges a notices with the AFL to form a grievance tribunal to have his contract terminated for cause, citing documents that the club had signed which stated the treatments he was receiving were WADA compliant.
Once again rocked by off field controversy, West Coast lose their next four games and begin the year in the bottom six. Sam Mitchell fronts the media and hints that he doesn’t think the playing group is up to his game plan.
Within four weeks, the Eagles are consistently rolling out the youngest starting 22 in the league. Players of the vintage of Sharrod Wellingham, Josh Hill, Chris Masten, Eric Mackenzie and Will Schofield are banished to East Perth, with Shannon Hurn and Luke Shuey the lone players over the age of 26 getting a regular spot in the team.
It goes about as well as it sounds, West Coast hitting the half way mark of the season with just two wins. Some segments of the media question whether the Eagles would have been better off staying the course with Adam Simpson – others wonder whether the Eagles are tanking.
After Round 12, Fox Footy’s On the Couch program does a deep dive on the Eagles’ strategy, showing glimpses of the game day coaches box that suggest Sam Mitchell is calling the shots, not head coach Justin Longmuir. The show also exposes the comical dysfunction of West Coast’s forward line under the stewardship of Petrie as forwards coach.
With a bit of time under their belts, West Coast’s young team shows signs of gelling in the third quarter of the season. They don’t win many games – a seven point victory over North Melbourne, who are somehow worse than West Coast, was all the team could muster – but for the first time since Naitanui’s destructive display in Round One the team look competent. Josh Kennedy returns from his Achilles injury in Round 16, and the Eagles instantly look sharper up forward.
In the background to all of this, Naitanui’s legal team is able to prove gross negligence by West Coast in the management and treatment of his injury, and he is the first player in AFL history to have his contract terminated for just cause. Naitanui’s legal team is able to cite the poor handling of Josh Kennedy’s eventual Achilles tendon tear as evidence. Reeling from the decision, West Coast fans begin calling for change at club headquarters. Naitanui heads overseas.
A Round 19 trip to Melbourne to face the Demons brings with it some welcome relief. The Dees are experiencing a tough post-premiership year, with on field discipline problems and an injury to man-god Tom McDonald weakening the line up. The Eagles manage to win with a kick after the siren. But all of the talk before, during and after the match centres on another rendezvous between Clarkson and Mitchell, this time in a more secret locale.
The Eagles’ young brigade run out of puff in the final three games of the season, and West Coast finish in 17th on the ladder with just three wins. Unfortunately for West Coast, it had traded its first round pick to Hawthorn last off season to gain two extra second round picks in 2017.
As the season comes to a close, and Greater Western Sydney win their first premiership, the talk of Melbourne town is another secret meeting between Clarkson and Mitchell. As the trade period approaches, Melbourne media begin reporting there is strong interest from a Victorian club in Liam Duggan, who had starred in his larger role for West Coast.
On the first day of the 2018 trade period, Hawthorn reveal themselves as the suitor, and offer West Coast their 2018 pick back for Duggan and their 2018 second round pick. The deal stands for almost the entirety of the trade period, until West Coast relent and make the trade.
Just before the trade deadline, another trade between the Hawks and Eagles is done: Elliot Yeo joins the Hawks for Hawthorn’s 2019 first round pick, Taylor Durea and Billy Hartung – Yeo fresh off a top five finish in the 2018 Brownlow medal count. West Coast throw in a fourth round pick to even up the numbers a bit. The trade shocks the football world.
It means in the space of 12 months Hawthorn has won the services of Liam Duggan, Andrew Gaff and Elliot Yeo from the Eagles; the Eagles gaining two extra second round picks in 2017, Hawthorn’s 2019 first round pick, Taylor Durea and Billy Hartung.
As soon as the ink dries on the Yeo trade, Hawthorn call a press conference on the trade floor of the Etihad Stadium corporate offices. Alastair Clarkson and list manager Luke Hodge talk about how pleased they are with the trade period, before Clarkson advises he has a special
Sam Mitchell walks into the room with a Hawthorn polo on. He announces he has rescinded his contract with West Coast, and has joined Hawthorn on a head coach apprenticeship deal with Alastair Clarkson that will see him take over as Hawthorn coach in 2020.
Panicking, West Coast immediately sack Justin Longmuir as head coach and appoint Drew Petrie as head coach for some reason. Drew Petrie is the coach of the West Coast Eagles. Let that one marinade for a bit.
This all sounds pretty terrible right? It gets worse. Nic Naitanui returns from overseas exile. To Melbourne, not Perth. At Melbourne airport he holds a press conference, where he announces he will be joining Hawthorn as a free agent – as he is permitted to do after being delisted for cause.
As 2018 draws to a close it becomes clear that Sam Mitchell’s move to West Coast was all a ruse designed to rip the best pieces out of the playing group as a covert rebuild operation orchestrated by Alastair Clarkson. West Coast hit rock bottom, with limited assets, an untried head coach and a team without any of the attributes required to play football at a high level heading into the 2019 season following the AFL Commission’s decision to legalise throwing.
It’s dark down here man. Too dark. I need to find that hole in the space-time continuum.