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One GIANT Family: The Ringmaster

GIANTS AFL Women's head coach Alan McConnell at training.
Every person the club touches must have a great experience.
Alan McConnell

Womens.afl spent three days with GIANTS' AFLW side two weeks before the start of the season. The resulting four-part series, One Giant Family, explores what makes this AFLW side tick, how it attracts and maintains talent, and the role of coach Alan McConnell as ringmaster. 

Ther art versus the science of coaching is a concept GIANTS' AFL Women's coach Alan McConnell wrestles with daily.

Notwithstanding those battles, there's not much McConnell doesn't know about the job.

The last coach of Fitzroy (he was an assistant who took the reins for the club's final eight games in its last season in the AFL, 1996), McConnell has also been an assistant coach at Geelong and was the AIS-AFL Academy high-performance coach.

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He was the first person appointed to the GIANTS in the club's infancy in 2009, taking on the role of development coach and overseeing football administration.

In 2014, he became director of coaching for the club's AFL side, a role he still holds.

But taking on the women's team in late 2017 – a squad that included new players and veterans from around the country – was a different kettle of fish.

That's where it comes back to the art and science of coaching for McConnell.

He says the science is about the on-field work: skills, playing structures, tactics, fitness and high performance.

By comparison, the art of coaching relates to learning about the person he is teaching. Discovering what makes an athlete tick and how to get them performing at their optimum. When to whack someone and when to give them a cuddle.

Although footy participation in New State Wales continues to grow, the state still does not have enough players to supply one elite team. As a result, the GIANTS have to, at least in the short-term, handpick players from around the country and convince them to make the move to the state.

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The club works hard to retain those players for a competition that lasts only five months, half of which is pre-season training.

"Every person the club touches must have a great experience, if you're to have any chance of hanging onto them," McConnell said.

Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the GIANTS delisted six players (two were redrafted), while two others – Phoebe McWilliams and Maddy Boyd – joined expansion team Geelong.

It's clear McConnell has not only the players' respect, but their love as well.

For the past two years, he has opened his inner-city Redfern home to his players, hosting a pre-season barbecue for the whole squad.

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His first ever win as coach came 23 years after his first match at Fitzroy, when the GIANTS posted a 13-point win over Collingwood in round three of last year's AFLW season.

He came into the press conference following that match late and drenched in orange Gatorade, grinning from ear to ear.

"I'm delighted for the girls. We're a bit like 'Dad's Army'. We come from everywhere and we've got a whole lot of girls who were told they're no good, and a lot of girls who have come out of New South Wales battling the notion that football isn't the same there as it is in the rest of the country," McConnell said at the time.

"To get some reward for effort is just fabulous, absolutely fabulous."

After a significant list turnover – the GIANTS changed half its squad of 30 after the 2017 season and appointed McConnell to take over from Tim Schmidt –the team shot up the ladder in 2018, remaining in contention for a Grand Final spot during the last round of the season.

Full-forward Cora Staunton said McConnell is not just "addicted to football" (by Wednesday evening during pre-season he has already spent more than 40 hours at the club) but makes genuine connections, too.

"There are three Irish players in the club now with (AFL forward) Callum Brown and (AFLW forward) Yvonne Bonner, and Al made a conscious decision to visit Ireland this year to meet our families and tell them who he is," Staunton said.

"It's small things like that – although that's not small, that's a huge thing – where he invests so much time in the person to make them happy.

"He gets to know both the footballer and the person. Then if he says, 'No Cora, that's wrong,' you'll accept it because you know how much time he's invested in everyone."

McConnell's dual role is obvious as he walks through the GIANTS' WestConnex Centre at the Olympic Park precinct. It's a one-storey building (which general manager of football Wayne Campbell says helps facilitate the family feel of the club), with each department leading seamlessly to the next.

The café is the heart of the place, both figuratively and literally. McConnell can't move through the building without stopping to talk to someone. It doesn't matter which department he's in, McConnell knows everyone.

Last year, he addressed a group of international athletes taking part in the 'Crosscoders' program vying for an AFLW rookie spot. Eventual Giants recruit Yvonne Bonner was among them.

"Men have to play well in order to feel like they belong. Women have to feel they belong in order to play well," McConnell said.

It's a perceptive comment that's demonstrative of the culture the GIANTS have developed, with McConnell's dual role facilitating the sharing of resources across both programs.

The AFLW players generally start coming into the club around 2.30pm, much earlier than players at other AFLW clubs, meaning they have a greater time to overlap with AFL players.

On one particular day, senior AFLW players watched on while backline coach Mark McVeigh took the AFL players through a grappling and tackling session. Alicia Eva, who last year coached NSW/ACT in the NAB AFLW Under-18 Championships and is a line coach with the GIANTS' NEAFL team, walked among the younger players, correcting technique.

Later that afternoon, McVeigh replicated the session with the entire AFLW squad, with senior players who already knew what to do taking the lead and instructing teammates.

Shane Mumford, who recently re-joined the club's AFL list as a ruckman after a brief retirement, ran a training session with rucks Erin McKinnon, Ingrid Neilson and Louise Stephenson, focusing on technique and bodywork.

AFLW forwards coach Jon Vlatko came in on his lunch break from his day job in sales to go over vision with AFL forwards coach Brad Miller.

It's part of the GIANTS family mentality that's pervasive through the club.

Performance analyst Zoe Vicic works with both the AFLW and the GIANTS' Super Netball teams. On AFLW game-days she sits next to McConnell alerting the coaches to relevant statistical trends in the match.

"It very much depends on the game," Vicic said with a laugh, answering a question about what McConnell is like in the coaches' box.

"He's actually quite calm, compared other coaches. Quite rational, sticks to the plan and delegates to other coaches."

In a team meeting, footy operations manager Libby Sadler was running through logistics for a practice match against Brisbane, right down to uniform requirements, including no plaits or bobby pins (which raised the eyebrows of development coach and AFL player Heath Shaw).

Bringing the detail-heavy meeting to an end, the 61-year-old McConnell drew laughs from the room, saying, "As someone once said on Instagram, Louise (Stephenson), 'Know your role, play your role'," to the amusement of the other players. Stephenson was not so thrilled.

Forward Christina Bernardi crossed from Collingwood to the GIANTS at the end of last season. She said McConnell's honesty is what helps the team the most.

"At the end of the day, he wants the best for the team and he wants the best for us. It's not to do with him or the club – he wants the best for us," Bernardi said.

"And he wants to get to know you on a real personal level – what makes you tick, what makes you happy. He wants to do his best for us.

"He'll beat himself up if he thinks he didn't do well enough for the team. It's kind of refreshing to hear coaches say that in front of you. He's a bit different."