Paul Kelly
234 games
200 goals
Captain 1993-2002
Best & Fairest 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997
Brownlow Medal 1995
All-Australian 1995, 1996, 1997
Swans Team of the Century
AFL Hall of Fame 


Paul Kelly played his first game of footy for the Wagga Tigers Under 12s. He kicked 12 goals, and his coach gave him a dollar. It wasn’t enough to entice him away from Rugby League, though — for a few years at least.

Growing up in sports-mad Wagga Wagga, in a sports-mad family, he played whichever code he could. In his own words, ‘sport was played for fun.’ 

Never could he have imagined the career that lay ahead. Individually, his football was breathtakingly brilliant, but there are so many ways in which Kelly contributed that it’s difficult to take the full measure of his influence. His story is bound by courage, determination, and a willingness to tackle any challenge head-on.

At 15, He returned to footy when his Rugby League club, Wagga Brothers, had no available team in his age group. With the memory of his enjoyable Under 12’s season still fresh, he returned to play footy with the Tigers, beginning his ascent to the club’s senior side.

Life progressed as many do in the country. Kelly spent his days earning his stripes as a plumbing apprentice and nights at footy training or relaxing with mates. A comfortable existence it was, so when the Sydney Swans came calling, he met it with trepidation.

“I’m happy to give anything a go,” Kelly says. “But I wasn’t overly keen about leaving home — I had a good job, I was enjoying my footy with the Tigers, and enjoying life. Ultimately, my old man gave me a nudge. He’d been a really good sprinter and had the chance to go to the Stawell Gift. He didn’t go and always said, ‘I’ll never know.’ So, I decided to give it a try.”

Anyone raised in a country town understands the unease of moving to the ‘big smoke.’ It means you’re going all-in. Kelly’s older sister, Bernadette, had moved to Sydney to work as a nurse, and her flat in Rose Bay became his home away from home. Kelly says he wouldn’t have survived in the city without her. 

During his first year at the club, Kelly completed his final year of the plumbing apprenticeship he’d commenced in Wagga. The days were long, but his drive to succeed engulfed any sense of hardship, including homesickness.

At the Swans, new teammate Barry Mitchell became a guiding influence. “Most importantly, he was my friend,” Kelly recalls.

“He took me under his wing; we enjoyed training hard and having a good time. His training habits were next level, so that had a great influence on me, but it was his friendship, as much as anything, that helped me settle. I moved in with him and his wife for 12 months and started to really knuckle down.”

In 1990, after a stunning debut win against Carlton, in which Kelly jokes ‘he didn’t contribute much with his three or four kicks,’ he quickly cemented his place in a midfield stacked with some of the club’s greatest players.

However, the early 90s were a time when the Sydney Swans faced a catastrophic threat. The extravagance of the former private ownership regime left the club in a perilous state, both on and off the field. By the time the players had left for Hawaii on their 1992 end-of-season trip, they weren’t sure if they’d even have a club to come back to.

“Thankfully, the AFL voted in favour of us continuing as a club,” Kelly says. “But there were some rough years ahead. The club had run out of steam, we couldn’t attract players, couldn’t attract sponsors. That was the time when we really hit rock bottom.”

As the club began its climb back to credibility, those in charge searched for someone to lead the way. Paul Kelly was just 23 years old and about to play his fourth season in the AFL when he was called to the boardroom for an urgent meeting.

“I wasn’t thinking about the captaincy at all,” Kelly recalls. “I was only a young fella finding my feet, and I wasn’t ready for that. But I took it on, and it helped me as a player, setting standards and leading by example. It was an honour, it was good for me, but I definitely wasn’t ready.”

The first milestone in what is still a record-breaking 182 games as Swans captain came when the team snapped a 26-game losing sequence with a memorable win against Melbourne at the SCG. Kelly dedicates that win to everyone who ‘stayed true to the cause’ during that trying time. He also recalls, with great delight, the celebrations afterward.

The wheels of change were soon gathering momentum at the Swans, and when Ron Barassi was appointed as senior coach and Tony Lockett joined from St Kilda, the club had reached a critical turning point. At the end of Barassi’s final season in charge, Paul Kelly became the 1995 Brownlow Medallist.

“I always knew the significance of winning a Brownlow would come later down the track after I finished playing. I’m very proud that I won a Brownlow Medal, but I also think captaining my club for 10 years is a great achievement. It was a win for all of us, though; we all shared in it. We were on the way up as a team and a club, and my family, mates, and the footy club in general all enjoyed it,” Kelly explains.

The 1996 season took Kelly, his teammates, and Swans supporters on a magical ride. They delighted on their way to securing the minor premiership and winning two nail-biting finals at the SCG before eventually succumbing to North Melbourne in the Grand Final.

“We weren’t good enough on the day, but we had a fantastic season, and we had a good enough team to win the flag that year,” Kelly says. “In the back of our minds, we probably hoped we’d be back to get another crack at it, but unfortunately, that never happened.”

The team, under Kelly’s captaincy, and Rodney Eade’s coaching, did, however lay the foundation for what has been an incredible run of consistency for the club. Personally, Kelly became a powerhouse of the competition, named All-Australian captain in 1996 and 1997. Incredibly, his peers also voted him the competition’s most courageous player, a record five times.

In 2005, three years after he retired, Kelly presented the premiership cup to Swans coach Paul Roos, as the club famously broke a 72-year premiership drought. 

“That was special. I was with Barry Round and Bobby Skilton when the siren went, and we all headed onto the ground together. Because it took so long to win one, I think everyone who played their role in the years previous, thought a little bit of that’s for me,” Kelly recalls.

Paul Kelly played with dare and fearlessness, inspiring a generation of Swans supporters. His explosive pace, strong marking and fierce tackling made him an invaluable player, who in many ways, represents the loyalty and grit that turned the club around. He’s proud of the way he and his teammates stayed the course, now enjoying the respect with which the club is held. 

The Sydney Swans needed him, and he was just the man for the job.