Often maligned but never ignored.

Ask a stranger to imagine an AFL fan and their mind will inevitably conjure images of the people behind the goals waving flags and yelling at umpires and opposition players.

AFL cheer squads aren’t for everyone, but their passion for their team is something that cannot ever be questioned.

They hold fundraisers and events for a club they have no role in running and pay membership fees that help keep some clubs alive.

They stay until the final siren no matter what the score or weather is, and who spend their hard-earned money to fly interstate in order to give their team that little bit of support in a foreign land.

They bring the noise; starting chants that lift their team and swing the momentum of matches.

That was until the outbreak of COVID-19 in February this year.

For the first time in 123 years, the bays behind the goals will be covered by tarps rather than footy fans.

While Federal and State Government timelines are in place to reintroduce football fans to matches, it’s unlikely allowances will be made to allow the walls of colour to return to their familiar state this season.

That means semi-celebrities like Joffa Corfe from Collingwood and ‘Catman’ from, you guessed it, Geelong may not attend an AFL match in 2020. 

Those big Victorian clubs have cheer squads that have been handed down through generations of families, but not all AFL clubs are fortunate enough to have that legacy.

The GWS Giants are the AFL’s youngest club, but they’re not short on passionate supporters, and their cheer squad is well renowned for its passion and colour.

While not possessing the reputation of his Victorian counterparts, Giants cheer squad leader Michael Shillito is fast becoming a recognisable figure.

An inaugural member of the Giants, Shillito and his green headband are a staple not only at Giants Stadium, but wherever the orange and charcoal coloured team play.

“I’ve been here since the very start of the club and I normally do about five or so interstate trips a year,” he said.

“I actually did more at the end of last year because we travelled three weeks in a row during the finals. I spent a lot of money, but it was a great experience.

“I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.”

Shillito made the trip from his Western Sydney home to Melbourne for the AFL Grand Final last year, watching on with sadness as Richmond defeated his Giants by 89 points. 

He is desperate for the team to bounce back and is disappointed the pandemic has momentarily halted the club’s growth.

“Absolutely, there’s definitely a sense of unfinished business,” he said.

“This was going to be our year, and it still could be our year on the field.

“But our club built up a lot of momentum and support and of course we haven’t been able to add to that off the field this year the way we would’ve wanted to.”

The Giants had the third-least amount of club members (ahead of the two Queensland teams) in 2019 which allowed all members the opportunity to access a Grand Final ticket. Shillito thinks it’ll be different this year if reduced crowds are allowed to attend the event, but still think fans should come before corporates.

“Members would have to get priority,” he said.

“Last year every Giants member who wanted a Grand Final ticket got one but that may not be the case this year.

“Being in the cheer squad would give me better chance than the average member otherwise because they’ll want the loud voices, the flags, the floggers and the banners.

To ease supporter boredom during the shutdown, Shillito said the Giants offered the chance for members to (virtually) meet players and staff.

“The club has done a couple of good things lately, they’ve done some online gatherings,” he said.

“The time I was on we had the chance to ask questions of (CEO) Dave Matthews and (coach) Leon Cameron, and I think Toby Greene’s been involved in one.

“They’ve had to rotate them around because there’s a lot more supporters than there are spaces in the meeting. The club has really stepped up which is much appreciated.”

But for Shillito, there’s nothing better than the real thing, and he can’t wait for the day the entire Orange Army can assemble to cheer on the Giants.

“Definitely on weekend I’ve been missing the buzz and all the excitement that goes with that,” he said.

“It will be frustrating to watch on TV especially when it gets close and you can’t actually make quite the impact you would at the ground.”

When cheer squads are allowed back into AFL grounds, you can bet Michael Shillito will be front and centre.

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