James McDonald was almost through with football when Graeme Allan approached him with an idea, back in 2011. His time at Melbourne hadn’t ended all that happily, but several months had passed and those feelings had started to fade. He had joined the AFL’s match review panel, and was doing some part-time coaching with Old Xavierians to keep connected to the game. But he was soon to turn 35. He had gone back to work for his meat exporting business. Each week he felt a little less fit, a little less like the player he used to be. But when the GIANTS’ head of football asked whether he would come and play for the AFL’s new team, he went looking for his boots. “I had no intention of playing that year,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘well I’d better.’
“When I finished at Melbourne I wasn’t really ready, I didn’t feel done. Maybe it was the right call, who knows. But when your fitness starts to go, that’s when mentally you start to think, ‘well now I feel a bit more done.’ Playing on was something I probably wanted to do initially, but as time went by it stopped being something I was thinking about it. It wasn’t until Gubby came along that I realised I had to get back out there and get myself half fit.”
The idea appealed to McDonald, almost immediately. He had two kids at the time but they were young enough to move to a new city easily. His wife had friends in Sydney and was enthusiastic too. McDonald had grown up at Melbourne, moving from the rookie list to the club captaincy, and knew he wouldn’t be able to pick up where he had left off as a player.
But the role as it was described to him – play a few games in year one, help the young kids get through and then do some coaching – was something he knew he could do. “That’s how it was put to me: play one year and then coach,” he said. “The playing was important but it wasn’t the priority. It was really just, ‘fill in when you can and try and help the kids out.’
“It was just a bit of an adventure, I suppose. To be involved with a start-up club, that’s something that excited me. I knew it would be a challenge. And I’d been at one club for my whole career, so to go somewhere new and meet some new people and work with them, it was an opportunity that happened to pop up and when I looked at it I just thought, ‘why not?
McDonald was not on his own: Luke Power, Chad Cornes and Dean Brogan came along for the ride too. Still, the dynamic was different to any team he had ever been a part of: “just us four old blokes, and what Sheeds used to call the under-18 team.” The team trained all over western Sydney during that first pre-season, and when the games started they brought loss, after loss, after loss. McDonald played 12 games for the year but managed to miss out on the only two wins.
It was rough. “It was a slog,” he said. “We were copping hidings and running out of legs, and we just couldn’t win. I played in one game where we lost to Hawthorn by 160-something points and that was the part of it that felt like a real grind. But Sheeds had this way of making you constantly see the bigger picture, and the young blokes were good. We were trying to teach them, but they were at that stage where all they wanted was to play well and make sure they kept their spot in the team. They actually used to bounce back really quickly, quicker than me a lot of the time. There was a fair bit of hope in the year and the young kids kept us going to some degree because they had so much energy.
“But it was frustrating at times, definitely. It’s an interesting time to go through for any footballer, when you can’t do what you want to do and what you used to do. But that was always the plan, going up there. I knew what it was all about and tried to keep coming back to that. I actually got suspended in my first game. It wasn’t the greatest act but I remember Gubby saying to me, jokingly, ‘you’ve done your job now, you’ve set the scene.’ It was more about providing support and teaching the kids. That was the role, that’s why we were there and knowing that, it made it a lot easier to deal with the end of my career and how I was going.”
Bonding with his new, much younger teammates took much less effort. Like every player the GIANTS have drafted, McDonald spent his first year living in an apartment at Breakfast Point. There were teammates living next door, down the street and around the corner and it made getting to know them much easier than it would have been had everyone been scattered around Sydney.
“It was the best thing they did, in the early days. It was like a town, a little community. Everyone was living in there and you didn’t have to go looking for people to spend time with, you’d be bumping into them all the time,” he said. “I remember Callan Ward used to love cutting hair, so I’d be around there all the time getting my hair cut. It really sped up the process of getting to know people, it was a real catalyst in building the relationships and bonds and trust that we needed. If we were living all over the place there might have been a too-hard factor. But having everyone there together, we got to know each other really well.”
McDonald stayed on for two years after he finished as a player. He enjoyed his time - with Sheedy, Mark Williams and Leon Cameron – but knew by then that coaching wasn’t for him. He lives near Hamilton in south-western Victoria these days, is back into agribusiness and two years ago took up an offer to sit on the GIANTS’ football sub-committee. “That’s given me a bit of a footy fix,” he said. “It’s a small role but it’s good to get an insight into the coaching side of things, and also an understanding of what it looks like on the other side of the fence as well, what the club is doing and where it’s going. It’s been really good.”
When McDonald left, the losses were still coming. But slowly, they started to be separated by more wins. He noticed the novelty of simply playing AFL football start to wear off during year two, and the competitive nature of his young teammates turn into a determination to stop getting pushed around and start doing some pushing. And he saw the effect that two recruits at the end of 2013 – Shane Mumford and Heath Shaw – had on the rest of the group.
“Steve Johnson obviously came a bit later, but those two I think made a real difference. They were two really good players and two extroverted characters, and they had their own stories for how they ended up at the club, but they’ve both been able to come in and have a really positive impact with their performance as players but also with their personalities and their nature. And they weren’t there just to grab the cash and go, both have become really invested in the club and the group, which is a great endorsement for them and the footy club.
“They’ve been important, but I think that by the third year the young blokes had started to grow up and progress, and team balance just started to look a bit better. The thing with those kids was, they were top end picks and they were super competitive. They really did want to get better. They were pretty desperate to get better and get better quickly. There was this natural drive in them that made me think they were going to grow into a pretty good team.”