The Father of the Giants

THE FATHER OF THE GIANTS

 

by Nick Johnston

 

Zac Williams’ heartfelt tribute aside, it was perhaps not surprising that Kevin Sheedy’s time as the inaugural coach of the GIANTS was largely overlooked during his elevation to legend status at the AFL Hall of Fame.

 

For all its talk about being Australia’s game, the AFL’s psyche remains firmly rooted in Victoria. Ironically this was exactly the sort of thinking that Kevin Sheedy fought so hard against during his five years in Sydney. But helping to establish the AFL’s 18th club may ultimately prove to be his biggest achievement in the game.

 

When I first arrived at the GIANTS in late 2011 I was given an office next to Sheeds at the back of the club’s headquarters at Blacktown International Sportspark. Headquarters make it sounds far more salubrious than it was as the club actually operated out of demountable sheds that wouldn’t have been out of place on a work site.

 

In the office on the other side of me sat Alan McConnell who told me on my first day that the club wouldn’t have even got this far if it hadn’t been for Sheeds. It didn’t take me long to realise this was no exaggeration.

 

After a somewhat inglorious end to an otherwise triumphant 27 years at Essendon, Sheeds had attacked his role in football’s new frontier with all the wide eyed enthusiasm of an 18 year-old recruit in his first season. Where so many saw challenges, he only saw opportunities. It brought to mind George Bernard Shaw’s saying: “Some people look at things and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

 

His energy and enthusiasm were infectious. I quickly began to appreciate the trademark Kevin Sheedy positivity. It was relentless. Nothing would stand his way, especially the naysayers. He was determined that the world’s greatest game would one day take its rightful place in Western Sydney alongside rugby league and soccer.

 

A big part of Sheeds’ genius lies in his people-skills. He can talk to anybody but more importantly he does talk to everybody. From the moment Sheeds meets somebody he makes them feel special by shaking their hand, looking them in the eye and asking questions about them. He has an endless fascination about people everywhere he goes and it doesn’t matter if it’s the cleaner or the Prime Minister. He treats everyone the same way and has a knack of not just putting people at ease but making them feel important. It’s a rare gift.

 

His positivity would be crucial during the club’s early years when wins were scarce. If spirits sagged Sheeds would quickly lift them again. His post match press conferences after what became ritual 100-point losses were the stuff of legend. After being beaten by Hawthorn by 162 points at the MCG in the first season,  Sheeds walked into the press conference and declared: “Well I think we’ve just seen this year’s premiers” (they were runners-up to the Swans)

 

I wonder how many head coaches at other clubs would regularly make the effort to walk around the office and speak to (non football) staff. Sit in meetings with the club’s commercial team and woo potential sponsors. Rub shoulders with politicians, local, state and federal. Or even attend banner making sessions with the cheer squad. (He once attended their end of season dinner)

 

Sheedy did it all and more during his time in Sydney and he did it many times over when others would have lost interest. But then Sheeds was always a visionary. He took a suburban club in Essendon and gave it a national identity. It was fitting that Zac Williams should pay tribute to Sheeds this week as his story may encapsulate the real genius of the man.

 

Williams had been selected at pick 54 in the 2012 rookie draft and was sneered at by some in his early days at the GIANTS. But as has so often been the case over his 50 years in the game, Sheeds saw something others didn’t. By round seven in 2013 Williams was playing in the seniors. Some thought it was way too soon but Sheeds wouldn’t be denied. He took the same approach with other young players. When someone wanted to play an older player in the belief that it may deliver a win (or at least stem the size of another loss) Sheeds stood firm and ensured the younger player always got the nod.

 

As Zac Williams said, it was Sheedy’s belief that not only set him on the path to career in the game but also enabled an Indigenous kid from rural NSW an opportunity to provide for his  family. It’s a great footy story but also a great Australian story.

 

With four premierships under his belt, Sheeds had nothing left to prove. He was happy to absorb as many losses as it took to build a team – and a club – that would be ultimately successful. I don’t think I ever heard him use the term wooden spoon once. In his two years coaching the Giants he collected two but he couldn’t have cared less. Like a true visionary he always had his eye on the bigger picture.

 

The most common misconception about Sheedy in his years at the Giants was that he had little influence on football. It’s true that he didn’t take training, preferring to leave this to Mark Williams and Leon Cameron. But I also rarely saw him miss a training session, always watching intently from his position on the boundary ready to step in if necessary.

 

Come match day he played an active role in the coaches box and was always happy to remind those around him who was boss if need be. During the club’s first win over the Gold Coast in Canberra in 2012 Dylan Shiel got involved in a scuffle with his opponent early in the first quarter. Mark Williams picked up the phone in the box and instructed the runner to tell Shiel to forget about fighting and concentrate on playing footy.

 

Before the runner could even leave his perch on the boundary line, Sheeds picked up the other phone in the box and barked down the line: “Tell Shiel to belt that bloke!” It was classic Sheeds and I know other coaches like James McDonald  and Luke Power savoured these sort of moments during those testing first two seasons.

 

Sheeds would regularly invite journalists in to the coaches box during games. Nothing was off limits. He opened up the whole club to media, sponsors and fans. Everybody was welcome.  In the three years I worked with him I can’t remember him ever knocking back an interview request. Like Ron Barassi had done before him at the Swans, he helped put the club on the map. Nobody may have heard of the Giants but everyone had heard of Kevin Sheedy.

 

After Sheeds’ last game as coach against the Gold Coast in 2013, the GIANTS CEO Dave Matthews asked me to give him a line to use about Sheeds in the post match press conference. I said we should refer to him as the “Father of the Giants”. This was no genius on my part – it seemed a fitting title for somebody who had done so much.

 

That the AFL this week elevated him to legend status only made official what all of us who’ve been lucky to have worked with him have known for years. Sheeds was already a legend. A legendary figure in the game but also a legendary person.

 

And among everything he has achieved on and off the field in the game he will always be the Father of the Giants.

 

Nick Johnston was General Manager Corporate Affairs and Communications for the GIANTS from 2011-15. He now works as General Manager Media and Communications for the National Basketball League.

This piece is published with the encouragement of the author. It was first published at www.gwsgiants.com.au

 

 

Comments

  1. Jarrod_L says:

    Nice work by Nick. Spot on about the great hunger he has for engaging with anyone and everyone – among the handful of AFL past players/coaches and assorted media in attendance at the last International Cup, Sheeds was a standout in the way he approached the event: doing radio interviews in enthusiastic fashion, introducing Japanese captain Michito Sakaki to interested onlookers like he was just an old friend (which he kind of is, given that Sakaki trained with the Bombers in the 2000s)…such a wonderful ambassador for the game.

  2. Thanks Nick. Interesting insights, particularly on Sheeds feeling he wants to meet and chat to and know those around him. I recall that day at Manuka when he was prowling across the top of the Bradman Stand with a glass of red in hand chatting to all and sundry while also giving a running commentary on the game. Patton took a mark about 55 out. Sheeds at full voice: “Go back and kick it son. You’ll kick this.” Patton smashed it through from 60+ metres. Sheeds could not have been prouder.

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