Foley’s journey

Once, not so long ago, Nathan Foley was a young tiger on the rise. But his career has also been scarred by injuries – his own, and others. Now we watch as an older, wiser Foley works his way back from the brink.

Late May 2013. Round 8 – Richmond v Melbourne.

Nearing three quarter time at the MCG on Sunday, a young Tiger receives the ball on the half back flank … and runs.

With short quick steps he accelerates, running away from pacy Demon pursuer Aaron Davey. He then steadies and delivers a perfect pass to the leading Ty Vickery just short of half forward.

Vickery turns, sees that his teammate has continued running – how is he running so quickly after almost three quarters of football? – and loops a perfectly weighted handball back into his path. With Davey now lagging well behind, unable to keep up, that young Tiger quick steps towards the 50, bounces, outruns another pursuer and delivers an exact chip pass to the leading Dustin Martin.

Martin tops off the electrifying play with a goal. A key goal – one that helps break the game open and in the Tigers’ favour just before the final break.

Teammates mob the young Tiger who did all the hard running – fourth gamer Nick Vlastuin, who is playing by far the best match of his short AFL career.

Somewhere nearby another quick stepping Tiger speedster – one with a reputation from bursting from packs with blistering speed and finding teammates on the lead – most likely wears a grin from ear to ear after watching Vlastuin’s effort.

But instead of working to prove he belongs at this level as Vlastuin is doing, that “other Tiger” – Nathan Foley – is in the midst of a different challenge.

Working to prove he STILL belongs at this level.

***

Late May 2005, Round 10 – Melbourne v Richmond.

A night that, for dedicated Tiger fans, will long remain burned into their psyches.

Tigers. Demons. Top 4 battle – packed house at Docklands.

On the back of some of the most miraculous football from the freakish born-again Tiger Nathan Brown, Richmond looked to have what it took to match it with the big guns.

Brown’s previous three weeks had seen weave his magic over Carlton (and Ryan Houlihan) in an 85 point thumping, seen him kick five – yep, five – last quarter goals on the redoubtable James Clement (oh the memories) to single handedly beat Collingwood, and then kick four more to help Richmond notch a nail biting win at the Gabba over Brisbane.

But on this night, Melbourne have the Tigers’ measure. Brown is subdued, as are his teammates, and defeat is near. Time for the Tigers to play this one out, lick their wounds and bounce back the following week.

Then a sickening crack. A freak accident that those there that night still talk about in hushed tones. Of course it is the talisman Brown who has gone down, his leg bones snapping under the weight of an opponent’s tackle.

We are yet to know it, but that promising Richmond season pretty much ends that night at Docklands as Nathan Brown is taken from the field. The Tigers’ battle bravely in coming weeks – winning a couple of close games – but would only win one more after that and slip, again, from finals contention.

Inauspiciously, that night saw a 19-year-old ball of energy originally off the rookie-list make his debut for Richmond with 8 touches, 3 clearances and 5 contested possessions. For Nathan Foley, it was a subdued debut.

***

Early June 2012, Round 10 – St Kilda v Richmond.

Back and forth the game ebbs and flows as two teams battling for a spot in the 8 stage a titanic struggle.

For Richmond, the Saints have long been the bogey team. Not since early 2003 had they tasted victory over the Saints – that game on a balmy Easter Monday famously remembered as one where the losing coach – Grant Thomas – declared his team as better than the team they had just lost too.

And for the following decade, the Saints proved Thomas’ initially ridiculous proclamation correct.

Yet tonight, on this night, it seems Richmond might break that hoodoo. And for Nathan Foley – now 26 and in his 120th game – it would be his first ever win over StKilda.

As he has for most of 2012, Foley provides his usual dash and 20-odd touches before being subbed off. His subbing goes almost unnoticed, especially when his replacement Addam Maric lays a game-winning tackle on Saints’ star Brendan Goddard which results in a turnover and a vital Richmond goal late in the last quarter.

But in the coming days and weeks, Foley’s season turns into a nightmare. Hobbled by the heel complaint that saw him subbed off, Foley then tears his Achilles tendon at training, wiping out the rest of the season and threatening his career.

In his absence, Richmond lose a series of close games and fall short of a final eight berth. Of course, one wonders if Foley’s presence might made a difference in even a couple of those close losses.

