AFL: ‘Why can’t it be us?’: Bond, belief driving Sydney Swans

It was no surprise where most of the Swans’ young stars spent their Friday night before Saturday’s huge preliminary final clash with Collingwood at the SCG.

The Guldens again hosted however many Sydney players – usually about 15 – wanted a pre-match pasta feed before piling onto the couch, or any other seat, to watch the footy.

The tradition began this year before home games, instigated by second-year sensation Errol Gulden’s mum, Bron, who also happens to be the backline coach for the Swans’ AFLW team.

They won the first few matches after the Gulden dinners began, so figured it was worth continuing.

Gulden and Nick Blakey are two of the few Swans footballers who grew up in Sydney, meaning most of the new arrivals know no one but their teammates and coaches.

Bron wanted to give the interstaters somewhere to eat that had a ‘homely’ feel, and their Malabar home is only a few minutes’ drive from Maroubra, where most of the Swans’ young guns live.

The final piece of the puzzle is Gulden’s dad Ibo’s restaurant, Henry’s At The Coast, at The Coast Golf Club, where Chad Warner, Dylan Stephens and Gulden regularly play then eat.

“We get a lot of the pasta pre-made at dad’s restaurant, then all the boys come over at 6pm on a Friday, if we’re playing on a Saturday, and it’s just whoever wants to come,” Gulden told News Corp.

“There’s generally a crew of about 15 or 16 who will come over, so we’ll play a bit of pool and darts then chuck the footy on once it starts, but we’ll all kind of sit down on a big table, with a few boys outside as well.

“We have a nice feed and I’ve got a few dogs as well, so a lot of the boys who have dogs back home love playing with my dogs because they miss their own dogs.”

It might technically be unconnected to the football club but is exactly what Sydney officials try to do to flip the script on what could be a disadvantage.

Instead of placing fresh draftees with host parents like other AFL clubs do, the Swans mix and match particular personalities and players into leased properties in Maroubra as part of a housing program.

A player, or players, in their second or third season are housed with teenage recruits.

The goal is two-fold: the club’s newest footballers become more independent and learn good habits, while the slightly older players develop leadership skills, as head of wellbeing and development Brett Kirk explains.

“We want to upskill them in their development really quickly, both on and off the field, then because of that set-up, they establish really strong relationships,” Kirk said.

“That’s not only in the house they may be in, but there are three or four different houses when they go out and grab coffee or have a feed together or go to recovery.

“They’re getting taught all the time, all the right habits, then generally what happens is once they’re out of the program, they’ll go off and live together, anyway, because they become such great mates.”

That is the case for Blakey, Tom McCartin and James Rowbottom, who have graduated from the housing program but still live together, along with Rowbottom’s girlfriend, Bel.

The Warner brothers – Chad and Corey – Logan McDonald, Stephens and mid-season draftee Hugo Hall-Kahan are part of the program in a hectic five-bedroom place right on the beach.

Gulden remains at home to retain his escape from football, but another Sydney Academy product, Braeden Campbell, one of the quieter Sydney cygnets, shares a home with Angus Sheldrick and Marc Sheather.

“The thing about being in Sydney and when you are drafted, most players are not from Sydney, so everything we do of a weekend and off-field is always together,” Blakey said.

“I’m from Sydney and I’ve got a good bunch of schoolmates here but I’m one of the only ones, so I think that makes our group unique.

“When you actually spend time with each other off-field and see what each other enjoys doing and what people are passionate about, it only makes you play better football.

“We’ve been able to show this year how close we are as a team. We all genuinely care about each other – and not just the young boys … the club in general has got a real family, close-knit bond.”

A combination of savvy drafting and recruiting, plus, yes, some excellent Academy talents, fast-tracked the Swans’ rebuild, which effectively took only two years with consecutive bottom-four finishes in 2019-20.

None of Chad Warner, Tom McCartin, Justin McInerney or James Rowbottom, who turns 22 on Monday, was a first-round draft pick out of the emerging crop but each is critical to Sydney’s success.

“Our recruiting team has done a great job with the players they brought in, then John and the coaching team saw what they had to offer,” Kirk said.

“It’s not like games were given away – they had to earn them.

“There’s been a nucleus of young guys who have been able to play a lot of footy together over the last two- to three-year period, which I think has worked really well for us as a footy club.”

The Swans’ intangibles also made a major difference, from Longmire and his coaches, to Tom Harley, Charlie Gardiner and the rest of the off-field team, to the housing program and the Bloods culture, to name just a few.

Longmire’s ability to instil almost instant belief in his players cannot be underestimated either.

“‘Horse’ (Longmire) has been saying for a couple of years now, ‘Why can’t it be us?’,” Blakey said.

“A lot of us might be young but I’ve played 70 games, Rowy’s played about the same and Tommy’s played more than that. We’ve all played enough league football now and know what it takes.

“We haven’t all played a lot of finals but then we’ve got the older boys who have, so we’ve got a good balance. There’s no reason why our time’s not now and we’ve said that all year.”

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