The SOS call that reunited ex-Dons and the mark left by Leon Cameron

TWO hours after Mark McVeigh was appointed Greater Western Sydney interim coach following the departure of Leon Cameron a fortnight ago, he picked up the phone to Dean Solomon and asked one of his best mates for a favour. A big favour.

McVeigh wanted him to be involved in the challenge across the final 13 rounds of the season. A day or two a week, even an hour or two. Whatever time Solomon could dedicate to the cause.

The 42-year-old hadn’t been involved in football since he departed the Gold Coast Suns in August 2020 amid the soft cap cuts, but he spent nine years coaching at Metricon Stadium after playing 209 games for Essendon and Fremantle, once considered a senior coach in waiting.

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Since that controversial departure, Solomon has built a successful health and wellness centre in Kingscliff in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales with former Brisbane enforcer Matthew Kennedy, who was a strength and conditioning coach at the Suns.

Now the former Don and Docker is back in the business, along with another Essendon premiership teammate in James Hird. They will spend at least one training session a week at the club and game day. They will be involved in everything from match committee to development, dialling in via Zoom and Microsoft Teams when they are away from the club, never out of reach by the phone.

Assistant coach James Hird at Giants training on May 26, 2022. Picture: Phil Hillyard

“He had to quickly get his around that because he wasn’t expecting it either. Obviously with Leon stepping down, it leaves gaps. He had good support around him and the soft cap has already done some damage across all football clubs when it comes to football departments,” Solomon told this week.

“The coach is light on in the coaching space anyway, so to have a coach leave this early in the season, it just makes the workload bigger for everyone in that building. He identified that really quickly and knew my situation, where I’m at. I was more than happy to help. If you’re a friend of mine, I’ll jump when you’re in need. No questions asked.”

Mark McVeigh talks to James Hird in the Greater Western Sydney v West Coast clash in R10, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Solomon and Hird both have different levels of senior coaching experience. Solomon stood in for three games when Rodney Eade departed the Suns in 2017, while Hird coached Essendon 85 times. They both joined McVeigh in the coaches’ box at Giants Stadium last Sunday, where they spun the magnets in the 52-point win over West Coast.

McVeigh has tweaked the program and made subtle changes to the game plan. The main training day is two days out from game day, rather than three. There is a great emphasis on line groups and education, and while Solomon and Hird were front and centre on the broadcast last weekend, Steve Johnson, Amon Buchanan and Craig Jennings haven’t taken a back seat, they have all increased their workloads in the wake of Cameron’s departure.

“Being back in an AFL box was a great experience. I probably never thought I’d be back this quickly and to do it with two great friends added a little bit more excitement to it,” Solomon said.

“For me, the box on Sunday was just the end product of a really tough week for that football club. My first impressions of walking in was the players were really hurting, the staff were really hurting. For me, that’s a really good sign of character that they genuinely care about Leon and his family and what had happened. All credit to Leon, he had been the leader of that football club for nearly a decade, so he shaped those feelings and thoughts. They were really upset with him leaving. 

“The other side was supporting Mark and his vision with the program and the way he wants to play now because there is still enough time to inflict some damage on this competition. It was good to see that there is hope in this season, both for individuals and collectively. Stephen Coniglio was the greatest example of that on the weekend for us as a footy club. He was really upset with the situation and as the week went on you could see him getting a smile on his face. For him to play the way he did was a really nice way to finish off the week.”

Solomon isn’t looking beyond the next three months but isn’t closed to returning to coaching in a full-time capacity, despite the ongoing success of The Gym at Salt. They are expanding into Melbourne and set to open a new site inside the basement of the Pullman On The Park in East Melbourne, where the Giants stayed ahead of the 2019 Grand Final and often stay when travelling in Victoria’s capital. There is also interest in Sydney and for more sites in future.  

“You are going to laugh at the answer, but seriously, I haven’t thought about coaching until this point in time. I haven’t given it much thought at all beyond this 12 weeks. My priority is to just help all individuals within that building as much as we can,” he said.

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“It’s a tough time, we went through it with ‘Rocket’ (Eade) when it happened at the Suns. You can’t underestimate how much it affects people. My sole focus is wrap my hand around as many as I can. That’s all my focus will be for the next 12 weeks. Nothing more than that. 

“Whatever happens in the future, I’ve learnt to go with life. I know that sounds a bit corny, but I’ve learnt to roll with life.”

Dean Solomon took the reins as caretaker coach at Gold Coast for three games in 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

Solomon doesn’t hold any grudges against people for the way things ended in Carrara, even if many of his supporters are still filthy about the way he was treated. More than 50 people from the Suns have called or messaged him since news broke that he was heading to the Giants. Those who have spent a chunk of time at the expansion club since it was created believe Solomon was the most popular person to walk in the door. Many players think he is the best coach to work for the club.

“I hold nothing against any individual at that football club. I love the Gold Coast Suns. I was there for a decade. I really hope that had some small impact on some people on my journey. But footy is footy, especially in the coaching game, we all enter knowing the risks and it is more of a shorter game than a longer game,” he said.

“Would I have loved to have stayed? Of course. Does everyone that gets sacked say that? Of course. It is what it is. I’m the type of person that moves on pretty quickly. I like to understand why, but once you get the why I move on. Still a lot of good people there. I feel that relationship is still really strong in many ways. No issues from my end whatsoever.”

Solomon, McVeigh, Hird and the Giants head to Queensland this weekend to face Brisbane at the Gabba. Can they make it two from two?

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