Eight years down an AFL road that was supposed to be littered with premiership glory and competition dominance, the Gold Coast Suns find themselves off track and off the AFL’s script. Instead, they find they're smack-bang in the middle of the football wilderness.
It was not supposed to be like this.
The talk of success has dried up and promptly replaced with talk of survival. Two coaches down, a membership base plateauing not thriving, a state disinterested not infatuated, and finals fanciful not the formality it was once thought. So, how did it come to this for the AFL’s Suns and will they forever be deemed an irrecoverable failure?
In 2012, Gold Coast narrowly avoided ‘winning’ their second wooden spoon in as many years. It was following that season that the club, led by its then chairman John Witheriff and CEO Travis Alud, declared that the Gold Coast Suns would win a premiership in the next three years and boast over 20,000 members. The former president said he had visions of the captain and Christ-like figure of the ambitious Suns, Gary Ablett Jr holding the premiership cup aloft before an ever-growing legion of adoring fans.
Man plans, and God laughs. Clubs fail plans, and the Son of God leaves.
Hindsight is a wonderful, if not somewhat depressing thing. It has been three years since Gold Coast’s original three-year plan was supposed to be completed, and – spoiler alert - the Suns have not won an AFL premiership. They’ve not once made the finals. In fact they are yet to crack into the top eleven. The SUNS also have not got close to that allusive figure of 20,000 members unlike the other expansion club, Greater Western Sydney. Concerningly, Gold Coast’s membership figures peaked in its inaugural season with the club obtaining just over 14,000 foundation members. Whereas, as of last month, the club has been unsuccessful in reaching 10,000 members for the 2018 season.
The club’s supporter base is not growing - it is actually shrinking. This could not have been any more evidenced by the club’s home attendance of 6,060 in last their clash with the Demons. Admittedly, the game was not played at the Suns’ official home ground of Carrara due to the Commonwealth Games taking the ground out of action for the first half of the season. But it was still Gold Coast’s first home game in Queensland (besides the Round 1 clash hosted in far North Queensland at Cazaly Stadium) of the season. Yet, only a pitiful 6,000 people cared to roll out the welcome mat for their beloved Suns after nine months out on the road. This figure is even more deflating when you factor in the significant Demon contingent that saw their side smash the hapless Suns by 68 points.
Success is the farthest thing on Gold Coast’s radar as they first have to counter the far more pressing issue of survival. The Suns have conceded that they are on the brink of collapse due to the very real fears of bankruptcy plaguing the club amplified by the fees imposed on the club by Stadium Queensland. Gold Coast officials are fearing their AFL license is in jeopardy of being revoked in favour of a new Tasmanian based club. These fears are set to worsen due to the North Melbourne’s apparent rejection of the AFL’s Tasmanian relocation proposal as covered here recently.
So, what has gone wrong? Well, pretty much everything.
For the first seven years of the club’s existence, Gary Ablett Jr was not just the face of the club but the body as well. When Gold Coast were introduced onto AFL grounds there were times when they were welcomed as “Gary Ablett and his Gold Coast Suns” to highlight his larger than club status. There has never been a more dominant figure at a football club than Gary Ablett at Gold Coast and there probably never will. The Suns’ entire identity was wrapped almost solely around the dual Brownlow Medalist, eight time All Australian and greatest player of our time. So, when Ablett ran away, quite literally from the media during his final weeks, there was not much left for them to chase. Of course, the problems existed far before the prodigal Son of God returned to Geelong.
“All those young lads you saw there will be household names on the Gold Coast in a few years” – former AFL CEO, Andrew Demetriou during the Gold Coast’s official launch.
While, it is true that several Suns have become household names, they have all since scrambled for the exits as all the Suns who have become guns to a man, have fired elsewhere. Jaeger O’Meara, the man once touted as the next Gary Ablett went to Hawthorn, Dion Prestia became a Tiger and later a premiership player, Josh Caddy did the same after a quick visit to Geelong, Charlie Dixon has thrived at Port Adelaide, Zac Smith is now a Cat and Harley Bennell teased the club with his potential, before plunging them into damage control before becoming a Docker.
If the neutrals strolling along Surfer’s Paradise knew one other name other than Gary Ablett when the Suns first rose it was Karmichael Hunt; the AFL’s secret weapon in attempting to steal the NRL’s territory from beneath them. Karmichael Hunt, the NRL star with the Brisbane Broncos was converted over from the ‘enemy’ in attempt by the AFL to persuade the general public to follow suit.
They didn’t – contrary to popular AFL-belief, the general public is not that stupid. Hunt didn’t stick around either, leaving Gold Coast and the AFL for Rugby League three years after Gold Coast’s debut season. This was despite, being one of less than a handful of AFL players who earned over a million dollars a season at the time. In hindsight, Hunt’s contract appears to have done more for maintaining his off-field habits than the prosperity of the Suns.
But the Little Master and Karmichael were not the only so called big name recruits. Former Crow Nathan Bock was the club’s first signing and only lasted 27 games – a horrible broken leg sealing his footballing fate. Since Bock’s retirement, former Gold Coast sports scientist, the disgraced Stephen Dank has admitted that he and his former Essendon partner in crime Dean Robinson provided Bock with and taught how to administer the banned drug CJC-1295, respectively. Shamefully, Bock went unpunished by the AFL, ASADA and WADA.
Gold Coast’s other major signing of a pre-established star was former premiership Hawk Campbell Brown. Brown lasted 46 games before being sacked by the Suns after a drunken altercation at a US bar resulted in Brown being accused of punching current co-captain Steven May twice in the face, breaking his jaw and leaving him in a pool of blood.
On and off the field the Suns’ eight-year existence has been – at best – troubled. After Gary Ablett’s departure, current co-captain Tom Lynch has filled the void of the great white hope, even if his hype has been drastically overplayed out of the Suns need for hope. Gold Coast have offered him the biggest contract in the history of the game, a figure of $10.5 million over 7 years. Despite, this incredible offer, all indications – and history – signal another departure of a talented player from the Suns with Hawthorn and Richmond the frontrunners.
If that is the case, another great white hope bites the dust and his football club might do the same.