19 December 2017

From SCG groundsman to Sydney Swans bolter

Nathan Lyon looks set to have some company in the ranks of groundsmen successfully turning their hands to professional sport.

Sydney Swans rookie James Bell has spent much of this year looking longingly over the SCG fence at his favourite footy team, now he’s running alongside Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker wearing red and white.

The 18-year-old from Shellharbour says watching the Swans train between his shifts working at the SCG gave him an enormous appetite to be part of the team.

“It was crazy how much it meant to me, it made me want it a lot more,” Bell said.

“The intensity at training was amazing. The voices echoed, everyone getting around each other, the leaders were driving it and the young guns trying to make their way up the ranks.”

After attending Endevour Sports High School last year Bell started a week long work placement at the famous ground in January and liked it so much he stayed.

Why wouldn’t he? When media and onlookers were kicked out of the Swans training sessions he had a front-row seat, literally.

“It was a bit of a teaser,” Bell said.

 “Sometimes I’d sit near the gate of our workshop and watch the Swans train and just wanted to be out there. John Longmire was in the middle barking orders and it boomed around the whole stadium. It was pretty cool.”

But Longmire and his team didn’t just pick Bell in this year’s rookie draft because he knew how to get to the ground. He is an enormously talented athlete who could easily be playing for the Wester Sydney Wanderers. At the age of 15 he was part of the Wanderers under 20 train-on squad and three years ago played trial matches for them.

“I had to make a decision a couple of years ago,” Bell said.

“When I was 15 the Swans academy said the next couple of years were going to be big so start thinking about it.”

In his early teens it was football number one and Aussie Rules number two. His introduction to the indigenous game coming through his four sisters who all played in the south coach women’s AFL.

“All my sisters used to play, Talarah, Leticia, Alicia and Caliah. I was in the middle.

Talarah played for NSW in the National under 16s and under 18s

“I went to games of Aussie Rules because of her. I thought, man I want to play. I had a muck around game at school and then I went to the Shellharbour Swans. I was 11 and every time I missed a week I wanted to play more.”

If Bell is looking for good omens Lyon’s stellar rise from Adelaide Oval curator to test star isn’t the only Aussie athlete to make the leap. Swans team of the century player Mark Bayes also worked at the SCG as a groundsman and went on to play 246 games for the club and win the Bob Skilton Medal in 1989.

Like Bell, he knows every blade of grass on the SCG.

Story courtesy of the Daily Telegraph. Copy: Neil Cordy | Photo: Phil Hillyard