Giant dreams become a greater reality

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“The AFL is looking to bring in new teams from the Gold Coast in 2011 and Western Sydney in 2012.” Those words by AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick back in the 2008 pre-season set the tone for an ambitious expansion program.

Gold Coast made their debut in 2011, and their fortunes have been well documented. But what of the 2012 entry?

Given the working title ‘Team GWS’, the new club made their first steps of preparation. First was to find a place to call home, and they found a willing partner in Blacktown Olympic Park.

The venue, severely under-utilised since the Olympics, found a new lease of life with the construction of their training and admin headquarters; bringing jobs and a profile to the area.

For home games, the Showgrounds is currently under re-development. Centrally located at Homebush, accessible by trains and Olympic buses, the boutique stadium will be in use next season, while ANZ Stadium next door will host a few blockbuster games.

The new club found plenty of corporate support, with the AFL delivering a professional product, national exposure and an opportunity to be associated with Australia’s biggest sporting competition. Well over fifty companies have come on board, meeting and passing every benchmark.

All sporting clubs need a coach, and the new club did well to sign up Kevin Sheedy. An astute football mind and a tactical innovator, Sheedy enjoyed four premierships during his 27-year reign at Essendon. But Sheedy’s abilities lie further than just match-day tactics.

Always a visionary and a lateral thinker, Sheedy is without doubt the best media performer in Australian sport. Sheedy knows how to get himself, and the club, in the Sydney media, helping drive public awareness.

Sheedy attracted a strong football department. Mark Williams, who coached Port Adelaide to their 2004 flag, is senior assistant.

Alan McConnell, formerly at the AIS, is also a key part of the football department. It’s somewhat ironic for McConnell, the last coach at Fitzroy as it ended, to be at a new club as it starts.

Craig Lambert, who was an assistant at Brisbane during their premiership three-peat, is also at the club. John Quinn has come up from Essendon to head the sports science department.

The club then needed players, and have been looking far and wide for prospects. Much of the interest is in the fortunes of marquee signing Israel Folau. Formerly an NRL star and Origin representative, Folau is well known in the club’s target area. It’s a sort of homecoming for Folau, who was born in Campbelltown and lived there till he was 15.

It was a tough learning curve on the field. Technical skills can be learned at training, but footy smarts, reading the play, and anticipation can only be learned by playing.

At first it was a struggle, and in a game against the Swans’ reserves, he failed to get a possession. But gradually he learned, and his stats picked up.

The turning point came with a move up forward, and relishing the additional room to move, Folau has found his role in the team and become the Giants’ leading goalkicker.

But there are other names that aren’t well known in the AFL yet, but soon will be.

Names like Curtly Hampton, a tall wingman with explosive pace who was picked in the aborted Aboriginal All-Stars team at just 17.

Gerard Ugle also hopes to emulate the deeds of his uncle who was one of the original West Coast Eagles.

Like Stephen Giles, a ruckman delisted from Adelaide without playing a senior game, relishing a second chance at AFL level. Like Jeremy Cameron, an elusive forward with an amazing checkside who can thread goals on the run from tight angles.

Like Dylan Shiel, a classy midfielder, who was thrown into the deep end as a leader in the NAB Cup campaign but acquitted himself well against hardened AFL professionals. Like Jack Hombsch, a classy defender.

All of these players, most of them only 17 or 18 and some still at school, find themselves on an AFL list, and although they don’t currently have big profiles, they soon will.

To be competitive, the Giants will need some experienced AFL players. They’re not allowed to sign any up until the current clubs’ season is over, but stand by for some announcements of who will be joining the club for 2012.

And the Giants make an attractive destination for a player looking for a new club. The money’s good, but there’s more to it than that. There’s also the chance to be there at the start, and be a part of history. As well as the warm inner glow of making a contribution towards the growth of the game.

The last piece of the jigsaw is supporters. At a gala launch at the Showgrounds last November, the club announced their identity as the Greater Western Sydney Giants. The first foundation memberships went on sale, I was the first to sign up.

As word has spread and the Giants’ debut draws closer, the membership base has grown. This week, the Giants signed their 10,000th member. It’s a modest total compared to most other AFL clubs, but compares favourably with several NRL clubs in the area.

Of course the challenge will be to keep the support coming every week. Not for the first game, with its curiosity value, but on a cold and wet July night when they’re struggling, how many will come? Time will tell.

But the sense of excitement grows. A lot has happened to build a new club from scratch; but we’re ready for the challenge of joining the AFL.

The doom-boosters and nay-sayers suggest the Giants will fail. But the Giants have some switched-on people running the club, and strong support from the AFL. If it’s ever going to succeed, now’s the time.

And the AFL is in this for the long haul. This is about being here for 10 years, 20 years, as long as it takes. Yes, it will take money and time, but the AFL have money and time, and this is the best way to invest it. And the AFL have not just a dream, but a plan.

We live in exciting times. The game will have a higher profile, both in Sydney and nationally, than ever before. History beckons, and whether we win or lose, we’ll have a red hot go at growing our game.

The ride’s only going to get more intense over the next few months. Round one, 2012, isn’t far away.

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