FREMANTLE'S young midfielders came of age in 2021, but the question was whether they would be able to propel the club up the ladder and end a five-year finals drought.
As it turned out the Dockers spent four separate rounds inside the top eight, but never for two weeks in a row as the team took significant steps but then fell over each time expectations increased.
They suffered significant injuries at crucial stages of the season to some of their stars, giving young players increased responsibility that should pay off in what is still a promising future.
But while there is much to be excited about at Fremantle, a 2-8 record against the eventual top-eight teams and a percentage of 86.5 was the final proof that the club was not yet ready to return to finals.
The midfield quartet of Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra, Caleb Serong and Sean Darcy cemented itself as the best young combination in the AFL and made Fremantle a top-four team for clearance differential.
The faith coach Justin Longmuir has shown in them in his two completed seasons was rewarded and Darcy earned recognition in the Therabody AFL All-Australian squad of 40, avoiding serious injury to play a career-best 20 games.
Young defenders Heath Chapman and Hayden Young's seasons were impacted by serious injuries, but draftee Chapman's six games early in the year were exciting and Young finished the season with a seriously good month capped by a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination.
Overall, there was enough evidence to suggest Longmuir's game style is starting to stick with a core group of young players.
The Dockers kicked more behinds than goals on 15 occasions, and two close losses – against Carlton and Essendon – could have been avoided if they had kicked straight. It was the difference between playing finals and missing.
The Dockers were exposed for a lack of forward pressure, with their failure to lay tackles inside 50 when playing two ruckmen and a tall forward line allowing opposition defenders to set up scoring chains.
The club finished 2021 without having established its best wing combination and too many players were found wanting with their disposal efficiency when under pressure or the game was not on Fremantle's terms.
Veteran David Mundy produced arguably his best season and was one of two Dockers rewarded with selection in the All-Australian squad. The decision to re-sign him for 2022 was obvious with the 36-year-old both an on-field asset and an off-field teacher to the young midfielders. He was a match-winner at times and among the AFL's most dangerous midfielders, ranking 12th in the AFL for total score involvements.
Rookie key forward Josh Treacy became a cult hero early on with his knack for hitting the ball at speed and taking strong marks, quickly establishing himself as one of the most reliable set shots in the team with the ability to convert from long-range. A hard worker who is willing to chase and tackle, he shouldered a lot of responsibility at times for a 19-year-old and played 15 games in his debut season to earn a contract extension through to the end of 2023.
At a time when the Dockers are trying to build a mass of talent aged in their early 20s, the inability of talented forward Sam Sturt to establish himself due to injury was a setback. A medium forward who is dangerous in the air and at ground level, he is exactly what the Dockers are missing, but a knee injury restricted him to just one game after an ankle issue ruined his 2020. There were injuries everywhere at Fremantle to established players, but Sturt's stung given what his development now would mean for the future.
The Dockers honoured David Mundy in the best possible way when he equalled champion Matthew Pavlich's games record in the round 22 Western Derby win. But after the game, Mundy chose to make the moment about club great Stephen Hill by chairing the retiring midfielder off the ground himself. The 15-point win ended a run of 11 Derby losses and kept the Dockers in the finals race. The post-game moment said even more about the team culture that is building.
The Dockers received a reality check in round 18 when they were smashed by Geelong on a Thursday night, having returned to primetime for the first time in five years. The 69-point loss in the wet highlighted their inability to handle the increased expectations of sitting inside the top eight, kicking 3.13 in their biggest loss under Longmuir.
How should they approach list management?
Fremantle will insist on top-10 pick - at least - in return for Adam Cerra after he requested a trade home to Victoria, and so they should. Cerra cost the Dockers pick No.5 in the 2017 NAB AFL Draft and has since proven to be worthy of that selection, playing 76 games and finishing third in last year's best and fairest award.
Going to the draft should then be the priority unless high-quality homegrown talent becomes available during the NAB AFL Trade Period, such as Geelong's Jordan Clark, who would find a home on the wing at Fremantle.
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The Dockers have added a lot of young talent in the past three years, but more is needed for them to take the next step. Outside run is their stated priority, but developing, mobile talls are also needed in attack. The backline is one area in which they are well stocked and can bypass at the draft.
Early call for 2022
It's time for the Dockers to end their finals drought and show that this will be the group that take them back into contention eight years after their only Grand Final appearance. Injuries were an alibi in 2021, but the club should be timing its run to strike with champion Nat Fyfe still playing. Fremantle is capable of jumping from outside the eight and into top four.
6 out of 10. Fought through injuries to show they are on track, but will ultimately rue a missed opportunity to play finals because of costly lapses at crucial stages of the season.