We Will Never Surrender: Why Saturday’s AFL result was a Giant Deal

by Preston Towers

 

Greater Western Sydney? Winning? Against the Sydney Swans?  These three questions would still be ringing around those parts of Sydney where AFL is a talking point over morning coffees.  The idea that the new club, with its tribe of young, inexperienced players, could run over the top of the 2012 Premiers and 2013 preliminary finalists was something even Giants fans could not have predicted.   The victory, however, has wider implications than just a football win.

There was a time when AFL wasn’t a talking point around the morning coffee in Sydney.  It was the Southern Game – the VFL – and an oddity, even when Sydney had its own transplanted team.  As the years rolled on, the Swans went through the torture of trying to attract an audience. There was Warwick Capper, with his Shorts and his dolphin style talking, along with the bizarre stylings of Geoffrey Edelsten Mark 1.  After then, however, there were the dark years, where crowds were threatening to fall to Sheffield Shield levels.  For those of us in Sydney who loved the game, along came Ron Barassi, who gave the team a spine, structure and respectability, then leading to Rodney Eade and then the 1996 Grand Final.  The AFL was starting to gain traction with success – as well as with the Super League changes of the late 1990s. Since then, especially with the 2005 flag, the Swans have carved a permanent place amongst those in Sydney who prefer the athleticism and flow of AFL over the grunt and power of rugby league. It helped, also over those years, to have stars like Barry Hall and Tony Lockett, whose personas were closer to those owned by league players – especially Hall, whose onfield punches endeared him to many a boy who loves a bit of biff on the field.

The Giants, however, are a different prospect.  The AFL have made it clear that they don’t want to have the same tortured road that we saw with the Swans.  It’s been a much more co-ordinated, professional effort than we saw with the Swans.  With Auskick clinics going into primary and high schools across the western suburbs, a push to boost the Sydney junior leagues through switching to Sundays, the securing of funds to develop the Sydney Showground and finally the loading of the best young talent, the Giants’ experiment has considerable resource support. This isn’t enough to make it a success, however.   To make it a true success, there needs to be an organically grown supporter base of the team.  How to do this, however, is the magic process that is still occurring.

What has helped in this regard is that a considerable proportion of the early Giants’ supporter base of expatriates from other states who have their own club and have thrown their support behind the Giants. There seems to be two things driving their support – growing up disliking the Swans before moving and  living in the west and becoming aware that the Swans have, over the years, become more of an inner city / Eastern Suburbs club.  People like me, who grew up in the western suburbs, preferred VFL as a 9 year old (watching Saturday blockbusters featuring players like Kevin Bartlett and Bruce Doull) and being a former Swans supporter seems to be rare.  As Kevin Sheedy pointed out during last year, however, it’s great to have the support of the expats, but that isn’t enough.

The early attempts at gaining a foothold have produced mixed results.  There was the Israel Folau experiment, which was a miserable failure in a playing sense, but it did make a lot of people know what the Giants were. He was the most popular feature of many school and community visits.  There have been many other fascinating experiments, such as ticket giveaways, Mother’s Day pampering experiences, most of what came out of Kevin Sheedy’s mouth, the children’s playground at the ground and making Sunrise’s Melissa Doyle the Number 1 Ticket Holder.

Another in this line of stunts was the attempt to sign Buddy Franklin, a player who may have brought credibility and star power to the Giants.  I think, however, that this would have been a poor move on a number of levels.  His style would have transformed the way the Giants have been playing, as well as change the personal dynamic of the club. The Giants don’t need a forward like Franklin when they have Jonathon Patton and Jeremy Cameron. In addition, the Giants have done well in shaping approachable, friendly players who engage well with the communities they visit. Franklin is not known for either quality, rather is known more for producing sexist t-shirts and nightclub incidents.  Sydney have their rugby league style personality.

Saturday’s victory proved that there’s some success occurring at the Giants without Buddy – indeed, it could be argued that the Giants have dodged a bullet with Franklin wanting immediate success.  The players the Giants obtained instead – Shane Mumford and Heath Shaw – look to be providing strength to their already developing style, rather than forcing a change.   Franklin, in contrast, barely touched the ball and worryingly for Sydney, they seemed to be reverting to their old style of “kick it to the power forward”.  The victory of the Giants hopefully signals the beginning of the next phase of the Giants, going away from being considered a drain on the AFL’s playing and financial resources and towards gaining credibility and drawing power in the city’s western suburbs.

