GOLD Coast's football chiefs – namely coach Stuart Dew, general manager of football Jon Haines and list boss Craig Cameron – have the AFL's biggest challenge to make the Suns a success. All three are a year or less into their roles and beginning to put their stamp on the eight-year-old franchise. AFL.com.au sat down with Haines this week to find out how Gold Coast is trying to get things on track.
Marc McGowan: How are you feeling about the current state of the club and list ahead of the Trade Period?
Jon Haines: The overwhelming feeling is one of excitement and anticipation. We started this year all (Dew, Cameron and Haines) coming into roles at roughly the same time and all with various experiences and thoughts on what a good footy club looks like. But we were really deliberate and focused on making sure we took some time to get to know the environment, the staff and the players before we made any significant decisions. This year was a balance between delivering operationally as a football department, delivering from a performance aspect and actually ensuring we were well prepared for week-to-week games of AFL football, but also building a plan behind the scenes for five years down the track as to what we want this football club to look like. We didn't get the chance to participate in the draft/trade period last year – as in, Craig, Stuart and myself – so this is our first foray as a list management group.
MM: That's an interesting perspective that this is yours, Stuart's and Craig's first chance to really shape the list the way you want to.
JH: It is. It was what it was last year, whereas this year we've had a significant amount of time to plan. We're not going to apologise for trying to make the list better. We've already made some delistings and we'll continue to look at opportunities to try and reinvigorate and build the list the way we think it should be built. The other part is the restructure of the actual football department itself. We think we have a (football department) group of the right character, with terrific professional experiences and capability, but most importantly, they're really good people and they're the type of people we want to build a footy club around and likewise with the players we bring in. We look to complement what we've got at the moment with the right talent, but also the right character attributes.
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MM: Your comment about "trying to make the list better" might raise some eyebrows. People on the outside will see how much top-end talent is leaving and quite reasonably believe the list is worse.
JH: It's interesting. The AFL and the AFL Players' Association a number of years ago set about a course of creating more player movement and we've got that, haven't we? It's certainly apparent that an increasing trend of players are more open to exploring their options earlier in their career than they were previously, so we understand that. We've said a number of times that we're really respectful of free agency, but also player movement, and we're going to handle it in a really mature and professional way. I think the other element to that player movement discussion is that it's not always on the player's terms that they want to move – it can be on the club's terms. There are times when players want to leave clubs, and we're not the only club experiencing that. But there are also times when clubs make decisions where, perhaps, it's better for the player to look at other opportunities as well.
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MM: As far as trying to come up with a winning formula for Gold Coast, can you give us an understanding of the balance you're trying to strike between pure talent and role players with great character who do the right things?
JH: The balance between identifying top-end talent and 'What are the character attributes that support a player to flourish in an AFL environment?' is a really interesting discussion, and it's something we've had regularly this year. There's no doubt we've got some young talent and emerging players on our list, but we're also really confident with the character traits they bring. We think they've got the right levels of resilience and work ethic and dedication to forge a really strong career, and we think in our environment and where we're at, we need more of those sorts of players. There are going to be times where we balance, 'OK, you're highly talented, but do you have the high levels of drive and resilience and dedication and commitment to forge a career in his environment?', because it is a tough environment. We think our group needs to be epitomised by more of the latter.
MM: Does talent and ability still need to be a major focus, though, to ensure Gold Coast can start being competitive?
JH: I think it comes back again to the direction we're trying to take the football club. We do have a new model and a new group of people in key leadership roles, and ultimately we want to build a football club that's based on really strong character traits and a really strong set of values – and we know they're going to have talent. Players who have had challenges and been through adversity and shown an ability to respond; all the research will tell you that's a really strong indicator of strong mental resilience as well. That doesn't mean we want 22 choir boys or 45 guys from private schools. We want a range of experiences and a diverse playing group, but we're really clear on what character traits we want as well.
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MM: You said yourself this is your first draft and with the elite talent you've lost or look to be losing, there is an external theory that you're basically starting again. Is that fair?
JH: I don't think we're starting again. There's no doubt that we're still a young list, but we'll take some high-end talent this year with the right character traits. We'll also complement that with some mature-age talent. That will be through the concessions we've been provided with by the AFL, in terms of those three mature-age state leaguers – they'll be specific types we're looking for – but also through the Trade Period some mature-age talent that have, again, been in the system for a period of time who can be good role models to our younger players, in terms of how they prepare and how they live their life.
