In announcing Paul Gallen as Cronulla’s Monty Porter Medalist on Monday night, Sharks coach Shane Flanagan described Gallen as the club’s greatest ever player.
In his acceptance speech, Gallen said he loved Flanagan.
It is a special bond between a player and his coach that helped save a football club.
Gallen was named Cronulla’s player of the year for the fifth time, less than a fortnight after the Sharks’ premiership defence was controversially ended at the hands of North Queensland.
It has been some year for the 36-year-old. He became the 29th player to play 300 first grade games and his decision to retire from the representative arena proved a good one, with Gallen playing some of the best football of his career. He ran for more than 4,500 metres, behind only Jason Taumalolo for the season, at an average of a tick over 183 metres per game.
He has re-signed for next season and hasn’t ruled out playing on in 2019. Not bad for an old bloke.
“I’m pretty proud of this one. Off the back of what we did last year, everyone spoke about how hard it was to win back to back [premierships] and we found that out. I didn’t want to be the person to show that complacency in what we did this year,” Gallen said.
“From the time I started the pre-season I excelled in some things and improved in a lot of areas. I was determined it wasn’t going to be one of those years where what we did the year before was good enough. I thought as a captain it was my job. My age doesn’t mean anything. As I said to Flano earlier on in the year, just judge me on what I’m doing on the field. If I’m doing a good job there the rest will look after itself.”
When Flanagan joined Cronulla as an assistant coach under Ricky Stuart in 2007 it was to be the start of their close relationship. It shouldn’t have been a shock they got on so well given their similar backgrounds. Flanagan a former tradie, Gallen a one-time apprentice plumber.
“Obviously the assistant coach is usually the good cop out of the two. So I got on with him pretty well then,” Gallen said.
“And when Ricky left the club in 2010 I had a get out clause, if the coach leaves I could leave, and I was pretty close to looking elsewhere.
“He was just a humble, knockabout, down to earth guy who was doing his best. I looked back at what I’d done and how I started my career and thought that’s just me. Just a guy that always wanted to prove people wrong and show people that I should be there. It sort of attracted me to him and made me want to help him.”
Cronulla as a club is almost unrecognisable from the one Gallen joined 17 years ago. The ASADA investigation and supplements scandal that almost crippled the club and the wooden spoon in 2014 saw Cronulla hit rock bottom. Perhaps it was also the catalyst for the Sharks to rise from ashes. The fact that it did, Gallen puts mostly down to the hard work of people like Flanagan to change the culture.
“Obviously 2010 and 2011 looking back on it we were horrendous. I look back at the club and the position it was in. I look now and I love coming here, seeing all the staff, coming and saying hello to everyone. [Sharks game day and events manager] Jess Ciccia gives me lollies. I look back at those days and we had no one here,” he said.
“It was just embarrassing. It was embarrassing that the club was even allowed to be like that. To be in an NRL competition in the state it was in back then. It wouldn’t be allowed these days, I don’t think. It was just insane. No CEO, no staff. Me and Flano used to ring players, that’s how we got guys like Jeremy Smith and even some of the Tigers boys. It was me and Flano ringing everyone. You look back and that’s not my job, that’s not even Flano’s job. You’ve got to have recruitment people and people in the club to do that.
“To think what we’ve come through, and then obviously all those [ASADA] dramas to come back and win a competition it’s just a great story, I reckon.”
And on Flanagan’s assertion that Gallen is the club’s greatest ever player? Ahead of other legends who have worn the black, white and blue like Gavin Miller, Andrew Ettingshausen and Steve Rogers?
“It’s very humbling and nice to be considered like that but I don’t like comparing eras at all,” Gallen said.
“I’ve got to be honest when I first came to the club I didn’t know who Steve Rogers was. As embarrassing as that is I didn’t know who he was. I never saw Gavin Miller play. [Andrew Ettingshausen] was the only one I saw play so obviously I think ET is the Sharks’ greatest ever player.
“So it’s probably a bit hard for me to take. But it’s very humbling to be thought about like that.”