James Bell squirms when asked just how good a soccer player he was in his youth.
Moments later, after a couple of prods, the set-to-debut Sydney Swans speedster loosens up.
“The boys who were my mates in soccer – three or four of them are now playing professionally in England,” Bell says.
“I’ve got a few playing in the Spanish leagues and trying to make the ranks over there. One mate from down in Wollongong is playing for the Western Sydney Wanderers, so even at a young age it was a pretty professional stage.”
Bell played representative soccer with Tom Petsianis, now an emerging goalkeeper at top-flight Spanish club CD Leganes, and Wanders defender Tate Russell.
The 20-year-old from Shellharbour also played the round-ball game with Daniel Arzani, a six-match Socceroo who last year landed at powerhouse English Premier League club Manchester City.
Bell was among the prodigiously talented footballers aged between nine and 14 selected for Football NSW’s Project 22, an initiative aiming to prepare the next generation of Socceroos and Matildas for Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup.
He was also a member of the Wanderers’ under-20s train-on squad at just 15.
But Bell, who’s set to run out for his AFL debut as Sydney meets Port Adelaide on Saturday afternoon, would at 16 drop the round ball and pick up a Sherrin.
The rising midfielder juggled soccer and Australian rules football for two years, playing one on a Saturday and the other on a Sunday, before committing to footy in the under-16s.
Bell, who was snapped up as a 14-year-old by the QBE Sydney Swans Academy, says he’s dreamed of setting foot on the AFL stage ever since siding with footy.
“The goal in the big picture was to always make it to the AFL,” Bell said.
“I wanted to be the best footballer from the moment I dropped soccer and got serious about AFL. I’m a pretty competitive person. Anyone would tell you I get really competitive. If I want to win I’ll do anything I have to do to win.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a training drill or (video game) Fortnite; I’ve got to win and I will keep going until I win.”
While a teenaged Bell was always a stand-out in the sporting arena, he struggled in the classroom.
He spent the vast majority of secondary school at Shellharbour’s Corpus Christi Catholic High School, before moving to Sydney’s Endeavour Sports High School to repeat year 11.
He then skipped year 12 and instead picked up a full-time job as an SCG groundsman.
Young Swans Isaac Heeney, Callum Mills and Nick Blakey are indebted to the Sydney Academy for the impact it had on them as footballers and young men, but it was perhaps even more important for Bell.
“I wouldn’t be here – full stop – if there wasn’t a Swans Academy,” Bell said.
“They’re the ones that picked me up and showed me the ropes, and whenever I needed to be pulled into line, ‘Smithy’ (Academy General Manager Chris Smith) and Micky O’ (former Academy head coach Michael O’Loughlin) were on top of it straight away.
“I used to run a bit of amok down at home and my dad would dob me straight in to ‘Smithy’ or Micky O’, and because I’d hate missing out on things they’d make me miss out on the Academy. They’d make me miss two or three weeks of Academy training and games and I’d be absolutely filthy at myself, which was a really hard way of learning discipline. I couldn’t ever blame anyone but myself, so that made me realise that the decisions I make impact on what my life looks like.”
Not only would life as an SCG groundsman give Bell the best seat in the house to watch the Swans train, but a tantalising glimpse into the world of the AFL.
The Indigenous youngster worked as a groundsman in his draft year, toiling hard at the famed Moore Park venue as big-name Swans Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker sweated it out on the track.
He’d be sharing a locker room with the star trio from November 2017 after Sydney had signed him as a rookie – and he’s now set to soldier up the race with Kennedy and Parker at Adelaide Oval on Saturday.
Bell says it’s surreal to think he was once an SCG groundsman and is now on the cusp of his AFL debut.
Sydney Swans speedster James Bell in action in the NEAFL.
“I haven’t had much time to reflect on it, but it is amazing thinking about it like that,” Bell said.
“I had always hoped to make my AFL debut but never thought I’d get this far. Even just getting drafted, playing NEAFL footy, talking to people regarded as the best in the game and being around them every day is incredible, so to now be making my AFL debut is on another level. When you sit back and appreciate all the little things it puts everything in perspective.”
Bell’s mum and dad, Catherine and Jimi, as well as his five siblings, will all be in the Adelaide Oval stands for Saturday’s match.
Bell has four sisters – Talarah, Leticia, Aleicia and Caliah – and a younger brother ‘BJ’ who’s “my best mate”.
He’s determined to make his family proud as he pulls on his number 32 guernsey, and he says he’ll take into the game some heartfelt words of advice from co-captain Dane Rampe.
“I had a coffee with ‘Rampes’ and he said, ‘Soak it up. You’re making your AFL debut so make the most of it. You’ll know when to shut off the outside noise and get ready for an important game. Appreciate the hard work you’ve put in to get here, and then really switch on when the harder work starts'.”