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Ireland's final farewell

A life in football Some of the best parts of an extended interview with outgoing Chief Executive Officer Andrew Ireland and award winning journalist Mike Sheahan.

Today, Friday 21 December, 2018 marks Andrew Ireland’s last day as Chief Executive and Managing Director of the Sydney Swans.

Ireland has had a decorated career in the AFL industry which has spanned 44 consecutive seasons, firstly as a player before becoming an administrator.

For the past 17 years, Ireland has been with the Swans, joining as Head of Football before becoming CEO.

In that time, the Swans have played finals 15 of 17 seasons, for a total of 34 finals matches, they’ve played in five Grand Finals, won two premierships, membership has roughly doubled, corporate support is at a record level, there are over 1.2 million fans who call themselves a Swans supporter, the QBE Sydney Swans Academy was established and is kicking goals, the Swans are set to have a new home at the Royal Hall of Industries, and the list of his achievements and accomplishments goes on.

From 2019, Ireland will sit on the Sydney Swans Board.

Current Sydney Swans Chairman Andrew Pridham and former Chairman Richard Colless wrote the following piece on Andrew Ireland for the Sydney Swans Member Magazine.

Written by Andrew Pridham and Richard Colless

It is our singular pleasure and privilege on behalf of everyone associated in any way with the Sydney Swans to write a tribute to the great man and reflect on some of the milestones in his storied life.

So, let’s pretty much start at the beginning.

In 1957 a four-year-old Andrew and his parents Jim and Joan immigrate to Australia from England on the ocean liner Strathnaver. For the next eight years they reside in the inner northern Melbourne suburb of Reservoir.

In 1965, at the age of 12, Andrew and his parents return to the English city of Brighton, so he can grow up with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

This explains why Andrew is probably the only person amongst our 60,000 members, or indeed our 1.2 million supporters, who follows Brighton Hove Albion in the EPL. And Sussex in County Cricket!

Eighteen months later, however, his parents decide that the benefits of living in Australia – including Andrew’s secondary education – outweigh remaining in England, so they return to Australia in 1967, this time residing in Ivanhoe in Melbourne’s north-east.

Andrew attends Northcote High, and after successfully matriculating enrols in a biochemistry degree at La Trobe University, graduating with a Degree in Applied Science in 1973.

On his return to Australia he resumes playing in the Preston Swimmers Under-15 team where he is described as a small, pencil-thin half-back.

Two years later, following a growth spurt, he is now one of the big kids and plays centre-half-forward in the Under-17 team.

After his junior career he joins Ivanhoe, then one of the leading clubs in the VAFA, where his career flourishes.

He becomes the dominant centre-half-forward in the competition, and is a regular member of the Victorian State Amateur team.

In 1973 and 1974 he is selected in the All Australian Amateur team as centre-half-forward.

He is selected in Ivanhoe’s Team of the Century at centre-half-forward.

At this time, he is arguably the best player outside the major leagues across Australia. The natural question is: why, at 21, hasn’t he tried his hand in the big league?

It is very simple. Andrew is a passionate Melbourne supporter but is residentially bound to Collingwood.

Eventually, the opportunity to play senior football becomes so compelling that he commits to play for Collingwood in the 1975 season.

He is given the number 24 guernsey which he wears with distinction for the next six seasons. In his first season he plays 21 of a possible 23 games.

1976 produces probably Collingwood’s worst season in its extraordinary history, finishing with the wooden spoon.

In 1977, the legendary Tom Hafey (who coaches Sydney from 1986 to 1988) assumes the senior coaching role and takes the club from the bottom of the ladder to a drawn Grand Final. Despite kicking 19 goals in the replay, Collingwood lose to North Melbourne by 27 points. Under Hafey, Andrew will never again set foot in the forward line. At 191 centimetres (6’3”) and 81 kilograms (12 stone 11 pounds), he becomes the new breed of half-back-flanker.

In both Grand Final matches in 1977, Andrew is nominated amongst Collingwood’s best players.

In 1979, Andrew plays in his third Grand Final, which Collingwood lose by five points to Carlton in controversial circumstances. In the previous week’s Preliminary Final victory over North Melbourne, Andrew is judged by many as Collingwood’s best player.

In 1980, at 27 years of age, Andrew plays his 110th, and last, game for Collingwood – the Grand Final, in which it is comprehensively defeated by Richmond.

Across six years, he averages nearly 19 games per season and plays in four Grand Finals, twice represents Victoria and is consistently a significant contributor in the really big games.

Despite Collingwood’s efforts to retain his services for 1981, he moves to Queensland to take up the role of QAFL’s Director of Coaching, where in 1982 he makes a short-lived but highly fruitful comeback to play in a Premiership with Brisbane club side Mayne.

He is QAFL Director of Coaching from 1981 to 1986 and a Queensland Selector from 1981 to 1990.

In 1986 he is appointed QAFL General Manager. Amongst many other things, he is heavily involved in the creation of the AFL Queensland Football Commission.

In March 1990, he accepts an offer to become CEO of the bottom of the ladder Brisbane Bears. In 1993 he spearheads a move to permanently relocate Brisbane from the Gold Coast to the Gabba. In 1996, he plays a significant role in Brisbane’s amalgamation with Fitzroy to create the Brisbane Lions.

The stars are starting to align for Brisbane to emerge as a major force.

Under Andrew, Brisbane becomes a leader in modernising its approach to the game.

It plays in its first final in 1995. In 1996, the year Sydney staged one of the great AFL revivals, Brisbane finishes third on the ladder.

