The Sydney Swans and Tommy Dean

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Clockwise from top left: Tommy in ambassadorial robes with the Swans 2014 Number One ticket holder, Maree Thomas; Tommy Dean poster; Swans great Paul Kelly in his playing days.

With the AFL getting towards the business end of the season, IA sports reporter Lachlan Barker interviews a rather unlikely Sydney Swans supporter.

We’re getting to the pointy end of the pool in the Aussie rules football season (AFL), some weeks ahead of the rugby league, and so it’s time for a bit on this iconic Australian madness.

This article is mainly about how American-born comedian, Tommy Dean, became an Aussie rules fan, but I would just like to briefly take in the PR battle between Aussie rules and rugby league.

Both sides jockey to claim the 'most popular winter code' title, but Aussie rules seems to be coming out on top.

For physically attending the game, Aussie rules is a clear cut winner with two fans through the turnstiles to every one for rugby league.

So far in 2014 the AFL has had 6,113,562 fans attend in person, an average of 32,347 a match.

Rugby league has had 2,771,579, an average of 15,748.

On a side note, soccer is now looming into this debate, the 2013-14 A-league season tallied an average of 13,401 fans at each match.

On TV, things are more complex.

Rugby league was the most watched sport in recent times, with a peak in 2009 and 2010.

However, recently, the AFL has moved to the top, with AFL dominating our screens in 2013.

Complicating this is the showcase TV event for each code; the first State of Origin rugby league match for 2014 had four million viewers, while the most recent AFL grand final in 2013 had 3.6 million viewers.

So we’ll leave that argument to the codes themselves, but I’ll finish with this somewhat surprising fact:  Australian rules has a nominal but growing international audience.

According to Roy Morgan Polls 7,496,000 North Americans watch Australian rules football at least occasionally on television.

Which leads us nicely to how American Tommy became a fan of the aerial madness that is Aussie rules.

Tommy is a comedian and a brilliant one.

He regularly appears on Thank God It’s Friday, the comedy hour at 5pm on ABC local radio across NSW, hosted by Richard Glover. From this show I learned about Tommy’s love of the Sydney Swans and this warranted further investigation.

Tommy is an American by birth, from Arizona, and so how a man from Apache country came to be a Swan intrigued me. So I contacted the show and asked, and received, contact details for the man and rang him up.

Turns out the seeping madness of following Aussie Rules began for Tommy when he was at high school back in the States. His English teacher was an exchange teacher from Victoria.

Says Tommy:

"Yeah, this guy had posters of the MCG and other Aussie rules pictures on the walls, and he would tell us of the game.

"Then [the American version of] Wide World of Sports would show crazy sports from around the world. There could be Venezuelan mud wrestling, crumping dance competitions, anything could be on there. And one of these crazy sports was Aussie rues, and I would watch fascinated as one player jumped on another’s head to catch the ball."

Tommy’s second wife is Australian and a Swans fan, and he tells of the time after they moved out to live in Australia.

"So, at the time, Aussie rules was my secret mistress, watching it on TV here in Australia late at night, but then I began going to the games live with my wife.

"And my real love started one rainy day at the SCG, there was almost no one there and we went down and stood behind the goal posts and watched Paul Kelly, under packs, digging balls out, and I fell in love right there and then."

Paul Kelly, for the uninitiated, was a great captain of the Sydney Swans.

Known with every justification as ‘Captain Courageous’, he would do everything and more on a weekly basis to get the Swans home. He was a player who brought many Sydneysiders, myself included, to love the game. Kelly was in charge of the Swans in the Tony Lockett era, and provided the kick, as Tommy reminded me, to the equally great ‘Plugger’, from which Plugger kicked his 1,300th goal, breaking the record long held, for over 60 seasons, by Gordon “Nuts” Coventry of Collingwood.

Which brings us to Tommy’s greatest ever moment in Aussie Rules.

Tommy was playing in a celebrity Swans team against the Greater Western Sydney Giants celebrity team. It was a fundraiser for the Giants in their first year in the AFL. Paul Kelly was playing for the Giants team, for reasons that Tommy is still unclear on, and thus was an opponent.

Says Tommy:

"I kicked a ball out of defence towards Craig Reucassel and Paul Kelly went up in a perfect flying leap, and took a speccy over Craig’s head, using The Chaser boy as a step ladder.

"So I was able to say, ‘how awesome is that’, I just kicked a ball to Paul Kelly; it wasn’t supposed to go to him, but still how awesome is that?!"

So then in 2005 the Swans heard of Tommy’s support, and sent him a short note asking if he was interested in being an ambassador for the team.

His reply:

“Oh, yes. Yes, I am interested!”

A position he still holds.

I asked him:

"What does that role mean, do you have to intercede in arguments between clubs?”

His response:

“No, no, they’ve yet to call me in for any diplomatic alignment. My real role is to talk well of the Swans on the radio, and to maintain the excitement in any diplomatic way I choose.”

I did try briefly to recruit Tommy to the “We Hate Collingwood” campaign, but he wasn’t buying that — possibly the only hole in his understanding of Aussie Rules.

To allegorise, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr said of quantum theory:

If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.”

Thus I would write:

'If you don’t hate Collingwood, you don’t understand Aussie rules.'

However, Tommy went on, with infinitely greater maturity than me, to make the point that, without other teams, there would be no one for the Swans to beat.

He has a minor antipathy for the North Melbourne Kangaroos, but only because they had the temerity to try to be Sydney’s second team and he couldn’t come at that in any form.

So, for this year, Sydney are top of the table with one round left. Their last fixture is against the Richmond Tigers at Stadium Australia.

While a Sydney loss doesn’t affect things materially – even a loss will see them finish in the vital top four – the game is vital for the Tiges. The Tigers cling to eighth, if they beat Sydney, they will go through, it’s as simple as that.

If they lose, there’s a host of permutations involving four other clubs – Collingwood, West Coast, Adelaide and the Gold Coast – involving win or loss and points scored.

Whatever, Sydney are in the finals and that makes Tommy happy.

When asked:

“Can the Swans beat Richmond?”

His final words:

“Short answer, yes!

"A chance to win minor prem for the first time in 70 years is a big deal. A chance to eliminate a possible contender is a big deal."

"A Coleman medal winner [Lance “Buddy” Franklin] is a big deal.

"The Swans, simply put, are a very big deal.”

Lachlan Barker blogs at You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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