Harley Bennell: The feel good story of 2017

Zac Standish Roar Pro

By , Zac Standish is a Roar Pro

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    From draws to kicks after the siren and everything in between, 2017 has been a truly special season for football fans as we enter one of the most open finals series in recent memory.

    However, in a season dominated by stunning headlines one thing has truly stood out as a feel good story, and that is the incredible bravery and hard work of troubled Docker Harley Bennell.

    Joining Fremantle at the end of 2015 many saw this move as a fresh start for Bennell as he would be able to get away from the party life of the Gold Coast and back to his home town of Perth.

    Prior to joining the Dockers, Bennell had been dogged by off field trouble involving drugs and alcohol, with the most famous headline being the infamous photo of him snorting a white substance in July 2015.

    Many blamed the troubled young star for the culture that plagued the Gold Coast franchise, with the general consensus being that he simply did not care enough about football to get the best out of himself.

    Since being drafted with the Pick 2 in the 2010 national draft by the Gold Coast Suns, Bennell has shown flashes of brilliance in his short career averaging 22 disposals and one goal per game.

    Although these statistics don’t stand out as phenomenal, it was Bennell’s ability to win games off his own boot that got fans excited. At his best, Harley was marvellous to watch with his class, skill and speed resulting in him becoming one of the competitions most dangerous players.

    The early years saw a young footballer begin to develop with solid seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013 cementing his rank amongst the most exciting up and coming footballers in the country. Even though he was only able to play more than 20 games in a season once in his first five seasons (2012) Bennell had shown enough on field to suggest he had the potential to be a star of the competition.

    This potential was showcased on a special June night on the Gold Coast in 2014 where the Suns overcame underdog status to upset what was a juggernaut Geelong side by 40 points. At the heart of this performance was none other than Harley Bennell as the then 21 year old put the team on his back and produced a best on ground performance of 27 disposals and 6 goals to get the Suns over the line.

    Although the Suns eventually petered out of finals contention due to a season-ending shoulder injury to champion Gary Ablett, many saw this performance as the beginning of something for the Suns and for Harley Bennell as an elite footballer.

    The introduction of Rodney Eade as coach in 2015 saw the Suns finals hopes grow with many believing it was finally their time. However, this would prove to be perhaps the most catastrophic season in the club’s history as a number off field problems and club culture concerns rose to the surface. At the centre of these problems would be their rising star Harley Bennell as injury and homesickness saw him venture off the rails with drugs and alcohol proving to be of concern.

    Despite these problems, Bennell still performed consistently on the field in 2015 averaging 23.5 disposals, 3.4 tackles and 3.4 clearances a game as he developed himself into a midfielder. This improvement was highlighted by a 39-disposal effort against Adelaide in round 17 where he proved his ability to rack up possessions.

    However, by the end of 2015 it became abundantly clear the Suns could no longer keep Bennell on their list due to his poor behaviour and the overall bad reputation he was giving the club. Teams lined up for the young star’s services in the 2015 off season, with the lure of home and a fresh start resulting in ladder leaders Fremantle landing him on a three year contract.

    This was seen as the move Bennell needed to get his life back on track and catapult himself into the AFL’s elite. However, this was not to be as the worst was about to befall Harley Bennell.

    After only weeks of pre season training, Harley was struck down with the first of many calf problems as he pulled up extremely sore after a session. In what was believed to be a strain Bennell was placed in the rehab group for the majority of pre-season as he tried hard to get himself right for the start of the 2016 season.

    His dedication was commended by teammate Michael Walters in an interview in December where the live wire said “he’s a very likeable guy” and that “he’s working hard in the rehab group and his attitude since joining the club can’t be faulted.” These were big words by a leader of the club and resulted in many believing that he was finally over his off field problems and ready for a big 2016.

    david-swallow-2010-afl-draft

    (AAP Image/Patrick Hamilton)

    His hard work to overcome injury saw Bennell recover well and play a NAB challenge match against Geelong in the lead up to round one. After performing well with 17 disposals and a goal all seemed on track for Harley as he needed to get through just one more hit out with WAFL affiliate Peel Thunder to prove himself fit for AFL selection.

