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It’s as long odds as Carlton making the eight, but if Geelong is upset by the Ablett-less Suns, we know what will happen. Fingers will be directed at particular players, whose skill, commitment or age will be queried in public forums.
Fans will fulminate on talk-back and social media. Stories will be written about the slow demise of the Ling Dynasty, about rebuilding and whether Chris Scott ‘‘has a plan B’’ — forget that he coached a flag in 2011. Alternatively, in the much more probable scenario that the Cats cream the Suns — who were, lest we forget, flogged by skinny St Kilda — what will happen to those Suns players and staff?
Well, Rodney Eade might give them a rocket, or deliver some more inconvenient truths. Then they’ll travel silently up the Geelong freeway in the team bus to Tullamarine, get on a plane and head back to the beach. They won’t cop questions at K-Mart when they’re buying groceries. They won’t be slammed on Twitter or Facebook by ten thousand fanatics. Past players won’t call them lazy or lacking in courage, because the Suns don’t have past players. When they turn up at training, bathe in the Broadbeach water and the gentle warmth of the sun, the hangers-on won’t be seen whispering about what’s wrong.
The coterie groups won’t be plotting the overthrow of the board. The chairman won’t be forced to say much, besides that they haven’t been playing well — not helped by the absences of Gazza and Jaeger O’Meara — and that he’s confident it will turn around. In short, no one — besides the people inside the club, whose AFL-backed jobs are on the line — will really care. ‘‘Most of the people on the Gold Coast won’t know if they’ve won or not,’’ said former Sun and Hawthorn premiership player Campbell Brown, who reckoned the Suns were ‘‘shielded from criticism — or any sort of football up there’’.
Brown felt the Suns were spared from the both extremes of the external blow torch — the plus was that they did not receive ‘‘drink cards for Collingwood players’’, after an intoxicating win. ‘‘They’re not copping the praise and not copping the criticism.’’ Traditional clubs have baggage, in the manner of a thrice-divorced bloke with two sets of kids and alimony payments. They have past players who think they deserve a job in the footy department, past players and officials with scores to settle, supporters who question the club’s direction and won’t be patient, businessmen with a lean and hungry look who are eyeing a board seat. They have cheer squad factions (remember the ‘‘Richmond Grog Squad’’). They have legacies — positive and negative.
That’s because they’re clubs. The Suns, at this stage of their development, cannot be considered a real club. Like Greater Western Sydney, they’re still in the franchise phase. They don’t have all those elements — many of which are toxic — that take decades to create. The Swans have a story — it starts in South Melbourne and involves existential struggles in two cities, Warwick Capper and the excess of Doc Edelsten, Plugger Lockett and then the creation — or re-creation — of the successful Bloods. ‘‘It’s just not a normal football club vibe,’’ Brown said of the Suns, whose kids had been given games, without necessarily earning them, as in established clubs. Having zero history can be a blessing. It means you have no rap sheet — no trauma to overcome; few skeletons hidden behind the linen. But it must also be said that this lack of history — which is multiplied in a developing market (Fremantle and West Coast are torch carriers for football in the west) — can be detrimental to a club’s development. Karmichael Hunt’s drug charges — and the widely feared possibility that the scandal would engulf the Suns — was possibly the only time that ‘‘club’’ has really felt the kind of external heat that is de rigeur for Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon. Brown saw the difference between the traditional club and the start-up franchise in the apparent lack of a response to Gold Coast’s loss to Melbourne. ‘‘I think the effort against St Kilda was probably worse than the Melbourne game.’’
The Gold Coast’s under-performers were shielded, too, by the media’s ongoing obsession with Ablett, whose shoulder and the question of whether he should be playing, became the main take out from the Melbourne game. Ablett is a more compelling story for the viewers, listeners and readers than the other 40 players combined. It is no accident that Ablett has been referred to a ‘‘franchise player’’ — as distinct from what he represented at Geelong: one champion among many at a storied football club. Compare the reaction to Carlton’s losses — even the relatively respectable defeat by Richmond — to the much-less defensible Gold Coast performances. If the Giants are faring better on the field, this is largely because they don’t rely on an Ablett, haven’t lost an O’Meara and, as most clubs say, their playing list also is clearly stronger than the Suns.
Yet the Giants still face the same problem of the empty franchise in a place where the game is alien. Back in 2013, a wizened football figure who’s seen it all, suggested to me that Jeremy Cameron should leave the Giants. He thought the Demons ought to back-up the truck and pay ‘‘Jez’’ the kind of ‘‘whatever it takes’’ contract that the Bulldogs handed to Tom Boyd. ‘‘Why,’’ I replied. ‘‘The Giants will be a successful team.’’ The veteran official agreed — GWS would likely succeed on the field. ‘‘But,’’ he added, ‘‘who will care if he wins win flags there?’’ One suspects it was this fear of exile from main street — the sense that you might be the proverbial tree that falls in the forest that no one hears — that saw Buddy Franklin choose the Swans over GWS.
This is not to say that the expansion teams can’t develop meaningful, engaged fan bases, or that they can’t foster a culture within their own walls that makes them worth fighting for on the field. In time — and we’re talking a long haul — they should have internecine board battles, salary cap rorts, real drug scandals and past players bagging them after a loss. They should have champions who stood up and battlers who made a difference. In time, they’ll have a story worth telling and people who care. We can only hope they become clubs. The game can’t afford mere franchises.
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