FRANKSTON won just five games of football in the six seasons from 2015-20.
That obviously included two years when the Dolphins didn't play (2017 in exile and 2020 for COVID), but it is fair to say they had seriously struggled at VFL level for a long time … in fact, they hadn't climbed out of the bottom four since they last made the finals in 2008.
Their win-loss record from 2009-20 was a horrific 23 wins, 154 losses and three draws, with 10 of those wins coming in 2013-14 when they still finished third and fourth last in a 14 and 16-team competition.
But that only accentuates how fantastic 2021 was, with Frankston winning its first three games and sitting in the top eight for almost the entire season before finishing in 10th on match ratio at 6-5.
Most importantly, the Dolphins' opponents can no longer see Frankston in the fixture and think "four points, percentage builder, tick it off and move on".
That was the key factor for coach Danny Ryan, who wasn't worried to miss the top eight regardless of whether the finals had been played, saying they weren't ready and he was more disappointed at lost opportunities to keep developing "Dolphins football".
"COVID affected us being able to play Richmond on a Thursday night in a Foxtel game, which would have showcased our club and players to a big audience, and then we missed out on playing Sandringham when we were both in good form and I would have anticipated a strong match in front of a good crowd," he said.
"There were lots of other challenges, but in reality we are probably not a finals team yet if we're really honest – we had a good draw and we had a good start to the season which gave us a good platform.
"Of course we would have taken a finals spot and relished it, but to miss out on the finals was really not that big a deal in the context of the other things we missed out on, and for all clubs not to be playing footy is the bigger thing.
"We wanted to become relevant to the competition – we know effectively being a part of an AFL reserves we've got to be competitive and play good footy … (and) an AFL reserves team coming to Frankston now knows they’re going to get a competitive game."
Ryan said the new-look VFL competition had been a winner and he was looking forward to seeing how it worked in an uninterrupted season.
"In a tough year where not everything worked out the way the AFL wanted it to work or how we would have wanted it to work, the addition of the northern states … gave it a different dynamic and I know the AFL recruiters I spoke to followed it more keenly because they’ve got more players to look at," Ryan said.
"While it was only 11 games for some clubs and nine for others, I think it showed it can work and post COVID restrictions and interstate borders it will be fantastic and really vibrant."
Frankston thrilled its supporters and VFL watchers with an exciting brand built around a mosquito fleet of small forwards cashing in on the grunt work of heart-and-soul skipper Josh Newman and Connor Riley and the ball-winning dominance of Nathan Freeman.
Josh Begley (21 goals), Mitch Cox (15), Jack Mentha (15), Bailey Lambert (14) and a combination of Blake O’Leary and then Josh Stern caused many headaches for opposition teams, with Cox and Begley bagging five and six-goal hauls while also rotating through the middle and winning clearances despite the absence of a dominant ruckman due to Jack Berry’s knee issue.
Cox was particularly dynamic, with his explosive pace, footy nous and goal sense bringing him to the attention of AFL scouts, while Riley enjoyed a breakout season and Lambert always looked dangerous despite a calf problem mid-year.
It made the job easier for developing talls such as Brodie McLaughlin, who kicked 10 goals in six games.
Ryan said it all started with Newman, who celebrated his 100th VFL match in what turned out to be the last game against Richmond.
"The captain is the heartbeat of the club, there’s no doubt about it," Ryan said.
"I had a couple of years at Port Adelaide and while he's not Travis Boak, he has a lot of similarities in that he has the heart of a lion, and he’s been the consistent one all year.
"Freeman has been able to stay on the park and play good consistent football, Mitch Cox and Connor Riley have stepped up.
"We had injuries to Sam Fletcher (ankle) and Will Fordham (knee) that weakened our depth, but Cox certainly has got AFL attributes, skill and ability and Riley just has a level of professionalism and he’s really blossomed.
"Joe Lloyd playing down back really delivered on what we thought he could do, Bill Mackay and Jackson Voss got some goes at it, Blake O’Leary early as one of the three or four small forwards and Josh Stern is really showing some promise, so there is a lot to like about the youth who we will hopefully get back next year and keep developing.
"Will Arthurson is a natural interceptor, he spent a bit of time back at Berwick but played really good footy two or three weeks in a row and once he came in he never really looked like going out – another pre-season in the gym and learning the game plan even more will improve him again."
Frankston won four of their five home games under lights and another away, but only managed to win one day game for the season, which Ryan put down to the wider opposition grounds.
"I think it just happened to be the night games were home games, we have those four big candlesticks stuck in the ground down here which are magnificent," he said.
"(Ground size) is more of an issue for us than day and night. (SkyBus) is a very narrow ground and very long – it is 183 metres long and the narrowness presents issues in the way you attack, and if you get your defence right at Frankston you can lock a team into their back half really easily.
"You actually have to have a really strong method of offence to be able to get out of your D50 and we think we’ve got a different way of playing to be able to do that."
Ryan said the key to continuing the climb in 2022 would be learning from their losses.
"Essendon was the bad one, we had control and we should have won … but that's part of our growth, we've got to be able to handle AFL talent (Patrick Ambrose and Alec Waterman) when they really fire and put it to you," he said.
"Footscray really showed the rest of the journey of where we need to go to be a really capable, confident finals VFL outfit, which is what Footscray is in all facets of the game.
"Every game gave us some good lessons, we were able to review really strongly out of Collingwood and Footscray and they gave us things we can put into place for the development of our players and the evolution of the Dolphins football gameplan.
"(As for the wins) round one (Coburg) was a great highlight, round three was full of valour, Aspley really put it to us and (Matt) Hammelmann really fired up and we had our hands full, and the Port Melbourne game was the complete performance, it was all the phases in action for four quarters of Dolphins football.
"Port was struggling and well wounded with injuries, but for us to deliver that sort of result was fantastic."
6-5 win-loss, 10th
What went right: Quite a lot. The Dolphins finally became competitive again after a long stint at the bottom of the ladder, and nobody can now say Frankston is an easy opponent. They made Friday night footy their own under their brilliant new lights, winning all but one match, with the belting of Port Melbourne the ultimate proof the corner has been turned. They also had a host of players start to realise their potential.
What went wrong: The club's 1000th game was a major disappointment with a heavy home loss to top team Footscray, while the away defeat to an undermanned Essendon and the COVID-affected loss to Richmond in Josh Newman’s 100th match cost the Dolphins a top-eight finish. The season-ending knee injury to Will Fordham and the fact former Kangaroo Ben Jacobs (concussion) couldn’t get on the park would be other regrets.
Best and fairest prediction: It is absolutely wide open. Skipper Josh Newman starts a narrow favourite, but ball magnet Nathan Freeman, midfielder Anthony Brolic, livewires Mitch Cox and Connor Riley all have claims.
Best young players: Plenty on this list as well. With only six players on the list aged over 24, there is a bright future for the Dolphins. Joe Lloyd was impressive in his first eight VFL games, Rendell is developing into a terrific VFL forward-ruck, while Will Arthurson, Billy Mackay, Bill McCormack, Harry Loughnan, Josh Stern, Jackson Voss, Callum Jones and Taine Barlow all showed terrific signs.
Coach status: Danny Ryan is in discussions about a new contract for a fourth season and is expected to be locked shortly. "I'm 100 per cent committed, I won't be going anywhere else unless something totally drastic happens in the next couple of weeks, we're just sorting out the details," he said.
Keep track of your VFL team via our all new VFL Match Centre, which features live scores, team and player stats, match timeline, events summary and even Fantasy points. Check it out here.
Let’s Band Together with TAC. We all have someone to drive safely for.