Fans Players

Building the Giants: Baseball, Blacktown and Breakfast Point

As the mercury on a hot October’s day in Sydney was rising towards another scorching Australian summer, the GWS Giants were starting their first full pre-season ahead of their inception into the AFL in 2012.

The Giants were training on a baseball diamond in Rooty Hill, Blacktown – a world away from their now-world class facilities at Sydney Olympic Park.

The limited oval availability presented an early challenge.

The three key pillars of the Giants’ football department – Graeme ‘Gubby’ Allan, Mark ‘Choco’ Williams and Kevin ‘Sheeds’ Sheedy – were there running through the first drills the young group would undertake as AFL footballers.

Then-high performance (strength and conditioning) staff member Nicholas Walsh had returned to Australia from Ireland, taking on the role with the Giants to help build the AFL’s newest club.

Walsh, who had spent three years on Melbourne’s list in the early 2000s, after being recruited from St Kevin’s College via Ireland, said local cricket was given the priority.

“There were two ovals, but we weren’t able to use either of them because the cricketers were using them. That’s why we had to train on the baseball diamond,” Walsh told ahead of the Giants’ maiden Grand Final appearance this Saturday.

Prior to that day in October, GWS had spent four years building the club and the brand that would come to be known as the GWS Giants.

Former AIS/AFL Academy coach Alan McConnell was appointed as the club’s high performance manager in May 2009 and was the first of the Giants’ full-time employees, while Essendon legend Sheedy was appointed the club’s inaugural coach in November 2009.

From there, the Giants grew.

‘Gubby’ Allan came onboard as the General Manager (Football), with the Lambert’s (Craig and Melissa) looking after welfare.

With the majority of the Giants’ staff members moving to Sydney from interstate, and some internationally, the Giants quickly became a little family.

It now became a matter of determining the best way to bring that back to the playing group and the 18-year-old players who would be arriving shortly.

Allan traveled to Tallahassee in Florida with well-renowned sports scientist and high performance manager John Quinn to develop a greater understanding of how elite college athlete programs operate in the USA.

The group, along with Walsh, who was traveling in New York at the time, visited Florida State University and the IMG Academy determining that a shared-living experience was the most appropriate decision to get the best out of the young playing group.

“The Breakfast Point concept was the brainchild of ‘Gubby’,” Walsh said.

“He took this concept back to Sheeds and straight away he said he had the perfect place.”

Sheedy was living in Breakfast Point at the time, a gated-community on the Parramatta River.

In the Giants’ first season, the club leased close to 35 apartments there where all players and staff could live.

For the AFL’s youngest side those early years were about building relationships between the playing group, coaching and administration staff.

“Even though the togetherness of Breakfast Point was crazy at times, it was crucial,” Walsh said.

It was so important that Walsh believes developing that connection between the playing group from the outset sewed the seeds of what the club has become now.

As with starting any new sporting franchise or business, building the Giants’ brand presented its own challenges, particularly in rugby league-driven western Sydney.

Selling the game of AFL is a difficult task – Sheedy often likened it to ‘putting a second NRL club in Dandenong (a suburb in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs)’ – but, for anyone that knew him, Sheedy was the man for the job.

“Sheeds was a legend of the game and a different character – but he was the man to do it,” Walsh said.

Walsh can recall an evening in the early years where the Giants’ staff were sitting at The Palace Hotel in Sydney, determining the best possible way to attract supporters to their home games.

In typical Sheedy fashion, he suggested engaging the local Irish community – 22,642 of who were recorded in the 2011 census. The Giants would aim for a target of 1,000 members of the Irish community at their early games.

As the staff departed and returned to their apartments at Breakfast Point, Sheedy texted Walsh asking him to come to his apartment to chat further.

Walsh, who was born in Cavan, Ireland, walked into Sheedy’s apartment to find a whiteboard filled with notes.

“We started drawing up all these ideas about how we could get 1,000 Irish people into our games… that was how big his vision was,” Walsh said.

Sheedy was the early father-figure the Giants needed and Walsh said he’d be known as that for as long as the club existed.

“He sees things a little bit differently and that’s why he was the face of the club,” he said.

But, selling the game in Sydney wasn’t the only challenge the Giants’ coaches faced.

