AFL.com.au's chief football correspondent, Damian Barrett, will tackle footy's biggest issues and biggest personalities in an exclusive column every Tuesday. In his first column for 2024, Barrett speaks with new West Coast CEO Don Pyke.
DURING the first 35 of its 37 years in the national Australian football competition, West Coast had established itself as a benchmark, on and off field.
Premierships at regular intervals, annual financial statements rivals could only dream of, membership capped with dozens of thousands of others prepared to pay to be on a waiting list, corporate backing like no other club and an incomparable pride – smugness, even – of taking on, and regularly destroying, everyone east of Western Australia.
It had all led to the most important commodity for an AFL club: respect.
But somewhere during the past two seasons, the Eagles' 36th and 37th in the AFL system, respect was lost, internally and externally, as just five of 45 matches were won, and a history of fight and uncompromising belief evaporated into self pity.
West Coast in 2024 will be a very different club in personnel and outlook, with new chief executive officer Don Pyke placing an urgency around recovery.
Headhunted to fix the Eagles late last year, Pyke is now four weeks into his new role, and he revealed to AFL.com.au that everyone at the club was effectively on the clock to fix operations.
Asked his views of the carnage of 2022 and 2023, Pyke was blunt:
"That is not for me to judge, you and others can judge that, I've simply come into the club wanting to do better and there is a bit of urgency, a now, to get after this," Pyke said.
"Everyone is disappointed. But there is an awareness that we don't just assume we are going to bounce back. We have historically, and that is one of the great traits of this footy club, and that is a credit to Trevor (Nisbett) and others, that we have been a footy club that has been very supportive and very loyal.
"And that is the opportunity now. And that is exciting to me and I know it excites Adam (Simpson) to get back to that. But we have to do it. And we have to do it quickly, because I don't want to be paddling around, thinking it will just happen. It won't just happen. You have to make it happen, and that is the opportunity."
There were myriad reasons for the Eagles' fall to 17th in 2022 and 18th in 2023. A lack of player availability through injury, an ageing list, complacency, and an occasional 'waving of the white flag' attitude across all facets of operations all contributed to a stretch of match results which embarrassingly compared with Fitzroy in 1996, the year in which that club won one match and died as a standalone football club.
The rot for West Coast started late 2021, when, from being well-positioned for finals, it lost the last four matches. It then won just two matches in 2022, and three last year. In a 12-week stretch, five matches were lost by 100 points or more, including a 122-point loss to Adelaide and a 171-point loss to Sydney coming in consecutive matches.
Simpson survived a board-commissioned review and will enter his 11th season as coach in 2024, with a contract also in place for 2025. Pyke understandably bristled when asked if he would guarantee Simpson's deal.
"I am not going to answer that question, it is a loaded question," he said. "It is about improvement, I will have those conversations with Adam, and it's a case of 'let's go to work'.
"He is a wonderful coach, he is a premiership coach at our club, he understands the playing group and he has an opportunity to continue doing what he does and he gets our support until we make a decision otherwise.
"At this point it is let's hit the season running, let's get off to a good start because that is important, and there is capability to our group to play better than what we did last year.
"Some people look at it as a massive challenge, I look at it as an opportunity to own that space as in how we want to play and give our young men an opportunity to express themselves and play footy."
A Grand Final appearance in their fifth season of AFL life, in 1991, and then Grand Final wins in years six and eight set the tone for dominance by the Eagles, and falls had always been followed by peaks.
Low ladder finishes at the turn of the century led to Grand Finals in 2005 and 2006. When it became obvious, despite denials and lies, that many players' off-field lives in the mid-2000s might have even rivalled Motley Crue band members, the club, albeit belatedly, resolved to fix itself. There was a wooden spoon not long after, in 2010, but a commitment to genuine behavioural change after that scandal was rewarded with another ladder surge to Grand Finals, a losing one in 2015 and a winning one in 2018.
Nisbett, West Coast chief executive since 1999, last year chose to phase himself out of that role despite having a 2024 contract. Another key change was the hiring of Mathew Inness from the Western Bulldogs as high performance manager.
Pyke boasts one of football's most impressive CVs. A two-time Eagles premiership player, an Eagles best-and-fairest winner in 1993 – the year in between the club's first two flags – and a runner-up in that same award in 1994. An Eagles board member, a senior assistant coach at three clubs (Eagles, Crows and Swans), a Grand Final appearance when senior coach at Adelaide in 2017. Highly successful business operations outside of football.
He was an assistant coach to Simpson before he was appointed Adelaide's senior coach for 2016. The two engaged in deep conversation late last year, after Pyke had agreed to leave the Swans as an assistant coach and accept the Eagles' CEO role.
"We had straight footy talk – I told him what I was seeing, he told me what he was seeing, and I was able to see the direction he wanted to take the team, and that was beneficial for me because it allowed me to hear all that and then I could step away from the team to focus on the whole club," Pyke said.
"It is natural after having a couple of lean seasons to have an element of uncertainty. That would happen with every coach in the AFL. One of the things I said to Adam was that right now, it was just getting our fundamentals right, get the basics of the game plan right, because we can build from there. That is what he is building now in his messaging to players and what he wants to get out of the year.
"I'm here to support Adam and help and there is a time where you support and there is a time to challenge and to throw up ideas. He knows how to coach, he has made two Grand Finals, he doesn't need me for that."
Simpson will be aided in 2024 by the No.1 pick in the 2023 national draft, Harley Reid, a teenager who will enter the AFL system amid unparalleled hype.
Oscar Allen, last year's best-and-fairest runner-up to Tim Kelly, and Liam Duggan will co-captain the side, following Luke Shuey's retirement after years of soft tissue damage. Nic Naitanui and Shannon Hurn also ended grand careers post-2023.
Pyke said a priority for 2024 was to "get ourselves durable, and available".
"And from there, every club is pretty similar – you want to turn up on game day and have a crack and play with spirit and play in a way that engages you," he said. "And the last bit of that is I want to see them be better, I want to see the future. It is basic and fundamental, but it is back to the foundation of establishing an identity around who we are, how we play and what we stand for.
"Those things are measurable. You will be able to see them and feel them. You know that vibe when you go to a footy game? They may not be a guarantee every week, but you can see it and feel it when it is working.
"We understand where we are. No one is walking around with their head in the sand, we know how much work is required. We are doing the work. The game changes and keeps moving, we need to catch up to that. We just want our people to be proud, to turn up and have a go and to have people have pride in their footy club. We have to get back to that."
Follow Damian Barrett on X: @barrettdamian