Ask anyone at Aberfeldie footy club what they make of the supposed AFL “talent drain” and they’ll beg to differ with a two-word answer. Zac O’Brien.
“There’s definitely good footballers out there, no question,” says Mal Michael, the former Magpie, Bomber and famously triple premiership Lion who as coach of the “Abers” reckons he sees plenty of young footballers who missed the freeway to the top, but who he thinks are abundantly capable of making it via a different route.
O’Brien is the latest pin-up of the off-roaders. A fully qualified chiropractor who was lured to the Essendon District Football League in 2012 by mates who got in his ear about the weekly drive from uni to play for Yarrawonga, he split last season between Aberfeldie and Essendon’s VFL team, was rookie-listed by Brisbane, and on Saturday had 15 possessions on debut in just over a half and kicked the goal that put the Lions in front in the dying minutes.
That time under Hayden Skipworth in the VFL was crucial in planing his rough edges, but O’Brien’s story is rightfully being celebrated by the Ovens and Murray and Essendon leagues, too. At 23, he is the most recent beacon for the late-bloomers.
Michael says football clubs are about relationships, and O’Brien is fortunate those mates were at one that is remarkably well connected. Assisting him in the Aberfeldie coach’s box is former Bomber Damien Peverill, who helped hone a player who was too aggressive when he came to the club – at both ball and man – and who needed to improve his disposal.
Skipworth is an Aberfeldie old boy, and when he took over the Bombers’ VFL team he invited O’Brien down for pre-season. His improved conditioning when he came back to the Abers was clear.
He’d won the club best and fairest in 2012, but after last year’s shared duties ended with a strong showing in a losing Essendon final, then a quiet EDFL grand final when tagged in a loss to the Anthony Rock-coached Greenvale, the leap he would soon make seemed distant. The assumption that Michael’s Brisbane connection was crucial makes the former full back chuckle.
“I had no role in getting him there,” says Michael, adding that there was talk of interest from Gold Coast, but nothing from his old club. “I was a bit surprised I didn’t get a call.”
Aberfeldie president John Larkins, a Queen’s counsel with a rare passion for his club, is both proud and moved to be part of O’Brien’s story.O’Brien’s father Gerry is on a farm at Greta, yet has still attended a couple of Aberfeldie games this season even without his son playing. Last Thursday, Larkins was among the first people he called after hearing that Zac would make his debut.
“When I announced it to the assembled masses after training I said Zac satisfies the ‘Peverill Test’ of having to earn your first game,” Larkins says, recalling how the quiet former Bomber shakes his head in faux distress at how easy your run-of-the-mill draftees have it, when he had to wait until he was almost 22 to get a chance.
“I’ve got no doubt Zac would have picked up plenty from Pev, who also battled to get his first gig. Zac has just worked his backside off.”
Aberfeldie encourages professional toil. This season, the playing list includes former Bombers Courtney Johns, Kyle Reimers and Darcy Daniher, the latter on a quiet comeback trail after a promising career was destroyed by injury. His father, Anthony, is the club footy manager. Josh Toy, whose short Gold Coast career was dogged by health issues, is mirroring O’Brien’s Essendon or Aberfeldie experience, while ex-Cat Mark Blake is also at the club.
As is Luke Davis, who spent three years on Essendon’s list without playing a game, came to Aberfeldie in what Michael says was “a bit of a broken-spirited state”, and for whom the club’s focus was getting him to enjoy the game again. “I think we’ve done that,” Michael says. “He’s having a terrific season.”
Larkins says the club “jumped off the bridge a bit” in 2010 in opting to get Johns and Skipworth, and without gate takings to rely on, keeping in-demand performers is a struggle. “Our retention rate, when you’ve got quality coaching, good culture, terrific players around you, it’s so much easier to develop players.”
Michael agrees, citing Aberfeldie’s own “pathway program” to aid transition from junior to senior level as a key to the overall health of a club that has won the past two under-18 premierships. He sees AFL recruiters at their games, jokes that it’s something of a mixed blessing when they pluck your players (eight of last season’s list are playing VFL this year, plus O’Brien at Brisbane), yet he also sees talent throughout the EDFL. “Even the clubs who are struggling at senior level, they’ve got very good juniors. There’s a good talent pool.”
In his final seasons at Essendon, Michael noted players getting cut who he thinks were still of AFL quality; he dislikes a system at the game’s apex that virtually encourages teams to discard worthy footballers in favour of bottoming out and getting access to tomorrow’s stars. “Until they change that, we’ll always be saying there’s a shortage of talent.”
At Aberfeldie, they’ll also be saying it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. “We’re part of Zac’s journey,” says Larkins, “and we’re very, very excited about what’s happened for him.”