Gerard Neesham in Premiership Win Number 4. 1991
Gerard Neesham might well have stayed at East Fremantle for longer, but he had coaching ambitions, which Claremont offered him the chance to pursue. To say that this was an inspired move on the part of the Claremont committee would be putting it mildly, for over the course of an eight and a half season stint with the club Neesham would prove himself the most successful, and by popular consent the greatest, coach in the club’s history. From 1987 to 1989 he occupied the role of playing coach, although he played less as time went on.
In his debut season as coach the West Australian football landscape had undergone the most seismic shift in its history following the formation of the West Coast Eagles, a club touted by some as the salvation of the game in the west, and regarded by others as a major nail in its coffin. As far as the WAFL competition was concerned, the impact of the Eagles would be almost wholly inimical. Matches would be played in front of reduced crowds, media coverage would be much diminished, and, given that approaching forty of the league’s best players would be siphoned off by the VFL newcomer, the overall standard of play would also undergo a decline.
Had it not been for Gerard Neesham, things might have been even worse. With Neesham as architect, Claremont developed an innovative style of play that, as with many truly great or revolutionary ideas, seemed beguilingly simple – so simple, in fact, that it was hard to believe no-one had thought of it before. Eventually christened ‘chip and draw’, it was a style which would garner fascination, scorn, incredulity and admiration in more or less equal measure for more than a decade. With the Tigers, it succeeded, partly because it took opposing teams by surprise, and partly because the club was blessed with a proliferation of the right type of players to implement it effectively. Central to ‘chip and draw’, its rule of thumb if you like, is the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law. A team in possession is a team in control. Neesham’s players were therefore under strict instructions to retain possession of the ball until such time as they could dispose of it accurately, either by passing it to a team mate, or by scoring. A player in possession of the ball could run with it or pass it in any direction, as long as possession was maintained. In sports like soccer, basketball and – most significantly of all in Neesham’s case – water polo¹, such a tenet was so obvious it was almost taken for granted, but such had not, historically, always been the case in Australia football, where movement of the ball towards goal tended to be the paramount objective.
Gerard Neesham’s water polo tactics took the WAFL by storm. In 1987, the Tigers achieved greater dominance of the competition than any team since East Fremantle’s unbeaten premiership side of 1946. At times they appeared to be light years ahead of the opposition in terms of inventiveness, tactical acumen and skill, but in the brave new era of football that was emerging, such prowess was costly. In 1988 it would be a significantly weakened Claremont that would mount its quest for back to back flags, with VFL clubs having deprived it of half a dozen of its premiership stars.
Under Neesham, this sequence of events would play out four times in quick succession, as Claremont won the premierships of 1987, 1989, 1991 and 1993, each time with a different nucleus of key players. Rarely, if ever, can a team in one of Australia’s leading state leagues have displayed such resilience and recovery power.
Midway through the 1994 season, Gerard Neesham was appointed coach of Western Australia’s second AFL club, Fremantle, which was to commence its involvement in the competition the following year. Utilising the same ‘chip and draw’ tactics that had proved so successful at WAFL level Neesham ensured the Dockers were competitive from the start, but they lacked sufficient players of real quality to mount a legitimate premiership challenge. Moreover, as time went on, opposing teams got much better at countering Freo’s idiosyncratic style, and in Neesham’s fourth and final season the team slumped to 15th, its lowest finishing position up to that time. Arguably, then, if ever a coach came in with a bang and went out with a whimper, it was Gerard Neesham, but the bang was a truly spectacular one, and it is for that that he deserves to be remembered.
Author – John Devaney