Seven years ago, I stood leaning on the fence of the mounting yard at Morphettville race course, chatting to a horse trainer.
A St Kilda supporter, he was trying to work out whether he actually liked his own team’s coach, Ross Lyon.
“Yeah,” I said. “He seems like one of those blokes who answers every question with a question.”
By the end of the following September, Lyon would be the coach of the club I supported, fielding plenty of questions from others in an unforgettable first press conference in purple.
Nobody had seen the Lyon move to Fremantle coming and the overriding sentiment around town – inflamed by a night of talkback intrigue – was that ousted Dockers coach Mark Harvey had been royally shafted. TV news journos more used to grilling government ministers than footy coaches wanted to know whether the new bloke had knifed his predecessor.
“Mr Lyon,” one of them called him several times, which was a weirdly formal term of address to hear on what was the weirdest unveiling of a coach in recent AFL history.
But Mr Lyon stood up to the barrage, professed his belief in his own integrity and rolled out what are now recognisable as a couple of vintage Ross-isms: “That’s an assumption made from the outside” and “It’s an opinion business.”
He didn’t once reply to a question with one of his own. (I know this because I watched it all over again on YouTube last Friday night.)
Like him, loathe him or merely be bemused by him, it’s hard not to be fascinated by Ross Lyon the media performer.
In six years since his introduction as Fremantle coach we’ve had so many Rosses.
There’s the surprisingly personable and warm Ross (the version who appeared on 6PR on Monday nights for three seasons).
The cliche-riddled Ross who is “forever-looking” at things “in the cold light of day” and now seems to be besotted with “feedback”.
The unintentionally funny Ross who tried to label 2016 an annus horribilis but rather appropriately said “anus”.
The pugnacious Ross who regards pretty much everyone else as an outsider (he hears a lot of “noise” but he doesn’t, you know, listen to it).
And the condescending Ross who only ever gets asked questions that are beneath him (“I’m not quite sure what you’re alluding to…”).
Along “the journey” I’ve pondered the deeper meanings of some of his pet sayings. “Challenges and opportunities” was an early favourite, which always struck me as a polite way of stating that “s–t happens … but not always.”
Sometimes I’ve wondered if he was even really aware of quite what he was saying, like when he this year professed “I’ve never looked at the ladder”. I’m not sure if Lyon is a Caddyshack fan but it reminded me an awful lot of this:
I’ve despaired at the rod he occasionally seems intent on building for the Dockers’ backs. The famous singling out of Shane McInnes after the Geelong final win of 2013 – “that’s quite brilliant Shane” – was basically an open invite saying “come and kick us one day, when we’re down.”
And I marvelled at his weird calm through a disastrous start to last season in which the Dockers went from premiership fancies to wooden spoon favourites. It was almost as if he couldn’t see the Owen memes popping up in his Facebook feed.
Winning 63 games in your first four seasons at a success-starved club, with three top-four finishes and a grand final appearance, buys you all kinds of credit. Reply to questions as obtusely as you like, nobody will really care. It’s just part of the mystique.
But when the wins dry up people tend to want actual answers. And it was interesting to compare the differences between Lyon’s first appearance as Freo coach with what transpired after the round 22 flogging from Richmond.
September 2011 Ross was succinct, even pointed. Mid-August 2017 Ross was, well, I’m not really sure.
Asked if he thought the re-build (re-stump?) was “still on track” after back-to-back 100-point losses, Lyon first said it was an “inappropriate” and “long-winded” question – even though it was only 27 words in length and then devoted 101 words of his own to doing everything but answer it.
That said, he did trot out an outstanding and relatively new Ross-ism: “I don’t have all the metrics on that” as if 208 points less than the opposition over the past fortnight might not serve as a general pointer.
A response to a follow-up question about whether Lyon was concerned about the future ran out to 97 words and finished just as clearly: “You’re entitled to ask. I think it’s inappropriate at this time” (well which one is it?). And: “I think you can make your own judgments because everyone does that anyway” (makes press conferences a little irrelevant, no?)
Cliches, in isolation, mean little. But looking at the change in of some of Lyon’s catchphrases is as instructive as anything else in showing where the Dockers are at.
After the round 3 loss to West Coast last year, Lyon said “winning and losing” was his “fundamental philosophy.” Now it’s about “growth and opportunity”.
Once a proud believer of “birth certificates go out the door” Lyon now explains away bad play with lines like “but that’s youth.”
“Anywhere, any time” has given way to some places, some times, but definitely not at home on a perfect Sunday afternoon in mid-August against a club that hasn’t won a final since 2001.
Back in his Brisbane days, Leigh Matthews grew fond of replying to difficult questions with “how long’s a piece of string?” He could get away with it because of his aura and the fact he’d lifted four premiership cups.
But even Lethal couldn’t keep it up forever. And by the time he left the Lions he was just another old coach, who talked in riddles and had a team that lost quite a lot more often than it won.
Lyon hasn’t reached that point yet. He’s by far the best coach in Fremantle’s history. But he’s also yet to win a flag, hasn’t proven he can build a side from the ground up (Matthews never did either) and judging from the tone of talkback calls over the past three weeks, approaching a tipping point.
Be at least competitive, as Freo were against Essendon on the road in round 23 (and GWS and Geelong before that) and fans will happily let you speak your speak. Have another season with three 100-point losses (and let’s not forget the 89-point abomination against Port in round two) and the supply of brownie points whittles away just a little bit more.
Of course, radio talkback is just another one of those external noises. There’s no silver bullet and you can’t buy confidence at a shop.
Competing wallpapers over a lot of cracks but Ross knows that Perth is a small town with big connections, that the buck stops with him and you’ve got to be a no excuses footy club.
Except, of course, when you need them.