WHEN AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan walked onto stage in a tuxedo last Wednesday night to announce Toby Greene as the 2023 All-Australian captain, pride enveloped the room inside Melbourne Park. Family and friends beamed from nearby tables, just like they did from the comfort of their own living rooms in Melbourne, Sydney and beyond. But there was a young boy in Burnie who leapt off the couch in celebration.
Lucas Reid grew up supporting Richmond. Jack Riewoldt and Dustin Martin were once his favourite players, but there is only one Toby Greene. They have become friends since the Greater Western Sydney skipper connected with the young Tasmanian in the aftermath of the tragedy at Hillcrest Primary School in December 2021.
Reid was on the jumping castle the day six children died and three others were badly injured. When Giants CEO Dave Matthews was told about the Tasmanian’s passion for the club's famous No. 4 via his brother Simon – Richmond's chief marketing officer – he knew Greene would want to do something. He just didn't know it would result in phone calls and Facetimes between Reid and his father, a spot running out on the ground and singing the song after a win over North Melbourne last year.
This is hardly new. Matthews has been at the expansion club since October 2011, arriving a month before Greene was the ninth player selected by Greater Western Sydney in the first AFL Draft the club was on the clock. He has seen the cheeky, whip-smart teenager blossom into a universally admired star, from a draft bolter to a three-time All-Australian who will turn 30 later this month, even if a few missteps along the way have put a target on his back at times.
In a market where Greene is rarely recognised in public and sometimes required to show his accreditation when taking the players and staff entry into Giants Stadium, moments like this year's AFL Awards night mean even more to a club built from scratch just over a decade ago, a club still fighting for relevance in a fickle New South Wales landscape.
"He goes to great lengths with members and supporters to provide support. I got an email today from the father of a young Tasmanian kid who survived the jumping castle incident," Matthews told AFL.com.au this week ahead of Saturday’s elimination final.
"Toby has seen him a few times since then. His dad sent us an email today about how he and his son sat down and watched the All-Australian and this little kid said he felt like he helped mentor Toby, which was very funny. They were so pumped for him.
"Toby makes every sponsor, every member, every coterie group feel a connection to him personally. He is on first name basis with people in the cheer squad. That is just how he is. There are so many people who would have felt a strong sense of pride when he was named All-Australian captain."
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Adam Kingsley signalled his intentions during the process when he won his first senior coaching role at Greater Western Sydney last August. Under his leadership, the club wouldn't have co-captains, even despite the success enjoyed by crosstown rivals Sydney. Richmond did it in his final year at Punt Road and he didn’t like it. There would be only one.
The Giants had reverted to the co-captaincy model in 2022. Leon Cameron had thought the time was right for Greene to take over as sole captain, but with five more games of the six-game suspension to serve for making contact with an umpire in the 2021 elimination final, the timing simply wasn't right. It meant Greene and Josh Kelly joined Stephen Coniglio as co-captains last year, two years after the West Australian had taken over from Phil Davis and Callan Ward.
Greater Western Sydney considered the ramifications of demoting Coniglio and Kelly in favour of Greene during the pre-season. All three had different strengths. All three had different weaknesses. But amid a period of widespread change following the departure of long-term coach Cameron and then caretaker coach Mark McVeigh - and his temporary coaching panel - Greene was made solo skipper in a landmark moment for the AFL's youngest franchise.
"When you hire a new coach, the starting point is: what does he want? What is his philosophy? He was really clear at the outset on wanting one captain. He wasn't particularly sure who. He wanted to get to know everyone, and he wanted to run a thorough process," Matthews explained.
"He is incredibly intelligent himself and so open and honest. I think because he was so open and honest with the three of them about what might play out it has worked so well. Ultimately, he has been vindicated, by not just Toby's form, but the fact Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly have probably had their best seasons. All three of them have been fantastic and all three have played significant leadership roles, it just happens that Toby is the one that is carrying the mantle of captain. The All-Australian captaincy was something that I really felt he certainly deserved. But I also think Stephen Coniglio making the squad and Josh Kelly being not far off it just shows how good their years have been."
