Caring Cameron piloting GWS in AFL finals

As an expansion club full of young and impressionable talent, Greater Western Sydney didn’t want to just hire an AFL coach when Mark Williams left in 2012.

The panel charged with selecting Kevin Sheedy’s successor wanted someone who cared.

About winning a premiership, yes.

But also about the welfare of a disparate group of players pulled together from around Australia, many of which were unsure whether to stay after a maiden season of lopsided losses.

They settled on Leon Cameron, who famously started his interview presentation by talking values instead of tactics.

Cameron possessed an innate ability to read the game in a 256-match playing career.

“He was also somebody at quarter-time or halftime who would say – right, this is what’s going on and this is what we need to do,” GWS football manager Wayne Campbell said of his former Richmond teammate.

Cameron also proved to have an astute football brain as an assistant coach at Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn.

But what made him stand out from other talented applicants was his caring streak.

It’s been a feature of Cameron’s approach since his coaching career started as a 31-year-old assistant to Peter Rohde at the Bulldogs some 13 years ago.

“He always went that extra mile for people all the time. He just had a nurturing nature,” Rohde recalled to AAP.

“We were pretty under-resourced at the Bulldogs at that stage, so everyone had to multitask.

“We had a part-time welfare person who did a couple of days a week … Leon did a lot of the welfare and development stuff with younger players. He was very good at it.”

GWS co-captain Callan Ward is one of many players who can vouch for that.

Ward first met Cameron at Whitten Oval, when he was a 17-year-old draftee who was preparing to juggle AFL commitments with his final year of high school.

“I’d just come to the footy club after school and deal with him – he was my line coach. I was pretty close to him back then,” Ward said shortly after Cameron’s appointment.

“I always knew he was a great coach. But more importantly he’s a great person and that’s what we need at the footy club.”

Cameron, who makes a habit of taking an interest in his charges’ lives away from football, spent time learning the art of coaching under Rohde and Rodney Eade at Whitten Oval then Hawthorn guru Alastair Clarkson.

The Bulldogs contemplated replacing Eade with Cameron in 2011 but instead appointed Brendan McCartney.

Clarkson remained a big fan of Cameron, asking him to oversee much of the Hawks’ 2012 pre-season. Cameron was clearly ready for the hot seat and hit a fork in the road after helping Hawthorn reach the 2012 grand final.

There was the prospect of picking up the pieces at Port Adelaide after the Power’s miserable year or serving as Sheedy’s protege at GWS.

“We obviously identified him as a pretty good candidate,” Rohde, Port’s football manager at the time, said.

“We interviewed him a couple of times and we were very impressed. We knew he was going to be a very good coach.”

The problem was so did GWS and Cameron opted to shift to Sydney instead of Adelaide.

“It was a great decision and a wise decision to get Leon,” Sheedy said this week.

Cameron quickly made a big impact.

In 2013 many of the GWS youngsters to re-sign attributed their decision to the fact Cameron was taking over.

It’s easy to opine success was inevitable for the Giants given the various list concessions handed out by the AFL.

But the sorry state of Gold Coast suggests it is somewhat more complicated. The Suns joined the competition a year earlier and are yet to go close to a maiden finals berth, let alone sit one win away from their first grand final.

There are a few key differences in terms of list strategies but club culture has also been key.

Gold Coast have dealt with no shortage of miscreants and misdeeds, while GWS have been relatively scandal free with the exception of allegations levelled against Lachie Whitfield and two former staffers.

Cameron has clearly helped build that culture and regardless of Saturday’s result his appointment shapes as one of the Giants’ best recruiting decisions in their short existence.

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