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How the Stynes brothers changed the game for the Irish in Australia

The Dubliners made a huge impact on tactics and culture in the AFL and helped pave the way for generations of Irish hopefuls Down Under.

Stynes

OF ALL THE young Gaelic footballers who attended Paul Earley’s 1999 AFL try out, the gathered coaches agreed that two in particular stood out. Everyone was eager. Some were athletic, others technically gifted, just two were all the above.

That is when Brian Stynes arrived.

Stynes was already an All-Ireland winner with Dublin. His older brother Jim remains the gold standard for the Irish experiment in the AFL, amassing a record 264 appearances. Brian had his own stint in the league too. He attended a similar audition as a minor and was subsequently drafted by Melbourne. Together, the brothers would leave a monumental footprint on both codes.

Across four years Brian Stynes played two senior games. Then he left and played in the VFA, Victoria’s reserve league. Several superb showings there brought him onto Sydney Swans’ radar. That didn’t work out, but a relationship was established. 

When he returned to Dublin the club kept in touch. When they wanted to formalise the Irish recruitment process, they contacted Brian. He was still playing football and working with the Dublin fire brigade so agreed to advise if someone else ran it.
“Paul organised the clinic and told me that it’s on in Kildare so I turned up,” he recalls now from his home in Melbourne. Only a faint hint of Australia lurks amidst the strong Dublin accent. In 2004, Brian, his wife and children emigrated permanently Down Under to be closer to his extended family.

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“I asked who they were thinking about. ‘We are down to two players.’ I said give them to me for half an hour and I’ll tell you the best one.

“I did exactly what they did with me when I was drafted. This drill between me and another man. It is basic. A contest one against the other. Two guys side by side and you kick the ball up between them. See who wins and gives it back to you.

“You do it over and over and quickly you will see which one can win a clean ball, which is quite hard one on one. The skills that necessary are evident pretty quickly. Balance, reactive speed, tenacity…”

It was the very same exercise that convinced recruiters to sign him as a 16-year-old. His opponent was bigger and heavier, but Brian outmanoeuvred him repeatedly. When he recreated it, the outcome was the same. One clearly superior player.

“I had actually spotted him a few months earlier when I saw him play an underage game. He was still the best prospect and that is what I told them. There is no comparison here. The other guy is a nice athlete and he is tall but this guy is the better player. He will be a success. Send him.”

That is how Tadhg Kennelly was selected to go to Sydney. 197 appearances and a Premiership medal followed. Another success story on what is now a well-worn road.
Jim Stynes’ legacy is long established. The gongs and garlands, numerous records, All-Australian and Brownlow medals are consistently listed yet still do little to reflect the scale of his triumph. He was a hall of famer who wove himself into the fabric of the sport. A ruckman who single handily secured the future of the Irish experiment and set a bar that borders on unfair.

tadhg-kennelly-2182002 Tadhg Kennelly in Sydney in 2002. Source: ©INPHO

If Jim showed the way, Brian helped build the blueprint. Together they contributed to a culture and system that still exists today. 14 Irish players are involved in the 2021 AFL season. The same number currently play in the AFLW. They all have the Stynes to thank for it.

It all started for the brothers at Ballyboden St Enda’s. The AFL has an active representative from that parish, 21-year-old James Madden. He is entering his third season with Brisbane Lions.

Since moving to Australia, the same topic of conversation comes up again and again as soon as Madden opens his mouth. Do you know much about Jim?

“It is almost impossible to put it into perspective for people back home. I don’t know who you would even compare Jim to. The level of adoration here is just… I mean it is everyone. If they know anything about footy, they know Jim. My housemate Noah, his grandparents travelled to his funeral.

“What is horrible is that I always knew who he was, but it wasn’t until he passed away in 2012 that I realised just how big. Then I came out here and it is another level again.”

After two years of systematic development, Madden is targeting a senior debut this season. He speaks with a striking positivity about his experience so far. The main focus is enjoying the process; if that feeling ever wanes, he will return home. The club has a good culture. They have two other Irish players and a pathway that provides him with the required support network to succeed.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Brian Stynes landed in Melbourne, he found a much more hostile atmosphere. Every day was a physical and mental battle.

“A lot of people did not want us here. The coach of the seconds and U19s, he was from country Victoria. He didn’t believe in the Irish experiment and thought they should just get players from the country. ‘Why are we wasting our time with you?’ That was the hostility we got here.”

This was a jungle; he was the prey.

