… or was it too harsh a penalty?
Six years ago, Alex Witherden remembers being a wide-eyed 12-year-old watching Dayne Beams trot around the MCG as Collingwood won the flag.
On Saturday he was casually talking to the Copeland Trophy and Merrett-Murray medallist on the phone, having been drafted to Dayne’s Brisbane Lions. Alex is still coming to terms with surreal “pinch yourself”-type moments like this following Friday night’s AFL draft, which he spent with 35 of his closest friends and family crammed in the loungeroom of his Geelong home, eagerly awaiting to see where he would land.
“When it got around to that pick 15 mark that’s when we all watched the picks closely,” he said.
“There was a bit of silence and every time my name didn’t get read out there was a bit of an ‘ooh’. It got to Essendon and Brisbane (picks 22 and 23) and we thought it could be one of these two. When it wasn’t Essendon we just sat waiting, hoping it was Brisbane. I saw Hugh (McCluggage) and Jarrod (Berry) had both got there and I thought what better people to go up with than those two.
“It’s a weird feeling seeing your life change before you, with your name popping up on Fox Footy. All the boys jumped all over me but I wasn’t able to comprehend it until I was by myself.”
Pre-draft Alex had been in talks with Port Adelaide, who were considering him at either picks 15 or 17.
Instead they opted for Todd Marshall and Sam Powell-Pepper, who Port thought could make a more immediate impact with his AFL-ready frame. After Port looked elsewhere Brisbane, a team Alex had identified as a good fit, came gleefully knocking.
Although he knows nothing will be handed to him, the Geelong Falcons’ product embraced the idea of moving north because opportunities were likely to be greater at Brisbane with their developing list.
“I don’t expect to get there and play straightaway, I have to earn the respect of the players and the coaches. I’ll probably start in the NEAFL and string a few performances together and we’ll see what happens.
“It being a young list, there might be more opportunities than at a more established club, which is appealing to a young player,” he said.
Another positive outcome of draft night for Alex was the fact he will make the life-changing move with two of his friends in Berry and McCluggage. The trio have come through the Vic Country and AFL Academy systems, and Alex thinks trekking north will be easier with the two North Ballarat Rebels.
“Having those guys makes it more exciting. I look at it as an opportunity to move up with those guys and stay up there and create a little legacy of our own, having been drafted together,” he said.
“I started playing footy with Jarrod in under-12s with Vic Country and we went through together basically until this year with the academy and under-15s and 16s. My mum and dad are pretty close to his old man and I got to know Hugh pretty well last year when I trained down at Geelong (as part of the AFL’s draftee placement).”
The trend of playing with Jarrod was supposed to continue this year, however Alex broke his leg, ruining his chance to impress recruiters through the TAC Cup and at the Under-18 Championships. He was heartbroken, and wondered if his opportunity to play AFL had ended before it had even started.
“Initially when I broke it I was shattered. I came off on the stretcher, the first time I’ve ever been stretchered off, and had a lot of questions going through my head; ‘what’s going to happen next?’, ‘am I going to miss out?’, ‘was it all for nothing?’. Then after a couple of weeks of feeling sorry for myself I thought it was time to switch into gear and get my body right,” he said.
It’s that attitude that could help Alex seamlessly transition into a professional AFL set-up. Knowing he couldn’t make an impact on the field, Alex endeavoured to do everything in his power to impress clubs with his commitment and professionalism.
“I definitely thought I could improve that side of my game. The on-field stuff, you can’t really control that. The off-field stuff you have 100 per cent control over, so I thought if I get that right and do everything else right, it will hold me in good stead going forward,” he said.
Now, Alex’s leg is healed and he has since returned to training, completing running sessions and drills with the Geelong Falcons. He hopes to start pre-season training in Brisbane immediately, and he’s excited at the prospect of being able to finally focus on his development.
One reason Alex is bullish about his AFL prospects is the fact he hasn’t had a proper preseason in two years. As such, he thinks he has a large scope for improvement, particularly in terms of endurance and strength.
“Having been injured in my bottom age preseason as well as this year I’ve never been able to get stuck into a full running program and develop my endurance. I’ve got a few things to work on but I feel like I’ve got lots of improvement and development in me, and I think I can only get better from here,” he said.
It seems the sky’s the limit for Witherden, who defied a broken leg to be selected as a top-25 selection in one of the strongest AFL drafts in recent memory. With the chance to complete an uninterrupted preseason or two who knows, in six years’ time a wide-eyed boy might be watching Witherden trot around the MCG.