By 1998, however, internal dissention leaves Brisbane again anchored at the bottom of the ladder. Déjà vu?

In 1999, Andrew entices Leigh Matthews to Brisbane for what will be a 10-year tenure as coach.

In 2001 Brisbane are Premiers.

From 1990 to 2001, the one constant through the worst of times as the Brisbane Bears, to the best of times as the all-conquering Brisbane Lions, is CEO Andrew Ireland.

At the end of the 2001 season Andrew surprises the AFL world by announcing his retirement.

In 2002, based on the structure, intellectual property and personnel that Andrew has assembled, Brisbane is gearing up for its next assault on the Premiership. As it will do for the next few years.

750 kilometres to the south, the Sydney Swans are approaching the 2002 season with a sense of foreboding.

The club has been despatched in the first week of the 2001 finals series and the trendline is most decidedly heading in the wrong direction.

By Round 12 the senior coach has resigned.

A brutal independent review of many of the club’s administrative practices has laid bare many defects.

And a front-page article in The Australian suggests that the club’s finances are so parlous that its very existence is problematic.

2002 is, in short, a tumultuous season.

But it is probably the making of this club.

For better or worse, the Board takes the view that unless the club can replicate much of what former basket case Brisbane has achieved in relation to every aspect of its football activities, then we will continue to wallow.

The Board determines it must:

  • Build a culture of world’s best practice across every aspect of our football activities.
  • Revise our structure whereby the Head of Football must, by way of title, job description, and the unconditional support of the Board, be the football supremo.
  • This means whoever the coach is they have to commit to work for, and with, the person who occupies this elevated role, rather than working to their own agenda or seeking to report to the CEO or the Board.
  • Find a coach who is entirely compatible with the approach to which we are now wedded.
  • Find the funding to support these lofty ideals.

The Board acknowledges that this might mean overturning existing commitments, and therefore there exists the potential for a high level of financial and reputational risk.

We identify that the ideal person to occupy this new role would be the now retired former Brisbane CEO, the architect of Brisbane’s rise to AFL domination. At the request of Chairman Richard Colless, Andrew Ireland prepares a paper outlining his plan and vision for on-field success in the Harbour City.

When Directors read the “Ireland Plan” a decision regarding who was capable of leading a football revival was clear. The Ireland Plan was simple, clear and to the point – invest in youth.

At the request of the Board, within days Richard arranges to meet Andrew and Kelly in Brisbane.

In short Andrew (with a good degree of encouragement from Kelly) makes it clear from the outset that he has a genuine interest in what we are committed to achieving.

From that point on, it is one of the easiest negotiations in which we have ever participated.

The focus is entirely on what is in the best interests of our football club.

What becomes a nearly 17-season involvement with this club is really confirmed with a single handshake.

We then defy the prevailing wisdom that we should appoint an experienced AFL coach and, in the process driven by Andrew, now firmly ensconced as Head of Football, Paul Roos is appointed Senior Coach.

In 2003, we play in a Preliminary Final in front of the biggest crowd ever to watch an AFL game outside Melbourne, and in 2005 we win our first premiership in 72 years.

In 2009 Andrew is appointed CEO from season 2010. From that point on he is simply known as “The Chief.”

What are his greatest legacies?

  • The greatest legacy, which may not be visible for five to ten years, is the perpetuation of the structure and culture that he has played such a major role in putting in place.
  • Since 2003 we have played in 34 finals including five Grand Finals and two Premierships – an extraordinary record. As Andrew would be the first to say, however, playing in finals is not an end in itself! Rather, it’s the means.
  • Membership roughly doubled in his time at the helm.
  • His mentoring and support of our great Indigenous players, in particular Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, who have gone on to establish the GO Foundation.
  • The establishment of the QBE Sydney Swans boys’, and later also girls’, academies.
  • His role in the proposed new facility within the Royal Hall of Industries and a vastly improved training field, for the first time in the club’s time in Sydney, capable of hosting elite level football games.

What are the personal characteristics that have underpinned Andrew’s 44 consecutive seasons within the AFL system?

  • His sense of honour. We believe that in the dog eat dog environment that is the AFL, there is no more important commodity. Honourable people beget honourable people. This is a fundamental part of the way this club operates.
  • His determination and persistence. (To quote former US President Calvin Coolidge, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”)
  • There is no doubt in our minds that Andrew’s agreement to become an integral part of this club’s dream of becoming a consistently truly great organisation changed the course of AFL history.
  • He is the ultimate team player.

He didn’t do it all by himself, however, and he would be highly embarrassed if that was suggested.

But over and above that, it actually is the antithesis of the way he operates. He’s the ultimate collegial and team-oriented person, and much of his success is directly related to the respect and courtesy that he affords all colleagues regardless of their status or experience.

In 2004 he receives Brisbane Lions Life Membership, in 2006 AFL Life Membership, and in 2018 at our Club Champion Dinner, Sydney Swans Life Membership. The medal for the best player in the NEAFL Grand Final is named in his honour.

While Andrew and Kelly will reside in Brisbane from 2019, Andrew accepts an invitation to remain a member of the Sydney Swans Board. Anyone who doubted that complete redemption is possible in AFL need only watch the former 110 game Collingwood player and Brisbane administrator during a Sydney Swans game. You would immediately know that he has been fully reformed from his playing days and is a true and extraordinarily passionate Blood in every respect.

So, Andrew, from everyone associated with Australian football, but particularly those north of the Murray, and especially those with red and white coursing through their veins – thank you for your incalculable contribution to the betterment of the game we all love.