Family brought Fremantle midfielder MICHAEL BARLOW to Warrnambool this week. It's the lure of an AFL flag- and grand final redemption- that will take him back west, writes JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASY.
FOR all the inroads Fremantle has made in the past two years, one thing remains the same.
The Dockers’ trophy cabinet is bare — a stark reminder of unfinished business.
It’s Wednesday, some 10 weeks since Fremantle’s grand final debut resulted in a 15-point loss to Hawthorn, and Dockers midfielder Michael Barlow is at Bushfield Recreation Reserve in north Warrnambool.
The similarities between the near-capacity 100,007 MCG crowd he played in front of and the south-west country ground start and end with the goal posts.
But both Fremantle and North Warrnambool Eagles are training for the same prize — a premiership, albeit on a different scale.
Barlow watches his older brothers, Eagles utility Herb and new recruit Dom, train before going out to help new North Warrnambool Eagles coach Bernard Moloney with a few drills.
He will return to Perth tomorrow, pre-season in full swing and the hunger for a second grand final tilt burning.
Fremantle, once the league’s basket case, is ready for its third year under coach Ross Lyon.
Barlow says the grand final defeat will spur the Dockers on.
“We can’t really be satisfied with just getting there and I don’t think we were on the day or in the week (leading up to it),” he laments.
“But we’ll learn some lessons from that game to make us a bit stronger mentally or a bit structurally better where we fell down.
“I think that is the strength of our coaching group, that we won’t just put it down to ‘oh we were beaten on the day’.
“We were beaten for a reason and we’ll look into those reasons and hopefully it makes us a better side.”
Barlow says every player had his own way of dealing with the loss.
“The more outgoing and enthusiastic members were probably ready the next day to get stuck in and redeem and launch for another campaign,” he says.
“On the other hand, some people it might take two, three months or whatever, so everyone handles it differently.
“(I was) probably the latter. I didn’t want to see anything associated with the game for quite some time.
“I think Ross was really good, saying ‘we have to acknowledge what happened and what went wrong and we’ll review the game eventually’.
“I think over the pre-season we’ll look at the areas we let ourselves down in and everyone will be forced, if they haven’t already, to confront what went on and it should act as a driving factor.”
Only two Fremantle players — Danyle Pearce and Zac Dawson — had played in a grand final before.
For Barlow, the finals series was a whirlwind of emotions, with the Dockers switching from underdogs to favourites from game to game.
The Dockers shocked Geelong after a last-minute AFL decision to play the qualifying final at the Cats’ Kardinia Park fortress.
Stephen Hill’s running goal sent Fremantle into its first home preliminary final.
“We always had belief we could beat Geelong and we really enjoyed the fact that we went there and there was a lot of negativity towards us,” Barlow says.
“Not that we paid heaps of attention, but a lot of the talk around was that Collingwood knew they wanted a six-day break to go to Perth and we weren’t buying into that at all. We knew we were a massive chance to get the win and get the home prelim.
“I think that win was as satisfying a win as I have had in my career.
“I think we knew our capabilities and even after the game we weren’t keen to tell anyone ‘we told you so’ because there were bigger fish to fry.
“I think that showed off again the following fortnight.”
Two weeks later, Fremantle shed its underdog tag and jumped Sydney, its trademark pressure and parochial Subiaco crowd lifting it to its first grand final.
Barlow says the 25-point win against the reigning premier was a turning point in the club’s history.
“There was a lot of expectation on us, so it was probably a really nervous couple of weeks for the players,” he reflects.
“I was probably one of those ones who was a little nervous and the expectation was riding on me a little bit, but a lot of other players just thrive on that and want to come out and get the job done.
“That was as nervous a game as I have experienced, just because I think the stories had been written.
“Like the previous week with Geelong that we were going to lose, these stories had been written that we were going into our first-ever grand final before the game. To get that win was a real relief.”
Barlow thinks the Dockers’ off-season recruiting will help them consolidate in 2014.
Melbourne half-forward Colin Sylvia joined via free agency, while injury-prone Essendon key forward Scott Gumbleton returned to Western Australia during the trade period.
“We had not a bad year injury-wise but Kepler Bradley is a player who is really important to the fabric of the team and the structure of the team, so we did lose that second tall,” Barlow says of the 2013 season.
“Getting Scott will give us some more depth in that area with Kepler coming back in and being fit, as well as Tanner Smith developing and Matthew Taberner, so I think they have identified that area.
“And Col, through free agency, is a really good player and someone who I have been talking to who is really hungry for success and hungry to be involved in a successful environment.”
Barlow expects pressure for spots to intensify next season, with Fremantle’s depth at an all-time high.
He believes grand final duo Lachie Neale and Cam Sutcliffe and emergency Tom Sheridan will push for more permanent spots in 2014.
“The better they can get, the better we’ll be,” he says.
Barlow, one of the AFL’s first mature-age rookies, is entering his fifth season.
The tall midfielder has played 70 games since the Dockers took a punt on him in the 2009 rookie draft. He is contracted until the end of 2015.
“I am hoping to stay for as long as possible,” Barlow says.
“The people have been fantastic, from the CEO to the coaches and other recruiting staff, who I really have to thank immensely.”
Those people include Lyon, the former St Kilda coach who landed at Fremantle for the 2012 season amid controversy.
He has since taken the Dockers to back-to-back finals campaigns for the first time in their 19-year history.
“He is a genius. He’s a fantastic individual and has been fantastic for the club, as well as for me personally,” Barlow says.
“Across the board he maintains a high level of accountability and you’re basically a family.
“If you step out of line you’re not banished, you’re just guided through and you know what unacceptable behaviours are and you know when you have to be pulled into line, but it’s really a kind of family atmosphere.”
As the external expectations on the Dockers increase, Barlow’s goals are simple.
“I just want to put myself in the best shape I can to be able to contribute and I think I have been able to do that to this point,” he says.
“But we’re so far out (from next season). I just have to maintain, from day-to-day, a level of professionalism that’s going to see me succeed and be a long-term player.”