Connection, community and continuity: the growth of Gold Coast

Connection, community and continuity: the growth of Gold Coast

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The Gold Coast Suns will play their 200th League game on Saturday night against the West Coast Eagles. Inaugural Suns Jarrod Harbrow and David Swallow, as well as assistant coach Dean Solomon spoke to aflplayers.com.au about their memories from the early years and developing the club to where it is today.

Before the inception of the Gold Coast Suns in 2011, no new team had entered the AFL since 1997.

In the 14 years since the Brisbane Bears and Port Adelaide joined the competition, the AFL landscape had changed drastically, with a focus on community and nationalisation.

The Gold Coast Suns were going to be challenged with the task of bringing a community-focussed football club to the NRL-dominated Gold Coast.

It has been no easy feat for the club to infiltrate a community that didn’t understand the sport of Australian Rules football but Gold Coast has worked hard to overcome player and coach turnover, heavy losses, on-field inconsistences and media scrutiny to become an integral part of the Coast’s community.

In the words of inaugural Sun Jarrod Harbrow, the Gold Coast Suns are an “actual AFL football team now”.

The Early Years

Led by a board of former AFL administrators and business people, a tender process began in April 2008 for what was then known as GC17 to be granted the AFL’s 17th licence. The six-month process was designed for the board to demonstrate why Gold Coast would be the AFL’s next destination club, established the structural elements and frameworks of success.

It wasn’t until 11 months later when then-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou granted the provisional licence for Gold Coast to have their own AFL team.

Based out of Southport, the Suns’ facilities were well below the standard set by their AFL counterparts. The club was operating and training out of ‘dongas’ – demountable housing often used as portable classrooms in schools.

For former Essendon and Fremantle 209-gamer Dean Solomon it was worlds away from what he was accustomed to in his playing career.

“We were having meetings in one of the dongas, which had holes in the floor and the acoustics were quite ordinary, even to the point that we were trying to put our projector onto a whiteboard,” he told aflplayers.com.au ahead of the Suns’ 200th league game.

Despite the challenges associated with the limited facilities, Solomon said it was an important part of the journey.

“It was a little bit different… but it was also exciting to get the opportunity to work with not the perfect structure and that meant we were going to build some sort of resilience as part of our journey.”

Solomon, who spent a year coaching at Fremantle before joining the Suns ahead of their inaugural 2011 season, joined the club because he was passionate about the vision then-coach Guy McKenna had shared with him.

With a blank canvas to work from and access to some of the best young football talent in the country, Solomon felt joining the Suns would help give him an opportunity to help shape the future of football in Queensland.

For former Bulldog Jarrod Harbrow, the same goal drove him to join the Suns as an uncontracted player at the end of the 2010 season.

Having played 70 games with the Bulldogs across four seasons, Harbrow found himself part of a defence that was starting to make inroads in the competition. The Bulldogs had played finals in Harbrow’s last three seasons with the club, but the drawcard of being part of something new and returning to his home state of Queensland proved too enticing.

At 22, Harbrow was a senior figure for a playing group made up of mostly 18-year-olds.

Changing from a side where Harbrow was considered one of the younger members of the group to a senior figure was a significant challenge, but one he embraced wholeheartedly.

“The young players needed a lot of direction, coaching and education at the time – particularly as a new football club coming into the system,” he told aflplayers.com.au.

“(The Suns’ priority signings) certainly felt like we had to play a really big role in supporting the young kids that came in.”

One of those players was 2010 No. 1 pick David Swallow, who had been part of the Suns’ program throughout their year in the VFL competition in 2010.

A talented junior and younger brother of former North Melbourne captain Andrew Swallow, Swallow was recruited to the Suns from East Fremantle.

Finishing year 12 at the end of 2009, Swallow can recall a conversation between McKenna and his Dad, Ian, which secured his commitment to Gold Coast.

Swallow moved east and joined a host family and two other would-be Suns players in Brandon Matera (now at Fremantle) and Trent McKenzie (Port Adelaide) to begin the path towards becoming legitimate AFL players.

Players and staff of the Suns celebrate victory and hold the words to their song up in the AFL Round 05 (2011) match between Port Adelaide Power and the Gold Coast Suns at AAMI Stadium, Adelaide.

For the coaching group led by McKenna, that first pre-season was about preparing the young group to understand what it means to be an elite athlete working in a professional environment.

“It was really important for us to lay the foundations and make it known that we weren’t going to be given anything – we had to earn it all,” Solomon said.

And, they worked for it.

Arriving to day one of his first pre-season, Swallow was coming in off the back of his ‘schoolies’ celebrations and a move across the country.

In the scorching Queensland summer heat, Swallow and the rest of the playing group ran their first 2km time trial.

Running alongside former Suns-listed player Todd Grayson, Swallow trudged through his first session and what would become his earliest memory of being an AFL player.

