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Homesick factor continues to cripple struggling Lions

The Lions, three-time premiers a decade ago, lost five promising young players after bungling their change of coach.

The Lions, three-time premiers a decade ago, lost five promising young players after bungling their change of coach. Photo: Getty Images

The Brisbane Lions are destined to be the AFL's whipping boys unless the 'homesick' factor is addressed, writes Adam Staines, co-founder of influential Lions supporter group The Lion's Roar.

When the AFL recently released its optimistically titled Competitive Balance Policy, commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick spoke of the League’s intent to provide a level playing field for all clubs.

"The AFL competition has been built on the basic philosophy of ensuring supporters of every club believe that their team has a chance to win in any game, regardless of the club’s financial strength," Fitzpatrick said.

Yet despite the AFL’s financial tinkering, it has failed to acknowledge or address a fundamental competitive disadvantage that is crippling the Brisbane Lions: homesickness.

Since the Lions' inception in 1996, they've had 19 first-round draft picks –  the cream of the draft crop. Astoundingly, 15 of those players finished their careers with other clubs; most moved during or before their prime. Of those, 10 players returned to their home state.

By comparison, over the same period, clubs from traditional footy states lost an average of just two first-rounders to "homesickness".

That gulf should come as no surprise when one considers that a whopping 97 per cent of players taken via the national draft are from traditional states. By comparison, since 2010, just four Queenslanders and four New South Welshman have been drafted onto senior lists – all of them with speculative late picks.

Due to this talent supply imbalance, there are just six Queenslanders on the Lions' senior list. Victorian clubs enjoy, on average, 25 locals on their list, while WA clubs average 23. The Lions are the very definition of a frontier club, yet they are the only one without any form of retention allowance.

It isn't just a modern phenomenon, either. And it isn’t merely the result of a lack of on-field success as some might dismissively argue.

In 1999, with the Lions on the cusp of greatness, after playing in a losing preliminary final, Shane O’Bree walked to the Pies in the pre-season draft. He made his reasons clear.

“From day one in Brisbane I was always homesick, so it was good to come back to Victoria and be close to my friends and family,” he said at the time.

Even as the Lions reached new heights in 2002, former number-one draft pick Des Headland demanded to be traded home to WA, only weeks after helping Brisbane win a premiership. Jason Gram followed suit the next year.

While battling to keep Headland, Lions coach Leigh Matthews channeled Nostradamus.

"If every one of our young players who comes up here for a couple of years, we develop them and they go home, quite clearly our football club is consigned to the bottom of the heap."

And so it has gone. The Lions' premiership successes, despite the constant player drain, speaks not only to his skill but also to the incredible depth of young talent accrued at the Lions over years of being cellar-dwellers and the one-off merger boon.

While the retention challenge is not new, it is, worryingly, intensifying. Last year the exodus of "Go Home Five", Polec, Docherty, Yeo, Longer and Karnezis, was well documented. While some commentators were quick to attribute their departure to off-field dramas, that doesn't explain why the Lions have regularly lost players through good times and bad.

Instead, look to the pervasive, insidious impact of free agency. While the AFL attempted to restrict its introduction to only older players, its influence has extended unintentionally to younger players.

It is now culturally acceptable for teenagers coming off their initial contracts, still yearning for family and childhood friends, to nominate their new club of choice. Players drafted now know they need only bide their time.

We’ve all heard the stories of agents and rival clubs muttering to them on draft night: "Don't worry, it'll only be two years and we'll get you home". They are unbound by the restrictions of their older peers. They have become the ultimate free agents.

To add salt to the wound of their departure, with player agents holding all the cards, spurned clubs are receiving poorer compensation.

The trade period is an unnerving time for Lions fans. While southerners treat it like Christmas come early, we look to our players with trepidation and wonder "Which lamb will the vultures snatch this year?" Many are looking to the latest batch of recruits wondering if it is worth getting attached.

The AFL created this beast. It is its responsibility to fix it, or risk losing us in droves. Without the AFL's urgent intervention the Lions will remain its forgotten frontier; the perennial feeder club, mired to the bottom of the ladder.

This is no one's definition of a level playing field.

The Lion's Roar is an independent, not for profit group representing members and supporters of the Brisbane Lions.

27 comments so far

  • Blaming free agency is ridiculous! It is incumbent on the Lions to create a good enough culture at their club that players want to stay rather than leave. They aren't walking out on the Gold Coast in droves.
    Of course those five players who left at the end of last year were homesick, but that can be overcome by making it worth staying for them! What does need to happen is a better way to develop young talent in NSW and Queensland. The junior footy leagues are incredibly weak and almost totally reliant on the AFL. Compare this to VIC, SA and WA where the competition is fierce at junior club level and in the TAC. So much talent in NSW is wasted because the players have no idea how to play a game.

