In 2015, Essendon great Dustin Fletcher will become the second oldest man to ever play AFL Football. As the Bruce McAvaney’s of the world repeatedly tell TV viewers: Fletcher’s 23 seasons of elite football date back further than many of his colleague’s birth certificates.
Legends like Fletcher are lauded for their long, glowing careers, but to the heights of the sport att the end of the 2014 season, 107 players were delisted from AFL club lists, meaning more than one in eight players were sacked come season’s end. Similar numbers were told their services were no longer required the year before. While the AFL Players Association (AFLPA) says the average playing career of an AFL footballer is around six years, many of the players delisted will never play a game of senior AFL football.
One such player is Michael Hartley. Originally from Penrith, New South Wales, Hartley received a scholarship from Collingwood as part of their NSW development program at 14.
At the 2011 National Carnival, Hartley revealed his potential by shutting down Victorian Jonathan Patton – who would go on to be the number one draft pick.
“To keep the big dog [Patton] to one goal was a pretty good effort” Hartley says, humbly downplaying his obvious talent.
After being rookie listed by Collingwood in 2012, Hartley’s good fortune would soon end. “All through juniors I never got injured, but as soon as I got to Collingwood, I got injured,” he says.
In his first pre-season match, Hartley would develop a shoulder injury which would soon end his season. Early in the 2013 season he would injure his other shoulder, and all before his 21st birthday, Hartley would be delisted from the Collingwood Football Club.
While much time and effort has been put into sports science (ensuring clubs get the most out of their players) personal development is a relatively new concept. Some clubs have had player wellbeing staff employed for some years, but the role only became compulsory in 2012.
The AFLPA General Manager of Player Development Brett Johnson suggests player development requires a more holistic approach.
“Player development in the past has probably been seen as … going to university, TAFE, getting work placement,” Johnson says. “It’s also about how organised a player is off the field, what’s his personal brand’s like.”
In modern football, the idea of a rounded individual is not restricted to a player’s post-football life. Increasingly clubs are paying attention to the character of their recruits even before their time in the system.
Managing Director of Stride Sports Management Tom Petroro deals with elite footballers such as Nick Riewoldt, Joel Selwood and Nathan Fyfe.
Petroro says a player’s character is integral to their chances of being drafted. “It [character assessment] probably amounts to around half the work clubs do [when drafting]” he says.
But despite the apparent emphasis on character and player development, the nature of competitive sport often gets in the way of pursuing outside interests which might be pivotal to a player’s successes beyond football.
When playing under coach Ross Lyon at St Kilda, ex-player Luke Miles was told by the club he was to play Victorian Football League (VFL) football and not sit a firefighting exam. He went on to be employed as a fireman after his football career.
Like Hartley, Miles only spent a short time on an AFL list and only played two senior games. Despite St Kilda’s success during his time at the club (reaching two Grand Finals in 2009 and 2010) they – like all clubs – dropped excess players come season’s end. For player development professionals like Johnson, instances like this show why it’s important players see themselves as “more than just footballers”.
For young men like Hartley, it’s likely that footy is all they’ve ever known. “I never had a job before in my life” Hartley says. And despite the best efforts of bodies such as the AFLPA, their message about life after footy can fall on deaf ears as young men grapple with all that comes with being an elite athlete. “Players do switch off, because they’re in their dream job,” Johnson says.
Hartley now works full time at a hospital as a labourer and says searching for a job after being delisted was “one of the weirdest, hardest things [he’s] ever done”. “I thought I was [going to] be an AFL superstar for the rest of my life,” Hartley says.
He is now playing VFL football for Coburg and hopes to return to elite football as soon as possible. In hindsight, Hartley concedes l study or get a trade to “get something under the belt”.
“Obviously, footy ends, and then you’ve got life after footy,” Hartley says.
But unlike for Fletcher, for most players this will happen well before season 23.