Paul Connors signed Greene when the Ashburton Redbacks product was dominating for Wesley College in the APS competition. He had been overlooked by the Oakleigh Chargers as a bottom-ager and only just made the list in his draft year. Then things changed. He earned a late call-up to Vic Metro, was then named that squad's best player and became an All-Australian. When the then Essendon supporter sat down with Connors over a steak with Michael Hurley one night at Squire's Loft in South Yarra, he became part of the Connors Stable.
The veteran agent had been introduced to Greene via connections at the Glen Iris Cricket Club, where the future superstar’s uncle Paul McDermott and cousin Tom McDermott spent plenty of Saturdays in summer standing in the slips cordon next to wicketkeeper Connors in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs.
Since its establishment in 1999, Connors Sports Management has become one of the big players in the agency space, representing Brownlow Medallists and Coleman Medallists, premiership players and coaches, hundreds of players across the journey. Connors has seen the game evolve into the full-time national code it is today, playing his part in the evolution. He has been there every step of the way with Greene: the tribunal visits, the Kevin Sheedy Medal and the heartache.
One can only imagine how big Greene would be if he played for Collingwood, Carlton or Richmond. But Connors believes Greater Western Sydney has been the ideal place for Greene to develop his game and mature as a person, away from the bright lights of Melbourne and the goldfish environments in Adelaide or Perth.
"I think it has been the perfect fit. They've been wonderful for him, he's been wonderful for them, just one of those win-win relationships for want of a better word. I think it was important for him to move away from Melbourne," Connors says.
Now that Matt de Boer has retired, Greene is considered the most dedicated player to life away from football inside the Giants' headquarters in Sydney Olympic Park. He has completed a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in International Business and Marketing and a Master of Business Administration, around business investments and internships at finance institutions in the harbour city. This year, Greene has launched 5th Quarter Camps with Swans poster boy Isaac Heeney.
"That's the key thing that people don’t understand," Connors said. "He is highly intelligent. He has been good at networking and preparing for life after footy. He has connected well with the right people, just listened and learned, surrounded himself with the right mentors up there. He is not your typical footballer. He has it sorted, that’s for sure. My view is he has definitely been misunderstood. We are starting to see now the public get to see the person he really is and always has been."
Aaron Cadman arrived in Sydney at the start of last December, days after Greater Western Sydney used the first pick in the 2022 AFL Draft to select him, weeks after Giants GM Jason McCartney executed a trade to secure pick No. 1 in the mega deal that led to Jason Horne-Francis moving from Arden Street to Alberton.
The Greater Western Victoria Rebels product grew up in Darley, a small country town just out of Bacchus Marsh, and had never lived in a major city before spending his first two weeks in Sydney living with Greene and his partner, Georgia Stirton, and their dalmatian Oreo in the couple’s two-bedroom home in Bondi Junction.
"I was pretty lucky. For the first two weeks, I was in with 'Tubs' and it was a great experience," Cadman said. "It got me in good habits from the start, seeing how he goes about day-to-day life, how he prepares for training sessions, even just what he takes to training. I think it really helped me so much seeing what goes in behind the scenes in terms of what he eats, what he does on his days off. It was great to see it firsthand.”
Since Cadman settled into a house with Max Gruzewski and Jason Gilbee, Greene has hosted them and the other first-year players for regular dinners across 2023. It turns out Greene is handy in the kitchen. And when it comes to his signature dish, apparently Greene has a secret recipe for a mango salad that is a hit.
"There are two different houses with the first-year boys," Cadman said. "He brings us over house by house and he loves cooking up a feast. He gets pretty into it and buys all the expensive meats. We end up staying for hours chatting and getting to know each other better. I think it really helps us boys be more comfortable. We love those nights."
For those who have seen Greene up close for the duration of his career, not much has changed since he ascended to the captaincy, but the perception of him from outside the football club has certainly changed. It is why the football world genuflected when Greene was anointed All-Australian skipper last week in his first season as sole captain, a season that has exceeded expectations in western Sydney and still has more in store. Just like the Toby Greene story.