Shared Gabba AFL Debut for Aliir & Keays

By Peter Blucher.

Aliir Aliir and Ben Keays will share a special moment in Queensland AFL history at the Gabba on Sunday, taking the next step together down a path that could hardly be more different.

This comes after confirmation yesterday that the Round 6 clash in the Toyota AFL Premiership will see the debut of  Aliir, a 193cm 21-year-old Sydney Swans defender originally from Africa, and Keays, a 185cm 19-year-old Brisbane Lions midfielder who grew a couple of kilometres away at suburban Morningside.

They will be the third and fourth AFL debutants to roll off the Queensland production line this season, following Melbourne’s Josh Wagner and Collingwood’s Josh Smith in taking the step up onto the national stage.

In what has become a frantic month, Wagner debuted for Melbourne in Round 3, and Smith followed for Collingwood in the Round 5 Anzac Day blockbuster last Monday.

Already in 2016, with still 16 rounds to play, the Queensland talent pool has matched the four AFL debutants of 2015 – Harris Andrews (Brisbane), Liam Dawson (Brisbane), Tom Fields (Carlton) and Lachie Weller (Fremantle) – and surpassed the three debutants of 2014 – Clay Cameron (Gold Coast), Jono Freeman (Brisbane) and Jordon Bourke (Brisbane).

In a break from normal practice, Aliir and Keays were confirmed starters 24 hours out from the customary team selection on Thursday evening.

Aliir’s inclusion was confirmed early yesterday afternoon by Swans coach John Longmire at a Sydney media conference, and was followed early evening by the Lions’ public confirmation that Justin Leppitsch’s had told Keays he would debut for the Lions earlier in the day.

They will the 158th and 159th members of the Queensland AFL “family”.

Interestingly, it will not be the first time two Queenslanders have debuted together. Not even close.

It won’t even be the first time two Queenslanders have debuted on opposite sides in the same game.

It will be the 11th time those in charge of the unofficial “membership tickets” have needed more than one on the same day, and another part of the answer to one of the game’s great trivia questions.

Before you read on, can you recall the blockbuster occasion when no less than five Queenslanders debuted together? Or the time two brothers debuted together?

In chronological order, Queenslanders to debut in the AFL in the same game have been:

  1. Ray Windsor and David Wearne – Brisbane Bears v Fitzroy, Carrara, Round 15, 1990.
  2. Troy Clarke and Jason Millar – Brisbane Bears v North Melbourne, Carrara, Round 2, 1991.
  3. David and Donald Cockatoo-Collins – Melbourne v Geelong, MCG, Round 1, 1996.
  4. Brett Backwell and Ben Thompson – Carlton v Essendon, MCG, Round 1, 1999
  5. Rhan Hooper and Wayde Mills – Brisbane Lions v Essendon, Gabba, Round 2, 2006.
  6. Jarrod Harbrow and Tom Williams – Western Bulldogs v Richmond, MCG, Round 4, 2007.
  7. David Armitage & Brad Howard – St.Kilda v Hawthorn, MCG, Round 8, 2007.
  8. Charlie Dixon, Karmichael Hunt, Marc Lock, Alik Magin and Zac Smith – Gold Coast v Carlton, Gabba, Round 2, 2011.
  9. Bryce Retzlaff and Joey Daye – Brisbane Lions v Gold Coast, Gabba, Round 7, 2011.
  10. Tom Hickey & Joel Tippett – Gold Coast v Adelaide, Carrara, Round 22, 2011.

Each shared debut has been special, but the Aliir/Keays introduction on Sunday will be even more so because of the remarkable contrast in how the two young men will have got there.

The Keays’ story is pretty much regulation football.

Born in Melbourne to a Fitzroy family that included great grandfather Fred Keays, who played eight games with Fitzroy and Collingwood from 1919-22, he moved to Brisbane in 2002 and grew up playing at suburban Morningside, one-time junior home of such Queensland football luminaries as Michael Voss and David Armitage.

A staunch Lions man even before the family moved north, Keays went to the MCG at age four to see the club win its first flag in the 2001 grand final against Essendon, and went back in 2004 as they chased a four-peat against Port Adelaide.

As the story goes, he cried all the way home after the Lions’ loss.

Always a standout junior, he wore Jason Akermanis’ No.12 on the back in his Lions jumper early days and later idolised Simon Black, now the Lions’ midfield coach.

He was a Queensland U18 representative in 2014-15 and an All-Australian pick both years.

