On the first Sunday afternoon of September 2013, the Gold Coast Suns completed their third season in the AFL with a thumping 83-point win over fellow newcomers the GWS Giants.
The game was played at their magnificent Metricon Stadium home before an expectant crowd of 13,080 fans, mostly decked in the red and yellow colours of their club (with a surprising number of GWS fans in the away supporters’ bay as well).
I say an expectant crowd because the fans came to see a win, but it was more than that.
They came to watch the Suns players stamp their authority on a team that at the beginning of the year had many, both in the media and in football fan circles alike, talking them up as closer to success than the Suns.
Gary Ablett Jr was once again the standout player with 33 possessions and four goals, showing true class, skill and leadership to his younger teammates.
It’s not out of order to say that Ablett Jr will go down as one of the most important signings that the Suns will ever make.
As I watched the game unfold (and the final margin grow), I remembered that there is only one season of AFL experience in difference between the two new clubs. There is, however, a chasm in skill and belief.
The first two seasons of AFL level football that the Suns endured were not a baptism of fire – it was much tougher than that.
It is not unfair to say that the Suns were cannon fodder for almost all teams (except GWS) in the league.
Most would have seen an upcoming game against the Suns as a great opportunity to bank the four competition points on offer, get a healthy percentage boost and get some sun and surf if they were making the trip to the Gold Coast.
The two trips that the Geelong Cats made to the Gold Coast in 2011 and 2012 were organised as week-long stays prior to their games against the Suns. The Geelong players were definitely in holiday mode, putting in two very lacklustre efforts but managing to come away with the win on both occasions due to their class and experience.
Of course, there were exceptions. Richmond sold three home games to play in Cairns between 2011 and 2013, subsequently losing the first two of those to the Suns.
I doubt any Suns fan will forget Karmichael Hunt kicking the winning goal after the siren during that crazy final 90 seconds of football at Cazaly’s Stadium in in Round 16, 2012.
Carlton famously traveled to Metricon Stadium in Round 22 in August last year hoping to keep their finals dream alive, only to be ambushed by the Suns in the first quarter of the game. The Suns managed to hang on under relentless Carlton pressure for the next three quarters.
Brett Ratten’s fate as Carlton head coach was sealed by this result.
The low point for the Suns was last year’s Round 7 loss to the GWS Giants in Canberra. It not only gave the Giants their first ever win, but had many questioning the recruiting decisions made in the previous two years of the Suns.
Coach Guy McKenna came under heavy fire from the media early in 2012, but Suns management took the heat out of the situation by signing him to a two-year contract extension in May 2012.
After the completion of the 2012 season the Gold Coast Suns had managed six wins from 44 games completed. With the exception of Gary Ablett Jr, the Suns players did not believe that they could compete for an entire game against the rest of the competition.
The question leading into the 2013 season for the Suns was how many wins would be considered a successful season?
The season started with a bang in Round 1, the team scoring a convincing win over St Kilda at Metricon Stadium to kick off the Easter long weekend.
There was a sense at that game that the crowd expected more this season from the Suns. Simply fronting up and being competitive for two or three quarters of a game was no longer going to be considered good enough.
The Suns were now expected to put in four quarters of solid effort, be competitive and win if the opportunity presented itself.
The 2013 season will be remembered for milestone games being reached by Gary Ablett Jr (250) and David Swallow, Trent McKenzie, Dion Prestia and Matt Shaw (50 games) as well as arguably the best club win of their time in the AFL – a seven-point thriller over Collingwood on the Gold Coast in Round 17.
The Suns beat the teams around them on the ladder (GWS (twice), Western Bulldogs, St Kilda, Melbourne (twice) and North Melbourne) and put in gallant efforts against powerhouse clubs Hawthorn and Geelong in back-to-back trips to Victoria in Rounds 9 and 10.
The real change in mindset from both the club and fans comes from a few other games of the 2013 season. I firmly believe that losses suffered during the 2013 season will define how this playing group progress as they strive to play finals and ultimately win the premiership.
Following home defeats to Brisbane, Fremantle, Carlton and Adelaide, plus tight losses away to Port Adelaide and West Coast, the football world could see that there was palpable disappointment from the Suns.
The coaching and playing group primed themselves with the belief that they finally belonged in the AFL and that those games were winnable for a variety of different reasons.
Season 2013 will be remembered as the year that the Suns started to fulfill the potential they’d shown glimpses of during their first three seasons. They reached a total of eight wins, which was more than double what they managed in either of their first two outings.
The Suns have a pack of exciting young players, led by 2013 NAB Rising Star Jaeger O’Meara, who are learning their craft from the best player in the game currently in potential Brownlow Medallist Gary Ablett Jr.
How do you put a price on the information he’ll give these up-and-coming superstars regarding training, recovery, preparation, competitiveness, skill, class and off-field role model behaviour?
The Suns now believe that they can match it with any team in the competition, at any ground in the competition, and it is going to be an exciting next phase of the club’s development to see how seasons 2014-2016 play out.
John Witheriff, Gold Coast Suns Chairman, stated that the Suns are aiming for 20,000 members and a Premiership within three years. My bet is he closer to achieving that goal with the club than even he realised at the beginning of season 2013.
Gold Coast Suns supporters are now believers. We will see them playing in September within the next two seasons.
And there’s a very strong chance they could make the last Saturday in September in 2016 as forecast by their Chairman earlier this year.