Callum Brown in action during a practice game with Hawthorn this season (Pic: GWS Giants)
After weeks of uncertainty, Sydney based AFL club GWS Giants confirmed that former Derry underage sensation Callum Brown put pen to paper on a new deal with the club. Michael McMullan caught up with him to take a check over his progress and his hopes for next season.
It was a totally different Callum Brown that answered the phone last Thursday morning.
Gone was the shyness and broken conversation of a nervous, yet excited, teenager leaving home to pursue the dream of becoming a professional athlete.
Two years on, after turning 20 in August, he has a new contract with the Giants secured and with every word, he gives off vibes of a more rounded and confident individual.
“Things are good, things are very good,” came the first words of reply to the general opening 'how's things' introduction.
The Aussie number flashing up on the dial screen is a false indicator. He is still at home, preparing for Christmas.
With every word, you'd be forgiven for thinking he is lounging under the rays outside an Australian cafe, milking the lifestyle he has come to love. Relaxing and overlooking the Parramatta river that meanders around the various jetties and points between the Giants' training base in Sydney's Olympic Park and Huntley's Cove on the other side, where he lives.
In the beginning, like all the other Giants' first year players, he stayed in the Breakfast Point area, an area dominated by affluent retirees.
A more independent Brown, the first Irish player to sign for the club that also had Mayo legend Cora Staunton on their ladies' roster, now lives with Aussie duo and fellow Giants Kieren Briggs and Nick Shipley. He is well settled in.
In his first season, in 2019, he played 'about 18' games for the club's reserve side and scored on his debut against the Sydney Swans, emerging above two opponents to pluck a mark in front of the goal square before dissecting the posts and being swamped by his team-mates.
Later in the season, he scored an amazing second, playing one twos through midfield before kicking from range against Gold Coast Suns. He had the skip and freedom of someone revelling in his new life – kicking ball in the sun.
This year, with Covid-19, the season was reduced to a dozen outings. Worse still, there was an ongoing saga of money talks between clubs and the AFL. It would leave uncertainty surrounding list sizes and contracts. Callum's two-year rookie deal was over.
Just over three weeks ago, he put pen to paper to keep him at the club for 2021 and last week the club officially unveiled him among their list. In the interim, there was some moving and shaking among the rest of the players to take care of in what turned out to be a logistical nightmare for all clubs.
“It was meant to be for two years but Covid messed everything up,” Callum points out.
When last season stuttered to a close, the club informed him he had a future, but the seed was sown of a less favourable deal than he would've liked. There was just the commitment, for now, of one more season.
“That obviously put doubts in my head,” Callum admits. “You're going to be disappointed, it seems like the club doesn't want you that much.
“But, when you look at it, they have to in a way, with the list sizes and money, especially with the club being one of the youngest clubs, they won't have the same money as others.”
As one of the 'first to fourth' year players, Callum was due back for a two-week training block at the start of December. The club took on board his desire to return to Ireland in the lead-in to Christmas.
“I started mine six weeks ago, so I was two weeks ahead of everyone who wanted to start the off-season programme. I wanted to get fit before I got back here,” he points out.
For the first 10 days, he was training on his own. Clocking up the kilometres. As the days went by, some of the players rehabbing from injury reported for training and, collectively, they were able to get a few touches of the ball.
As Callum finished out his last few weeks in Sydney, coaches were brought in. A mixture of skills and running left their Irish recruit primed, with a month of preparation, before jetting back home.
“I made sure to bring the balls and a pair of boots back this time,” Callum jokes.
His last trip home in April was dominated by running. With all the gyms in lockdown, his lack of opportunity for strength work saw him drop four kilograms to 88kg.
“When I got back to the club they were seeing the difference in size,” he adds. “I went into quarantine when I went back over again and that messed it up even more, I was in a hotel room in Melbourne before I got back to Sydney.”
When he jets back to Oz after Christmas, he hopes it will be a more streamlined process and the 11-hour train journey will be replaced with a direct flight to Sydney.
After quarantine, it will be time to get back to work. Derry and Limavady's loss is once again the Giants' gain.
