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Finals victory a good reward for Harding's outstanding serviceThursday, September 14, 2017 - 10:19 AM - by Chris Pike

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GREG Harding was deserving of coaching Swan Districts to at least one WAFL finals victory and he got that in his second last game as senior coach as a good reward for the tremendous work he has done during difficult and challenging times for the club since the 2010 premiership.

Harding took over as senior coach at Swan Districts in 2011 with Swans coming off a grand final appearance in 2008, preliminary final in 2009 and then the remarkable premiership triumph in 2010.

He had been assistant coach to Brian Dawson during those three years while also successfully coaching the colts, so he was the ideal fit to continue Swans on the path that they had been on.

However, he had no way to envision the challenging times that were ahead and suddenly Swan Districts lost the majority of those premiership players and with the club going through financial difficulties off-field, there were no prospects to recruit to replenish the playing group.

As a result for the majority of Harding's seven years in charge at Swan Districts, he has had to focus on promoting and developing young, local talent and he deserves enormous credit for the work done alongside Phil Smart.

Over the past decade, Harding has had a huge hand in getting Griffin Logue, Nathan Broad, Connor Blakely, Blaine Boekhorst, Ethan Hughes, Charlie Cameron, Rory Lobb, Stephen Coniglio, Corey Gault, Clancee Pearce, Murray Newman and even Michael Walters into the AFL system.

Prior to that there were the likes of Nic Naitanui, Chris Yarran, Jamie Bennell, Todd Banfield, Jarrad Blight, Neville Jetta and Jeff Garlett while he was colts coach.

That's quite the impressive list of talent that Harding has helped get to the next level on top of the group of WAFL players at Swan Districts Adam Faulkner, Jesse Turner, Tony Notte, Warrick Wilson, Ricky Cary, Alex Howard and a host of others he has turned into standout contributors.

Considering the challenges of not being able to sign recruits from the outside for most of his coaching tenure, Harding certainly has done a tremendous job in so many ways at Swan Districts.

But as he announced that 2017 would be his final season, what was missing was being able to win a final having lost the second semi-final and preliminary final in 2012, first semi-final of 2013 and first semi-final in 2014.

That all changed on Sunday and despite Swans entering the elimination final against West Perth on a four-game losing streak, they put in a tremendous performance in front of a big crowd at Steel Blue Oval to win by 15 points.

Swan Districts now plays South Fremantle in this Sunday's first semi-final at Fremantle Community Bank Oval. No matter how that goes, Harding is deservedly proud to have won a final in 2017 considering they finished last and won just two games in 2016.

"It would have left a pretty nasty taste in our mouths if dropped our last five games of the season and lost a final at home," Harding said.

"But by winning a final last week and giving ourselves a launching pad into this Sunday against South Fremantle then that's a huge positive when you consider where we were coming from 12 months ago."

As for his decision to stand down at the end of 2017, Harding just feels the timing is right for all concerned.

"Most coaches sort of say that you are only in a role for a certain amount of time before you get shown the door or the players stop listening. I don’t feel like that's happened with the players but I just feel like it's been long enough that I've been in charge," he said.

"I just reckon that guys like Alex Howard and Adam Faulkner I coached for three years in the colts and now their whole league careers. So I have coached them for 10 years and it has predominately been the same philosophies and teaching methods that whole time. 

"I just reckon it's a good time for the club as well and I think it will be a positive for these guys who I've been working with for 10 years in some cases to hear from a different voice with a fresh philosophy and new face. I just think that will be a positive no matter what."

While certainly not one to ever toot his own trumpet, Harding deserves to be proud of the job he has done as coach of Swan Districts since 2011 in some dark times on and off the field for the black-and-whites.

The ability to still field a competitive group on the field and develop talent to both become AFL and WAFL stars is something he deserves tremendous credit for and even more so considering the difficult circumstances he had to put up with at times.

"They've actually gone hand in hand as well the two things that we are pretty proud of and that's not just myself, but Phil has been involved for the same amount of time from when we took over in 2011," Harding said.

"The club was in all sorts of trouble financially and therefore we couldn’t go out and source the best players across the country or from other clubs because financially we weren’t in a position to do so and then we couldn’t keep the players we had either. 

"That was a really tough period and I think it was one that we had to manage really carefully and to get through that is probably what I'm most proud of. Because of that process we had to go hard down the development line it has helped us produce more AFL talent. 

"I've got no doubt in my mind that we would have produced less AFL talent if we had been financially strong and were able to go out and source players the calibre of Leigh Kitchin who was captain of Frankston. 

"He might have taken the spot of a developing Connor Blakely or someone like that and he might never end up getting drafted. Or if we go and get a half-forward who keeps out Charlie Cameron, then he might have never got noticed. 

"Even last year we got plenty of game time into Griffin Logue even though he might not have been ready and having that grounding at WAFL level helped him be ready to play AFL this year. The same now with Sam Taylor this year. That development is something we've been really proud of but it was out of necessity at that time and now we've helped the club through financially a pretty tough time."

It's difficult to imagine that Swans have ever been better positioned moving forward than right now than at any other point in Harding's tenure as coach, and he has no doubt that things at the club are heading in the right direction.

"It's for other people to judge the shape the place is in now as I leave but I think there's some really great people involved in the club at the moment and that starts with players like David Ellard, Tony Notte, Corey Gault and great clubs are made up of great people," he said.

"During my time at the club, I think now we are starting to get that critical mass of outstanding people involved on and off the field. If we can continue to grow that and with the club going really well off the field now, moving forward they can continue to add to that group over the next three or four years. 

"Our zone is so strong as well and the management of talent is something I have a lot of faith in with the work that Steve Thompson does as well. And since Xavier Ellis has come in this year and Trent Cooper before that, I have a lot of faith in that process. 

"We'll continue to produce really good kids and we've got great leaders of the club and as we develop off-field as well, we can add little pieces to become even stronger. I see the club being in a positive place moving forward for sure."

While Harding did play 69 AFL games with Fremantle and another nine at West Coast, he came through at Claremont and returned to the Tigers after his time at the top level. He went on to win the 2003 fairest and best award and then his last game was the 2004 grand final.

Given that, his heart was certainly with Claremont when he arrived at Swan Districts in 2008 and a big part of it always will be, but it's hard to ignore the passion he now and always will hold for the black-and-whites.

"Certainly now I would say my heart is split that's for sure. I would still consider myself a Claremont person but I would certainly say I'm a Swans person as well now. I've lived in the area for the last 15 years of my life as well and with that initial role in terms of talent development and with the colts, I spent a hell of a lot of time in the community as well," he said.

"It's coming up to a third of my life being spent at this footy club now, I married into the footy club by becoming part of the Cooper family and there's no doubt that a big piece of my heart is at Swans. I still loved my time at Claremont but certainly now it's split when I didn’t think that was possible when I first arrived here."

Harding isn’t sure what his future holds once the season is over at Swan Districts, but his full focus right now is on South Fremantle this Sunday.

"I have no idea what's next at the moment. I'm just throwing all my eggs into the end of the season here and all my energy is into getting us up and going again this week and hopefully beyond that," Harding said.

"Once the season finishes and that's across the entire club with colts, reserves and league, I'll have a look at what's down the track. But at this point in time I've had a couple of little thoughts but it's nothing concrete and initially I want us to go as far as we possibly can this season. I still think there's massive opportunity for us to move forward in this finals series and then I'll assess it at the end of it."