Sam Michael: Persistence pays off. By Peter Blucher.
Sam Michael will end an absence of 1044 days from the AFL arena with his debut for Essendon on Sunday in a triumph for sheer persistence and professionalism.
Michael, who turned 23 on Tuesday, hasn’t played at the elite level since Round 23 2013 and had been an Essendon emergency selection six times this season before a call-up for the clash with St.Kilda at Etihad Stadium.
His inclusion was a headline grabber on a busy Thursday night selection that is set to see an equal season-high 25 Queenslanders play in Round 16 of the Toyota AFL premiership this weekend.
Michael shared top billing with 18-year-old Sudanese defender Reuben William, who, fortuitously, will make a multicultural round debut for the Brisbane Lions in Q-Clash 12 at Metricon on Saturday afternoon.
In other selection news:-
- Aliir Aliir, an AFL multicultural ambassador, was recalled for the Sydney Swans’ crunch Friday night clash with Geelong at Skilled Stadium. It was a big selection for the 21-year-old Kenyan-born Sudanese refugee, who was included when Swans coach John Longmire welcomed back first-choice fullback Ted Richards but dropped regular defender Jeremy Laidler. It’s the first time Aliir will play in a full-strength Sydney defensive unit headed by Richards and Heath Grundy, and sends a message that he is not without a chance of figuring in the business end of the season.
- Shaun Hampson, over a knee injury that sidelined him last weekend, was rushed straight back into the Richmond side that will play the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night.
- Dayne Zorko will return to the Brisbane line-up against Gold Coast after missing their last outing for personal reasons. Matthew Hammelmann was retained for his second AFL outing and Eric Hipwood for his third but after nine games in a row 19-year-old Ben Keays will be given a chance to refresh at NEAFL level.
- Jesse White, dropped by Collingwood last week after seven games in a row, was recalled in preference to American giant Mason Cox for Saturday’s clash with GWS Giants in Sydney.
- Jake Spencer, who hasn’t played at AFL level since Round 22 last year due to injury, was named as a Melbourne emergency for the Saturday night clash with Fremantle in Darwin. It is the second dose of good news for the 36-game 27-year-old from Townsville, who in May signed a contract extension that ties him to the Demons until the end of 2017. Josh Wagner was ruled unfit for the second week in a row with a knee problem but is expected to play.
- Corey Wagner was included on an extended North Melbourne bench ahead of Sunday’s Perth clash with the West Coast Eagles but after an encouraging performance in his second game a fortnight ago is expected to retain his spot.
So, assuming Corey Wagner does play, it will mean 25 Queenslanders will be spread across 11 clubs this weekend despite the absence of first-choice selections Kurt Tippett, Dayne Beams, Tom Bell and Josh Wagner.
Flying the Queensland flag in multicultural round will be Zorko, William, Hammelmann, Harris Andrews, Eric Hipwood, Daniel Merrett (Brisbane), White, Josh White (Collingwood), Michael, Courtenay Dempsey (Essendon), Lachie Weller, Lee Spurr (Fremantle), Zac Smith (Geelong), Jarrod Harbrow, Alex Sexton, Rory Thompson, Jesse Joyce (Gold Coast), Corey Wagner (North), Charlie Dixon (Port Adelaide), Hampson (Richmond), Nick Riewoldt, David Armitage, Tom Hickey, Sam Gilbert (St.Kilda), and Aliir (Sydney)..
Also, Spencer (Melbourne), Clay Cameron (Gold Coast) and Brendan Whitecross (Hawthorn) were named as emergencies.
The Sam Michael story is a beauty. Among what will be 164 Queenslanders to play at AFL level after William’s debut, Michael will be the 44th to have played at two or more clubs. And only one player has earned a second chance after fewer games at his first club.
Joel Tippett is the Queensland AFL family’s prime case study for perseverance. He was three years at the Brisbane Lions (2007-08-09) without playing a senior game and two years at Gold Coast (2012-13) for two games for getting a third opportunity at North Melbourne (2-14-15-16), where he is has added a further six games and is still pressing for a chance this year.
Coincidentally, like Michael, three other Queenslanders played three games at their first club before getting a further chance elsewhere.
