At the Gold Coast Suns’ preseason clash against the Bombers I witnessed the first of the AFL’s expansion clubs grabbing their inherited empire with both hands and running like the wind.
If you didn’t know better you’d swear you were attending some kind of surf lifesaver fund-raising shindig such is the overpowering shimmer of red and gold.
The Suns specially selected, survey-group approved colour scheme infiltrates everything here at Metricon. It’s intoxicating; all-pervasive and shiny under customised floodlights and soundtracked by whatever’s hot on the playlist of the local FM station that pays to slap its logo around the joint.
And not a beanie or a scarf anywhere. It is, after all, still 25 degrees at six o’clock.
This place will be their fortress. No doubt about it. And so pleasant will it become for opposition fans to visit, the pangs of defeat will be soothed by the salty kiss of an afternoon ocean breeze. That, and the massage that came with a travel package booked via a phone App.
Tonight the Suns open their season against the Peptide Bombers. It’s hard not to lump a kind of collective shame on the Essendon faithful as they saunter in. It’s also hard not to think of them as slightly unwashed given all that’s been.
It’s surprisingly depressing. I for one thought the recommencement of actual football might wash the pain of a drugs investigation away.
The bloke I’m sitting next to in the glow of the world’s largest, loudest television (aka ‘the scoreboard’) has flown up from his home in Keilor East in Melbourne’s north.
He’s the kind of traveller the Suns and their ‘destination brand’ will bank on in lieu of a hefty membership quota. His is a multi-generational attachment to all things Windy Hill, he tells me.
And yet he won’t wear his woolen No 5 Essendon jumper anymore. It’s now boxed up in the garage. A quiet protest, he says, his eyes fixed hopefully on a batch of post-scandal red and black completing pre-game run throughs.
The crowd is quiet and sparse and scattered like breadcrumbs around the few parts of the stadium the powers-that-be deem necessarily open.
Here even a paltry, benign attendance is micro-managed.
To be fair, at the Suns, pretty much everything is. To the letter.
I first spotted most of the Suns list three years ago. I’ve watched on since as fresh faces arrived to supplement the carefully chosen core. They’re skinny when they get there. Shy.
Self-conscious to the point of smudging a little goop in their hair prior to trotting out for an intra-club. But each of them has been selected for a specific purpose in a grander scheme. There’s no list-cloggers here.
And they’re finally growing into their frames. Charlie Dixon, Sam Day and Tom Lynch are now enormous men – muscle on muscle, athletic, tireless and totally unafraid. Find me a defence capable of stymying that trio when the engine starts purring.
For a long time now Gary Ablett’s wizardry has stood out. But these days the kid brigade of Jaeger O’Meara, Jack Martin, and David Swallow are raring to go. They’re all bullocks. And you can’t tag the lot of them. I’ve lost count at how many first round picks exist within Suns ranks. Their maturing depth is mind-boggling.
The Suns have now been around long enough to cast aside talent. Much was made of St Kilda palming off Nick Dal Santo and Brendon Goddard, but both had run races and a new era needed funding.
The Suns, on the other hand, can afford to discard good players almost before the starter’s gun is loaded. Tasmanian utility Maverick Weller, one of the most highly regarded under-agers going around when first listed as a 17-year-old now (perhaps a little ironically) finds himself at the Saints on a second chance when a long-term first crack at it seemed assured as an inaugural Sun.
Same goes for rakish ruck Tom Hickey. He was moved on not necessarily for being substandard or unwilling but for simply being one good tall too many on a list gladly lengthened to help foreshorten the gap between startup and salad days.
Now the window is open.
And not just because of player development.
The bed is well-feathered here on the Goldie. The media is friendly because the Suns are an easy get. Like everywhere else, no one here reads The Australian. That makes the Gold Coast a one (struggling) News Limited tabloid town.
The Suns offer dot-to-dot copy and great pictures more often than not with a new pride-and-joy stadium or a sparkling beach as a backdrop.
That leaves tough questions about the cost of Karmichael Hunt’s place, Nathan Bock’s various indiscretions or any other awkward enquiries to the rag up the road. But who here on the Gold Coast cares what the Courier Mail says?
The city, too, has warmed quickly to its AFL club. People here love their team. Kids especially. The Suns have been actively and savvily infiltrating hearts and minds. They’ve travelled in uniform and in number and with a welcoming smile. Their community program is run with real heart and boundless energy.
And in the space of just a few years the Suns have made mini-Sherrins a regular sight on beaches. Not long ago you’d only see all-weather Steedens twirling here and there.
There are other signs, too, of a club sharpening its bayonet.
There’s healthy competition brewing at the top of the administrative tree with talk of Andrew Travis, the Suns’ second-in-charge, taking on more of what was once exclusively the domain of CEO Travis Auld.
Talk too of the churn of long-term staffers who’ve eventually figured a pittance dressed as exciting proximity to elite sport doesn’t necessarily pay the bills and of newer, refreshingly passionate ‘better fits’ moving in.
A new left-field sponsor in Fiat – a fellow ‘challenger brand’ according to club marketing gumph – to supplement the AFL handball that was first up partner Virgin Australia and at a time when sponsorship dollars unattached to gambling are hens’ teeth.
And so a corporate jawline is freshly chiseled.
It’s all streamlining the model – the taper before the assault on the upper echelons. The best people in the best roles doing the best work at the best time.
On or off the park, the same rules apply.
Tonight it’s the Suns big men – the absence of whom was once such a flaw – who wear down their Bomber opponents from five goals back to take a win on the buzzer with a rushed point. Fitness – a decided lack of it another bugbear of seasons past – saw them home with a full spinnaker.
And regardless of opposition or occasion, a win is a win is a win.
Unlike most sides (lets be frank, few barely care to raise a sweat in the NAB Challenge), the Suns need to make a fist of these otherwise infinitesimally trivial trial games. Success is the only real stadium-filler around these parts. football failed. The Titans, for all their impressive if underfunded effort, struggle to keep up. The surf remains a constant distraction.
But for the Suns a jigsaw puzzle cut by an expansionist agenda now awaits final assembly.
They are ready to pounce, this lot.
It has all been planned just so.
Now we must watch on as the fabric of someone’s fervent imagination is woven into a premiership tilt.
And whether or not we in the outer with our lifelong, sentimental allegiance to a time long lost choose to judge how and why they go about it doesn’t really matter in the slightest.