Review: Shake Down the Thunder- From Ugly Ducklings to AFL Premiers: The Story of the Sydney Swans
By Jim Main
Shake Down the Thunder (Published by Geoff Slattery Publishing) is veteran AFL journalist and author Jim Main’s latest work and details the troubled, but ultimately successful, history of the Sydney Swans in the AFL’s most difficult market. Main has undergone extensive research and nearly a 100 interviews to detail a turbulent 25 years in football history from the words of the people involved. For the first time, one of the AFL’s most controversial, but little-known story is finally told in this gripping and extensive account.
The story of the Sydney Swans is not your run-of-the-mill sporting fairytale of brief torment before ultimate joy. Instead the Swans endured almost everything for the best part of 25 years: a difficult and passionate relocation; poor facilities and no venue to train on for many years that would never be tolerated in today’s modern game; financial difficulties that had the club hours from folding on more than one occasion and equally horrendous performances on the field.
But like any great story there is a silver lining, Swans tragic Main gives a detailed account of the events on the 24th September 2005, when the new ‘Bloods’ claimed the club’s first flag in 72 years in their dramatic four-point victory over West Coast and sent the city of Sydney into pandemonium.
“So many did things did happen; a number of private ownership struggles for instance. I could have written a number of books, there are so many stories,” Main tells AFANA. “But there are already 280 pages in the book and over 90 interviews so I think it would have been too much to do a number of books, but the club has gone through so much.”
It’s these interviews that is what helps sets the book apart. Rather than launch into his own tirade, Main tells the remarkable story of the Swans through the words of those involved in the frontline, which Main says was a conscious idea from the start having been inspired by sports books of the past that did the same. Equally as impressive, was Main’s ability to track down his interview subjects, many of whom had disappeared off the face of the football world.
“There were some people that were difficult to track down. It wasn’t like getting their number through the phone book. I had to do a lot of work to find some of them,” Main said. “For instance, there was Brad Scott who was briefly the Swans coach before Ron Barassi took over (so brief in fact he coached two games), he was particularly difficult, he was running a trucking company I think, so it was difficult to track him down.”
Despite Main’s amazing effort to track almost virtual unknowns down, there was one obvious absentee from the book, arguably the Swans’ greatest ever recruit. “Tony Lockett didn’t want to be involved in the book and I’m fine with that. Tony is a private person and I have no problems with him not being involved,” Main says.
Main does admit it was a point of his to tell ‘bandwagon’ supporters who have enjoyed the club’s recent success that being a Swans fan was never so easy. “It was because I have been a Swans supporter since I was a boy and have seen them struggle for years,” he said. “They hadn’t won a final since 1945, so I hadn’t seen them win a final until 1996 and then they won the Premiership last year.”
If the Swans’ turbulent history in Sydney was not enough, against it is also the backdrop of 100-odd years of history back at South Melbourne, the club’s former home, and Main says some have forgiven the passionate move, but not forgotten. “I interviewed a couple of people from the keep South at South group who felt passionate about that cause, like John Keogh, who led South at South and president of the club for some time.”
Not all of the Swans early years were a struggle, however, and if things on the field had turned out differently, so could have the course of the club’s history. “1986-87 was a great opportunity to win the Premiership,” Main says of the years the Swans had a talented list but went out of both finals series in straight sets. “If they had won a flag then it would have been fantastic. If they could have won in 1996 when they made the Grand Final it would have been fantastic.”
“What it would have done for the game in Sydney then if we had won it would have been terrific. I think we would be seeing what we are seeing now 10 or 20 years earlier.”
However, if the idea for Shake Down the Thunder gives you the impression that the war for AFL in Sydney has finally been won, Main is far from that view. “No actually it isn’t. We haven’t achieved anything as yet as an AFL city in Sydney. We are nowhere near as big as rugby league or rugby union; there is still a lot of work to do. We got 39,000 against Adelaide last weekend and 60,000 against Collingwood a couple of weeks ago, which is great, but we are still a long way from winning the battle,” he says.
So will it ever happen one day? “Yes I think we can achieve it but we are still a long way away, but it is possible for Sydney to be an AFL city,” says the author of over 50 AFL-related books.
To fully appreciate how difficult the push into Sydney has been, you only need to look at the caliber of people who have been involved in trying to make to make it a success, from former VFL president Dr Allen Aylett to the great Ron Barassi. When asked who has been the most significant person in the club’s history in Sydney, Main looks more recent.
“Richard Colless (current Swans Chairman), probably along with Andrew McMaster (current director and chairman of the finance committee), who is a good friend of mine, have probably been the most influential in making the club successful, but certainly Colless. He was the inaugural president of West Coast but what he has done for our club has been outstanding,” Main says.
“To have had someone like Ron Barassi involved with the club was fantastic. But I think Paul Roos, for what he has achieved in winning us the Premiership, as far as I’m concerned, he can be coach of the club for life.”
With Sydney undergoing a mid-season slump having lost their last three, Main believes the Crows are the team to beat should the Swans not go back-to-back. “After seeing Adelaide thrash us by 39 points, I think they will win the flag. They have some terrific players and will hard to beat.”
For Swans fans, Shake Down the Thunder is an essential read on the history and struggles of your club before last year’s ultimate success. For the rest of us, it is a fascinating and well-written insight into an age when national expansion and corporations were all the rage and the remarkable story of a club who survived virtually everything thrown at them to reach the top of the AFL mountain.
*Shake Down the Thunder is available through most Australian-based online book stores or through the Sydney Swans on-line shop, shop.afl.com.au/swans (RRP A$35)
Review by Frank Ienco
AFANA Sydney Correspondent
Article last changed on Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - 11:57 PM EDT