The secret of the Sydney Swans

In Melbourne this week, the town has been painted red, white and blue in honor of the Bulldogs. You would scarcely know the Sydney Swans, minor premiers and constant superpower of the AFL, are playing let alone that they produced the best 30-40 minutes of football we have seen all season to start the preliminary final against Geelong.

The most pragmatic of Sydney supporters would understand all this. Western Bulldogs won their first and only premiership in 1954, when Robert Menzies was Prime Minister; it is the longest current losing streak in the sport, so no one in their right mind can deny the team from Melbourne's west a little sympathy this week.

The fairytale is well and truly alive for Luke Beveridge's team but, of all people, the Dogs coach will know precisely what he is up against at the MCG on Saturday.

It is a system rather than merely a team. It is a culture of excellence that probably began in the summer of 2002-03 and has survived the test of time. It is the reason why the Swans have played finals in an astonishing 18 of the past 21 AFL seasons, and three of the past five Grand Finals.

The names change but the system does not. Hence, Kirk and the Boltons and O'Keefe and Barry passed it on to McVeigh and Jack and Heeney, Aliir and Mills seamlessly. It is the Sydney way, the culture of the Swans, and it does not deviate.

At the end of 2002, when Paul Roos took over from Rodney Eade as coach of Sydney, the players and staff had their usual camp at Coffs Harbour. This time they had Ray McLean, now well-known as the inventor of the Leading Teams organisation as well as the concept of the leadership group in football, on board. Roos and McLean had crossed paths at an airport, and the coach was impressed with McLean's ideas.

The players gathered in a room at the Novotel at Coffs, McLean pinned butcher's paper on a board, and they talked about how they would like to be viewed as a team. The key words they came up with were: HARD, DISCIPLINED, RELENTLESS.

They promised to have open dialogue between each other, pointing out each other's frailties but not in a personal way. Stuart Maxfield was made captain and a group of leaders elected. So-called "expected behaviours" were penned. A young player suggested they start referring to themselves as 'The Bloods', after the old South Melbourne teams of the previous century.

Now a lot of teams have picked up the idea since, and many have had slogans and buzzwords. Essendon -- infamously -- liked 'Whatever It Takes', and painted out the sign on the wall at Windy Hill when newspaper photographers took a liking to it at the height of the ASADA scandal. Hawthorn chose the four pillars from Kokoda -- courage, endurance, mateship, sacrifice.

But the experience is that slogans and buzzwords are worthless if they are not adhered to. What is important is that Sydney's players stayed true to this over more than a decade, winning flags in 2005 and 2012 and going ever so close in 2006.

When do you see a Swans' player pull out of a contest? When would a man in red-and-white take a selfish shot at goal, or give a needless 50-metre penalty?

A player like Lance 'Buddy' Franklin comes into the club as one of the game's biggest stars, and on big money, but he fits into the mould, he chases down opponents when he is without the football, he passes off to teammates in a better position.

Of course it is not perfect, all this.

The performance in the 2014 Grand Final was abject. When Barry Hall found himself regularly suspended for on-field violence, moving outside the standards set under the culture, he was moved out. And he was arguably their best player at the time. The point is that players are called out when they step out of line. Not by the coaches, so much, but by their teammates, and eventually, they find a way to get better.

Around that time, a difficult period for the club, they changed the third word of the code from 'relentless' to 'united', and in this the Swans are like a military unit. It explains why they can draft in a Luke Parker with pick No. 40 and he is runner-up in the Brownlow, or why they can win a preliminary final with nine rookie-listers in the team and just two top-10 picks (Franklin and Gary Rohan). The secret of the Swans is that players get better under their watch.

Commentator and analyst David King called the Swans the AFL's audit, and it is an apt description. To win a Grand Final, the Dogs will have to beat the system.