    Commenter
    Jez
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    June 25, 2014, 2:35PM
    • the article just said free agency was just going to make retention of players at the Lions worse. You mentioned the Suns well they have what Eddie Maguire got the AFL to remove the retention allowance (Brisbane paid the extra back then, I think now the AFL pay it) Eddie even wants the academy closed supposedly it gives Brisbane an advantage, how does that work any club can draft the young academy members. Omar I think you over simplified the problems (the list that Leigh left had age and also experience the club not just Vossy tried to go one more time to the finals so they picked up some experienced players, unfortunately Fevola imploded and Staker and Maguire are the only ones left. Omar every club has had to dump some of it's players it isn't only Brisbane Barney you really don't read and comprehend what the article said. red white & blue seriously the big clubs take more than GWS or the GCS. Obree had a knee injury then a reasonable year 1st contract then Collingwood offered him $200,000 plus per year. Check out how Brisbane has lost young players in it's history even in the premiership years.

      Commenter
      Bob
      Location
      Birnam Qld
      Date and time
      June 25, 2014, 6:08PM
  • The crowd attendances reflect that the Lions & Suns (and the Bears before them) are regarded as non Qlders playing a Victorian game.
    Even the big names to play AFL from Qld have Victorian parents... Voss, Aker etc.
    The AFL can keep throwing money up here but it is unlikely to make much difference as is reflected by the past 20 years.

    Commenter
    Qlder born and bred
    Date and time
    June 25, 2014, 3:05PM
    • So explain why Bronco's crowds are dropping?
      Their parents born in NSW perhaps?

      Commenter
      Get it right
      Location
      Richmond
      Date and time
      June 25, 2014, 3:30PM
    • Rubbish Aussie Rules has been played in Qld for over 125 years check out the growing number of junior clubs in Qld also for a dominant sport the crowds at the Titans and Cowboys is a lot less than the Suns & Lions , the Broncos do better but so they should (even their numbers were generally lower than the Lions in the late 1990 sand early 2000s. come up with something real not pretend stuff .

      Commenter
      Bob
      Location
      Birnam Qld
      Date and time
      June 25, 2014, 6:14PM
  • It's funny, you go on about players being homesick as if it is the AFL's responsibility to fix, but what about Sydney? Do they have a "homesickness sickness" too? I would say not. But surely Sydney would face the same challenges keeping their interstate players as Brisbane? So why does the AFL have to fix a problem that is only affecting one club? Maybe the only club that seems to be affected by "homesickness" might have other problems it should fix in order to make homesickness a non-issue? Brisbane is a beautiful city with a lot going for it - perfect weather, beaches, laid back lifestyle - so what reasons are being given for the players who want to leave? What can the Lions do to keep those players at Brisbane?

    It is time for the Lions to look inward and fix their own problems instead of blaming the AFL. I'm just not buying the claim that all of Brisbane's player retention problems are caused by homesickness or the AFL. The internal environment and culture could be just as big an issue, not to mention the on-field performance.

    Commenter
    arb
    Date and time
    June 25, 2014, 3:05PM
    • arb your comments support the Lions Roar's argument. Sydney has additional salary cap allowance that maens they can pay players extra to overcome "homesickness..Brisbane does not have an additional allowanceha

      Commenter
      knaf
      Location
      Fitzroy
      Date and time
      June 25, 2014, 3:53PM
  • Sorry to burst the Brisbane bubble. How many players have moved to Brisbane during the same time; as a member of a Vic based club, I have seen Vic players move interstate on the back of more money etc. Players move clubs within Victoria also. Look at Hawthorns list. If Brisbane had any smarts they would make the most of their location as a means of attracting & retaining players along the same model as Sydney. To say they are disadvantaged is a long bow. They have the distinct advantage of playing home games at the gabba, a venue used only by them. Vic clubs have no distinct home ground advantage (other than Geelong) due to rationalisation. Every club is disadvantaged by some means, ironically resulting in a "level playing field".

    Commenter
    Richo04
    Date and time
    June 25, 2014, 3:07PM
    • As a Richmond supporter who has seen 2 final games won and 3 final series contested in my nearly 30 year existence, excuse me if I don't run away to fetch my Violin just yet. You won 3 in a row in recent history! What more do they want?

      Commenter
      Mick
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      June 25, 2014, 3:08PM
      • You read my mind Mick although I'm 41 and can still remember 1980.

        Commenter
        Andy
        Location
        Tigerland
        Date and time
        June 25, 2014, 3:43PM

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    AFL 2015

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    BRI vs GCF 16:35G
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    Round 21
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    HAW vs PTA 19:50ES
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    COL vs RIC 13:45MCG
    GWS vs SYD 14:10Spotless Stadium
    GCF vs ESS 16:35MS
    STK vs GEE 19:20ES
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    CAR vs MEL 15:20MCG
    WCE vs WBU 16:40Domain Stadium
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    Fri, 28 AugTimes shown AEST
    GEE vs COL 19:50MCG
    Sat, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
    GWS vs CAR 13:45Spotless Stadium
    HAW vs BRI 14:10AS
    NTH vs WBU 16:35ES
    ESS vs RIC 19:20MCG
    GCF vs PTA 19:20MS
    Sun, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
    ADE vs WCE 13:10Adelaide Oval
    STK vs SYD 15:20ES
    FRE vs MEL 16:40Domain Stadium
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    Round 23
    Fri, 04 SepTimes shown AEST
    COL vs ESS 00:00MCG
    RIC vs NTH 00:00ES
    HAW vs CAR 00:00MCG
    GEE vs ADE 00:00SS
    SYD vs GCF 00:00SCG
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    PTA vs FRE 00:30Adelaide Oval
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