By the time Nicholas Walsh, the Giants' defensive coach at the time, met Brown at Limavady Leisure Centre in October 2017, the club had a fair handle on Callum's ability.
In an interview on Giants TV after Callum joined the club, manager Leon Cameron praised the process that helped find their Irish recruit.
“They (Walsh and List Manager Jason McCartney) put together an Irish programme over the last 18 months and some people on the ground have been looking out for talent, not just at 17 year-olds, you look at 15 and 16 year-olds,” Cameron pointed out.
Walsh and one of the club's players initially came to meet Callum.
“They told me they watched me for a year before they approached me. They watched videos from my first year with the (Derry) minors and with the club,” Callum points out.
Brown was the impact man with the county minors and in an interview with the County Derry Post this year former Kerry boss Éamonn Fitzmaurice was struck by the Limavady man's impact on the second half of the All-Ireland against the Kingdom that September.
The Giants were also impressed enough to make the trip to Ireland.
“We went to the leisure centre, had a few kicks and they were impressed with how quickly I locked on to kicking that shape of a ball,” Brown explains.
“We went and had lunch, they mentioned about coming back at Christmas time, with Jason.”
McCartney and Walsh were at Scroggy Road to watch Limavady's Ulster League clash with Newtownstewart. The following day, Brown was in Dublin for time trials and further testing.
Nicholas Walsh and Jason McCartney watching Callum play for Limavady (Pic: Dessie Loughery)
“They said they were happy with me, but they wanted me to come out the next summer before I signed. I went out for 10 days. While it was a trial, it was more a case of me getting a feel of Sydney, with Australia and the vibe of it,” Brown adds.
With the two-year rookie deal agreed, he returned home where he helped Limavady to promotion and the junior title before heading back out, with an emotionally-tinged and warm send off from the club.
There was 'no hesitation' for Brown. He was going to give it a shot. The lure of being a professional athlete was too tempting to turn down.
His mother Dee and cousin Michael McGonigle were his counsel, backing up his thoughts.
“It's your choice,” his mum told him. “If I was in your shoes, I'd take it straight away.”
His former coach at St Mary's Limavady and Sydney Swan Chrissy McKaigue told him he'd love it and the lifestyle would be right up his street.
“Everyone was so supportive,” Callum recalls. “All the coaches in the Gaelic were saying I needed to take this chance, they said Limavady and Derry is always going to be here. If it doesn't work out, I can come back and they'd welcome me with open arms.
“I now have the opportunity next season, if it goes well they (Giants) might get me to sign another contract. If it doesn't go as well as I planned, then you never know...I could be back.”
His family came out to spend three weeks with him during his first season. They 'loved it' and were planning a similar foray this year, until Covid reared its head.
At the end of the 2019 season, there were murmurings of a break into the first team for Callum.
He was close, but it didn't materialise.
After beginning his AFL life as a forward, the Giants soon changed their opinion of Brown.
“They realised with my speed and power, they knew I could play at half back, so they wanted me to become a running back...like Conor McKenna, to break the lines and create something,” Brown points out.
With the club vying for a place in the play-offs, the coaching team felt they didn't want to risk him in the white heat of first team action just yet.
After discussion with the coaches, he needed to polish his ball skills before being considered for a debut. But when the second season came, it was Covid-ravaged, reduced to small sided games in the reserves. There was less time to show his worth.
It was tough, but Callum didn't dwell on it. Looking forward is all that matters.
He has two goals for 2021. Firstly, to make his debut. That's always been his number one target.
“Then the real challenge is to stay in the first team, in that position and don't be put out by anyone else,” he stresses.
When asked of what he found the toughest aspect of settling into a new sport in a different hemisphere, he pondered his answer carefully. Nothing comes to mind. He has just taken every step as it presented itself.
He admits to being 'too laid back' but the club have 'embraced' that. He has worked on his ball skills.
“It is now about being able to run with the professionals in the game,” Callum realises. “Especially in my position, I need to be able to run a lot and create something in the game.”
