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Missionary Sheedy deserves to be judged by his actions

The joy of Kevin Sheedy is that he looks outside the AFL's small world. He seeks people and ideas and looks to include them. He is a missionary, but one who embraces and learns in new territory rather than forcefully imposing his ideology. He has a hunger for knowledge, knowing it is pointless asking people to understand his obscure sport unless he understands them.

If Sheedy had been a 17th century explorer, he would have brought back exotic fruits and spices and foreign tongues. Not heads on sticks.

On Sunday, after Greater Western Sydney was thrashed by 135 points before a paltry crowd of 5830, Sheedy said: "We don't have the recruiting officer called the immigration department recruiting fans for the West Sydney Wanderers. We don't have that on our side."

It is a line Sheedy has used many times before. One with a seemingly straightforward sentiment. Soccer is the world's game. Thus, western Sydney's large and increasingly prosperous migrant community - or their second, third and even fourth generation off-spring - are predisposed to that code.

At the Sydney derby this year, Wanderers' officials extolled the benefits of a supporter group that contained members of a wide variety of European, African, Anglo backgrounds. This supporter base was a triumph of a concept that, sadly, has become collateral damage in our cynical political battle - multiculturalism.


Yet, reflexively, some WSW supporters, and others in soccer circles, consider Sheedy's words inappropriate. They have, presumably, construed his observation about WSW's supporter base to be some sort of lament about immigration. Inevitably, they have even branded Sheedy "racist" - thus trivialising and disempowering a word that should be reserved for the most arch words and actions.

Those who were offended by Sheedy's remark - or who felt they ought to be - should consider carefully both the statement and the author. Surely, if what Sheedy said is open to different interpretations, the reputation of the coach standing trial-by-Twitter must be taken into account.

Sheedy is a man with fierce competitive instincts. The legendary "back pocket plumber" whose ability to inflict and withstand physical punishment was renowned, even in the ferocious Richmond team of the late 1960 and 70s. But, decades later, he is not some bitter, world-weary old man jealously regarding a successful rival and its "immigrant" fans.

The 65-year-old coach remains a feisty competitor. But also the open-minded soul who can walk into any bar or coffee shop - as he often does, to the frustration of his minders - and talk to anyone, of any background, for hours. Not merely talk, but also listen. Because Sheedy has a genuine interest in hearing, and learning from, those around him.

From limited engagement, and long-time observation, I can't think of a sporting identity less prone to "racism". Sheedy's record of not merely recruiting, but nurturing indigenous players, is renowned. He was equally proud to have names like Misiti, Alessio and Mercuri on his Essendon premiership team sheets. He knew what it meant for the big wide world to come to his little domestic game.

Thus, it is absurd to suggest Sheedy would bemoan immigration. Rather, he has accepted the AFL's challenge of convincing people from all backgrounds his sport is worth trying. A task that in western Sydney, with its baked-on NRL diehards, and now vibrant soccer community, is devilishly difficult.

Inevitably, they have even branded Sheedy "racist" - thus trivialising and disempowering a word that should be reserved for the most arch words and actions.

Coincidentally, it was Sheedy who first pursued the idea of converting the new wave of African immigrants to AFL. He brought to Essendon, very briefly, a raw Somalian stringbean with little aptitude for the game, you suspect, to merely create the idea young Africans were an untapped source of talent.

Years later, no one would have been more pleased than Sheedy to see Sudanese-born Majak Daw kick six goals for North Melbourne. And no one more horrified that Daw was the subject of real racism - the taunts of two fans ejected from Etihad Stadium.

The worst you might say about Sheedy is that his engagement with people from all backgrounds, and all walks of life, is self-serving. He has a zealot's passion for his sport and wants everyone to share it. He is the antithesis of a racist. Someone who wants to include everyone. Even those who don't necessarily want to be included.


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