IN EVERY FOOTBALL club's rise from cellar dweller to the AFL Grand Final, there's always a series of landmark moments and seismic flashpoints that we reflect on as catalysts for the turnaround. For Brisbane, who will play minor premier Collingwood in Saturday afternoon's decider, the appointment of Chris Fagan as senior coach seven seasons ago is certainly one of those.
The long-time Hawthorn assistant and head of footy has had a profound impact on the Lions, introducing a similar game style and philosophy that had proved so successful during the Hawks' golden run. He has also become one of, if not the league's best, talent nurturers and player developers. And it was Fagan, along with at-the-time general manager of football, David Noble, who was responsible for the most significant Brisbane flashpoint since its famous three-peat at the beginning of the century: the savvy recruitment of Lachie Neale.
The signing of Neale in the 2018 off-season came at a time when the Lions were reeling. The club had finished bottom four in five consecutive seasons, and in reality, still desperately trying to pick up the pieces from player 'homesickness,' which had crippling effects earlier in the decade.
Between 2009 and 2014, Brisbane selected 19 players in the AFL draft. More than half of the players taken hadn't reached the end of their third season at the club before requesting trades back to their home states. They were, essentially, wasted picks, with very few unable to fulfill any promise before departing the club. It became a sick cycle, culminating in the infamous 'go-home' five in 2013, which saw Sam Docherty, Elliot Yeo, Jared Polec, Billy Longer and Patrick Karnezis all exit in a horror off-season.
The Lions had been desperate to lure a big fish in the hope that a genuine A-grader might just be able to alter the perception, promote loyalty and, most importantly, increase the tenure of the rest of the playing group. So when Neale ended his run at Fremantle, passed on a return to his home state of South Australia and opted to join Brisbane on a five-year contract, along with close friend Lincoln McCarthy and Marcus Adams, it was a sign that change was coming.
"He's a great character who brings lots of attributes into our football club that we want to stand for in where we're going," Noble said of Neale when the trade was finalised. "Apart from the depth of the midfield it adds to, he's in the age demographic that we want."
The signing of Neale illustrated two things to the league. One, the club was no longer in rebuild mode, and under Fagan it felt ready to begin contending as early as 2019. And two, it showed the Lions could be something of a destination club for other high-profile players seeking either a fresh environment or greater playing opportunities.
The following season, Callum Ah Chee crossed from the Suns. The next year, Joe Daniher departed the Bombers and signed with the Lions as a free agent. Charlie Cameron took his game to another level and Hugh McCluggage joined the conversation for best wingman in the league. Just like that, the premiership window was wide open, and Brisbane was suddenly a perennial finalist.
Since Neale's arrival, the club has won at least 15 games every season. And while they have fallen short of the ultimate success, the upward trajectory and potential to land a premiership has helped keep the core playing group together, including those with interstate family ties.
The most recent addition was Josh Dunkley. The former Bulldog, and 2016 premiership player, has added another dimension to the Lions' midfield this season. Dunkley played a starring role in Brisbane's come-from-behind preliminary final win over Carlton at the Gabba, keeping Blues captain Patrick Cripps extremely quiet, while also winning more contested ball than anyone on the ground.
"He's a phenomenal player. I think he's the best two-way player in the competition," Neale said of Dunkley, when speaking to ESPN after the preliminary final win. "He wins his own footy and usually plays on the most damaging midfielder for the opposition. He does it week in and week out. I'm really proud of 'Dunks' and what's he's done since coming to the club."
Neale's off-field impact has been seismic and yet it still may never match what he's achieved on it.
In his five years as a Lion, Neale has won two Brownlow medals -- his second gong being awarded on Monday night -- and finished on the podium in two other seasons. No player in the league has polled more Brownlow votes than him (124) since the beginning of 2019.
He has been awarded three All-Australian blazers, and only his ridiculously high standards, as well as some dubious selection calls, prevented him from adding a fourth to his closet this year. He's also a near certainty to claim Brisbane's best and fairest award for a fourth time, which would move him to outright second for most in club history. Again, he hasn't yet completed five seasons with the team.
The only accolade missing from his glittering resume is a premiership medallion, and on Saturday afternoon he will have an opportunity to correct that.
"I'm just really proud of this footy club, the players and everyone involved that's made this happen from where they were six, seven years ago," Neale told ESPN. "We've always had a growth mindset and to try to improve our football. Although our finals record at times wasn't great, it felt like we were building towards this. This year we've a bit of a different feel. It feels like we've matured a lot more. The group felt ready to take that next step.
"We're down to the final two and we've given ourselves an opportunity. [Collingwood] finished top for a reason; they're a great side, but we feel like we're a great side, too. It's going to be a flip of the coin as to who wins it. We've played them twice already this year and we think our best footy stacks up so we're excited for the challenge."