In the first draft, GWS recruited 11 of the first 14 selections and 14 picks overall.

Ahead of their first season, Walsh – who is now the program manager for the Tackle Your Feelings project run by the AFL Coaches’ Association – said he had to learn close to 40 players names and backgrounds in the space of a weekend.

“Setting that program up for the cohort of what were essentially kids that you were responsible for and had come from all over Australia was a challenge itself,” Walsh said.

“Mixing them in with the likes of Luke Power, James McDonald, Chad Cornes and Dean Brogan, who all had decorated careers, premierships and All Australians between them made for a unique mix.”

It was here where the role of Craig Lambert as player welfare manager, and his wife Mel, became critically important.

“They were like the Mum and Dad of the club… the glue that kept everything together,” Walsh explained.

In the first two years Mel would go to a supermarket and shop for all the young players on the list to buy their breakfast food and kitchen staples.

“She’d leave the supermarket with 10 or so trolleys, mostly for ‘Jezza’ Cameron, because the young guys just ate so much food.”

“Mel would do this every week to ensure the young group could focus on football and limit the impact of being away from home.”

In the Giants’ first two seasons they won just three games and finished with two consecutive wooden spoons, but despite the 100-point thrashings and challenges of not winning games of football, they learnt significantly important lessons that laid the foundations for where they are now.

In Round 7 against the Gold Coast Suns, the Giants recorded their first ever win with a 27-point victory.

It was a monumental occasion for the club and Walsh.

“They played out of their skin that day and held on to win the game… it was like they sensed this could be a real opportunity” Walsh said.

“Singing the song as a full club was a unique experience, it was the first time and not many people knew the words.

“Sheeds was leading the way with a sheet of paper that he’d printed off.”

Walsh said Sheedy was instrumental in developing a nurturing culture that cultivated relationships among the playing group.

He would often walk down the corridors of their base at Blacktown testing players on their knowledge of the Giants’ song – few would pass the test.

“He would always say, ‘One day you’re going to have to know this really well,’ and he was right,” Walsh recalled.

Despite the wins being few and far between, Sheedy’s point of view of what was important in that point in time was different to most other football clubs – it was about growth and relationships.

“Sheedy was always trying to organically grow the Giants’ brand and it’s stood up today,” Walsh said.

Part of growing that brand meant sending coaches, players and other football department staff out to regional NSW towns to ensure the Giants’ trademark charcoal and orange was front of mind.

Walsh would visit Bathurst (in NSW’s Central Tablelands) and Orange (in NSW’s Central West region) to run school and local football clinics.

“No one knew who I was and they barely knew who the players were, but it was about having our colours be visible in that area,” he explained.

“Every little thing counts and all the staff and players who have been through the club from day one have been a part of the journey in their own way.”

In 2014, former Western Bulldogs and Richmond defender Leon Cameron took over the role of senior coach at the Giants.

The 1993 Bulldogs best and fairest winner had previously worked under Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn and brought a renewed outlook to the Giants’ team.

Cameron installed more coaches and moved towards a more strategic viewpoint with the core group of the Giants’ players now in their early-20s.

“Leon came in with some new ideas about how to start playing in a different way,” Walsh said.

Cameron’s appointment coincided with the Giants’ first win over cross-town rivals Sydney in the opening round of the 2014 season.

Weeks earlier the Giants had announced they would be moving to their new facilities at Sydney Olympic Park, a decision which Walsh believes ignited belief in the group about the direction they were heading.

“That announcement gave the club this injection of belief and that win became a massive part of the journey,” he said.

That win was Walsh’s proudest moment as a GWS staff member.

For him, it was a game where the playing group and the club announced themselves to the competition.

“It was as if to say, ‘We’ve arrived and we won’t be pushed over on our home deck’.”

The ‘Battle of the Bridge’ has ebbed and flowed in recent years, with the Giants winning their most recent match by two points, but the understanding that came from those games has been critical to the growth of the club.

Come Saturday, there is a far bigger challenge for the Giants to embrace as they embark on their first ever Grand Final appearance.

Four consecutive finals series and crucial defeats in those years have taught the young side how to win.

“I hope they come down and show their worth,” Walsh said.

“If they play with a little bit of flair, hopefully they can go on and win the premiership.”