“Recruiters were for it at this stage but not the next person down the line. That was quite daunting really. Once the season started, we were on our own. It was really hard; you had the home sickness and you were intimidated by these coaches. The shit I used to get off this guy.

“The second you made a mistake he’d say, ‘you’ll be home on the next plane if you do that again.’ Whacking you against the locker. I remember thinking, ‘wow, where the fuck am I?’ In saying that, it really prepared me for when I came home into the Dublin set-up. I was determined not to take shit like I took previously.”

Later in his career, Brian discussed this with Sydney. Too much of the transitional process was left up to luck. In his autobiography, Jim also touches on it and credits the kindness of the host family he was placed with.

“Had Melbourne not placed me with the Caddys, I might not have made it beyond Christmas before wanting to return home,” he explained.

A formalised system was necessary. Sydney later developed a housing programme.

Rookies are placed with second- and third-year prospects. They advance up, gradually assuming responsibility and developing leadership skills. The likes of Colin O’Riordan and Barry O’Connor, two Irish players currently at the New South Wales outfit, benefit from this framework.

This is something Madden stresses strongly. The current crop benefit from the previous.

“We are all reliant on who came before. The first thing you do at the start is talk to the other boys and there is just a relatable thing between all of us.

“You come out and you are the absolute bottom of the crop. You go straight to the bottom and you have to really grind your way to the top. For them to come out back then when players were not looked after as well… If it wasn’t for Jim, the Irish Australian connection would be nowhere near where it is now.”

Sometimes all it takes is a friendly face. Melbourne’s Dublin representation continues today with three Irish players – Sinead Goldrick, Niamh McEvoy and Lauren Magee – currently playing for their AFLW side. It was Brian who presented McEvoy with her jersey before her debut. They are regular dinner guests, Stynes is their sounding board.

aflw-magpies-demons Sinead Goldrick of the Demons is tackled during an AFLW match against Collingwood. Source: AAP/PA Images

Yet there is a reluctance to even engage in the idea that this was a kind gesture. As he talks, it is clear he regards it as standard practice. Instinct took over.

“I mean, the girls came to Melbourne. They are my team and I am still heavily involved. Anyone who ever rang me or Jim, we always gave our time to them because it gives that connection to home.

“I think it is just good for them to be able to talk and say I am having this problem. Most of their problems I have had before. People here don’t know what it is really like.”

Brian Stynes played in an U19 Grand Final and two reserve Premiership Finals.

Exasperated by his experience with Melbourne, he went to the VFA, now known as the VFL, determined that this time things would go differently. The sole goal was a coach he could click with. Port Melbourne’s Damien Drum did the job.

His senior debut had been at full-back, marking current Sydney coach John Longmire. In the second half he was on Wayne Carey, generally considered to be one of the greatest players to have ever played. Stynes would later win an All-Star at midfield. Since he was a child, he hated even the thought of being a defender. He begged Drum to play him anywhere else.

In his first game he kicked six goals from full forward. His season high was 12.7 in one game. Drum was delighted. After leading the team to the grand final, the Australian coach was offered an assistant’s role with Sydney. “I’ll take you with me,” Drum told the young Irishman. He entered the draft, waited for his name to be called but it never came.

“You know what is funny, I went back over to Australia a few years later playing with Ireland in the international rules. I was in a lift one day and when it opened, there was Damien Drum. He had sent me a handwritten letter after the draft to apologise: ‘I should have been more insistent.’

“I came out of the lift and he stopped me again to apologise. I was glad to be able to tell him ‘it’s fine, honestly. It worked out for me.”

That it did. A week after the draft, he flew home to a Dublin team known for losing big matches. Beaten by Meath in extra-time of a third replay in ’91. Downed by Donegal in the final in ’92. In ’93 it was Derry by a point, in ’94 it was Down by two. Then along came Stynes.

brian-stynes-celerbates Stynes celebrates All-Ireland glory with the Dubs in 1995. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

His stint in semi-pro sport had shown him how to do it right, and where it can go wrong. There was never going to be a eureka moment, just several small adjustments for a major reward. He spoke openly about changes needed to the culture and did things differently on the pitch. Bringing the talk and the walk.

“I read Bernard Brogan’s book the other day. That was a really good book. What I got from it was how far they have come along by actually paying attention to our sport here. In my time, it was so backward.”

The welcome was nothing like the one he endured in Melbourne, although it wasn’t exactly warm either. Too many were fixated on their own spot, a ‘me not we’ attitude. Stynes knew that had to go. It must be about the team, he insisted.

