AFL late breaking headline: Michael Barlow

by Andrew Fithall

The Footy Record this weekend had an article on the number of VFL players who were drafted and are currently playing in the AFL. While the article highlighted 28 year-old James Podsiadly, one of the others who has started their AFL career in 2010, and who has also attracted a fair bit of publicity, is Michael Barlow. Michael in a way epitomizes the weakness in the traditional structures of identification and development of elite players. Unlike Podsiadly who had actually been on AFL lists earlier, but had not made the grade, Barlow is a late developer who has already shown the value of the alternative streams.

Growing up in Shepparton and going to the local Catholic Primary school, St Brendan’s, according to his coach of that time – his father Herb – Michael probably had four kids better than him on the school team. As he moved into secondary school, he wasn’t off the radar completely. He trialled for the Goulburn Valley schoolboys under 15 team, but was cut early. Earlier than Michael thought he should have been according to his father.  In year 10 he headed to Assumption College as a boarder to eventually come under the tutelage of the legendary Ray Carroll, who had also coached his father as well as a couple of uncles.

I spoke to Michael on the phone the other evening, having been introduced to him by his mother and father whom I have known for many years. When we spoke, somewhat ironically I was at the MCG watching Collingwood and Hawthorn. It is a venue that Michael, as a Fremantle Docker, won’t see this calendar year unless they play a finals match there. The way the Dockers are going, there is a reasonable chance they will get there.

Michael was in the Assumption firsts in Year 11, but was a self-described fringe player. Spent a lot of time on the pine. In Year 12 he captained the school first 11 cricket team and was also a greater contributor to the football team, winning the best and fairest. However, with the TAC under 17 competition viewed as the primary feeder competition to AFL ranks, Michael wasn’t seen as good enough. Michael read the other day that Ray Carroll had organized for a Richmond recruiter to come along and have a look at him one game at Assumption. Michael knew nothing of that at the time, and obviously, nothing came of it. The AFL was an unlikely destination. Although he is a bit embarrassed to admit that his mother actually nominated him for the national draft in his final year at school.

Heading to Melbourne to commence his studies in Urban Planning and Development, Michael’s football went back to its roots, as he and his brother Domenic would drive back to Shepparton each weekend to line up for Shepp United. He thrived on the competition and developed an early reputation for endurance. “Knowledgeable” observers might at times have questioned his disposal effectiveness, or even his decision making, but if the opposing team wanted to employ a tagger, it would take three of them to share the load. Otherwise they would be run off their feet.

After a couple of years of good footy, Michael, wanted to see if he could prove himself. He chose Werribee so he could play with a few mates, and Werribee had links to the Bushrangers. He also did a pre-season at St Kilda, but was again overlooked in the draft. After the rookie draft at the end of 2008, the message he got from a couple of clubs was “if we had one more pick, we would have taken you for sure.” You only have to hear that a couple of times to begin to doubt its sincerity. Two years playing at Werribee and he exceeded his own expectations. A good finals campaign in 2008 was followed by a runner-up in the league best and fairest, the Liston, in 2009. He was now definitely on the radar, and his own ambition had grown considerably.

By the time the draft came around at the end of 2009, Michael reckons he would have spoken to half the AFL teams. When I spoke to his father Herb in November 2009, Collingwood seemed the most interested. According to Michael, by the time the draft came around, they told him that his style wasn’t the right fit for their game plan. His father is less diplomatic about that club and their representations. In the draft of 2009, again his name didn’t come up. Michael was devastated. It was decision-making time. He had one more chance in the rookie draft. If that didn’t come through, he was considering deferring his studies and perhaps heading over to the SANFL and just making some money from football. He really enjoyed Werribee and had made some life-long friends. However, he now considered chasing some greater monetary reward for his efforts. With full-time study and almost full-time football in the VFL competition, he was struggling to devote the required commitment to both.

That is not to say that 2009 wasn’t a worthwhile year. Second in the Liston medal is not something to be sneezed at. By the time of the medal count he gave himself some chance. On the negative side was the fact that Werribee hadn’t won enough games. He was co-leader coming into the last round of the count. The winner, Myles Sewell, came from eventual premiers North Ballarat. Michael believes Sewell is unlucky not to have been rookie listed – he reckons clubs should just take a punt. Sewell is more than capable of making the grade. Is Michael disappointed that he didn’t win the Liston? “It is not what you play footy for.”

By the time of the rookie draft, Michael’s own analysis of which clubs had available picks gave him some confidence. When Fremantle called his name, there was no concern on his part that it was the other side of the country. In his “pocket profile” in the weekend Footy Record, Michael’s response to the question “the furthest you have been from home?” is “Fremantle”.

