Those who know me and my writings about sport will know of my interest and reasons for supporting the GWS Giants. Today was hard, sitting amongst the dismal crowd of 5,300, watching what was possibly the worst performance in the time I have been following the team. I can’t say my supporting life is as hard as that of long suffering Bulldogs, St. Kilda, Richmond or Melbourne supporters – the latter currently writhing in despair.
It’s still hard though. 5,300. Loss by 130 + to a team that probably won’t make the finals. I walked very slowly to my car.
It was clearly also tough on the coach, Kevin Sheedy, whose post match press conference revealed the pressures brought to bear on the club that has so many millions of dollars riding on its long term success. In the press conference, as outlined here, he isolated two key concerns for the club – its growth as a playing group and growth of a supporter base. They are the main issues affecting the club and will be for the next five years.
For passionate Melbourne based football fans, Sheedy’s comments will echo loudly in the next week. He places the blame on the current performance of the Giants at the feet of existing powerful clubs unwilling to let go of existing stars whose presence at a club like the Giants would make an immediate and profound difference. As can be seen by the presence of Gary Ablett Jnr at the Suns, as well as the work of Chad Cornes last year at the Giants, experience and body development count a great deal towards the success of a team in AFL. You just can’t build a team entirely on the promise of 19 year olds. From where I sit, if there were two more experienced players in the back, two more experienced players in the forward line, the difference would be marked. You will hear, however, on the SEN talkback in Melbourne that clubs “shouldn’t be giving up players they developed” from a range of passionate fans. I can understand their point. The idea of transfer, however, is a feature of most football codes in the world, but is considered sacrilege by many in AFL.
This is a key difference between the on field success of the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Giants. The Wanderers had players of varying levels of talent and experience – with key outstanding players like Ono, which helped to create a team that was quick to mature and blossom. This is why their sudden success of the year shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise as it was. Soccer (I will call it soccer here, as distinct from Australian Football) easily transfers players from other clubs, it’s part of their game. In AFL, it is a major, painful sticking point.
What we will also hear is reaction to his other comment – already he is being accused of being a racist.
“…That was probably a reminder of what the Swans have been telling us. (Sydney chairman) Richard Colless says you’re going to do it hard early. So it just tells everybody how tough it’s going to be to build the club. We don’t have the recruiting officer called the immigration department, recruiting fans for (successful A-League soccer club) Western Sydney Wanderers. We’ve got to start a whole new ballpark and go and find fans.”
It’s a silly comment, a clumsy, insensitive attempt at humour and should not have been made. What I suspect Sheedy was trying to say was that soccer has a wide following from people who come from overseas to Australia while AFL, being home grown, doesn’t have that natural, from birth support. It is an accurate observation to make, especially when we consider that the soccer mad UK is the source of the third highest number of migrants to Australia.
It is also the case that soccer’s supporter base in Western Sydney was well established amongst various British, Irish and non – British migrant communities long before the Wanderers came along. This explains why the Wanderer support base was quick to form. Due to that heritage, I still think Western Sydney should have had a soccer team before Sydney. I was a supporter of the Parramatta Power back in the NSL days. That the Wanderers was a hurried afterthought was an indictment on the A League’s founders. However, maybe because it was an afterthought that it’s been a success. Perhaps, if there had been more planning, Parramatta Leagues club might have stumbled in and repeated the mistakes they made with the Parramatta Power. Due to the fact almost all games are played at Parramatta, the Wanderers are little more than a reborn Power, but this time with genuine grassroots engagement, as opposed to top – down control.
Thus, what Sheedy should have said in the press conference is that AFL doesn’t have the same cultural roots in Western Sydney as sports like soccer and rugby league and this makes it a hard, long sell. But he didn’t, thus leading us to what will be a bit of a storm on which the media will feed for a while.
Sheedy did come out and explain his comments on Twitter later in the evening, which fit into what I suspected he meant –
What he will find very quickly though, that it’s a thorny field, talking about immigration and Western Sydney. Accusations of dog whistling are always quick to form whenever immigration is mentioned. It will be interesting to see where this issue heads. Soccer fans will be furious, saying that it shows that Anglo Celtic people like Sheedy see soccer as “wogball” and only played by European migrants. Yet others will see it as sour grapes because the Giants haven’t built the support that the Wanderers have. In truth, I don’t think Sheedy should have mentioned the Wanderers at all in comparison to the Giants. They play at a different time of the year for a start and the codes don’t necessarily compete for juniors. The two junior codes play on a different day – Saturday is soccer day, Sunday is AFL day in Sydney.
Ultimately, Sheedy should have focused on the fact there’s still work to be done on the team and on the poor mother’s day scheduling. It would have been less controversial and not make it into an us and them issue. The Giants and the Wanderers should not be fighting against each other, no matter what journalists will ask and write in their articles comparing the two codes.
As for what might happen next, I think we will see Sheedy on the TV in Sydney a bit this week, apologising, showing how he likes the cultural diversity in Western Sydney as well as soccer. In Melbourne, however, he will be quizzed about “stealing” players from the successful clubs.
For me, though, it’s just been a hard Sunday. The Giants have a long way to go, in terms of team and crowd development. I sincerely hope these comments don’t make people think Giants fans and staffers are all racists and that we hate soccer. I just want to see better efforts from the players and more people to be part of what should be a great AFL club representing one of the best – and most misunderstood – parts of Australia.