The Illawarra region is nothing if not patriotic, proudly trumpeting a list of local products who have made good on the big stage that includes Test cricketer Brett Lee, 500cc motorbike world champion Wayne Gardner, singer/actress Natalie Bassingthwaite, TV presenter Steve Jacobs and opera star Anthony Warlow. 

This week the coastal centre 90 minutes south of Sydney is in raptures again, as James Bell prepares to make his AFL debut with the Swans.

The 20-year-old will claim a significant place in the area’s AFL history as just the third player from the Illawarra region to play AFL football. And only the second for the Swans.

Bell will follow Arthur Chilcott, who played 13 games with the Swans in 1994-95, and Aiden Riley, who played 25 games with Adelaide and Melbourne from 2011-15.

Set to debut against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on Saturday afternoon, Bell will be the Swans’ fifth AFL debutant of the season behind Nick Blakey, Justin McInerney, James Rowbottom and Hayden McLean, and the eighth Swans first-gamer on top of this five plus Ryan Clarke, Dan Menzel and Jackson Thurlow.

His debut will be the culmination of a seven-year journey from the time he first played Australian football as a 13-year-old.

It is a story proudly reported in the Illawarra Mercury on 28 November 2017 the day after he was first drafted by the Swans.

“Bell is a skilful midfielder with an outstanding turn of speed, slick passing and kicking skills and is an aggressive tackler,” the newspaper reported.

“He started playing the sport regularly as a 13-year-old and quickly impressed junior coaches and selectors. He joined the Swans Academy in 2013 and was selected for the NSW/ACT under 16 and under 18 teams. He made his Swans Reserves debut in 2016. 

“He has displayed talent across a number of sports from a young age and was linked to the Western Sydney Wanderers for a number of years. However, the Swans eventually gave him an ultimatum and he hasn’t looked back since choosing to pursue a career in the AFL.”

Bell had made his decision to focus on AFL long before he was drafted and had relocated from the family home at Shellharbour to Sydney to maximise his prospects at the start of 2017.

“It was pretty hard, especially going to a different school for one year and not knowing anyone at all,” Bell said in in his first interview as a Swans draftee.

“But as soon as I started making friends and got settled in, I knew it was a really good move.

“I was new to playing AFL and I liked the physicality of it. The Swans Academy nominated me for a Carbine Club scholarship, and they gave me a heads up that I was coming to an age where I had to make a decision. But I knew what I wanted to do and that was to pursue an AFL career.”

Bell’s early commitment to AFL and the Swans had been cemented when, as a 15-year-old, he spent three days at a talent camp run by Swans legend Adam Goodes.

As he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May this year, it was a life-changing experience.

"It gave me a bit of hope. I was only just starting to get into AFL as well. To have one of the greats come watch you train, it had a massive impact on me."

Bell will wear the #32 jumper last worn for Sydney by one-gamer Michael Talia in 2016 and worn most often for the club by 127-game 2012 premiership player Lewis Jetta, now at West Coast.

Others to play 50 games for the Swans in #32 have been Amon Buchanan (116), Paul Morwood (91), Peter Brown (77), Ken Boyd (60) and Jack Williams (50).

Surprisingly, Bell will be the just the second player with the surname Bell to play for the Swans. The other was Noble Park product Bob Bell who played 13 games with the Swans in 1971-72 and 1974.