Michael’s parents are as supportive as you would expect. Michael is the third child of five. His father Herb, a good schoolboy footballer, was recruited as an eighteen year-old by Billy Goggin, to Geelong West in the VFA. The travel from Melbourne, the training commitments and the conflict with his early university studies meant that his stay was short-lived. It was easier to travel back home to Rushworth for his weekly ration of football. Later it was Assumption Old Boys until a knee injury curtailed his playing career. Michael’s mother Jenny was a netballer who played County level for Warwickshire in England as well as for senior Country Victorian teams back in Australia. Jenny has coached netball, including up to interleague level with Goulburn Valley teams, for more than twenty-five years. Michael’s sister Maisie made it to the late selection stages of junior State netball and is currently a valued member of the Shepparton Swans. Last week Maisie’s photo was on the back page of the Shepparton News.

Michael is just loving it at Fremantle. His mother is jealous of the lifestyle opportunities that life in the West presents. As a man who enjoys his routine, Michael reported to his father that the morning swim at Port Melbourne on the day of the game against St Kilda wasn’t quite as nice as at Cottesloe! Commenting on the move West, Michael said that he had been in Melbourne for four years. He needed to get out and try something different. His studies are not yet complete, but he has been able to transfer to a WA University, However, a one-year deferral means they are not distracting him from his primary purpose. Playing for the Fremantle Dockers.

After a dream debut, and an excellent follow-up game two, Michael’s task in game three was made more difficult by the close tagging of Geelong Captain Cameron Ling. In game four, he was followed throughout by St Kilda’s primary run-with player, Clinton Jones. If Michael, as a first-year player, is attracting this attention, it means that one of his team-mates would be getting it just that little bit easier than he would if Michael wasn’t there. And twenty-eight disposals against St Kilda demonstrate he is still making a very significant contribution! Post-match, his chest and rib area was strapped and iced – treatment for an injury received in the Geelong game a week earlier.

As a first-year player Michael is completing the usual “life-skills training” at Fremantle that are now part of player and personal development. What he and co-mature-age draftee at Fremantle Alex Silvagni are able to bring to the group is a bit of pragmatism. Life is not always presented on a silver platter. You need to get some balance outside football. You also need to ensure you do everything you can to take advantage of the opportunities that life as a league footballer presents.

I asked Michael if he had caught up with James Podsiadly after the Fremantle game against Geelong. It was Podsiadly’s first senior game, at the age of 28. Michael and Podsiadly had shared a year at Werribee in Podsiadly’s Liston winning year of 2008. Michael thought it would have been a bit inappropriate to talk to Podsiadly prior to the game, but did make a point of catching up afterwards. Michael reported that Podsiadly was particularly positive, and the two agreed that their alternative path to AFL football is, in future, going to be a path travelled more frequently.

The loss to St Kilda is the first set-back in the season-proper for the Fremantle Dockers. However, their performance was admirable, and they would have gained even more respect within the competition. Michael had said prior to the game that the place was upbeat. The St Kilda loss should not have brought too much damage to their self-esteem. They play attractive football. They have superstars such as Pavlich, a very effective ruckman in Sandilands, some good ball carriers, and if they can continue to get the constructive output from work-horses such as Michael Barlow, they will have a very good year. And I am not sure there will be many people who would begrudge Fremantle and its players a bit of success. When was the last time you heard any non-West Coast supporter say, other than to describe their colours perhaps, “I hate the Fremantle Dockers”?

About Andrew Fithall

Probably the most rational, level-headed Collingwood supporter in existence. Not a lot of competition mind you.

Comments

  1. Great story, Andrew. And what a great story it is for Michael himself.

    Although I never knew much I about Barlow, I could never understand why the Bulldogs, obviously lacking that key forward for so long, never went down the Podsiadly path. When Geelong picked him up, my worst fear was that he would make an impact at the Cats if his chance came.

    Those worst fears have been realised!

  2. Andrew – great tale. There will undoubtedly be more blokes coming through at a later age. I’ve never understood why a 20 year old can be thrown on the scrap heap.

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the great Barlow story.

    I knew dot about him prior.

  4. Andrew Fithall says:

    Thanks chaps.

    The mature-age recuit is obviously not just recent, but as many are saying, could become more prevalent – particularly over the next few compromised-draft years.

    My late father Grahame was a junior coach of some note in the country. He used to say that some young blokes would be better to go and play a couple of years in the country – playing a lesser standard of football but against the grown-ups – before trying to find their place in the big league.

  5. Thanks Andrew. It’s great to find out a bit (lot) more about our latest find. In the Geelong game Barlow released a couple of amazing handballs under great pressure by getting his hands up high… it’s a great skill to have at clearances.
    He also has a very neat action when kicking set shots for goal.. like a fulcrum.
    It’s pity he wasn’t stylish enough for Collingwood.

  6. Andrew Fithall says:

    Congratulations to Michael Barlow – tonight named as the AFL Players Association Best First Year Player. Good recognition from his peers.

  7. Great article about a fantactic player and a fantastic bloke. I’ll be interested to see where he is in the Brownlow when his accident happened. Can’t wait to see him back in 2011.

Leave a Comment

*