“That looks like a f***ing dog’s breakfast”.
It’s not the impression you want to make in front a Sydney Swans legend, and the Swans Academy coaching staff.
But the young men of the Academy aren’t training with enough intent as they shuttle back and forth along the oval at Centennial Park.
It’s a warm afternoon in Sydney as 50 young men from the under-17s, and under-18s squad give their all at the Academy’s first training session.
Among them is 17-year-old Thungutti man, Royce Close.
Standing at 181 centimetres, weighing 64 kilograms, and with his right knee taped up, he’s halfway through the three hour training session.
Swans legend, and former Academy Head Coach Michael O’Loughlin, watches on intently: mostly silent but occasionally guiding some of the guys through their kicking drills.
“You’re here for a reason. I just want you to keep in the back of your minds that it’s not long before we start playing these games,” he tells the group huddle before the training sessions begins.
“Let’s not mess around. Let’s not fart arse around. Let’s do what we need to do to improve.”
The boys from Kempsey
For Royce Close, the Swans Academy is a family affair.
He’s moved to Sydney with his younger brother Shaydan and cousin Chris Holten. Both of them will be playing in the Academy’s under-16s squad.
“I always dreamed of playing NRL or AFL at a high level and with my family supporting me so I reckon I can do it,” Royce says.
“I moved to Sydney, put everything in it, left family. I just want to do my best and get the most out of it.”
And making that leap from Academy recruit to fully-fledged Sydney Swans player is possible.
Swans players Callum Mills and Isaac Heeney were drafted straight out of the Academy into the current team.
The ideal outcome for Royce Close after the 26 week Academy program, is getting drafted into the Swans or another club.
But it’s a long road.
There are two training sessions a week, three games against their crosstown rivals at the Greater Western Sydney Academy, several games in Victoria’s TAC Cup and numerous training camps.
Completing all of that is easy - at least easier than excelling at the Academy and getting noticed.
For his younger brother Shaydan and cousin Chris in the under-16s, it’s a similar program with the added pressure of starting at a new school in Sydney.
Chris says he’s “dead serious” about his AFL. He usually plays in the midfield or full forward back home.
“There’s one non-Indigenous player that’s my idol, that’s [Swans midfielder] Dan Hannebury,” he says outside the Swans Academy office.
“It’s a big move from Kempsey, but it’s worth it.”
Shaydan Close is the smallest of the Kempsey boys and a Port Adelaide fan, but he’s already kicked four goals this season.
In one match alone - in the under-16s victory over the UWS Giants Academy - he kicked three goals.
Like his older brother, and his cousin, he’s got those skinny blackfella legs, and the speed and agility that usually come with them.
A bit more reserved than his brother, he’s also more direct, and keenly aware of what he needs to do to succeed.
“Work hard, do extra training and hopefully make squads,” he says matter-of-factly.
“It sets you up for life doing something that you love.”
The hard road
The journey from young Indigenous footballer to Swans stardom requires extreme dedication.
Former Academy coach and Narunnga, Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri man, Michael O’Loughlin knows exactly what it takes to become an elite footballer.
He stepped down as coach earlier this month to pursue business opportunities, but says he will always be involved in the club.
He wants the Academy to be a roadmap to AFL stardom, but, more importantly, he wants to teach the boys from Kempsey how to be men.
“They’re a long way from home. I take my hat off to them. They’ve had some challenges themselves, but I think, overall, they’ve made the first step. They want to be successful, they know they’re going to come up against some hurdles, and some obstacles they’re going to have to jump over or knock down.”
The 'Goodes' Effect'
For the boys from Kempsey, former Swans player Adam Goodes is a hero and intimately involved with guiding young guys through the Academy.
The love for Goodesy by the Swans' faithful is matched only by the hatred he experienced online, and at other grounds around the country during his final season in 2014.
It will remain a great stain in the history of the AFL: the booing of Goodes.
The Swans’ number 37 played nearly 400 games during his career. A dual-Brownlow medallist, four time All Australian, and a three times Best and Fairest, he also played in the Premiership winning teams of 2005 and 2012.
But, the Andyamathanha and Narungga man was a lightning rod of criticism and debate about Australia’s real and perceived racism.
If a book on the whole saga was written, the opening chapter would begin with the remarks he made shortly after being announced as the 2014 Australian of the Year.
“Growing up as an Indigenous Australian, I have seen and experienced my fair share of racism,” he told the crowd in Canberra on Australia Day 2014.
“I believe racism is a community issue, which we all need to address, and that’s why racism stops with me.”
His words barely had time to resonate before he became a pariah to Australians uncomfortable with our Indigenous history - an easy target for the overt and subtle racists, and a beacon to those who believed racism in sport had to be called out.
The critics positively frothed at the mouth when he performed his infamous war cry
It culminated in the last few months of 2015, when he was viciously booed by spectators across the country whenever he touched the ball on the field. It wasn’t every AFL fan, but enough to spark debates in pubs, columns in major newspapers, arguments at barbeques and interventions from politicians around the country.
Australians were forced to ask themselves what is the identity of this country? And, just what do we expect our elite Aboriginal athletes to be?
And, it begs an obvious and unfortunate question, one which would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago: why would a young Aboriginal man want to play in the AFL given the way Goodesy was heckled into retirement?
For the young boys from Kempsey, it’s not a question they’re uncomfortable with. You get the feeling they’ve already asked themselves.
“It’s in every sport, racism. You’ve gotta have that good mindset to push it off and keep going like Goodesy did,” Royce Close says.
You’ve got to let your footy do the talking he says.
“He did a really good job, handled it well. You gotta know how to handle it. If you can handle that it makes you a better player.”
His cousin Chris agrees. He says it’s likely every top Indigenous player will be the target of racism.
“It’s just going to happen I guess. [I’ll] probably just ignore it most of the time and move on with the AFL. That’s all I gotta worry about.”