by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago
It is 1981 and a proposition is on the VFL table to relocate the financially strapped club South Melbourne to Sydney. They had previously played a handful of games there but now it would be a permanent move. There was great angst among South fans at the prospect. A "Keep South at South" movement was started and they fought to keep their beloved club in Melbourne. However, it was a case of move or fold and in 1982 the club moved to Sydney. Unlike Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney today, there was no detailed planning, no draft concessions for the South players who refused to move, little financial backing or publicity to boost their profile once the move was made.
Everyone involved was left to their own devices. When the players, some married with expectant wives, arrived at the Sydney airport, they were handed a local phone book to find accommodations, doctors, hospitals, jobs (football was not at this point totally professional and most players had other jobs) and other necessary services. There were no proper training facilities and the club was left to sort itself out. Players arrived at one training session at their makeshift facility to find the footballs were flat. With no air pump, the group jogged with the balls to a nearby gas station to pump them up then jogged back. Needless to say, 1982 was not a great success, with the team finishing in seventh place (that year was a Final Five). They remained in the lower regions of the standings for the next several seasons. Respected Premiership coach Tom Hafey replaced John Northey (later to coach Brisbane and Richmond) who had replaced Ricky Quade. He took the club to second in 1986 and third in 1987, but then departed and the club again fell on lean times. 1986 also saw a radical departure from the VFL norm with the wealthy Dr Geoffery Edelstein becoming the first private owner of a VFL club. It did not last long and the club reverted to the traditional League licensing in 1988. The slide down the ladder continued, with finishes in seventh place over the next two years. The downhill momentum only got worse in the following seasons with the best finish 12th in 1991 and 1995.
The adversity the Swans faced in those early years after the move worked in their favor, with the players bonding together to survive, not only on field but off the field as well. The surge to success began when Rodney Eade came in as senior coach in 1996. Although they lost the Grand Final to North Melbourne, the Swans were well and truly on the path to success. Under Eade, they made the Finals every year except 2000 and 2002. No disgrace there as no team would have stood a chance in 2000 against a dominant Essendon (with only one loss during the season) or the rampaging Brisbane in 2002 (on their way to the second of three consecutive Premierships).
Champion defender Paul Roos became an assistant coach after his retirement from playing in 1998. With the club struggling in 2002, Eade was told his contract would not be renewed. He opted to step aside and Roos took over for the remainder of the season. The Swans won more games than they lost under Roos. The club then went through the usual process of interviewing coaching candidates, including Roos. When it leaked out to the media that the club was considering former Bulldog and Richmond coach Terry Wallace, Swans' supporters went ballistic and bombarded the club with calls, emails, texts and the like in support of Roos. He got the gig and went about instilling a winning culture. If anyone knew the pain of loss, it was Roos. Drafted to Fitzroy in 1982, he left the struggling club in 1994 (two years before they merged with Brisbane) as he sensed the club was going nowhere and already in financial difficulty. Roos pulled the club up into the Finals and they stayed there for the next three years. Their best finish in the first two was a Preliminary Final in 2003. Again, this was no disgrace as they were facing the dominant Brisbane (on their way to their third Premiership).
According to an article in the Melbourne Age in 2006, Roos engaged a leadership consultant in 2003 to assist the club in establishing leadership objectives in the wake of the retirements of club stalwarts Paul Kelly and Andrew Dunkley. Sessions involved discussions on how they were perceived and how they wanted to be perceived by the opposition. This brought about a change in attitude and ethos. The Swans decided they did not want to be viewed with the passive nature of their namesake and adopted a new code. This was not only accepted by Roos, but he gave "ownership" to the players to create a bond that would see them play with and for each other, to never give in and do whatever what was required to improve. This ethos spilled over to the supporters as well, both those in Sydney and the die-hard South fans in Melbourne. Internally the club re-adopted the Bloods name and it showed on the field, with many instances of blood being spilled as the players fought tooth and nail for a win.
This was the origin of the Swans' current style of play in which there is no compromise, strong discipline and total commitment to team. They adopted the method which has become their trademark style of play - head over the football, creating contests, winning contests, one on one football and suffocating the opposition. The blood-and-guts play was no more apparent than in the 2005 Grand Final when Brett Kirk had to finish out the game in a protective helmet due to a hard knock and Jude Bolton finished the game with his head swathed in bandages after receiving 12 stitches.
This player code has been ingrained into every player who joins the Swans, whether it be a new draftee or recycled players from other clubs. Any new player walking in to the club is told of this culture, the history of South Melbourne to Sydney and what is required. Any breach will be dealt with. Nick Davis, former player and hero of the 2005 Semi Final learned the hard way in 2006, when he proclaimed in a public interview that he was being made a scapegoat for the team's mid-season slump. His teammates were infuriated and he had to work to win back their respect as well as his place in the seniors. It was a harsh lesson, but one Davis himself admitted he had to learn. If you want to be part of the Sydney team, there can be no deviation from the code the players have adopted for on field and off field behavior.
Sydney has a strong history of retaining players and an excellent track record in drafting and trading. It showed in 2005 with the team winning 15 games to finish third. During the season, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou labeled the Swans' style of one on one and shut down play as "ugly". The Swans ignored the criticism and continued playing the way to take out the 2005 Premiership, with co-captain Brett Kirk proclaiming on the dais with the Premiership Cup in hand, "This is for the Bloods!"
Kirk is retired, as are a number of the heroes of that day. Paul Roos has handed the coaching reins over to former assistant John Longmire, himself a Premiership player with North Melbourne. However some old hands are still there, Adam Goodes and Jude Bolton among them. The "Bloods" culture is strong, thriving and will continue.
Source: Melbourne Age, Shake Down The Thunder, AFL Record Season Guide, SEN interview with Tadhg Kennelly
Article last changed on Sunday, September 30, 2012 - 1:21 PM EDT