Asides from onfield success, there are other challenges for the club to face.  There shouldn’t be an adoption of the idea that there’s a Roy Masters style “war of the codes” and start badmouthing league.  The AFL should be able to carve a following of people who can appreciate the skills of the sport. A part of that next phase, also, is a need for the club to stump up the money to pay for public transport to be included in the ticket price for games at the Showground.  That’s a sticking point for many wanting to get out to games – especially now that the NRL and the A League Wanderers providing free public transport to games.  Also, they need to lose the “Battle of the Bridge” tag for the game against the Swans, which is drawing an imaginary line between supporter bases that isn’t there. Right now, it’s the Battle of the Shaws – Rhyce for the Swans and Heath for the Giants. That would be more fitting, because it’s the game that’s the biggest selling point. The one on Saturday was an absolute belter. And for more than one Foundation Member that has endured the taunts and sledges from Swans supporters as well as hearing the type of things said by disgruntled SEN listeners, singing our outstanding team song was a particularly sweet experience.

About Preston Towers

A GWS Foundation Member who grew up as an Aussie Rules fan in deepest darkest Western Sydney. Also blog a bit about politics, music and other stuff.

Comments

  1. Well said. Nailed it in one.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good report and totally agree re the public transport issue that is vital to succeed in
    Sydney . Any so called 2 team rivalry develops as soon as little brother can compete and beat big brother , GWS have done this earlier than expected a great result
    Totally agree re GWS dodging a bullet in not signing buddy and feel Sydney have gone away from the bloods culture in signing Tippett and Franklin . I have enormous respect for R Colless and Sydney and just feel they have lost there radar it could prove to be a costly blunder time will tell
    Thanks Preston

  3. Peter Schumacher says

    A really interesting read. I totally agree that there is no point in slagging league or indeed for that matter soccer, whose representatives in the area, the Wanderers, were outstanding in their first year

    What I would say though, as a generally one eyed Aussie Rules bloke; (I say “generally” because there is nothing in Rules like State of Origin), is that the Giants should or should have looked at what the Wanderers did, or have done right to see any lessons could be learned from that.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to the day when the Giants (and the Suns) consistently attract bigger crowds to their games than do rival codes to their matches.

  4. The experience of being there on Saturday night will remain with us for a long time. I think my voice was mostly functional again by Monday.

    I’m not sure that the first-season success of the Wanderers is something that anyone could hope to manufacture, particularly given there wasn’t huge money thrown at creating an all-star team – that hoary old line about champion teams may be trite, but it applies here.

    That said, the two clubs are comparable, in the sense that there seem to be strong foundations and a long term view. Achieving sUch early success for the Wanderers was just cream on top.

    I hesitate to use the phrase ‘long-term supporters’, but Foundation Members like myself and others who’ve taken an interest since Day 1 can recognize a solid culture being developed; we may not have 150 years of history, but there is something exciting brewing at the Giants, both on-field and off.

    There’s a big, big sound…

  5. Earl O'Neill says

    Good piece, Preston.
    Mumford, Shaw, Hunt, premiership players, are far more valuable to GWS than Neviille Franklin ever could be. Swans have screwed themselves on this.

  6. kath presdee says

    Good piece Preston.

    As someone who moved to Western Sydney after living in “the Shire” and Canberra, it was very noticeable how limited the promotion of the game was in the Western Suburbs. It may have been targeted through the junior AFL clubs, but since my youngster wasn’t playing footy then I don’t know what the Swans did or did not do to grow the game through those means. In particular I remember the Swans were playing North in quarter final at the Olympic Stadium and I couldn’t recall any advertising in the lead-up. It was a fairly dismal turnout.

    What I’ve noticed over the past two and a bit years is the number of people at Giants games who have a Swans members hat. Sometimes the hat is pre 2012, other times it is the current one. At Saturday’s game there were a number of examples of couples and families wearing the colours and members’ merchandise of both teams.

    re the public transport issue, I agree that integrated ticketing would be good but I think what would assist more is direct rail services to Olympic Park on game day from the west and then home again. It makes no sense to only run the direct trains between the City and Olympic Park (for Swans fans) and not have an equivalent service stopping Penrith, Blacktown and Parramatta then Olympic Park. It’s either change trains three times on a mountains service (each way) or twice on a practically all stations (each way) to get to the game. We’re going to drive to the night games; the changing trains at Lidcombe and waiting for a Penrith service is not helpful when you’ve got kids.

    Apparently the GWS ticketed membership last year was 34% juniors. What seems to be happening is that, regardless of what teams the parents’ support (or used to support), the kids are going to games and are more likely to support GWS. The fact that they will be a strong contender in the next few years is likely to cement the team in the kids’ minds and lead to next generation supporters, regardless of where these kids end up living.

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