In the past two years his biggest challenge has been time management, something he really 'picked up' as the first year developed.
“In the club, if you are late by second it is a fine of fifty bucks and you get shredded by the coach,” he laughs. “Everything is massive on time management over there.”
Then there is the small matter of pre-season, with the Giants training 'five or six times'. It could be as much as 10 kilometres, one day after the other.
“We have the GPS units on and they track our heart rate - they want to check everything. On top of that, there is a skill programme,” Brown adds.
The competition doesn't end there. There are boards dotted all around the gym, charting the records in the various tests. From the 30 metre sprint to time trials on the skier to the power lifting results. There is no such thing as generalised feedback on effort. It always goes deeper. Everything is measured, there is always a target and nowhere to hide.
“Everyone loves being competitive, especially me,” Brown offers. “If I am on the board, I want to make sure I am first or am in the top three. I hold a few records, so I want to hold them this year as well,
“I lead the way for the 2km skiing time trials and I have the record for the power lift, so I am the most powerful player at the club."
Brown's top running speed of 36.4 km per hour is also top of the pops in the Giants' squad. Before he left, he set Derry's top speed record during the 2017 minor season.
Callum in action during Derry minors' win over Antrim in the 2017 Ulster MFC (Pic: Mary K Burke)
“I was chasing down Declan Cassidy in a training match,” Brown proudly remembers. “He was 20 metres ahead of me. Nobody was chasing him, so I took off down the pitch and caught him. They were all shocked and couldn't believe it.”
By the next session, the GPS data was downloaded and Brown's chasing run was clocked at 37.3km/h.
“They told me it's the quickest anyone has reached and they didn't think anyone would reach that,” he remembers. It gave him the bragging rights.
“I would always take the piss and say that Usain Bolt's top speed is 37 before he actually hits his max speed (of 44.2), so he holds 37 for 60 percent of his race.”
It was a great introduction into the metrics and the high-performance environment he would be exposed to. The chance to perform and get paid for it.
Chatting to Brown, it's impossible not to be envious. On top of living life in Sydney's warm climes, there is the small matter of world-class facilities on top.
The Giant's play their games in their state of the art Giants' Stadium and get to train at Olympic Park, redeveloped for the 2000 summer games.
“We go across the road for our gymnastics and the Olympic pool is a two-minute walk,” Brown adds.
A custom designed gymnastics routine is part of their programme, with the squad breaking into groups. One group would be at lunch. Another could be in the gym, with some working on their skills and touch.
“It was more a core exercise to test your balance, we'd be on the balance boards, hand-passing to each other and jumping around and landing on one leg,” he outlines of their gymnastics session.
“You could be on the trampoline catching in the air technical things like 'spoiling'...punching a ball to someone in different directions. Jumping off the boxes, landing and catching for reactions.”
Meditation is another part of the overall big big picture, and while it was bizarre at first, Brown soon saw the benefits.
“They are massive on meditation and bringing it into the game helps everything,” he said, with a mature outlook of the needs of a professional sportsman.
“What is this man doing”, was Callum's first reaction to being introduced to the power of the mind. But he soon came around to the concept.
“It helps you relax. The whole point is to bring it into the game and everyday life. It helps with breathing, controlling emotions and sleep. There are a few boys that do it before games and it can help regenerate your body.
“As weird as it sounds, there are benefits. I have done it myself and you feel more relaxed. You are not as stressed.”
With the less than normal season behind him, Christmas approaches. But on Boxing Day, it will be time to pack the boots and ball. He'll once again be Australia bound, ready for 14 days in isolation with the view to reporting for training as close to the January 6 start date as possible.
“They'd rather I was a week behind everyone else rather than two weeks, as flights are always put back. Hopefully I can fly into Sydney this time and quarantine there,” hopes Callum.
As our interview draws to a close, Callum quickly puts his cards on the table. He goes all in. The target is simple – get a starting spot.
“It's about fighting for your place on the team. Last year I was going well and then Covid hit, so it's like starting from the start again. Hopefully I can push forward.”
If he gets a foot on the ladder, then it's about how far he can climb.
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