Patience needed for sick and sorry Lions
SHANE Johnson had wondered if Justin Leppitsch and Simon Black would last three years in Brisbane, let alone play in three premierships.
The Bears football manager (1992-1997) and then Lions player development manager (1998-2006) when working with the great Leigh Matthews, Johnson had feared the go-home factor would be strong.
As teenagers, Leppitsch and Black were forced to move across a couple of states, from Victoria and Western Australia, respectively, and join a club struggling to maintain success.
Leppitsch arrived as the then Bears had finished second-last in 1992. Completing his final year of high school in his debut AFL season, 'Leppa' had the added strain of requiring a knee reconstruction after an on-field incident.
"He played some early games (four in the seniors), and then had a train-wreck of a knee and missed 18 months of footy," Johnson recalled to APN. "It was tough for him, but he had good character and he hung in, fought through and ended up being a great player."
Black, too, endured a difficult start to his career as the Lions collected the club's first wooden spoon in 1998.
"We thought Blacky would want to go home," Johnson said. "He was terribly homesick early days, but his family moved here ... and he's still here."
Both, of course, went on to become part of the Lions' 'threepeat' of 2001-03. But the battle facing Leppitsch as Lions senior coach and Black as assistant is far greater than anything they experienced as kids.
Leppitsch this week described the 2015 season as the worst he's had in footy.
While patience may be a virtue, Johnson said he believed "society has changed in the last 20-odd years".
"People want instant gratification," he says as the Lions prepare to 'win' a second wooden spoon, but lose more young talent such as South Australian pair James Aish and Jack Redden.
"Player managers play a key role, they're getting into players' ears all the time," Johnson said.
It's a factor that wasn't as prevalent in the 1990s and early-2000s, though the Lions didn't have a perfect track record of keeping players.
"We didn't want Shane O'Bree to go," he said of the player who would end up at Collingwood. "We tried really hard to keep him. We saw him as a leader.
"We didn't want Des (Headland) to go, but he was a bit homesick, and he had two small kids.
"Then you had quality blokes who went for the right reasons. Craig Bolton went for the right reason - he needed opportunity, and he ended up being a fantastic player for Sydney."
Then there was Nathan Buckley, who had done a deal to play for Collingwood even before he reluctantly joined the Bears in 1993.
"We were a laughing stock," Johnson recalled. "But the Bears started to win some respect by making Nathan Buckley come up and play a season."
It meant the club was able to work out an exchange with the Magpies, gaining the services of Craig Starcevich and Troy Lehmann and a draft pick later used on Chris Scott. "It was a good deal for us," Johnson said.
The lesson there is to make the best of a bad situation.
Another from the Brisbane situation is to try and stock the team with as many Queenslanders as possible.
And while Johnson and his off-field team lamented missing a player such as Nick Riewoldt, the Lions thrived on the back of Michael Voss, Marcus Ashcroft, Jason Akermanis and 'Mr September' Clark Keating.
Johnson, who has been heavily involved in Queensland footy since moving up from Tasmania in 1975, coaching Maroochydore to a flag in 1982 through to recently acting as a state selector, has faith in Lions Academy products Jono Freeman, Harris Andrews and soon-to-be drafted Eric Hipwood, from Caloundra.
"I honestly believe Hipwood is a deadset certainty," he said. "I think he's got a big upside. He looks tough enough.
He puts his head over it and all that. And Freeman looks like he'll be all right. He might take another two or three years … but you've got to be patient."
Unlike his playing days, Leppitsch doesn't have a lot of time on his side however - he has just one year to go on his three-year contract.
But the cavalry is expected to arrive in the form of former teammate and assistant coach Craig Lambert and his family who have worked wonders at the GWS Giants in player welfare.
"Lenny and his wife (Mel) play a key role," Johnson said. "They always have three or four around (for dinner).
"He's great mates with Leppa so that will help, no two ways about it."