Melbourne teammates joke that a hanger on Colin Garland’s head got Mitch Hannan drafted but it’s his sheer determination that’s earned him 10 AFL games in his first season.
Hannan will be greeted by a few familiar faces when the Demons face the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, the same venue where the 23-year-old led the Dogs to a VFL premiership over Melbourne’s affiliate Casey, and Garland, only nine months ago.
This moment of synergy caps a remarkable rise for Hannan, who less than two years before his shock AFL debut in Round 1 was running around for VAFA club St Bernard’s and looked at long odds to win a spot in Melbourne’s forward line so early in 2017.
A shoulder injury, legacy from his standout VFL campaign for the Dogs last year, meant the Gisborne product didn’t feature in any of Melbourne’s pre-season fixtures.
“I wouldn’t have thought he would contribute so soon into his career,” Melbourne defender Tom McDonald told Aflplayers.com.au.
“I went and watched a VFL practice match at the start of the year where he was a standout and I remember Simon Goodwin saying something like ‘Hannan’s what we need in the forward line at the moment’ because his ability to go at the ball and also his tackling and pressure is at a really high level.
“He did everything flat out, he never jogged or walked — he had a real presence about him for a guy who isn’t overly big and doesn’t say much. He performed so strongly in the VFL that it became impossible not to pick him.
“He would’ve got a shot eventually this season, but I didn’t expect him to be contributing so soon.”
2017 is the beginning of Hannan’s career at the top level and it’s a journey that’s progressed significantly in the last few years.
Two years ago, the half-forward was helping St Bernard’s to a VAFA premiership, while showing the capabilities to take his football further.
He could play anywhere on the ground, and despite his slender frame, he showed great pace and hardness in the air and ground level.
“You could tell that he had all the attributes to play at the highest level and that his ability could translate into AFL if the right opportunity presented itself,” Anthony Rock, Hannan’s former coach at St Bernard’s, told Aflplayers.com.au.
“He has really good football awareness. He’s competitive, is good overhead and has a good leap so he can really impact games.
“He’s explosive and he’ll only get better once he builds up his body and gets more power. That’ll come with further exposure to the training and the resources available at AFL level.”
To understand Hannan’s feats, one must trace his path to the AFL.
A raw teenager, he was rejected at TAC Cup level and by one VFL club, so he joined St Bernard’s at amateur level.
Rock, the North Melbourne premiership player and current Fremantle assistant coach, arrived and saw Nathan Fyfe qualities in the youngster due to his ability to leap and do the spectacular.
Injuries impacted his abilities at times but he was a determined, hardworking and humble young man.
He would eventually dominate the VAFA’s premier division, so much so that St Bernard’s teammate and Footscray assistant coach Chad Jones wanted to give Hannan a chance at the next level.
Four games for the Bulldogs in 2015 ensued before he won best on ground honours in a St Bernard’s premiership later in the year.
A larger stint in the Footscray seniors was destined for Hannan and Footscray captain Jordan Russell saw enough glimpses in the humble goal-kicker to suggest he had a big future ahead.
“You only had to look at the speed he had and the way he could get through smaller scaled games at training, no one could touch him,” Russell told Aflplayers.com.au.
“He was definitely raw and was quite wiry but he was able to bring his strengths to the table quite early and got everyone excited about what he could potentially do.
“He had pretty good dedication and he was mature. Obviously being a little bit older meant he had a good head on his shoulders which is always helpful when you’re going into a good program.”
As the 2016 VFL season rolled along, Hannan was attracting interest from AFL recruiters and players alike, with some Western Bulldogs players saying they watched Footscray matches specifically to see the blond-headed high-flyer.
While he was doing the spectacular from the get-go, Hannan was bridging the gap between his best and worst performances as the season progressed.
A three-goal last-quarter effort against the Bombers in the semi-final was a key to turning an 18-point deficit into a 19-point win, which propelled the ‘Scray to an eventual premiership — his second in as many years.
“It all clicked and he was able to get the rewards in that last quarter, which got us over the line,” Russell added.
The rewards were still to come for a young man described by those who know him as an A-grade person.
“He’s a level-headed kid,” Russell said.
“He took the whispers of a potential AFL career in his stride. What he had to do was play well and play his part in the team and he knew that if he continued to do that then the result would take care of itself.
“He’s a bit more reserved than others but he’s as respectful and as genuine as they come — that’s just his nature. Throughout the year, he showed us his personality a bit more. He enjoyed having a good time with us and when he started to play his heavy dance tracks in the gym that was a side of him that we never knew existed.”
Melbourne came knocking but he spent a large chunk of his pre-season alongside McDonald in rehab, where, despite spending a bit of time with his new Demon teammate, McDonald noticed his introverted personality.
“He’s a quiet kid, he wouldn’t say boo to anyone and never pump himself up or put anyone down,” McDonald said.
“He’s so humble, even his celebrations after a goal are always about others. Everyone at the club loves him but he can speak a bit more if he wants to.”
An extended stint on the sidelines with such an injury meant limited access to the gym, and, as a consequence, Hannan’s strength and size decreased somewhat.
But despite his light frame and limited preparation, he wasn’t one to take a backwards step on the field, which was exemplified in the Queen’s Birthday clash.
“I didn’t expect his physicality,” McDonald added.
“Having also had shoulder surgery in the off-season, the worry early on is putting your arm in the air and taking hits but he didn’t seem to be too concerned about it.
“He drives his body at the ball and that was evident on Monday when he cleaned Lynden Dunn up who’s 100kg while Mitch is around the 80kg mark and he followed up with a bruising tackle.
“I knew he could jump and fly for marks because that’s what we heard from recruiters but that physical side of him was unexpected.”
Since slotting into the Demons’ line-up seamlessly in Round 1, Hannan has kicked 14 goals in 2017 – only five less than his entire 2016 campaign with Footscray.
Despite his meteoric rise from VAFA star to Melbourne half-forward, the Melbourne No.19 isn’t getting carried away just yet, with a game against some premiership teammates the ultimate test.
But, as his former skipper, Russell will sleep easier knowing Hannan is coming along leaps and bounds in the senior side.
“Being a defender, he’d probably make a fool out of me and launch onto my head — I’m keen for him to stay in the ones.”