Michael Gibson played three games at Fitzroy in 1985 before returning home to play 55 games with the Brisbane Bears from 1987-91. Daniel Pratt played three games with the Brisbane Lions in 2004 before adding a further116 games at North Melbourne from 2005-11. And Broc McCauley played three games with the Brisbane Lions in 2011 before three games with Hawthorn in 2012.
The Michael story has a different twist. A product of the Cairns Hawks, he was a potential zone selection to the Gold Coast Suns, and only when he was passed over by the expansion club did he get his chance at the Lions.
Taken in the 2013 rookie draft by the Lions, he played three AFL games in Rounds 9-10-23 of 2013. He also spent 2014 at the Gabba but was delisted at the end of that season.
Still, he refused to give up on his AFL dream.
In 2015 he picked up a short-term contract at Essendon to play as a top-up player in the NAB Challenge after 26 listed Bombers withdrew because of the supplements scandal that has engulfed the club for three years.
Released prior to the start of the premiership he returned to play in 2015 with Redland in the NEAFL but had made such a lasting impression at the besieged club with his work ethic and professionalism that in February he won the 10th top-up contract to replace suspended Essendon players this year.
Said list and recruiting manager Adrian Dodoro at the time: “Sam’s attitude throughout this process has been excellent and we’re excited by what he can bring to the club this season. He is a strong-bodied ruckman who complements the big men already on our list. Sam is well known to us now through his participation in training in recent weeks and also last year’s pre-season. He gets another opportunity at AFL level now and we’re confident he is a good fit to round out our playing list.”
Michael, a powerhouse198cm, has been a consistent performer at VFL level this season, splitting his time between key defensive roles at either end of the ground and in the ruck, and finally got his chance this week when first-choice ruckman Matthew Leuenberger was injured and second-stringer Mark Jamar was injured and suspended.
Named at centre half back after coach John Worsfold chose Shaun McKernan in the ruck, Michael is expected to again split his game time against St.Kilda between a variety of roles.
Said Worsfold on Thursday: “He (Michael) has obviously been close, he’s been an emergency a number of times. He’s been developing his game in the VFL. He’s played back, forward and in the ruck so he’s really developed an all-round game that can give us a lot of flexibility.”
Michael’s selection Thursday night was the culmination of a 12-month plan that he set in place after his appetite-whetting first stint at Essendon.
Ironically, over the 2015-16 off-season it included a stint training at the Gold Coast under local fitness guru Joey Hayes alongside Joel Tippett and brother Kurt.
And, having taken a short leave of absence from his employer in the 2015 pre-season to join Essendon, he did so again for an extended period in 2016.
As Michael told the Herald Sun in April: “When it came out in the media that they’d be looking for 10 top-ups, I straight away said to myself, ‘That’s got to be me, that’s my opportunity.
“I was really strong about it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I rang up a few of the connections at the footy club who I knew and I just said how’s it going to work, what’s the lay of the land.
“At the end of January, I got the call from (list manager) Adrian Dodoro and he said, ‘We’ll get you in for a training run’.
“It was something quite casual. I jumped. I told work, ‘I’m going away for two weeks, I don’t know any more than that’.
“I lived out of a suitcase, just rocking up to training and just giving it my best shot.”
He saw the Bombers sign Ryan Crowley, James Kelly, Mathew Stokes, Jonathan Simpkin, Sam Grimley, Matt Dea, Jamar, James Polkinghorne and Nathan Grima.
There was one spot left, and still Michael refused to stop working feverishly. He was driven by the memory of his de-listing by Brisbane.
“When I got delisted, it was a bit of a wake-up call. When you identify with playing at the elite level for a period of your life and wanting it to be your dream, it kind of consumes you a little bit,” he said.
“Experiencing what I did last year, working but having to train like a professional athlete while having a fulltime job at the same time, (it) just taught me so much about myself.”
“I was the last person picked (by Essendon this year),” he remembered. ““Every training session I had to impress. It did weigh on my mind a little bit (when the spots were filling up). I knew my best was good enough, I just had to be confident and keep working hard.”
Having worn jumper #46 at the Lions, Michael will wear #56 for Essendon.