For many looking from the outside in, the Lions rise in 2019 to finish second on the AFL ladder seemed to come out of nowhere. But for Senior Coach Chris Fagan and his coaching staff, this had been a process three years in the making.
“In my heart of hearts, I was hopeful we might be able to push for Finals and I thought a realistic number, probably on the back of the previous two years, was eight to ten wins,” Fagan told lions.com.au.
“We reached the halfway mark of the season reaching seven and five.”
The Lions would win 16 games for the year, almost double the wins Fagan had hoped for.
“The players didn’t have any limit on themselves,” he said.
“I was pretty excited by our start beating West Coast in Round 1 and winning three in a row.”
The secret to the success this year for Fagan came down to the attitude of the players.
“There was a big group of them training a month before they had to come back to official Club training and they turned up in such good condition we were ahead of where we thought we’d be,” he said.
With the players fit and firing, their pre-season plans were escalated, and the Club was able to start match simulation earlier than expected.
The leadership group, led by Captain Dayne Zorko, had a major impact on the team’s success.
“The way they owned the team, they owned the performance. They were very proactive trying to make the team better,” he said.
“So many times they would have a meeting before [our leadership meeting] to tell me the things they wanted to do.”
“I [also] thought they did a really good job at not taking too much notice of the external hype.”
This would have been hard, with the team at times winning seven, eight, then nine games in a row – a feat that had not been achieved in 14 years. They also made their first Finals appearance in a decade.
The team also took major scalps including North Melbourne, Adelaide Crows, the Western Bulldogs and the Sydney Swans, a team they had not beaten in 10 years.
“We took a lot of confidence and a lot of joy about overcoming those hurdles,” Fagan said.
A key turning point for the group was the way they responded to Round 4’s loss to Essendon at the MCG and the following week’s Round 5 loss to Collingwood on Easter Thursday.
“They really taught us a few lessons about ourselves those two losses,” he said.
“We did a bit of an audit of ourselves on what we looked like when we played well and the way we played when we didn’t play so well and that gave us a clear way forward.”
From Fagan’s perspective, the team proved themselves in Round 16 and 17, with two tough back-to-back wins on the road against the GIANTS and then Port Adelaide.
Those wins provided the momentum to finish the season strongly, with an unbelievable victory over Geelong in Round 22.
Fagan hopes the team can return as strongly in 2020 and build towards being a consistent powerhouse Club, like Geelong, Sydney or Hawthorn.
“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” he said.
“They’re knocking on the door all the time, so that’s our challenge as a footy Club.”