Chris Fagan lets a long pause hang in the air. It stretches for 15 seconds, 20, 25, over 30. The Brisbane Lions coach knows what he wants to say about the AFL’s investigation into allegations of systematic racism during his time as general manager of football at Hawthorn, alongside four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson.
But for as long as the investigation remains ongoing, he is bound by a confidentiality agreement that prevents him from saying anything. Coming into his seventh year in the job, he has resigned himself to controlling the things he can control. “Just being able to get on with the job here, day in and day out, takes your mind off it,” he says.
Fagan is simmering. He is not good at hiding his emotions. Sometimes things boil over, something fans often see as he coaches from the sidelines. “That’s just me being me – it’s not a show, it’s who I am,” he says. He allows himself a grin. “I’m 61! I reckon changing that’s going to be tough to do now.”
Fagan knows he’ll likely never get a better shot at a premiership than in 2023. He has also never entered a season under more pressure. The Lions have been in contention for four years now, after finishing a surprise second at the end of the home-and-away season in 2019. That team still had a raw-boned look about it. Now they’re seasoned.
“I suppose it’s a different pressure from the early days,” he says. “It’s the pressure of expectation. We’ve created that, so we should feel proud about the fact that we’ve worked hard enough and long enough to be the sort of team that people put in the frame to maybe win a premiership.”
He may be emotional by nature, but Fagan’s first year at the Lions, in 2017, was formative. “When I came to this club, I would say it was an unsafe environment,” he says. “Everybody was nervous, we hadn’t been able to win games of football for a long time, players were in survival mode, they were afraid to speak up. There was a lot of mistrust.”
He focused on building intense bonds with his players. Those bonds have been hard to break. “I think one of the important parts of building a safe environment where people can perform at their best, feel like they can speak up and all of those sorts of things is to show loyalty, so that’s what I’ve done,” he says.
Unbidden, he recalls now-retired stalwart Mitch Robinson, dropped after the Lions’ victory in the elimination final over Richmond last year. Robinson already knew he was playing his last game in front of his home crowd, and later posted on Instagram that he was “devastated” Fagan hadn’t let him announce it in advance to supporters and teammates.
Fagan is still stung by it. “It lacked class, and it didn’t reflect how many conversations I’d had with him during the season,” he says. “I was preparing him all year, that this is going to be your last year, mate. It was something I gave a massive amount of thought to, and didn’t do it lightly, but the team had to come first.”
Fagan’s hurt, though, reveals a bigger truth: his fondness for Robinson, who came to the Lions after being sacked by Carlton at the end of 2014. Robinson himself – even more prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve than his old coach – describes the breakdown as a “miscommunication” from which he’s since moved on. He declined to comment further.
More hard calls await Fagan this year. His midfield is stacked, with Josh Dunkley’s recruitment from the Western Bulldogs putting pressure on fellow inside midfielder Jarryd Lyons. For the Lions, Dunkley is a godsend: he is big-bodied, tackles hard, and is at the peak of his career, having won the Charles Sutton medal in his final year at the Western Bulldogs.
The Lions ranked 10th in the competition for scores against last year. That perhaps sounds worse than it is – the statistic is blown out somewhat by two bad losses against 2021 premiers Melbourne – but it does reveal a structural problem, which Fagan acknowledges. It wasn’t the back six, but the team’s ability to defend the whole ground.
Dunkley is one of the best defensive runners in the competition, something the Lions identified as their most glaring weakness. “Some of our blokes will run hard both ways, but [didn’t] have the speed, so we needed to add that combination of speed and endurance into our team,” Fagan says.
Assuming Dunkley plays the majority of his football in the centre square alongside Lachie Neale, the Lions have a new depth around the ball that will be hard to combat. Jarrod Berry, another bigger body, was a game-changer when moved on to a rampaging Clayton Oliver in the semi-final against Melbourne last year. Hugh McCluggage has developed his inside game.
And then there’s Will Ashcroft, the most hyped father-son prospect since, well, Collingwood’s Nick Daicos last year. In practice games against Geelong and Sydney, Fagan says, Ashcroft “had good numbers, played strong, was able to win contested ball, so there’s been no evidence to suggest that he can’t have a full year of AFL football this year”.
Last year the Lions missed the top four, but came from behind to win two nail-biting finals, including against Melbourne at the MCG. Their ability to win such games had long been questioned. For Fagan, it represented two steps forward, no steps back. “I’m a glass half-full man,” he says. He admits his team had a little luck, too, that had previously eluded them.
He points to Geelong. “They went 10 years knocking at the door [after the 2011 premiership] before they got their next chance to win it,” he says. “And they played finals regularly, they probably lost more than they won, there were those doubts about Geelong, too … All those lessons that they had over those years came together to help them win [last year].”
He doesn’t need to drive home to his troops that their time is now. “They were all skinny boys running around five or six years ago. They’re now hardened AFL players, so I think that’s the expectation they have of themselves. We’ve been close in the last four years, getting closer, and the last few steps are always the hardest.”