WEST Coast coach Adam Simpson entered last year's elimination final against Collingwood feeling vulnerable and envious of the ammunition his counterpart Nathan Buckley had at his disposal.

The 'Dirty Pies', as they had been labelled in the build-up, were up against the entire state of Western Australia in their eyes and had opportunities for motivation everywhere they looked.

Reflecting on a 2020 season that had felt like a missed opportunity in the aftermath, Simpson didn't want to create an excuse for his team, which ended the year without a finals win for the first time since 2016.

But he knew it was going to be difficult for the Eagles to overcome a Collingwood team that has become the 2018 premiers' major finals rival in the past three seasons.

Andrew Gaff contemplates West Coast's elimination final loss to Collingwood in 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

"I remember thinking this is set up for Collingwood. I would have loved to have been Collingwood," Simpson told AFL.com.au.

"Backs against the wall, the state is against us, I think there was a description that they were a 'dirty' club because they were in quarantine, no one thinks we can win. All that sort of stuff would have been great motivation for 'Bucks'.

"No excuse for us, and of course we were playing at home and had some good players coming back. But I think there were some great motivational pieces Bucks could have used."

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Losing an elimination final they were heavily favoured to win put the Eagles' future under the spotlight and raised questions about how long their window of opportunity would remain open.

Midfield stars Luke Shuey and Nic Naitanui enter the new season aged 30, while champion forward Josh Kennedy and premiership captain Shannon Hurn are both 33 and entering their 16th seasons.  

West Coast has not missed the finals under Simpson since the coach's first season in charge, finishing ninth in 2014 before a run of six consecutive finals campaigns that have netted two Grand Final appearances for one premiership.

Josh Kennedy and Shannon Hurn with the premiership cup after the Eagles' 2018 Grand Final win over Collingwood. Picture: AFL Photos

But will the Eagles need to go down the ladder to come back up at some stage, or can Simpson renovate his team in the coming seasons while remaining in contention?

"I suppose it will happen at some stage, and whether that means you have to drop down on the ladder, I do personally think you need to invest in the draft and kids at some stage," Simpson said. 

"If you draft well you might not dip as far …but there will be a stage where we have to invest in the draft as opposed to free agency or trading periods. That will evolve.

"With 18 clubs it's hard to stay in the eight all the time."

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Managing the transition to new players in the crucial roles Kennedy and Hurn play is a looming challenge for the Eagles. Simpson described the pair as "legacy players" and "club legends", with each approaching a major milestone this season.

Hurn will become the Eagles' outright games record holder with five games this season, passing champion ruckman Dean Cox's 290-game mark. He is 14 games short of becoming the club's first 300-game player.

Kennedy, meanwhile, is 12 games short of playing 250 games for the Eagles after playing 22 games for Carlton. 

Simpson was adamant there was good football left in each and, although there are obvious understudies in Oscar Allen and Alex Witherden, it would not be fair to ask them to fill the shoes of the generational pair.

"We think Oscar Allen is playing a really important part in that transition (and) we got Alex Witherden into the club and he's similar to Shannon," Simpson said.

"But that's unfair to say 'Go and win a few Colemans, Oscar', or 'go and just be the premiership captain, Alex'.

"It's not that simple, but we always plan for the future and we're not seeing any slow- up from those two (Hurn and Kennedy).

"They're legacy players, they're the club legends. There'll be guys who play for two or three years now and when they're in their 40s they're going to say I played with Shannon Hurn or Josh Kennedy."

West Coast's Oscar Allen marks during a pre-season practice match against Fremantle in 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Allen, who has played 38 games in three seasons, is part of a group of players entering their fourth or fifth years that Simpson believes are the key to his team's improvement this season.

Versatile tall Jarrod Brander (11 games in three seasons) and tall defender Josh Rotham (14 in four) are the others, while premiership defender Liam Duggan (102 in six) has improved the midfield this summer.

Rookie forward Jamaine Jones has also impressed the coach, rotating between the forward line and a new midfield role as he pushes for round one selection. 

"The guys who have been exposed to senior football in the last two or three years, 15-20 games' experience, that's where our future is," Simpson said.

"The growth will come from Oscar Allen, Josh Rotham, Jarrod Brander, Jamaine Jones is having a really good pre-season, Liam Duggan will elevate again this year.

"Can they complement Josh Kennedy and Shannon Hurn and these guys, and then one day down the track they'll have to take over."

Brander is an intriguing player at West Coast, unable to break into the forward line where he was a junior star and instead finding a home as a defensive winger in 11 games in 2020.

The No.13 draft pick from 2017 has again trained on a wing and looked impressive when rotating forward, but Simpson said the club was working to find him a permanent position.

"Josh (Kennedy) has been unavailable for a couple of weeks, so he's been playing a bit deeper and he's had a really good presence," the coach said.  

"Trying to get him a locked position is what we're working on, so forward and on the wing are the two spots we're working on. He's had a really good pre-season."

The other compelling player at West Coast, and one who will have a big say in the Eagles' 2021 fortunes, is livewire forward Liam Ryan, whose name evokes an immediate smile from Simpson.

A premiership forward in 2018 and All-Australian last season, Ryan has presented a unique coaching challenge to Simpson, who has learned how to get the best out of the 24-year-old.

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"We treat everyone not evenly but fairly (and) I think Liam has appreciated that," Simpson said.

"He's worked through a lot of things in his life personally and professionally and he's come out such a good man.

"No one is perfect, and there's things to work on off-field, but his ability now to perform at a high level, represent his family and community in a way that everyone is proud of, he's just come a long way.

"I think he'd be the first to admit it would have been a risk to take on Liam, and we're so happy and so proud of him for what he's done since he's been drafted."

"Accept and care" is part of the players' trademark at West Coast, Simpson said, and those tenets had been crucial in creating an environment in which Ryan thrives.

He is private, motivated by his love for the game and his teammates, and plays for his family.

"Wouldn't it be great if we all just did that?" Simpson said. 

"He just loves football, and we embrace that. He loves his family and loves his kids. We embrace that as well. And I think he's grown up. I think he's learned about how to be a good dad, how to be a good partner, and how to be a good teammate.

"He's All-Australian, so he's probably reached his potential and now it's can he sustain it, can he back it up? He's going to get more attention.

"It was a really proud moment for him and the club to get that All-Australian status. I think he might have got a bonus too, which he was pretty happy about. "

West Coast forward Liam Ryan ahead of a game against the Western Bulldogs in round 16, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

Asked what the biggest issue in the competition is right now, Simpson didn't hesitate to say the people working in the game and the implications of trying to deliver the same product after cuts to the football department soft cap.

The coach was concerned about the extra workload being carried by football staffers but also the implications for future AFL players who could have fewer development resources committed to them.  

"The holistic development is the biggest change in the competition in the last 20 years," Simpson said.

"We're trying to develop them off the field with family, study, work experience, paying their bills, buying a house, getting married, being a good man.

"That's our responsibility, and we want to keep that and keep it strong, but without the resourcing it does make it a challenge."

The resourcing and staff cuts of last year were going through Simpson's mind when making sense of the 2020 campaign after the elimination final loss to Collingwood.

In his post-match press conference on that Saturday night, the coach said: "Players are playing for half of their salary, we had to stand down a third of our staff and it has been an emotional rollercoaster, really, and it is really disappointing that you don’t have anything to show for it".

Five months on, the growth in his team has meant the challenges had been worth facing. The Eagles are more resilient and better prepared for what could come their way in another uncertain season.  

The way 2020 ended against Collingwood, however, was not contributing to their motivation. This season, the Eagles have got all the ammunition they need.