As he speaks about this now, his language brings to mind the interviews of another man from that 1995 group. Jim Gavin has the same intense focus on the collective.

As for tactics, some of what Stynes found was baffling.

“Jesus, the use of possession. The number of silly turnovers, the number of guys who caught the ball in midfield and just got bottled up! It amazed me. It is a simple thing. Players who catch the ball and take a step, sometimes turn and run towards the goal. It made no sense to me. Possession is more important now but back then…

“Losing possession like that was never tolerated in Australia. When I caught the ball the first thing I’d do is handball off to Keith Barr, Eamon Heery, Mick Deegan, a quick pass off. Why would I move into contact?

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“Everyone marking me was waiting for me to come to them nearly. Turn around and be swallowed. The play is gone. If I give it off to a half back streaming past, it’s way more efficient. That is a basic idea from Australian rules.

“Too many handpasses were these loopy, slow balls. They were often intercepted or slowed a runner down. I was quick off my left and right.

“I used the top of my fist to handpass a ball. The Australian ball is an accurate, hard pass. It is very hard to intercept it then.”

He was coaxed into coaching after retirement. His time in Australia helped fortify the Irish connection. Upon his return to Ireland, there was a realisation that it also allowed him to glimpse the future of Gaelic football.

In 2001, he took the St Mark’s GAA senior team. They went from Division 3 to Division 1. In the second year, they won the Intermediate football championship.

“That is when I brought all that stuff I learned in Australia. I brought it all. We played a game that was completely different to everyone else but was suited to the players. We’d no county players but they young guys who were talented and really bought in. The way we trained was all Australian rules.

“That was honestly the most enjoyable time of my sporting life. Those three years with Marks. I will never forget it. We beat UCD with 13 counties players in a replay in the first round of the championship.”

At Christmas Jim would return home and Brian would invite him in to do talking sessions with the group. In the next round, they took out defending Dublin and Leinster champions St Brigid’s before being beaten by a point against eventual champions Kilmacud Crokes.

brian-and-jim-stynes Brian and Jim Stynes in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“This thing of players moving behind the ball and leaving players inside, that’s exactly what we did. It is a basketball thing, obviously.

“We did that because of the type of player we had. Smaller, quicker players. I came back out to Australia after that.

“In 2005, Kevin Sheedy was the coach of Australia against Ireland. They got a serious beating the year before. He brought me and Jim in as assistant coaches. Kevin sat me down on my first day and said, ‘write me a game plan that will win us this. Now write down all the drills we need to do so we can implement it.’ So, I wrote out basically the exact same game we used for Marks. I wanted Australia to play the same way.

“The Irish strength is that they are better at kicking scores than you are. We need to take all their space away in their forward line. Deny them the chance to take a kick. The minute we get the ball back, we are fitter than they are. We will just run the ball up. Once we get to the 40, nobody shot. Do not kick it away. Hold it and hit one of the two guys inside. Get the mark and kick the score.

“We won the first game by 36 points.”

They won the second by 19. Playing a brand of football that would become the standard template 10 years later.

“I remember some of the Australians looking at it and saying, ‘this won’t fucking work.’ I was sitting there thinking, ‘ah shit.’ If this doesn’t work, I am in trouble here.

Fortunately, it went well. Here, this was a simple thing. They just weren’t doing it. Tactically it has all changed now.”

Change that Stynes foresaw and executed. In Australia, belligerent coaches are few and far between. Irish players benefit from a proven pathway. In Ireland, the game has evolved so rapidly that Stynes’ gameplan is commonplace. One team reign supreme.

When someone invariably points to Dublin and suggests their brand is the reason that they seldom lose players to the AFL, James Madden rolls his eyes. A complicated situation made far too simple. For him, the central deciding factor is the person.

At the 2017 AFL draft combine, he broke the 20-metre sprint record. As he sat down after that all he saw was opportunities. Possibilities. In the end he opted for Australia. At best, a long career in the AFL lay ahead. At worst, he would take the lessons from a professional sport and return home to focus on Gaelic football and hurling. Neither bad options. Just look at how it worked out for the Stynes.

blake-murphy The AFL Combine at UCD in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I think making the decision to come here is mainly up to the person, their makeup,” Madden says.

“I don’t think it is about Dublin really. I mean I love watching how well they are going. But no matter who you play for at home, you go to work and you train after. That is the biggest difference.

“I grew up wanting to play for Dublin. But as well as that, when I looked for someone to look up to, Jim was right there. He left some mark on the AFL. That is the person I aspire to be.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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