Chris Fagan during the 2023 qualifying final between Brisbane and Port Adelaide at the Gabba. Picture: AFL Photos

IN THE weeks after Brisbane's heartbreaking loss to Collingwood in the 2023 Grand Final, Chris Fagan had cause to reflect on the late 2016 period when he walked into a broken football club as its 55-year-old, untried coach.

Fagan had headed overseas for a holiday-work trip which took in Milan, Lake Como and London, and had been asked to speak at a leaders in sport performance conference attended by coaches and executives of Olympic sports, and the NFL, EPL and MLB.


In preparing his presentation, Fagan chose to tell his version of the Lions 2016-23 story, beginning with the day he stood at the front of a packed room for his inaugural address to players and staff, and how he revealed every detail of himself, with particular focus on the fallings, failings and flaws.

There was a key message back on that 2016 day, one that he wanted to highlight at the leadership seminar, and one that, after the four-point loss to Collingwood in the Grand Final last year, has helped provide perspective.

"The growth mindset, it is crucial, where back then we talked about how we were going to fail our way to the top, because you only learn from your failures, and if you have enough failures, you keep getting better, and we have done that from the start," Fagan told

"I told that brief Lions story, where we were to where we are, as a bit of a case study. Failures, little wins. Then the little wins add up to bigger wins. A good way to teach our players how to live life. Good and bad things happen, we fail, but if we look at everything as a learning experience, and get better as a result of that, then you live a pretty good life, and good things tend to happen."

Chris Fagan and Charlie Cameron after the Grand Final between Collingwood and Brisbane at the MCG, September 30, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The Brisbane Lions' story under Fagan has had the failures, the little wins and some very big wins, but it doesn't yet have the ultimate success. Five consecutive finals series – the peaks being last year's Grand Final loss and preliminary finals in 2022 and 2020 – coupled with his fail-your-way-to-the-top mindset, has allowed Fagan a defiant pride.

It is why he refused to forensically analyse mistakes made by Lions players in the Grand Final loss. Those moments were volunteered, highlighted, addressed as a group, all inside 60 minutes on the Wednesday after the 13.8 (86) to 12.18 (90) loss.

"I am trying to build on what we have done, not tear it apart," Fagan said. "Sometimes clubs go through things microscopically after a Grand Final loss and turn the place upside down and you can lose the essence of who you are and why you got to that point. Sometimes you can overreact in this game.

"The killer for us was Collingwood red-time goals, and that was never an issue for us in the season, and there's the game, actually more than the game. We have looked at it and been honest about it, and in a funny sort of way we are proud of ourselves.

"We had a terrific year. The Grand Final could've gone either way. We were not going to spend all summer in a state of depression because we lost the Grand Final. We were buoyed by the fact we were closer than ever.

"When we met on the Wednesday after, I wanted them to deal with that on that day, I didn't want them going away mulling over it, letting it drag them down. Always better to get things off your chest and talk about your disappointments. They knew there would be no reprisals, I just said to them, 'You are only human, you make mistakes'.

"We would've been in there for an hour. I wanted them to write down individually what they learnt from playing in finals and a Grand Final, and what they would do differently, and I have kept all those sheets. And I'd love to get back there one day and say, 'Remember this?'"

Harris Andrews, Chris Fagan and Lachie Neale share a laugh at Brisbane's official team photo day at Brighton Homes Arena on February 1, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Fagan ponders a lot of issues of an evening, when he takes off for a walk, sometimes with wife Ursula, sometimes by himself. He likes to tally 80km each week, and makes a heap of phone calls as he strides out.

When told that one of his semi-regular phone friends had said that he immediately knew, via Fagan's breathing, how far into each walk he was when receiving a phone call, Fagan laughed and said: "Bulls**t!"

"It is very good for me, I had read somewhere that a lot of successful people walk a lot, it provides time to wind down and relax and think, and make calls," he said. "It's funny what you think of."

Some of those ponderings take him back to the Grand Final.

To Scott Pendlebury's leadership, particularly in the final quarter: "And I then talked to our players about Collingwood players and their experience in Grand Finals. I am sure Pendlebury had learnt from his four Grand Finals (five with the 2010 draw). And what he did in that last quarter and how he organised them, and I said, 'That is all on the back of the experience that he has had'.

"You could see when you watched the replay what he was doing to organise everything around him, and that's a pretty special ability, to be able to play the game and coach at the same time.

"It made me think with our leaders, I have to treat them more as coaches, so that they can coach on the ground. It's not to say I don't, but I could do it better. And take that to another level, trust them more, talk to them more about what is going on in the team. I do, but I reckon it could go to another level. You can grow that ability, if they feel trusted. So for me that was another redirection of thinking of how I work with our leadership group."


To the impact Josh Dunkley has made in just one season as a Lion: "He is the player most like Luke Hodge I have come across, in terms of his personality. He is such a team man, he will do whatever he has to do for the team to win. He is forthright and he leads by example on the field, which is a lot of what Luke does. They're not exactly the same personalities but they are very similar. I love them both and I can't believe how fortunate we are to have Dunkley come and play for us.

"I was happy when I knew he was coming and I'm even happier now that I've been with him for a year, where I've seen all the qualities he's got. He's not just a good footballer who wins contested ball well. He's added a lot to our footy club."

Josh Dunkley during the round four match between Brisbane and Collingwood at The Gabba, on April 6, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

To the youngsters, and an aged addition, on his list: "(Darcy) Wilmot, (Jaspa) Fletcher, (Will) Ashcroft have already had good impact and look like generational players. It was a footy tragedy for Will not being able to play in the Grand Final, and he is trying to break the world record at getting back, but it will be middle of the year for him.

"(Tom) Doedee hopefully back in round three or four. Jack Payne has overcome his ankle surgeries. (Keidean) Coleman … I'm so proud of him, he's the first person in his family to a buy a house and that is exciting for him. He's got a young family, and we are working on fitness with him, but what a Grand Final he played, and his finals series full stop was outstanding. He is just a natural."

To the allegations of racism at Hawthorn: "I want to do that (appear at the Human Rights Commission hearing), I'm happy to talk about that in the right forum."

To changing the Lions' pre-season training program: "I felt Collingwood's reaction time was better than ours in the Grand Final. Just making a decision to go, or to defend. Instead of playing a lot of 18 v 18, we didn't have our first 18 v 18 hitout till later, and had a lot of small-sided games and restricted spaces, with a lot more touches, a lot more going on, players got to think quicker, and I think that has been a benefit to us." 

And always to his mantra that with the right attitude, failures move you closer to success.

Chris Fagan shakes hands with Craig McRae after Brisbane's loss to Collingwood in the 2023 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

"Some may say, 'Oh, you have played finals five years in a row, you are moving out of your window'. Well, I don't see it that way," Fagan said.

"We haven't got many blokes over 30, we have a lot of blokes coming into their prime, and we have never rubbed their noses in their losses and failures and what I have seen at training is a good, positive outlook, blokes in great shape. I trust our blokes. 

"We've played finals the past five years, been in three prelims, and less than a goal away in the other two. It's a terrific record in AFL football, and it could be frowned upon that we haven't won a flag yet but I don't see it that way.

"They are hard to win. You have to turn up and give yourself a chance every year. I still feel like we are well and truly in the window with the demographic of our group. And they are not defeated by the experience."