Sydney co-captain Callum Mills leads his side out against West Coast in round 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

CALLUM Mills was seen as a future skipper of Sydney before he had even been drafted by the Swans. But the now co-captain of the club has worked hard on his leadership style over years as one of the best players in the game. 

The Sydney midfield star spoke with Cal Twomey this week for Cal's Q&A about the Swans' finals plans, how they got back on track, the disappointment of last year's Grand Final, his growing empathy, BMX biking, American footballs and his time at the Giants.

Where were you for the drama on Saturday night when Ben Keays had his shot for goal?
I was on the goal line watching it. It was hard to see it from my angle because you get pushed and shoved around but I'll back the umpire in!

The Swans always seem to be involved in goal-line dramas… there was the Dane Rampe post, the goalpost padding hurt Jake Lloyd earlier this year, then there was the Port Adelaide scrum in round four with the early celebrations.
Yeah, I don't know why that is. Hopefully we've learnt a lot out of this process that we don't want to get to that stage and if we do we know what to do. Hopefully we don't put our fans through any more heart attacks late in quarters.

I don't think I've actually heard you talk about the Port Adelaide one…
For good reason, I think.

How did you review that at the time after those early celebrations?
It was pretty obvious after the game. 'Horse' (coach John Longmire) spoke to me and a few of the others and ideally we don't want to get to that point. But also he said protect the line and just don't assume it's going in. Never assume – that's Horse's number one rule.

Sydney player react after their loss to Port Adelaide in round four, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

We all probably assumed Sydney's season was over when you lost to the Tigers at the MCG and were six wins after 17 rounds. How did you stay in the hunt?
We've just always believed. We know what we're capable of as a group and I think everyone saw that last year. The frustrating thing is we had shown it in patches through the year but weren't able to tie it together. As clichéd as it was, the only way to get into the finals was to keep winning each week. We threw the results out the window and stuck to the process and it started to turn around for us. We have really strong, even contribution across the whole ground.

When you have taken stock through the year, how much of a factor do you think the Grand Final loss last year was in the ups and downs?
I don't know, it was hard to say. We had a lot of injuries which was one part and then a few of us lacked form and things like that. Tying the elements together was really important and once we got everyone back on track and training together we put in a really solid block of training and usually that's a big indicator to performing on weekends.

It's the second year of your co-captaincy. How has that developed?
It's just nice having the three of us (with Luke Parker and Dane Rampe) bouncing off each other. We're all pretty different to each other but we want the same goals as the group and we bring different strengths and to lean on each other has been a big part of this year because it's been quite up and down. I'm pretty happy with the way the group's been able to galvanise and go towards finals.

Luke Parker, John Longmire and Callum Mills at the Swans' 2023 photo day. Picture: AFL Photos

Before you were drafted everyone saw you as a future captain of the Swans. Did you recognise that and how did that shape you?
Not really. I kind of had the blinkers on when I was younger. I was hard on myself and that's how I got better and I probably did that too much to others and I didn't understand differences between players and lacked empathy sometimes in driving standards. That's something that I've really worked on and Horse has been unbelievable with me at that. My strength is obviously driving standards and being tough on where we go but to add that softening on the outside is something I've had to work on and Horse has been really good with me for that.

What are the ways you learnt that?
Horse gave me a couple of books to read which I did over my journey. It was just constant chats as well between us and going through experiences and realising I could have done something differently. I think Horse always backed that my intentions were good and you never want to lose your strengths as a leader and the rest will come. That was always the advice I was given.

Do you look back now and smirk or smile about certain instances where you had been so strong-willed?
Oh, absolutely. I don't think it's a smirk… more a cringe. There's a few things like that over the journey where I just went 'Oh gosh, Cal' but I think it's always come from a good place. There was one in the AFL Academy when we had to do a push-up punishment and I was getting into someone because they weren't doing it well enough and looking back on it he was a big ruckman who was 17 years old and never done a push up in his life and I've got an expectation that he needs to do push-ups. I look back and cringe really hard.

Callum MIlls in action for NSW/ACT against Oakleigh Chargers in 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

The first juncture of your career was probably when you were 13 and Andrew Pridham, a family friend and also the Swans' now president, wanted to see if you'd play some games of footy with his son's side while you were also playing rugby union. Do you think you could have progressed as a rugby player?
No, I don't think so. I can't sit here and say I would be able to because I genuinely don't believe I would have been able to. It's a tough sport and those guys are unbelievable at what they do. I was 14 – I'm sure you would've seen a lot of younger footballers tracking well in your role and never make it so I think I would have been one of those kids.

You did have Aussie rules in the blood, though. Your grandfather Ray was a top player in the WAFL.
He played for Perth Demons and played a couple of state games for WA. He played more than 100 games and was a wingman and half-forward and he reckons he was a pretty handy player so I'll take him on his word. He loves the footy and is in Sydney so he gets to a lot of the games, he wouldn't miss one. I'm probably pretty slack for calling him back every now and again, so I apologise Pa, but he's really good and he lives and breathes footy. Even his mates here and in Perth follow my career pretty heavily and he's proud of what I've done. He had an 80th birthday this year and all of his mates were pretty chuffed to meet me and talk about games and things like that so that's pretty cool when you have those types of experiences.

In a similar vein, the first time I interviewed you as a 17-year-old, you told me that as a kid you asked your mum why she hadn't named you Tony after Tony Lockett because you were a big Swans fan. How does it sit with you that kids are now look at you in a similar way?
I haven't sat back and thought about it too much but every now and then you do. My nephews are now starting to collect footy cards and that's the times when you think 'Oh, that's pretty cool' because I used to do that when I was younger and you never see yourself in the light that you saw the superstars you always looked up to.