“I came home after that first training session and was crook for three days with bad heatstroke and dehydration,” he said.

“There was an adjustment phase for me (in terms of the heat) that’s for sure… in the peak of summer it can really get you.”

Gary Ablett, Daniel Harris, Harley Bennell and Maverick Weller celebrate their win during the AFL Round 05 (2011) match between Port Adelaide Power and the Gold Coast Suns at AAMI Stadium, Adelaide.

The first and subsequent seasons for the Suns would ebb and flow, with the club winning three games in its first two seasons before a slow rise in 2013 and 2014.

Part of their coaching philosophy in the early years was to be a “little less systematic” than your regular football club.

For the Suns, it was about letting the group play and find their way.

The coaching group wanted the players to be able to express themselves, knowing that they were going to take significant hits on the scoreboard week in, week out.

Solomon said the goal was to keep the group coming back to the bigger picture, which was individually developing each player and making them resilient as they went through the ups and downs of football.

But, the biggest juggling act for the club was how to stop a player losing his confidence as each loss and weekly challenge began to mount up.

“That was a really tough balancing act,” Solomon said.

“As much as you can keep tapping into the psyche of the players around you, ultimately they have their own thoughts and the scoreboard that we were going to keep looking at was hard to wrestle with.”

Those losses, combined with the pressure of the No. 1 tag, was something that Swallow has learnt to overcome as he’s grown as a footballer and leader.

“At times I’ve struggled with the tag of the No. 1 pick and all of the emotions and expectations that come with that,” he said.

“It’s probably only really the last few years where I’ve been able to be open about that.

“I suppose it’s helped me mature as I’ve gotten older.”

The weekly losses and media scrutiny meant it was critical to celebrate the little milestones; the first win, the first interstate win, the first win in Cairns.

“Whether you play football or anything in life, it you’re working hard at something you’ve got to acknowledge the little wins along the way,” Solomon said.

“Ultimately, you’re striving to achieve an outcome but I think if you really acknowledge the little wins, the outcome will take care of itself.”


The Culture Shift

An eight win season in 2013 and a club-best 10-win season in 2014 was not enough to keep inaugural coach McKenna at the helm – he was sacked at the conclusion of the season having coached the club in 88 games and winning just over 25 per cent of them.

Former Sydney and Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade took the reins, leading the club for three seasons where they won four (2015), six (2016) and six games (2017).

With three games left in the 2017 season, Eade was told his contract would not be renewed and Solomon took over as interim coach.

The change in senior coach for the third time in as many years would mark a significant cultural shift in the club – a process that is still ongoing.

“It’s been really well-documented but this is almost our mark two with the playing group,” Solomon said.

“I think the coaching philosophy is quite different now – it’s about engaging these guys into the program and the game plan, the training and everything that goes with it and really empowering those guys to have trust in it and drive it.”

That change in culture, which is evident today, was driven by Suns Chairman Tony Cochrane, CEO Mark Evans and current senior coach Stuart Dew.

Coming from a successful program at the Sydney Swans as an assistant, former Port Adelaide and Hawthorn premiership player Dew was appointed senior coach ahead of the 2018 season.

Dew’s first couple of seasons at the helm have not been without their challenges.

Following the departure of inaugural captain and four-time club best and fairest Gary Ablett at the end of the 2017 season, Tom Lynch and Steven May were appointed co-captains.

Both would leave at the end 2018 – Lynch to Richmond and May to Melbourne.

Despite the inroads from a cultural perspective and the club’s commitment to driving success, there was (and still is) a long way to go.

The club changed its recruiting philosophy, focussed on an inclusive environment and elevated Swallow and Jarrod Witts to lead the club as co-captains.

While on-field they struggled, the changes off the field were monumental.

Harbrow, who is a leader within the Suns community, is a big believer in everyone having the ability to be a vehicle for change – whether you’re in a formal leadership position or not.

And that notion is something he believes the playing group have taken on-board in recent seasons.

“It makes me extremely proud (to see the sense of ownership amongst the playing group) because that’s the whole point of a football club – you want to feel like you’re completely part of it,” he said.

“You want to know that you’re not just there to play football but you want to grow as a person as well, you want to be part of a family and community-oriented football club and to be someone more than just a footballer.

“That certainly wasn’t there at the start when I first got here.”

The Suns are led out onto Metricon Stadium by Alex Sexton and David Swallow 

Part of Gold Coast’s philosophy is having the right people in the right positions. It’s not to say that wasn’t the case before but now it’s an all-encompassing approach.

Solomon said a driver for change amongst the coaching group has been to empower the leaders – from training, to the game plan, community and in any instance where a player is representing the football club – to take control and drive the direction of the club.

According to Solomon, part of that duty is for Witts and Swallow to help educate vice-captain Touk Miller, who then can support the education of other young leaders such as Brayden Fiorini and Jack Bowes.