MM: What do you make of the external opinions of Gold Coast as a football club?
JH: One of the interesting observations is this notion of commentary versus really understanding what's going on and what we're trying to do. We're really keen for people to better understand the importance of a successful AFL team on the Gold Coast in the context of the national agenda. We also want them to understand what we're trying to do and where we want to take the footy club, as opposed to just making general comments and commentary from afar that probably doesn't have the level of background and verification that's required.
MM: I imagine you've spent some time finding out what happened before you arrived at the Suns. Why haven't players wanted to stay? Is it as simple as you haven't had on-field success, or does it go much deeper?
JH: We've been asked this question a few times this year. It's really difficult to make an assessment on that without being there. Clearly, we've spoken to our players about a whole range of things this year, and our staff as well, and our focus, to be honest, has been about looking forward. We understand and respect what's happened in the past, but our really clear intent is on getting the right people in the right roles from a staff perspective, bringing in the right players to support our core group of players that we've got on our list and setting a really clear plan on what we want to do in the future.
MM: What sort of environment are you trying to work towards to retain players in the long term?
JH: We want a place where players feel they can get what they need to get as an elite athlete, in terms of their performance and preparation. We also want a football club that feels like a football club. We've all been part of football clubs, whether it be junior clubs, community clubs or state league clubs, but we want our players to feel like it's a footy club and that their kids, parents and partners (are welcome) and there's a sense of community and connection there. We've worked really hard this year on creating that, and we've only scratched the surface. We've restructured our player development area, with Shaun Hart now heading that up as head of personal excellence. The main focus of that particular part of the footy department is still to look after all the player welfare and player development aspects, and drive that sense of support for players, but to drive a really strong sense of connection as well. The other element of that role will be, 'How do we develop a character curriculum and leadership model that creates really independent, self-driven young men, and women now, that moves very much away from this welfare mentality?', which is another important part of what the football club's going to look like.
MM: From the outside, we're perplexed that a club that hasn't played finals or enjoyed much success is having salary cap issues. Part of the problem seems to be the tendency to quickly sign draftees to high-priced, multi-year extensions, such as the four top-10 draft picks in 2016. Has the club been too hasty in that regard?
JH: Again, it's difficult to talk about what the thinking was in the past, but there's no doubt the TPP (total player payments), when we first got our heads around it at the start of the year, we've been on record as saying it's in a reasonably distressed state. We've created a multi-year plan to get the TPP back into a far more flexible and responsible position that's going to require some difficult decisions at different times throughout that period. The reason for why the TPP is in the position it was in, you've alluded to a couple there, but also the level of injury payments has impacted as much as anything else this year, so there are a range of factors. But much like I was saying before, our focus is on we've got this challenge in front of us, so let's put in a really clear, multi-year plan and work out how we work our way through it to get ourselves in a position where it's far more responsible and flexible.
MM: How is Stuart Dew going, a year into the job?
JH: Stuey's been terrific to work with, from a personal level. I've been really impressed with, first and foremost, Stuey as a person. He's got a great family. But then his footy IQ and his coaching capabilities are of a high standard. He's going to be a career coach and he's genuinely committed to the Suns. We're all really committed and really determined to making this work. Despite what the club's been through in its formative years, it doesn't faze us or bother us, and it certainly doesn't bother Stuey. We know (success) won't happen tomorrow or the next day, but we're going to make this work and we're really determined to get there and we're really committed to work our way through the various challenges and obstacles that are going to be in front of us. We've got a really clear plan and we've got good people who are really aligned, from players, football department, executive, board – all the way through – and if you look at all the good footy clubs over the journey, there's been good alignment. We've worked really carefully and in a considered way this year to make sure that alignment is there, because we know this is going to take a bit of time, but we're really committed to getting it right.
MM: Regardless of what happens next year, even if on-field results go backwards, are you convinced this club will eventually be a success?
JH: We might not see immediate progress next year, but we might. In our minds, we've seen progress this year, in terms of the way our football department functions, the way our players feel about the footy club, the way our coaching and high-performance programs integrate. We've seen progress internally this year and that hasn't translated just yet, in terms of win-loss performance on the field, and we know that everyone else sees what they see on a Saturday afternoon. I can't sit here today and predict what it's going to look like next year on the field, but I do know we'll continue to make progress and we're super confident of that. We're confident because we have the right people and a really clear plan on what we need to do.