By sports editor Russell Bennett
The Warragul Industrials’ quest to climb the ladder and compete against the best in the brutally competitive West Gippsland Football Netball Competition (WGFNC) has just received a massive boost, with one of the most highly regarded coaches anywhere in community football signing on for at least the next two years.
Harmit Singh is no stranger to Gippsland footy circles – having coached Morwell to back-to-back Gippsland League flags in 2013 and 2014.
He then took on the challenge at Northcote Park and led the Cougars to the finals in both 2015 and 2016, before stepping up to lead Eastern Football League powerhouse, Vermont.
It was there that Singh, who has also previously served as the Gippsland League senior interleague coach, elevated his already stellar reputation to incredible new heights, guiding the Eagles to grand finals in each of his three years there – including back-to-back flags. Over his 60-game stint in charge at Vermont, he led the Eagles to 54 wins in one of the most competitive divisions anywhere in community footy.
Those who aren’t familiar with the 33-year-old’s background absolutely should be.
Having previously served as the community manager at one of the biggest clubs in Australia, Collingwood, he also had a stint as an assistant coach for the club’s AFLW side.
He then took on the role as academies manager at the Pies’ famous rival, Essendon, where he’s been for the past three-and-a-half years.
To cap it all off, he’s also an AFL Level 3 high performance coach.
And the Dusties still can’t quite believe he’ll be at the helm at Western Park through at least 2021 and 2022.
The Gazette caught up with Singh and Industrials footy directors Nick Gooden and Dylan Smith on Saturday afternoon, and it’s hard to tell which of the three had bigger smiles on their faces.
“I’ve been working full-time in the AFL for about 13 years now, but at the moment – with everything happening around Covid-19 – I’m on stand down at Essendon, so I felt from an employment perspective, with the networks the Dusties have, they could help if I got squeezed out of the industry in the short-term,” Singh said with straight-down-the-line honesty.
“Obviously my goal is to continue in the AFL industry, but it’s a wait and see situation at the minute and the club has been massively supportive around that.
“From a footy point of view, I’m just excited to be able to take a team from the bottom of the ladder in a really competitive competition and try and build something.”
And he’s under no illusions when it comes to the task at hand. A young, rebuilding Dusties finished last on the ladder in 2019.
In an open letter to the “Warragul Industrials FNC Community” posted to social media just a day after his unveiling, Singh gave a real insight into the depth of research he’s already done on his new club.
“Clearly we are coming off a last place finish in 2019,” he said.
“We averaged less than 40 points a game offensively and conceded 91, which shows there is a lot of hard work to be done, however, we will all tip in and roll the sleeves up to improve all aspects of the football program.
“We will aim to play an exciting brand of footy – a brand that stands up when it matters and is hard to play against. I hope to create a professional high performance environment where the development of players on and off field is at the forefront.”
Singh has already committed to helping develop the Dusties’ senior women’s and junior programs, as well as implementing a ‘junior academy’ with the club’s Warragul District Junior Football League (WDJFL) feeder clubs, the Warragul Blues, Warragul Colts, Warranor, and any other interested clubs.
“I’ve already had some pretty honest conversations with the club around where they’re at, and the vision they have for what they want to achieve moving forward,” he said.
“But I’m just so excited by this competition and the potential we have here at the Dusties to improve.
“A big thing in my coaching has always been helping to build a complete program – including the juniors – and one that positively influences not just the club, but the town and the community.”
Singh looks back fondly on each of his previous coaching stints, particularly his time with the Tigers in Morwell.
“I met some of the best people I’ve ever met in footy back then, I think seven or eight of our players went on to coach their own teams, and I want to make this experience fun for everyone – just like it was at Morwell; to make sure the players look forward to having that outlet at the club.
“A lot of people are going through some really tough times right now, and we won’t be playing senior games this year, but footy clubs should always be fun places to be around.”
Singh said he’ll take elements of each of his previous coaching roles into his tenure at the Dusties.
“Steve (outgoing coach, former AFL player Stephen Ryan) has done a great job in helping to build the list so far, and I’ve got the opportunity to come in and continue that.”
The vast majority of the Dusties’ playing list has already re-signed for 2021, in a show of commitment to the club and its path forward. It’s no secret there are some gaps in the list that need filling – both in defense and up forward – but there’s also plenty of experienced and emerging talent already there for Singh to work with.
“I’m sure everyone has a long-term goal of finals success and premierships, but for us it’s more about building processes based on what successful teams look like,” he said.
“I want the team to be representative of our community, and predominantly a team of Gippsland players.
“Hopefully our young players can go on and get some opportunity in the VFL, or prosper through the NAB League environment. I want our club to become a real destination club in the West Gippsland competition.
“Building relationships is a real strength of mine, and I want us to have really clear lines of communication throughout the club.”
With senior footy and netball abandoned in West Gippsland for 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Singh now has a unique opportunity to have an extended lead-in to his first season as the Dusties’ coach in 2021. And he’s not wasting a minute of it. He knows his new club is starved of success – having not won a senior flag since 1996.
Singh already knew Dusties senior player Darren Granger from their time as team mates in the VFL, and he’s looking forward to reconnecting with other familiar faces at the club from over his Gippy footy journey so far.
He was also quick to point out that if his role at Essendon does continue – as he hopes it will – he’ll also maintain his role as the Dusties’ coach.
From his own perspective, Gooden explained the Dusties were looking for stability in their senior coaching role.
“We’ve rebuilt our list after stepping up into West Gippy, and it was definitely a huge step up for us because those teams at the top of the ladder are sensational,” he said.
“We hope to mix it with them one day, and to do that we needed to lift our professionalism on-field with a long-term appointment and Harmit was able to fit that role.
“A club like Phillip Island in our league is like Richmond in the AFL – they set the standard, and we’re trying to follow suit.
“We had a 75-ish per cent win rate over our last three years in the EDFL without winning a premiership, and when we moved across to West Gippy Steve (Ryan) started to really increase that professionalism. Now we need to build on the ground work he’s already put in.”
In an upfront video posted to the club’s Facebook page late last week, Dusties president Dale Bainbridge explained Ryan’s departure.
“In a challenging year in West Gippsland, Steve was able to galvanise the playing group and have them playing for the colours and the club,” he said.
“Steve was a popular figure among all our players and supporters, and his work through the off-season to recruit and rebuild our playing list for 2020 has been exceptional. We were looking forward to what would have been a competitive season.
“With 2020 being the second year of Steve’s contract, because of Covid, it’s been turned upside down.
“The club has taken the position to address the 2021 coaching (situation) earlier than what would have normally been the case. We reached out to Stephen regarding his intentions, and due to work and family commitments he was not able to commit beyond 2021.”