“It’s about the collective,” Solomon said.

“Doing it together and making sure everyone is going in the one direction rather than making it about those people with a title – it’s about an all-inclusive approach.”

Having been at the club since day one, Swallow has grown with the Suns and is proud to see the change in the club.

“It’s been a progression but (we’ve made some headway)… it’s taken a few years but I think the younger guys have bought in really well and are now seeing where we want to take the club,” he said.

Harbrow’s attitude is similar to those of his colleagues.

He wants to leave the club in a better place than when he arrived and has focussed on giving back where he can, particularly to grow a club within a community where AFL is not yet embedded in their culture.

“We didn’t have enough players on-board at the time… from where we’ve come from to where we are now is light years away,” he said.

The change in the culture and direction of the club resulted in more than 10 players resigning last year – a lifetime away from the five inaugural players that remain.

“I think our reputation, respect and our culture has really grown in the last couple of years,” he said.

“It’s a constant thing and our job isn’t done – I think we need to keep doing it.”


Embedded in the Coast

When the Gold Coast Suns set out to become the AFL’s 17th team, they set themselves a goal to bring a ‘bold, fresh, community-focussed football club to the people of the Gold Coast’.

It wasn’t an easy feat, with the community driven by their love of NRL and lack of understanding of Australian Rules football, but immediately the Suns put a focus into building their connection within the community.

Leaders like Harbrow took it upon themselves to spend time in the community educating the Coast on not only what football was, but what the club could offer them.

Even at the Bulldogs, Harbrow had always found himself as the type of individual who enjoyed playing a role within the community as more than just a footballer.

When Harbrow was drafted with pick No. 27 in the Rookie Draft ahead of the 2007, there was only one other Indigenous player at the Bulldogs – Cam Faulkner – who left at the conclusion of the 2007 season.

With no Indigenous role models around him at the club, Harbrow took it upon himself to create an inclusive and supportive cultural environment – something that he has carried with him at the Suns to support the Indigenous members of their playing group.

The Suns have worked hard to promote the growth of AFL in Queensland, with participation in junior football, the women’s game and Auskick programs up 82 per cent overall.

Since 2011, the club and its players have committed more than 45,000 community volunteering hours with a focus on key social projects tackling domestic violence, youth homelessness and regional needs.

For an area that didn’t fully grasp the concept of AFL, the Suns have been able to penetrate the community to become a focal point in the region.

For Solomon, it is one of the achievements he is proudest of.

“A lot of people in the other states probably don’t understand how much we’ve infiltrated the community here and how big it has become,” he said.

Solomon can recall in the early 2010s driving around the streets of Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach without a Suns scarf or guernsey in sight but now the club boats more than 13,500 members – a far cry from their first season.

“In the years to come the supporter base will continue to grow and they’ll get to share their journey with these guys now who are really putting something special together,” he said.”

The Suns have not only made an impact in south-east Queensland but have also focussed their time and resources to building a connection with the community in FNQ – something Harbrow said was missing when he was growing up.

“I can remember the Brisbane Lions coming up here (Cairns) maybe once but that was also the only team they’d ever show on the TV each weekend,” Harbrow recalled.

The rise of the Brisbane Lions, and the introduction of Gold Coast, has given local communities in Queensland a new sport to be passionate about.


The next 200

It’s unlikely that Harbrow, Solomon and Swallow will be at the Suns for their next 200 games but they’re committed to laying foundations now for the next generation to succeed.

“We’re a unified football team and we’re here to stay and we’re not just making up the numbers… we’re looking for success and we’re hungry to get there,” Harbrow said.

For Solomon, there’s been a mixture of moments he’s proud to have been involved in.

“We mounted a charge there with ‘Bluey’ McKenna in 2014… then we fell away and went back to ground zero in many ways,” he said.

“I think one thing that has really stood out to me is when we’ve been able to play against some of the best sides and been able to match and then beat them.

“It’s made our group understand we can (be successful) and we can do it together.”

Solomon is determined to be part of the Suns’ first finals campaign, stringing them together and eventually playing in and winning a Grand Final.

Coach Stuart Dew hugs Darcy Macpherson 

For Swallow, despite the challenges associated with building a club from the ground up, it’s what has kept him driven and determined to succeed.

Swallow will miss the Suns’ 200th game against West Coast due to suspension, but he will no doubt be a vital part of the club’s attempt to challenge for the finals in the coming years.

“That keeps me coming back to training and motivated to try to get better and help the club get to where we want to get to and make inroads in the competition,” he said.

Above all, the club and everyone involved want to build success on and off-the-field.

“We’ve come this far and we don’t want to go backwards,” Harbrow said.

“(The current group) know how much hard work has gone before them so we’re working towards that common goal – being a respected and successful football club.

“We want to grow good people within the football club, players to become good role models and good leaders and we want to be great ambassadors of the football club and AFL in Queensland.”

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