Last year he captained the Maroon U18s at the national championships, winning the Harrison Medal as the best player in division two plus a spot in the prestigious AFL Academy.

He was always going to end up at the Lions via the 2015 National Draft, and did so at selection #24 when the club matched a bid from the Western Bulldogs.

It was not a question of if the confident and self-assured Keays would play AFL but when.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 26: Ben Keays of the Lions is seen during the Brisbane Lions official team photo day at The Gabba in Brisbane on February 26, 2016. (Photo by Justine Walker/AFL Media)

Ben Keays of the Lions is seen during the Brisbane Lions official team photo day at The Gabba in Brisbane on February 26, 2016. (Photo by Justine Walker/AFL Media)

Not so for Aliir. Nothing like it.

He was born in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to Sudanese parents and spent six years there after his parents had fled Sudan to escape a bloody civil war. It was a camp that housed around 150,000 men, women and children.

In 2005 the family moved to Brisbane, where Aliir’s uncle was living.

Aliir was a basketball fanatic long before he’d even heard of Australian football, but he turned his attention to the Sherrin in 2009 when Kedron High schoolmate James Ives, son of QAFL Grogan Medalist Peter Ives and now a senior NEAFL player at Aspley, invited him to “come and have a kick”.

He was a member of the Queensland U16 squad in 2010, represented a World XVIII at the Australian U16 Championships in 2010-11, and played with a Queensland U18 side in 2012 that included six future AFL players – recent debutants Smith and Wagner, plus Lions Jono Freeman and Jordon Bourke, and Suns Clay Cameron and Andrew Boston.

He also played four senior games at Aspley in 2012.

In 2013 he moved west to consolidate a family connection which the quietly-spoken AFL convert had discovered totally by accident a couple of years earlier when travelling on a bus with the World Team. Sitting next to him was a young man who turned out to be his cousin. He lived in Perth so soon the Aliir family did too.

In 2013 Aliir joined WAFL club East Fremantle and was an overage member of the Western Australian U18 side, slotting into the Sandgropers’ defence after he had played primarily in the ruck with the Queensland U18s.

That was the making of him. A keen West Coast Eagles fan inspired by Nic Naitanui, he became the second player of Sudanese heritage behind North Melbourne rookie Majak Daw to make it into an AFL playing list and the first taken in the NAB AFL National Draft when picked by the Swans at No.44.

Said Sydney recruiting boss Kinnear Beatson: “His athleticism was amazing. We knew he was raw but he’d adapted really well to playing in defence after moving to Perth.

“He had a great leap to spoil the ball in a marking contest and was a good intercept mark. He was a good distributor of the footy who kicked it pretty well.

“He had to pick up the intensity of the game at a higher level but tall defenders are like ruckmen … they are hard to find.”

Aliir played in the Swans Reserves in 2014-15, and after his first campaign was cut short by shoulder surgery he enjoyed a solid 2015 in the NEAFL, averaging 16 possessions and leading his team in marks.

He went into the 2016 season on a one-year Swans contract that is now likely to be extended after what club insiders say has been “monumental growth” on and off the field.

A multicultural ambassador for the AFL this year, he has grown in confidence and after testing himself at training against the likes of Buddy Franklin and Kurt Tippett has shown consistently outstanding recent form in the NEAFL.

He also enjoys shooting hoops with Tippett and other teammates at the Swans, proudly pulling on the No.35 jumper of Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. He even spent time last year with fellow Sudanese-Australian athlete Thon Maker, the 216cm centre who has nominated for the 2016 NBA Draft straight out of high school.

Hugely popular among his teammates, Aliir arrived at training at the SCG yesterday unaware that coach Longmire was about to deliver one of the biggest news bombshells of his life.

Longmire told the Swans website Aliir was “ecstatic” when he was told he would be playing on Sunday. “He didn’t know … It was probably the best grin I’ve ever seen,” the coach said.

“Yeah, he was very happy, as you would be. I mean Aliir’s had a few challenges on his journey there’s no doubt about that, but he’s making the most of his opportunities now which is terrific to see.

“He’s put together a great body of work in the reserves, he’s played a good five or six weeks of absolutely quality football now, and he deserves his opportunity,” Longmire said.


Aliir Aliir of QLD in action during the 2012 NAB AFL Under 18 Championship between Northern Territory and Queensland at Visy Park, Melbourne. (Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Media)

Aliir Aliir in action during the 2012 NAB AFL Under 18 Championship between Northern Territory and Queensland at Visy Park, Melbourne. (Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Media)

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