You've been in the Swans' red and white forever – but actually swapped it for a week at the Giants in your draft year. Do you recall that training stint?  
There is a photo out there of me wearing orange. It doesn't help my hair but it's out there. I remember that week quite vividly. It was a great experience, Leon Cameron was the coach so it's funny how these things turn and now he's at the Swans Academy. Jacob Hopper was going to train at the Swans and he was in the Giants Academy and Leon brought me into his office the first day I was at the Giants and said 'To be fair on both sides you're both not going to go to team meetings but we're pumped to have you here mate and have a crack'. It was definitely weird but Leon was really awesome and made me calm at the start which was nice.

NSW products Matthew Kennedy, Callum Mills and Jacob Hopper after the 2015 AFL Draft. Picture: AFL Photos

You looked calm at the start of your career winning the Rising Star in your first year, playing in a Grand Final that season as well. Did you find the adjustment easier than you thought you would?
It made it easier that I was around the club for the six months before the draft and meeting people. That's sometimes the biggest step you have to overcome as a kid – all of a sudden Buddy Franklin's not your favourite player, he's your teammate. I had that adjustment pretty early and I walked into an experienced team which makes things really helpful for a first-year player. I was getting steered around at half-back and I didn't really know what I was doing the first few games. They mopped up for me and helped me a lot.

A first real setback came in 2018 when you missed half a season with a broken foot after falling over while throwing an American football on a way to a café. Did you ban that ball thereafter?
It's not a fond moment. I tripped and broke my foot on a gutter and it was pretty disappointing, I was pretty shattered. I was out for the rest of the year but sometimes those things happen in life. You feel like you let your teammates down but it is what it is and I just have to go through rehab. I'd never experienced rehab so I had a crack and got back. The American footy didn't come to the café again, that's for sure.

How many questions do you think you've had across your career about moving into the midfield from defence?
Oh, every pre-season there'd be an article saying 'Is Mills going to go in the midfield?' and I'd have a conversation with a journalist saying 'I don't know' because I genuinely didn't know. I really loved my time in defence and I still spend some time down there a little bit. It was Horse's idea to set a good foundation to be a two-way footballer and it was also what the team needed at the time. I really enjoyed it.

Callum Mills is tackled by Nick Daicos in Sydney's clash with Collingwood in round eight, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Last year saw you make that shift permanently and claim the best and fairest and All-Australian honours. Can you describe the confidence you play with when everything is going like that?
It sounds complicated but really you just play. When you're in form you just play. You see Errol (Gulden) at the moment and he's just in incredible form and you look at the kid and he's just playing off his natural instincts. You still make errors but you don't think about it because you're just playing and having a really good time and cracking in and having fun. That's the outcome of a lot of hard work, sacrifice and being professional so that come game day you just play.

2023 didn't end how you'd want it with the Grand Final against Geelong. Have you watched any of it back? Are there things that stay with you all summer?
I've seen bits and pieces but not majorly. There's not really anything. It's something you've got to try and let go and move on and that's what we did pretty soon afterwards. You have to acknowledge it and understand what it was but there's also a time when you have to leave it in the past and we did that pretty well I thought. We met after the Grand Final and didn't let it linger all the way to pre-season. We met as a group and spoke about it.

You did a little media conference in the rooms after that loss. How do you get the words out in those moments?
That was tough, just purely because you felt like you let a lot of people down. But that's footy, that's life, sometimes you have to go through those things. We got to the Grand Final, we had a crack, we played some good footy that year but it wasn't our day. We didn't perform that day and that's just the result of what happened really.

Callum Mills speaks to reporters after Sydney's loss to Geelong in the 2022 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Everyone has always praised your toughness. How does going for a hard ball compare to doing a bunch of BMX flips at a high level? Tell us about your brother Lewis.
That's one of the best questions I've had in my career. My little brother is an unbelievable BMX rider and it's quite funny because when he was younger we'd sometimes take the piss out of him about going slow on his bike when we were growing up and now we have a laugh about it because he's the toughest of the lot of us. He jumps down rails without even being able to see them. It's pretty gnarly the stuff he does, and running and chasing a footy compared to grinding down some stairs and doing backflips is pretty small, I think. He gets big rolled ankles but in that industry they don't go and get scans and get the doctor to look at them the next day. He just has a beer and moves on and tries to ride the next day.

It's obviously a very different caper but do you take some inspiration from what he's doing?
100 per cent. I'm grateful to play footy because he does it pretty tough – it's an individual sport, there's no one looking out for him, there's no wellness, there's no doctor or head coach. You're pretty much on your own with your mates and trying to make the most of it. To see the dedication and time he puts into it you realise you have it pretty good at the club to have people guide you around and do that. He's a really dedicated guy and that's something I draw inspiration out of for sure.

You're not one to crave the limelight. Why's that?
I just like doing my business and playing footy with my mates. Sometimes a lot of the extra stuff I don't really enjoy but I love what footy is and the outside stuff I let those guys who enjoy doing it go for it and I just like doing me sometimes.

Success can bring the spotlight from a team point of view. How far can you go this year?
We're just going to be chipping away at it and throw the kitchen sink at it and have a red-hot crack. There's no limits we're going to talk about. We'll play the footy we want and what's got us into the finals is the process. The results will look after themselves if we have a genuine crack and play the way we want to.