Buddy sent a shiver down the spine and got a generation interested in his game08/26/2023
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Exactly a decade ago, the Sydney Swans signed their 32,452nd member, a new record. For a club that, in the bad old days, could only dream of being a basket case (thanks Roy and HG), it was some achievement. Then chief executive Andrew Ireland said that one day the Swans aspired to reach 40,000.
Months later, Sydney signed Lance Franklin on a nine-year deal. A couple of months after that, they hit 40,000 members. Today, there are 62,000 Swans members – two for every one in that record-breaking pre-Franklin year.
The debate over whether Franklin has been worth $10 million of the Swans’ hard-earned is a bit of a dead duck. It’s one of those debates where the ‘No’ side is motivated by mischief more than reason. The ‘No’ voter is a straw man blowing in the wind, and he won’t be found in the Sydney Cricket Ground crowd on Sunday afternoon when it stands to applaud Franklin’s final lap.
If anyone is in a position to assess the cost and the benefit, it would be the Swans themselves. But if you ask the club if it has done well out of Buddy you might be laughed, if not marched, out of the back office. Average home crowds topped 32,000 for Franklin’s first five years, a long-term consistency of support the Swans had never previously reached. Sponsorship and match day revenue increased, and if Franklin’s presence was intended to spread the Australian rules gospel throughout NSW, he was bigger than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John put together. Enrolled club numbers in Aussie rules clubs in this state trebled during the Franklin decade, leaving rugby union in its backdraft.
The superficial query was whether the investment in Franklin could only be justified by a premiership flag. With Franklin, the Swans have lost three grand finals, in 2014, 2016 and 2022, and Franklin did not seize any of those contests (though in 2014 and 2022 he was left to look on forlornly at the slaughtering of the Swans’ midfield and defence).
Put another way, though: overachieving Sydney teams only made the 2014, 2016 and 2022 grand finals thanks to Franklin. He was one part of an ensemble motored by the midfield grunt of Luke Parker, Josh Kennedy, James Rowbottom and other teammates; and if any of them is asked if the Franklin venture needed a flag to make it a success, there you are, laughed and marched out of another room.
Simon LetchCredit: Simon Letch
Grand final wins are a bit of a furphy anyway. Of course every fan wants one, but in 28 weeks from autumn to spring the greatest pleasure for a club supporter is to see their team give a good account of themselves, win games they should win, win a few that they shouldn’t win, and send you home feeling good.
As a Bloods widower, cajoled into watching them every weekend by a spousal Swans tragic, all I can say is that I have often sneakily wished they were my team. I doubt there’s any club in any competition that repeatedly offers such good value. I wish I could buy them for how the rest of the AFL rates them and sell them for what they deliver.
Franklin won two premierships in the nine seasons he played at Hawthorn, but he sang the team song more frequently with the Swans. He kicked a few more goals for Hawthorn but he had more kicks per game with the Swans. At Sydney, he racked up more goal assists and more of the so-called ‘one per-centers’; at the Swans, he became more of a team player, more gritty, more of a leader.
Perhaps he never showed as much courage as when he sat out the 2015 finals while dealing with depression. He had suffered from this and a form of epilepsy throughout his career, but as an alpha male in a world of compulsory male display, he had never exposed his vulnerability until he was at the Swans.
Lance Franklin has left a legacy at the Sydney Swans on and off the field.Credit: Phil Hillyard
“It had been an issue for a little while with me,” he said after his return in 2016, but “I wasn’t able to talk about it and I was a little bit embarrassed about it. But for me, being able to speak to the football club, my partner and my family was the best decision I ever made.”
The best decision he ever made. It still reverberates. By accepting the spotlight that came with his decision to be open about his mental health, Franklin helped change the tone of national attitudes in sport or elsewhere. Look at where understanding of depression is now, compared to 2015, in the public arena of sport. For such a living portrait of Australian manhood, the courage to take this step is arguably Franklin’s most important legacy, even more than those 1066 goals and the unforgettable night in 2022 when he turned the SCG into his personal mosh pit. The highs don’t make a complete picture unless we also see the lows. And his freedom to speak also indicated that Sydney was as good for Franklin as Franklin was for Sydney.
We’ll miss the twinkling smile that never fully disguised a shy soul. We’ll miss the touch, the uncanny vision and the bulldozer body on the ballerina’s feet. We were already missing it early this year when it looked like Franklin and the Swans had bitten off one season more than they could chew. Maybe this was so, but it didn’t escape the eye that in his three of his final four games, against Richmond, the Western Bulldogs and Fremantle, the old Franklin was coming back, twinkle-toeing past defenders, kicking goals again, and igniting the Swans’ turnaround for another finals campaign, their eighth in the Franklin decade. Then against Essendon he tore his calf and that was that.
The Yes vote for Lance Franklin in Sydney is an open-and-shut case. In fact it needn’t have been opened. He’s giving Sydney an exclusive lap of honour in preference to a tour of the Melbourne Cricket Ground on grand final day. It’s a special reward, from a special footballer, for the loyalists. Franklin has never become a transcendent cultural figure like an Adam Goodes or a Nicky Winmar; he is a footballer who sent a shiver down the spine and got a generation of people interested in the game he played.
Was it worth it? If the Swans saw another Lance Franklin coming, premiership or no premiership, they would only have two questions. How long can we have you, and where do we sign?
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