Watching AFL for the first time is normally a confusing experience, but for Ian Mitchell he was curious straight away, admiring the skills, athleticism and excitement of a sport like no other.
Ian returned to England after a year in Australia in 2006 and realised he had become bored with ‘soccer’, so he googled ‘Aussie Rules in the UK’. Up popped the Birmingham Bears, who were trying to start up a team and away he went.
Since then, Ian has played, coached and volunteered in AFL. He has captained both England and Great Britain at major tournaments across the globe, as well as being an assistant coach for the European Legion which included “legends of the game in Tadhg Kennelly and Brad Ottens”.
Now Ian is the coach of the Great Britain Swans while also being the president of his home club, the Wolverhampton Wolverines, which he formed ten years ago.
Ian feels that AFL in Europe is at a crucial stage as the game continues to grow, particularly the women’s, but a large amount of attention needs to be put on the next generation coming through.
“Many of the volunteers have now been involved for a long period of time and the sport needs some investment from the AFL to sustain and grow it,” he said. “In my opinion, a huge focus needs to be placed on bringing through the next generation of players who can drive teams and countries forwards in term of participation and performance standards.”
Getting the game to grow at a junior level has been a challenge for many teams, with already established sports holding steady like ‘soccer’, rugby and cricket. However, teams and countries are starting to change their attention to the next young stars coming through, a key area in Ian’s opinion.
“I hope that we can develop a sustainable program to introduce the game to schools and young people, enabling the game that has given me so much in my adult life to greater influence the lives of young people across Europe,” he said.
By attracting new players, teams and countries, Ian believes that major events like the Euro Cup and European Championships will see the performance levels continue on their upward trajectory.
Back on a local level and his club, the Wolverines, are celebrating their 10-year anniversary after being founded in 2009.
“We are planning to celebrate with a whole league social at our ground when we host the AFLCNE carnival round as we recognise that without the other teams then there would have been no football to play for the last ten years!” He said.
“On the pitch, we are looking to develop a women’s side to run alongside the men’s. Long-established international Sophie Morris and I will be heading that, as George Dibble and Rhys Lincoln take on the reigns of the men from me.”
Coaching women’s football doesn’t stop there for Ian, as his GB Swans have their sights fully focused on defending the European Championships held in London this coming October.
After that, they will turn their attention to the 2020 International Cup in Melbourne and Ian believes by getting their ethos and culture right, the correct results will follow.
Another busy year ahead for the AFL community in Europe and Ian will certainly be amongst the best of it at a local and national level as he aims to lead his teams forward while bringing new people into the game and learning to love it as he has since 2006.