GOLD Coast footballers spent this past summer competing.

They had just claimed their first wooden spoon and ended the season on an unwanted 18-match losing skid, eight of which were by more than 11 goals.

More, quite clearly, needed to be done.

The Suns already had some fierce competitors in their ranks: think Touk Miller, Sam Collins, Jack Bowes, Connor Budarick and reigning No.1 draft pick Matt Rowell. 

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Yet Gold Coast's blueprint under coach Stuart Dew, Jon Haines, Craig Cameron and co. – which started in earnest in late 2017 – rams home the collective and aims not to rely (at least not too much) on individuals.

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Having identified competitiveness as one of a number of areas the Suns needed to improve in, the club's football chiefs made everything a competition from the outset of pre-season.

They competed in training drills. They competed in recreational activities on their New Zealand camp.

They even competed in a gift-giving exercise, after the AFL's COVID-19 shutdown resulted in more than 100 staff being stood down. There will be more on this later.

"We had guys who relished that element and it was rising-tide type of stuff," Gold Coast's football boss Haines told AFL.com.au.

"The other guys wanted to get better to get to that standard as well and start competing with them. That competitive mindset underpinned everything we did in the pre-season."

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IS GOLD COAST'S FORM FOR REAL?

The Suns' colourful but largely unsuccessful history in the AFL dates back to 2011 but they will tell you this current journey is only 47 games in.

They have a positive record through three rounds for the third straight season but there's something different this time around.

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Gold Coast authoritatively dispatched flag fancy West Coast and Adelaide in the past two rounds to capture everyone's attention. The key numbers tell us Dew's side is playing a sustainable brand.

GOLD COAST BY THE NUMBERS

STATISTIC

2019 R4

(3-1 RECORD)

2019

(3-19 RECORD)

2020 R3

(2-1 RECORD)

Disposals diff

-4.8 (11th)

-46 (18th)

+19.7 (5th)

Contested poss diff

+1 (7th)

-7.5 (15th)

+9.7 (5th)

Uncontested poss diff

-0.2 (9th)

-40 (18th)

+10.7 (7th)

Time in fwd half diff

+2:59 (7th)

-7:23 (17th)

+3:34 (5th)

Pts from clearance diff

-5.0 (14th)

-19.4 (18th)

+6.3 (4th)

Pts from intercepts diff

+8.5 (5th)

-19.5 (18th)

+8.7 (5th)

Time in front

47% (7th)

23% (18th)

58% (5th)

 

Rowell, the 18-year-old boy wonder, was unavoidably best afield in both victories but similarly significant was local product Budarick's NAB AFL Rising Star nomination this week.

The Suns want to increase the number of Academy graduates on their playing list, and Budarick is proof of what can be achieved.

That goal has seen them appoint John Deitz full-time as their first North Queensland Academy coordinator. The overall investment has spiked, too.

Queenslander Alex Davies and Joel Jeffrey, from Darwin but now part of Gold Coast's extended Academy zone, are others who've been identified as AFL-calibre talent.

However, this is no overnight success, as the club's larger-than-life chairman Tony Cochrane articulated wonderfully on radio this week.

"I love how people break it down into the last two weeks. I think it's been a transformative fortnight that's taken three years," Cochrane said on SEN.

Cochrane is, of course, referring to Dew's and Haines' appointments at the Suns within a month of each other after the 2017 season, with list manager Cameron joining a month after that.

 "When we arrived, if you want to call it that, at the end of 2017, there wasn't a detailed football strategy or plan in place," Haines said.

"We had to take some time to learn about the organisation and learn about the playing group and the culture of the place.

"We deliberately took our time with that, because we didn't feel we needed to come in and make wholesale changes straight away."

THE START OF THE DEW ERA

Dew rounded up players and many staff members after being appointed Gold Coast's senior coach, beating John Barker and Scott Burns to the top job after serving an apprenticeship at Sydney.

A consistent theme came up throughout his chats.

"It quickly became obvious to me that they needed to enjoy the game again," Dew told AFL.com.au.

"I was an outsider at that point and it felt like they were, I guess, zapped of all energy and enjoyment around the game of AFL.

"I was probably at the opposite end, where I was coming into my dream job and you love the game and the system."

In hindsight, Dew says, the Commonwealth Games clash that prevented the Suns from playing at their home venue, Metricon Stadium, until mid-year in 2018 was a blessing in disguise in bonding his group.

Cochrane now calls them "a band of brothers". It's no accident, either.

Dew, Haines and Cameron targeted driven, values-based players and staff as one of six high-level observations they collated during their first season together in 2018.

"We needed people who were willing to be selfless, were willing to buy in and were willing to be part of the journey and something bigger than themselves," Haines said.

"One thing this club has got, as its point of difference, is we can be the first (to play finals and win a premiership). There are not too many clubs or people, in the AFL industry at least, who've got that opportunity."

The payoff, in a strange way, came during the season shutdown, where the few members who weren't stood down remarked about the dignity with which the others dealt with their plight.

The Suns' dietitian, professional chef Ben Parker, even offered to cook for the footballers at his own expense.

Parker was one of the beneficiaries of a player-driven concept to give back to those who temporarily lost their employment.

They brainstormed and developed the idea for each footballer to buy, at their own expense, and hand deliver a meaningful gift to a stood-down staff member.

That meant driving all over Queensland in some cases, and all on the same day.

Nick Holman drew Parker, who is apparently well known for his blurry photos and low-quality videos as he indulges his other passion – mountain biking. Holman bought him a GoPro as a solution.

