• Coaching the Tiwi Bombers is a logistical challenge for coach James McAdam, but one he takes on gladly. (Guy McLean)Source: Guy McLean
After taking the wooden spoon for the first time ever last season, the Bombers are out to re-capture their winning ways and raise community spirits.
Guy McLean

The Point
28 Sep 2021 - 3:19 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2021 - 4:05 PM

The pristine beaches of the Tiwi Islands are a world away from the red desert dust of Central Australia, but James McAdam has quickly embraced his new island home.

The football journeyman has relocated from Alice Springs to Bathurst Island, about 80 kilometres north of Darwin, to take up the role of coaching Northern Territory Football League team the Tiwi Bombers.

It hasn't just been a change of scenery: McAdam has also changed his name.

"When I arrived, my name was Greg McAdam," he told NITV News. 

An Elder in the community, who had recently died when James arrived, had shared his name.  

"So in terms of cultural sensitivity and cultural respect I now go by the name of James so people on the island here don’t call me Greg, they actually call me James now," he said.

James moved to Bathurst Island a couple of months ago, tasked with re-building a once proud and successful football club which has struggled over recent years. Last year the Bombers failed to win a single game, but that hasn't dampened the new coach's enthusiasm.

"I knew the job was going to be pretty tough, but at the same time I knew that Tiwi weren't that bad. I've seen Tiwi play in the past and... I knew they were very, very skilful and I knew they were very, very fast.

"We had to get our act together, we had to get organised and we had to put a football program into place, and we had to get started."

Early signs have been encouraging. Training sessions are held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and up to 40 young men have regularly taken to the track at the club's main base at Wurrumiyanga. 

Logistics are a major challenge. The club also holds training at Garden Point and Milikapati on neighbouring Melville Island, while another small group of Tiwi footballers also trains on the mainland in Darwin.

"I have to be in four locations, so I can not only get the players together but also create some energy in the communities. So that’s been an enormous task," James said. 

"I think we’ve had pretty close to a hundred men on the training track - terrific energy, terrific buy-in and we’re really looking forward to the season."

Community is key

Winning the hearts and minds of the wider Tiwi community has been a major focus of James' work since arriving on the islands.

He says his role is part football coach and part community engagement consultant, drawing on decades of experience working with remote Aboriginal communities. He spends much of his time chatting with football mad Elders.

"The environment that we’re in is an Aboriginal environment and getting to know Aboriginal people is a lot different than living in a country town or living in a city.

"I had to do a lot of work around trying to get community buy-in, meeting the older people, meeting the younger people and actually trying to pull it all together as a whole piece," he said. 

Dean Rioli is a proud Tiwi man who carved out a career with AFL club Essendon. He's recently returned to the Top End from Melbourne as the new president of the Tiwi Bombers.

He's been impressed by the impact James has had in just a couple of months on the Tiwis.

"I think when you first go out looking for a coach, you're looking for a young up-and-coming, a super coach, but  we were after someone with experience and the ways he addresses the players and mingles with the community is exactly what we needed."

With age comes wisdom

James McAdam is football royalty in the Northern Territory. He's the eldest of three McAdam brothers who played at the elite level. Brother Gilbert was a star at St Kilda and Brisbane before carving out a successful media career, while another sibling, Adrian, still holds the record for kicking the most goals of any VFL/AFL player in their first three games. 

James is the first to admit he's no Spring chicken; he's the oldest man coaching in the NTFL's Premier League this season. But it has its perks: he's quickly become a father figure among the playing group, a title he's gladly embraced.

"Look, I’m a 60 year old man. I feel healthy, I feel fit and I thought I had still a hell of a lot to offer," James said enthusiastically.

"You have to be fairly mature, you have to be fairly flexible and you have to have a lot of knowledge about Aboriginal people and you have to have a lot of knowledge about how to bring people together so being my age has been ideal.

"I’m not a young fella where people can take advantage of me, I’m a lot older than the players and for sure they do see me as an older statesman I suppose, so I’m pretty happy about that."

Dion Munkara has been elevated to the co-captaincy of the Bombers for the coming campaign. He's already struck up a close friendship with the new coach.

"He's been like a father for us I think," Dion said.

"He's telling us to push hard and off the field he's been amazing, talking to us and giving us advice and telling us to do things right."

Realistic expectations

The Tiwi Bombers were formed in 2006 to provide a pathway for young Tiwi men to show their skills on Top End football's biggest stage. The team made finals in its very first season and tasted premiership success in 2011/2012.

While Dean Rioli would love to see those results emulated this season, the Tiwi Bombers are about more than just about winning games.

"There’s a lot of pride in Tiwi football, and (last season) was the first time we ever won the wooden spoon," he said.

"We already know a lot we're on the right track and we haven't even played round one yet. So the biggest challenge for us is to make sure that we go back to community. Do community trust us?  Do they believe in what we're about?

"The kids walking around the community now they can see a whole heap of people on the training track and they want to all come down and watch and be a part of this.

"Winning and losing will come with just actually getting around community and building that trust again, and making sure that the players commit and they can all look each other in the eye and say 'we are all here for much bigger than just playing on a football field every Saturday.'"

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