***

Late May 2013, Round 7 – Port Adelaide v Richmond.

IN: Foley. Music to Tiger fans’ ears.

Finally, after months of hard work and rehab, Foley is back in the yellow and black.

Yet expectations are kept low, voices more quietly hopeful than triumphant, hopes are closer to: “hope he gets through the game” than: “hope he tears the game apart”. Fingers and toes are crossed.

After all, three injury interrupted years and only 50 games in four seasons for a player who should be in the prime of his career tends to dampen any expectations.

Foley begins the game as he ends his last one in Richmond colours – as a substitute, albeit in a different coloured vest.

Soon though, definitely sooner than expected, he is on the field. Another freak injury to another born-again Tiger in Chris Knights sees Foley enter the fray.

Quietly, gradually, he picks up the play. Eight kicks, 5 handballs, a couple of clearances and a trademark vice-like tackle is a heartening return for the former rookie-lister.

Importantly, Foley emerges from the game unscathed as Richmond arrest a form slump with a good win on the road.

As the camera pans around the Tiger team singing the song after the game, it stops on Vlastuin and teammate Orren Stephenson enjoying a sports drink shower after their first win in Tigers’ colours.

It also briefly on a smiling Foley, arm in arm with former skipper Chris Newman, loudly and proudly singing the Tigerland words. It has been a while for Foley, and it certainly feels good to shout “Yellow and Black” again.

***

Late May 2013, Round 8 – Richmond v Melbourne.

It is the night of the Tiger youngsters – a coming out party for the kids.

Ellis has brought his own football. Vlastuin runs around like he’s over-indulged on red cordial. Martin the man-child kicks key goals, Morris clamps down on Aaron Davey in the second half, Cotchin is his usual unflappable self.

Highlights abound – Ellis’ near 40 touches, Vlastuin’s dash and verve. Morris running off Davey to kick a goal of his own.

But for many a Tiger supporter, one key end-game stat makes for great reading:

Nathan Foley – 10 tackles, equal most of anyone on the ground.

The second game up from a long injury layoff can be tougher than the first, and Foley’s possession count didn’t go any further than the 13 he got against Port Adelaide.

The older, wiser, Foley found other ways to contribute. Contested possessions outweighed uncontested. Packs were burrowed into, almost a half-dozen clearances extracted. Time was even spent tagging Demons’ hard-nut Nathan Jones.

But those tackles. Yes, this is, as Ross Lyon would say, pleasing.

The indelible image I am left with as I leave the MCG after the win is Foley confronting a bigger, seemingly stronger Melbourne player who is approaching at decent pace with ball in hand. As his opponent tries to dodge, Foley almost leaps at him, grabbing him and dragging him down like a lioness would do to much larger prey.

You can almost feel the thud as he hits the ground, sopped in his tracks by a 178cm ball of energy named Nathan Foley.

***

I wonder what Nathan Foley thinks as he looks at his teammates during the song after the game.

Much older now, wiser too. He’s see plenty of youngsters come through the club before, seen teammates great and forgettable come and go, seen rebuilds rise and fall.

I wonder if he thinks this one seems more real, the teammates better, the recruits higher quality, the youngsters more skilled, more resilient, more exciting.

For Nathan Foley, it is 122 games and 8 years without a final. And while September is still a long way away, one hopes that 2013 might be the year where that changes. No-one would begrudge him that, given what he has been through in recent seasons.

Until then, he’ll build, he’ll run, he’ll dig into packs and apply vice-like tackles. Because for Nathan Foley, every game is another opportunity to repay the faith and to show everyone he and his body are up for the challenge.

About Chris Riches

Chris Riches is a journalist and writer who has worked in various forms of the media for more than 15 years. He also drinks too much coffee and often has a hoarse voice on Monday mornings, two things he attributes to his lifelong support of the Richmond Football Club.

Comments

  1. Stainless says:

    Nice article Chris. The game can be cruel. Reading about the injuries to Foley and Nathan Brown reminded me of others who were hit by career-ending injury in their prime – Tony Free, Mark Coughlan, Kel Moore – and that’s just at Richmond.

    That said, it was cheering to see Foley back on the paddock again. I hope he can reproduce some of his best form. He deserves a lucky break.

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