    In what seemed a straight forward match the cruel nature of football would strike Bennell again at the worst possible time. After being judged as one of the best afield with 23 disposals and four goals, it became evident late in the match that he had suffered a major calf strain.

    This sent him back to rehabilitation and on to the long-term injury list just when it seemed like he was just about to get his career back on track. Bennell would tear his calf muscle again in re-hab and was ruled out for the entire 2016 season by the Dockers who stated that: ‘We’ve sought opinions from national and international experts, their indication is that we just need to take a longer period of time to allow this tissue to heal properly.”

    With the calf injury constantly plaguing his development, Bennell’s state of mind would also be severely tested with many quickly coming to the conclusion that he will never get back to his best.

    Bennell would spend the rest of 2016 stranded in rehabilitation as his Dockers would experience an incredible fall from grace to finish 16th on the AFL ladder as well as farewell champion forward Matthew Pavlich.

    As preseason 2017 began, everybody expected a bounce back year for Fremantle with their talented recruit Harley Bennell expected to be at the centre of their revival. As a result the young star was sent to Germany to receive special treatment by soft tissue expert Dr Hans Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfart.

    Upon his return things again began looking positive for Bennell as he returned to training and was expected to be available at the beginning of the season. However, the cruelty of football struck again as he became victim to yet another calf strain in the weeks leading up to the season that seriously halted his progress.

    This latest injury would see him break down and spiral downwards as his mental strength was pushed to the absolute limit. In what was a very tough time, Bennell would again make headlines for all the wrong reasons after being escorted from an aircraft en route to the Gold Coast for being intoxicated in April 2017.

    This was followed by another altercation a month later in May at a Peel Thunder game where on several occasions he interrupted the team coach to talk to his cousin Tyrone during breaks.

    Many saw this as the end for Harley Bennell with even the great Mike Sheahan stating on SEN radio “he’s never going to play another game Harley Bennell” and that “his behaviour, apart from his physical problems, he’s got soft tissue injuries, his behaviour is abysmal.”

    In what was a true turning point, Bennell was offered a last chance ultimatum by the Dockers to simply get healthy, get fit and play footy. This was met with a positive response from the troubled young man as under the guidance of coach Ross Lyon he attempted to put his past behind him and focus on getting back and playing footy again.

    After returning to the club and continuing his rehabilitation, Bennell became as determined as ever to get back on the park, which eventually happened in July 2017 for Peel Thunder in the WAFL.

    Harley Bennell Fremantle Dockers AFL 2016 tall

    (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

    This was met with high praise and reflection by his coach and biggest supporter Lyon who profoundly stated that “I can tell you I would have crumbled, I would have been out of the system by now. I would have flicked the bails” and that “he has great mental toughness. He is a better man than me.”

    These words proved the many the struggles that Harley went through in his recovery and just how determined he was to keep fighting despite his physical and mental condition.

    The last month has seen Bennell slowly build up his form in Fremantle’s WAFL side having played restricted game time in order to adapt back into the swing of professional footy. After four appearances for Peel, the Dockers are finally confident to unleash the former Sun back onto the AFL scene in their round 22 clash with Richmond at Domain Stadium on Sunday afternoon, finally ending what has been an horrendous two year ordeal for the 24 year old.

    So, as Sunday draws closer it is safe to say that the entire AFL will have a key eye on Bennell as he resumes his career in the purple jumper. Despite all the troubles and criticism Harley Bennell has faced over his career nobody can fault his determination and ability to change.

    Nobody deserves another chance at AFL level more than Harley Bennell, it is now up to him as to whether he can make the most of it and become the difference for the Fremantle Dockers.