"You don't want to put a monetary value on it, because that can be analysed. They were really big on making sure it meant something," Dew said. 

RESTRUCTURING THE PLAYING LIST

Dew, Haines and Cameron weren't part of Gold Coast's 2017 draft and trade strategy, so their first opportunity to make their mark came a year later.

The salary cap was "distressed" for various reasons, including some big contracts being handed to high-end draftees, plus a large injury toll that proved financially costly, too.

An aggressive list revamp followed, with a whopping 16 players signing elsewhere as a free agent, retiring or being delisted and traded, although four of them were redrafted as rookies.

Co-captains Tom Lynch (restricted free agent) and Steven May (traded) headlined the departed crew but there were almost as many eyebrows raised about Jack Scrimshaw, Jarryd Lyons and Michael Barlow.

Lynch's eventful exit culminated in a rigorous meeting with football staff and leadership group members where he explained his reason for leaving.

Some strong words were exchanged, with the Suns slammed in some quarters for a lack of maturity.

Haines, who was in the meeting, felt that commentary was "overblown", insisting instead it was a line-in-the-sand moment where senior players collectively said: "That's enough."

Less mentioned in the aftermath is how co-captains Jarrod Witts and David Swallow, as well as Miller, committed for the long term and asked how they could help bring others along with them.

This leadership played a critical role in stabilising the list and building belief in the club's future.

Scrimshaw was one of four players the Suns drafted in the top 10 two years earlier – and quickly extended on big money – but was shipped to Hawthorn for relative peanuts.

Delisted ball-magnets Lyons and, to a lesser degree, Barlow were externally highlighted as cases of Gold Coast mismanagement.

"There was a number of players in that category. We had to make some decisions that were difficult, and from the outside might have appeared unusual," Haines said.

"But we knew the context internally and we also knew we wanted to make decisions in the long-term interests of the football club … we knew there'd be some criticism in the short term.

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"That's where the alignment with the board was important, because if we didn't have that or their trust, then when you make those decisions, they can be picked apart internally as well as externally."

More disciplined contracting has become part of the Suns' ethos – including no longer trying to "convince or cajole" players to sign – while continuing to acquire quality people who ideally come from winning backgrounds.

Ex-Tiger Anthony Miles, former Cats George Horlin-Smith and Jordan Murdoch and Port Adelaide recruit Jack Hombsch all fit the bill in their own way in the 2018 exchange period.

Jack Lukosius, Izak Rankine and Ben King also came in as top-six selections in that year's draft.

Armed with a generous AFL assistance package – although Haines argues it came as a result of objective evidence that outlined "inherent disadvantages" the club faced – Gold Coast dived into the draft again last year.

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Best mates Rowell and Noah Anderson became Suns with the first two choices, then they traded up to snare slider Sam Flanders at No.11 after he was viewed as a potential top-five pick.

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Rowell's on-field impact has already sparked way-too-early debate about whether he could win not one but multiple Brownlow Medals but his influence goes way beyond that.

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In fact, after one pre-season session the AFL-ready teenager sent a text to co-captain Swallow to congratulate him on his intensity at training and how it inspired his teammates.

These are usually the stories you hear in reverse.

Gold Coast also signed dual Richmond premiership player Brandon Ellis and traded for Crow Hugh Greenwood, while parting ways with 10 more footballers.

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"Our fundamental belief is the core of our list is with us now," Haines said. 

"The group of players we've got at the moment have high expectations and great faith in their capabilities, so we need them to play more games together to build cohesion.

"At different times, we'll complement that, whether with role players or specific players we might need."

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Suns fielded the youngest and least-experienced squad in each of the first three rounds.

That's the important disclaimer to what lies ahead, Dew said, as in there will be "ups and downs" to come. Haines echoes that sentiment.

"The footy public doesn't like hearing it but most progression isn't linear," Haines said.

"We're planning for what we want it to look like and we're putting the right processes in place to get there but we also understand it won't be perfect.

We've won two games. In the context of our strategy, two games is a drop in the ocean

- Jon Haines

"What we have confidence in is we have the right foundations and a really clear plan on where we want to go."

Gold Coast has privately set a target date for when it expects to play finals, although decision-makers are more than happy for it to be sooner than that projection.

Dew thinks the players need to see the wins stack up on-field for their belief to rise but that the coaches can already see what's on the horizon from their training habits.

As with the focus on competition in the pre-season, he also made a point of shifting the internal expectation to a winning culture that was encapsulated in four words: "Our time is now."

One of the best gauges for Dew that his troops have taken a major step in the way they can now physically compete with and match their opposition.

That physical transformation includes the Suns' concerted effort to drastically reduce their injuries, with Haines pointing out the club's injury rates since its inception were far too high.

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"We witness how hard they work but I guess it's taken the summer and even that shutdown period to say, 'We're absolutely here to win and we can win any game, as long as and only if we bring absolute maximum performance on the weekend'," Dew said.

"I guess you can talk confidence but players have to feel it and actually get it done, so that's what every team's searching for, is that feeling.

"Whereas when you're on a coaching staff, you can get that feeling across two or three weeks' training, when you say, 'Well, geez, I can feel something happening here'."

Even still, there isn't so much an internal brake on Gold Coast's hype-o-meter but rather an understanding the club is coming from a long way back and still has much work ahead. 

Haines said this impressive fortnight must be backed up and the players need to learn to handle the expectation that will follow, as well as be mature enough to deal with adversity.

"We've won two games. In the context of our strategy, two games is a drop in the ocean," Haines said.

"But what it's done, most importantly for the playing group, is reinforced that with good preparation and the right mindset, anything is possible."