'I've had talks about going home to Derry but I still want to show I can dominate in the AFL'

GWS Giants star Callum Brown chats about the AFL, scoring goals and Derry.

Image: AAP/PA Images

IN THE convoluted meritocracy that is the AFL, first-team opportunities are few and far between. Consider Callum Brown’s first four games for GWS Giants.

The Derry native debuted in May 2021, but he didn’t play a minute. Last season the league introduced a medical substitute. Essentially, it was a 23rd man who could come on for an injured player during a game. The injured participant is ruled out for twelve days if they are replaced.

Statically it counts as an appearance even if they don’t get a kick.  

In a move that was severely criticised in places, Brown debuted as a medical sub. Experience the jumper presentation and excitement, tell the family, do the warm-up and watch from the sidelines. A week later, he finally got his chance and grasped it with both hands, scoring two goals against Geelong.

On to 2022. His first game of the season was against Collingwood, again as an unused medical sub. His second came against Hawthorn. This time, he scored four goals.

“I was told an hour and a half before the game that I would actually play,” he recalls.

“I knew I was either going to play or be the medi-sub. So I came to watch the seconds (VFL) play beforehand. As soon as I got into the changing room, they came up to me and said we decided to go with you today. Get your head switched on.

“Wait! What? I was kind of shocked. Even still, when he told me I wasn’t too unsettled. I don’t get too overly excited.”

Then he took off. Literally. ‘Look at the speed!’ declared the incredulous 7AFL commentators as the Limavady flyer raced from one end of the field to the other. The 21-year-old had been a stand-out defender in the reserve league but filled in as a forward that day for the seniors. From there he just followed instructions.

“That is what they wanted me to do. When I saw we won the ball I put the foot down. Use my speed. 

“Actually, when I got the kick off, I thought I shot too early. I kicked it straight away and panicked because one of the boys was shouting at me. I presumed someone was right behind me. But when we rewatched the vision there was no one, he was saying, ‘take your time and relax.’ The way he screamed I just presumed someone was on my tail.”

Brown was gifted at every sport he played growing up. Gaelic football, soccer, rugby. In October 2018, the Derry U20 star joined GWS on a two-year category B rookie contract. A week before he turned 19, he was promoted to the senior list.

afl-cats-giants Source: AAP/PA Images

He held the top speed and row machine record in the clubhouse. Progressing ahead of schedule. If there was an Irish AFL guidebook, he was ticking every box.

Then Covid tore the manual to shreds. Club budgets were cut back. Support staff were let go. Reserve leagues canned. Developing players had to make do with scratch games and limited coaching. In the history of the Irish experiment, few faced more challenging circumstances than the Irish rookies during the pandemic. At a crucial point of their progression that demands structure, the sport was in chaos.

After four years, Brown has scored six goals and played eight games. An impressive yield in challenging circumstances? Not quite. In his ambitious mind, not even close.   

“I’m still looking to play. Looking to sign a new contract. I want to get better. I don’t want to shy away from that. The season didn’t go well for us but I want to be the best I can, and help put us in a spot to be better next year. I’ve had talks about going home to Derry, approaches and all that, but I still want to show I can dominate in the AFL.

“My mindset is I haven’t achieved what I want to do. Be dominant. Playing how I should be playing and from the start. I’m disappointed with myself. The Giants picked me to come along and excel. To prove the Irish can do as well as the Aussies. I want to do that.

“You look at it, it is still not good enough. I’ve played all together eight games but a few of them are as a medical sub. For me, that is not good enough. I want a season to show I am good enough and justify the Giants’ faith. I’ve shown glimpses but I want to show it for a whole season.

“I believe it is not that far away. If you are playing well in the VFL you will get opportunities. It was hard to break in, to begin with. So much goes into selection. It is rarely as simple as it looks. For example, I might not be picked this week, but it was about matchups. This weekend Essendon have lots of talls. We wanted to go with that structure backline. We’ve four talls in our backline.”

afl-swans-giants Source: AAP/PA Images

This year has been a return to normal of sorts. And yet, in a professional sport, what even is normal? The Giants’ form has been dreadful and they are currently in the bottom three. After nine years as coach, Leon Cameron quit last May. His assistant Mark McVeigh took over as interim boss.

In a stinging press conference following the club’s fourth straight loss, last week McVeigh let loose. It came after a 73-points loss to city rivals Sydney Swans.

“It’s very unlike the Giants, these are the games you’ve got to get up for and our club has prided ourselves on that for a long period of time,” he said.

“They’re far superior to us at the moment, clearly. There’s just the unfortunate part of dealing with whether players have checked out or not. That’s as honest as you possibly can be.”

When will there be a presumably welcome return to reality? Never. In professional sport, this is the reality. Coaches come and go. The dressing room mood rises and falls. Form varies. The chance might never arrive. The game is rarely pure and never simple. 

“For us, it is about showing up now,” Brown explains.

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“I reckon it is our main focus now. We haven’t been at our best, have we? It is about players not working or what? There have been bad performances as a team. Are we playing as a team, or do we not want to play anymore because it is the end of the season?

“We dropped away in the second half of the season. It is hard to have one clear reason. We need to be together. If one player isn’t on, it jeopardises the whole game plan. The way we want to play needs everyone.  

“Take team defence. It starts from the forwards, either emptying out when the ball is turned over or pushing wings up, getting midfield to drop back. Who covers exit kicks? Who helps the backs out? We want to defend from our forward 50, rather than just in our half. Start up the field. Keep it in their zone. Whoever wins that battle usually wins the game.

“I’ve my role too; it all feeds in. I’m a back. It is a weird one. I’d love to play forward but I am more comfortable as a back. In that first game this year, I played forward because that was where they needed a body and I kicked four goals but at the same time, I have been developing in my spot as a defender. 

“Last week they put me forward again to see how it would work but we weren’t getting it into the forward line, we couldn’t get it inside 50. It didn’t work out at all. We got smacked.”

Ideally, Callum will close out the season on a high and the club will table an extension. Then he will stay in Sydney to prep for an arduous off-season programme. That way, he has the work banked and can enjoy an extended break back home over the winter.

callum-brown-with-brian-omalley-and-john-cunnane Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Meanwhile, Derry continues to pine after their star Down Under. That childhood dream still lingers, providing assurance that there is an enticing alternative. 

“I played with that entire back line except for Chrissy and Rodgers. Players and management were in touch with me after games this year. I love it.

“My uncle back home texts me. He is at every game and keeps me in touch and up to date. What the options are, they often ask what it would take for me to come back and play for Derry. 

“I love to see that. I’ve good choices. I would love to play with Conor Glass for example. You are also in a great spot.

“I feel bad, I don’t want to hold them off. As if I have to make a choice… that is just me. I feel bad because maybe they expect me to come back but I obviously want to stay. It is an easy decision but a hard decision.

“They are great options. Two lifestyles I want to live. Right now I am picking one, if I don’t go with this I can go with another. Not many get this kind of opportunity.”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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