Gary Ayres is the longest-serving coach of the Port Melbourne Football Club, by a wide margin.
The five-time Hawthorn premiership champion is at the helm of the Borough for his 13th season, and will be coaching his 250th VFL game this weekend against GWS.
There are only four men who have coached more VFA/VFL games than Ayres now.
The prestigious list is made up of absolute legends of Aussie rules including:
- Jim Cleary (222 games played South Melbourne, 264 games coached Port Melbourne/Brunswick/Dandenong)
- Brad Gotch (117 games played Fitzroy/Port Adelaide/St Kilda, 268 games coached Springvale/Williamstown/Casey)
- Bill Faul (188 games played Subiaco/South Melbourne, 313 games coached Prahran/Northcote/Moorabbin)
- And record holder Gerald Fitzgerald (3 games played Geelong, 345 games coached North Ballarat/Springvale/Port Melbourne)
In a strange turn of events, Ayres won’t be able to coach the milestone game in Melbourne, let alone in front of the loyal Borough faithful.
The game against the Giants will be taking place in Sydney on Saturday afternoon, in a day that will come with mixed feelings.
“There’s only so many things you can control,” Ayres told The Inner Sanctum.
“We haven’t travelled interstate to play opposition since back probably when I first started when there was the odd flight down to Tassie.
“If I was being a little bit selfish [I’d] probably think that way, but you’ve got to roll with the punches in this caper. We don’t live in a perfect world, we’re not playing perfect footy as much as I think we should be, we’re clearly not.
“It’s one of those little things, and at the end of the day it’s not going to change the fact… it’ll still be the same. Whether you win interstate or whether you win at home you still get four points. That’s our sole focus this week, to be honest.”
Ayres’ tenure has been one of unrivalled success. He brought the historied club to their first flag in nearly 30 years in 2011 and has only missed a single finals campaign.
This included a run of three grand finals in five years, the first coming in his first year.
He came into the role with a slew of prior experience at AFL level, coaching Geelong and Adelaide for a combined 223 games.
Ayres’ playing career spanned 269 games, winning two Norm Smith Medals across his five premierships.
Having great success as both a coach and player, he spoke on the differences between the experience of playing in grand finals as both.
“Playing is much more individual,” Ayres said.
“I felt you were inclined to be going about your preparation… as an individual player, that is what you are. You are so bent on making sure you do everything you can do that you’re available for selection, and then subsequently play.
“As I always say, you have an individualistic approach to your football, whereas when you’re coaching you’ve got to have all your players hoping, wanting, believing that they can play well and perform their role on any given day.
“As a coach you’re across recruiting, you’re across the support staff, as in physios, doctors, trainers. [There’s] more media, because you almost become the figurehead of the organisation to a degree, because you’re out there promoting and selling the brand of the organisation.
“I can guarantee you that losing hurts a lot more as a coach than it does as a player. [As a player] you know you’ve got a physical opportunity to right the wrongs of the week before, whereas as a coach it’s that emotional buy-in.
“As a player you can chase, you can tackle, you can harass, you can take a mark, get a kick, kick a goal.
“As a coach it becomes an emotional ride. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t have the passion and the enjoyment. Maybe the losses hang around a little bit longer than the wins… but failing in this caper is something that is always there.
“You get so many learnings out of failing and the adversity than what you do if everything was just rolling along magnificently.”
History repeats at North Port Oval
Upon starting in 2008, Ayres lost his first game at Port Melbourne, going down to Collingwood by a slim 13-point margin at Princes Park.
The Borough lead at every change, but only barely. They took a singular goal lead into the last quarter before the Pies got the best of them.
History has a strange way of repeating itself.
Fast forward to 2021 and the VFL season began in very similar circumstances for Port Melbourne.
Ayres and his side made the trip up to Queensland for the first time, losing by a landslide 53 points to the Aspley Hornets in a poor result to kick off their season.
Milestone man Anthony Anastasio (playing his 100th) kicked three goals, as did former Crow Matthew Signorello. Harvey Hooper (playing his 50th) led his side for disposals, notching up 22 touches and four marks.
Just like his first season, Ayres’ Borough were up against the St Kilda-aligned Sandringham Zebras the week after, their first home game for the year.
In 2008, they were 11 points down at three quarter time. In 2021, they had their noses in front by barely any margin at all, just a point up.
An important rev-up in the huddle gave Ayres’ men the motivation they needed to finish with a strong final quarter, a five-goal burst getting them over the line.
