This week’s Round 14 clash between the Gold Coast and Port Adelaide football clubs serves as a just reminder of the inroads that the newer franchise has made as an AFL entity.
10 years ago, the two teams met in what was just the fourth time the Suns crossed the white line at the top. More importantly, it was their first-ever win at the level.
In a form of great imagery for the footy purist, they did so at one of the traditional homes of the game in Australia – Adelaide’s historic Footy Park.
To an extent, a metaphorical batten was passed.
Trailing by 28 points at the last break, the Suns showed their first real moment of maturity as a club, rising to a hefty challenge so early in their existence.
It is a moment that current Gold Coast ruckman, Zac Smith looks back on fondly.
As an inaugural member of a squad packed with some incredible young talent, he recalls the uncontrollable emotion involved in the triumph.
“It was a good time for the club. I remember a lot of excitement around the place,” Smith told The Inner Sanctum.
“I can’t remember too much from the first half. I know we were kind of out of it at three-quarter time. It was that feeling of ‘I suppose here’s another loss.’
“I don’t remember much about the address at three-quarter time or anything but it obviously gave us a bit of a spark, a bit of belief. ‘Bluey’ (Guy McKenna) must have pumped us up a bit.”
Such expectations of another inevitable loss are understandable as the Suns started the 2011 season with successive defeats of 119, 71, and 90 points.
Kicking six goals to one in the last to claim a memorable three-point win, then, is nothing short of remarkable in hindsight.
The last goal kicked by substitute Luke Russell and subsequent miss by Port’s Justin Westhoff in the dying seconds ensured that lightning was sealed in the bottle.
Football fans around the country let out a collective gasp in awe, while the young men in red, gold, and blue let out one of relief, turned exhilaration.
Looking back at the game in this light, however, is dismissive of how much of a true watershed moment it was.
For the first time, a host of talented youngsters combined to create magic. The first hurdle on a long journey had leaped.
“David Swallow, I remember him in the last quarter was huge for us. Brandon Matera on the day kicked quite a few important goals,” Smith told.
“Obviously the Luke Russell goal was huge for us.
“I thought we completely had it wrapped up, then Westhoff marks with about ten seconds to go and he actually had the opportunity to win the game.
“I was glad he missed it, that’s for sure.”
What followed were scenes of elation. Football history had been etched into the minds of all fans. For Smith, it was validation of the journey. They belonged, and that is something he will hold forever.
Some even remember the game for humorous reasons thanks to the actions of one staff member that will live on in infamy.
“It was a really special moment. I don’t know if anyone expected us to win that early on or anything. I suppose we just played as a team and everything clicked. It was a good comeback as well,” Smith said.
“There’s an image that’s been going around for the last ten years of Barry Lowe, one of our property guys at the time, in the team song after winning he held up the lyrics to the team song.
“I don’t know if we really needed it.”
Reflecting on the club’s first milestone 10 years after the fact is more than simply thinking about a great football moment for Smith, though.
Rather, it is symbolic of how far the Gold Coast Suns have come. From humble beginnings of a blend of highly touted junior players, sprinkled with the experience and class of Ablett, Brown, and Harbrow, there has been serious growth.
Smith believes the side has gone from a novelty, a side-attraction to the main show that is rugby league, to hold a legitimate place in the State’s sporting community.
“Early days, people were getting confused between the Titans and the Suns. You’d just almost go along with it if people said you played for the Titans,” he remarked.
“You rock up to clinics and there’s a whole heap of kids and they’re ready to get involved. Kids love seeing their favourite players and there’s definitely a bigger love for footy in general, but for the Suns as a whole which is really good.
“People just love going to the footy and it’s a great experience if you’ve never been.”
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In terms of providing a detailed perspective of the development of the Gold Coast Suns, the 31-year-old is almost in a perfect position to comment.
At the end of the 2015 season, Smith was traded to Geelong and after four years with the Cats, he returned to his home state of Queensland ahead of the 2020 season.
After experiencing another professional environment, walking back through the doors of his first AFL club was eye-opening.
Under Coach Stuart Dew, culture has become a buzzword. There has been a conscious effort to create a successful environment that values the contribution of all of its members.
Part of this has been targeted at recruiting experienced stars with strong leadership qualities. Players such as Brandon Ellis and Hugh Greenwood, who drive standards with their on and off-field conduct.
Smith is incredibly cognisant of the progression that has taken place among the team, staff, and coaches. To him, it has been akin to entering a new world.
“I suppose it was just completely different initially at the Suns because we were all just establishing the culture and everything. Also, a lot of us younger guys didn’t know any different anyway,” he said.
“In terms of facilities and staff, it was all new and we didn’t know any different. I loved it.
“Then I went to Geelong and everything had almost been set up there for decades and decades. You walked into the place and instantly you kind of knew what was expected of you. What standards you had to live by.
“That was one thing that I did love about Geelong was that senior group of players had so much experience, not just at AFL level and in finals, but also just life as well.
“Coming back to the Suns, the place was just an entirely different club really for me. All new faces. You could just tell there was a shift. A really positive one.
“Dewy (Stuart Dew) has created a really great environment and you’re encouraged to be yourself. It’s really elite standards, whereas before I don’t really think it was quite there.
“There are really, really good people driving the standards, driving the culture, and just a lot of people just really want to see the club succeed and get to the place we all know we want to go.
“It’s been a lot of growth and it’s been really positive. We just need to convert that into more wins now and I think we’re starting to trend towards there.
‘Smooth sailing’ is not a term that can be applied to the first 10 years of the club’s existence. For what feels like an eternity, on-field performance issues, off-field behaviour problems, and mass player exits have defined most of the narratives around the Suns.
These themes do not paint the full picture, though. As alluded to, the tenure of Stuart Dew as head coach has created hope among supporters and the AFL industry as their first decade draws to a close.
The challenges do not get any easier on field as the Suns prepare to take on a surging Port Adelaide this week. Though there is now reason to have faith that the club, from property stewards all the way to the head coach, are on the right track.
There is belief in the system, structures, and vision. Without question, the 22 that run out on Saturday will be aiming to recreate the magic of 2011.
To this end, it can be said that our judgment of the Gold Coast Suns should not be clouded in pessimism. Instead, we should look forward with the hope that a new crop of committed stars are out to shine before the football world.
“Back then we were kind of the ones as 17 to 20-year-olds we were the ones setting the culture. We didn’t step into anything,” Smith concluded.
“We were kind of finding our way for quite a few years there, whereas now it’s kind of to where you come in and you know what’s expected of you, you know between ‘right and wrong and you know the way of the Suns.
“These young kids, I’ve been so impressed. Just on the character of these young fellas and just how hungry they are to succeed and to get better.”
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