Ayres stresses the importance of winning at home and getting the boys in the right mindset to win.
“We love playing at home, we love playing here at ETU Stadium, it’s where we train twice or three times a week for however many months,” he said.
“We should be at our strongest, this is our patch, we know all the nuances of the ground, which direction the wind generally comes from. It’s our home, and we want to protect it, it’s our fortress.
“We’ve got all of our supporters here who support us. I think that makes you grow a little bit as well.
“It’s really about the moment, how’s the game unfolding. There’s a feel, and sometimes it could be a little bit of theatre, if there’s something there that the players can pick up on.
“I’ve found over a long period of coaching that the players feed off you, if you’re coming across as positive or if you’re a bit flat, whatever it may be. You like to think your players are extensions of you as a coach and your coaching group.
“I was really keen for us… we are back at home and we hadn’t played for 15 months. Something had been taken away from us, it was out of our control.
“I’ve said to a lot of the guys that played back in that era (2008), that I thought that was a pivotal game for where the group actually was mentally.
“We won, and of course [there’s] the confidence you get from winning. We won 17 of the next 20 games from that point to play off in the grand final in 2008.”
The (other) milestone men
Ayres will happily share his milestone game with both Anastasio and Hooper, having nothing but praise for his charges.
Anastasio comes up on his 100th, a dual premiership player across Williamstown and Port Melbourne, while Hooper plays his 50th.
Recovering from an ACL injury sustained in 2019, Ayres says the game will be all the more special for him.
“Anthony, he was probably at an interesting time in his footballing career before coming to us,” he said.
“He’d been a premiership player at Williamstown, but there was certainly things that were going on from a footballing perspective that made him feel somewhat uncomfortable about his longevity as a VFL footballer.
“He made a decision along with the coaching staff at the time at Willy to look elsewhere. We’re forever thankful for him doing that.
“I think [VFL commentator] Peter Marcato might have dubbed him ‘The Igniter’ on radio. He plays like that, he’s got that sort of mercurial feel at times.
“He’s become a premiership player with us in 2017, he’s added the leadership qualities that I thought he had early days. The more confident he’s gotten with his role and place within the footballing team, he’s now a teacher.
“I think that’s all added to what Anthony is as a person, his ability to understand what I want. He understands the game and he’s had to fight back from an ACL injury as well.
“For him to become a two-time premiership player within the VFL environment, it’s an enormous achievement. He’s just been one of our very best here.”
Hooper was one of the youngest players in Port Melbourne’s 2017 premiership.
It was a long wait for him to break into the side after being picked up from the Oakleigh Chargers, but once he did, Ayres couldn’t ignore what he offered.
“Harvey [Hooper] epitomises so much of what Port Melbourne is about; his aggression at the ball, his aggression at the man, his competitiveness, his leadership, he’s in our leadership group as well,” he said.
“He had to wait, I reckon he played nine or 10 games in 2017 and I kept on saying to him ‘be patient, this is what we need you to work on, keep improving your game, keep having that attitude to get better’.
“He was one of the first boys I embraced after the game when we won in 2017 because we were both at boundary level there.
“He’s just been a very, very strong character within what Port Melbourne’s been able to put out there over his time here at the footy club.”
The wisdom and knowledge that Ayres has built up across 15 years of playing and nearly 30 years of coaching, both as an assistant and in the head role, shines through with everything he says.
Gary Ayres is a man who lives and breathes footy.
What makes him want to keep going after being involved with the game for as long as he has is simple. The people he’s surrounded by at Port Melbourne make him want to return the club every week and every year.
“I’m sure it’s the environment,” he said.
“I’ve been really accepted by the Port Melbourne faithful and our amazing supporters. I can see still similar faces here after 14 years… the support that they’ve given me, allowing me to come to a brand new environment and embracing me.
“With an organisation like the Port Melbourne Football Club that was founded in 1874 and of course was then able to be admitted to the VFA… you think we’re now [in] 2021, there’s a lot of coaches, players, support staff and administration that have come and gone.
“We should be thinking, our focus should be, we’re caretakers and custodians of the Port Melbourne Football Club while we’re here.
“If I had to thumb it down it’s about making sure that Port Melbourne stays relevant against bigger organisations, more financial organisations.
“I’m sure we’ve proved that we can do that over a long period of time with sustained success.”
Ayres’ milestone game will be available to watch for free on Kayo Sports.
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