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Anatomy of a debut — Ben McNiece

After years of toiling away in the VFL and at the local level, Essendon’s Ben McNiece made his debut against Collingwood on the biggest stage — ANZAC Day. He shared his thoughts, exclusively to

The last nine days have been a whirlwind.

I got a phone call from Woosha last Wednesday night on my way home from a day of training. He gave me the great news that I was coming into the club the next day to be elevated off the rookie list so that I could be selected for ANZAC Day. It was some of the best news I’ve received in my life.

It’s hard to put the feeling into words because you’re so happy about the opportunity, but in the back of your mind you’re second-guessing yourself and wondering if you’re good enough.

I’ve been doing a bit of work with Jonah Oliver who is our sports psychologist to get me in the right frame of mind to accept what was going to come in the next five to six days and embracing that experience in the lead-up. It was going to be important to use the nerves to spur on my performance.

Dad was the first phone call I made — my parents were away in Echuca so I made the call there. Because team selection wasn’t made public until either Friday night or Saturday I only called the parents and immediate family.

Dad was trying to hug me through the phone at this point, and my mum and sister were stoked to hear the news. They’ve been around for the whole journey and know how long I’ve worked for this. Dad has coached a number of teams that I’ve played in, mum has worked the canteen and has been on the committee. It was a special moment for all of us.

It’s hard to contain your excitement when you receive news like that. I walked around the club with a smile from ear to ear for five days.

People were telling me that there was still a while to go before the game so I should calm down. I’m normally an upbeat person who tries to get the boys going at training, but I was even more upbeat last week.

Fast forward to Monday, and believe it or not, I actually slept quite well the night before the game despite the nerves I was feeling.

The sports science crew at Essendon have it all mapped out so the day itself was planned out to the minute. I knew exactly how my routine would sit around the team’s, so I just needed to keep things as normal as possible. I’m not one for rituals or superstitions anyway.

Having my family around in the morning probably increased my nerves to a degree but once I got to the ground and spoke to the players I began to relax. Walking out onto the ground for the first warm up was an experience I’ll never forget.

It’s funny, you go to ANZAC Day matches growing up, and the intense atmosphere and feeling you get during the Last Post is truly special. As a young kid you look forward and wish that you might get the chance to get out there one day and be a part of it all.

For my dream to come true was really special. Essendon and Collingwood play a small part in commemorating the ANZAC spirit, but it was just great to be involved in some way.

I started on the half-back flank and I had James Kelly in one ear and Mark Baguley in the other re-assuring me that all I had to do was play my role and everything else will fall into place.

The plan was to go hard for five minutes and then come off the ground and I can tell you that I needed that breather! The weather was wet and the bodies were flying around so the speed was demanding which made things hard to settle.

Honestly, it was just nice to get a few kicks.

I can vividly remember the last 20 seconds of the match when the Essendon fans began to applaud the win. The noise was just unbelievable and that feeling is something that you want again and that’s why blokes like James Kelly play 300 games because the feeling is addictive.

I chatted to him about that exact thing after the game.

After the siren, you’re relieved to get the four points and to get through unscathed, and then turning to my teammates who had put in so much hard work after the Adelaide loss turned my emotions into excitement. I was exhausted mentally and just thrilled to head to bed that night.

It’s hard not to reflect back at all the hard work that had previously been put in to get me to my AFL debut.

The first year Essendon had a standalone VFL side, I was cut but continued to train there because I knew there was an opportunity for AFL progression if I worked hard.

Hayden Skipworth and Matthew Little identified some weaknesses and things I needed to work on. I always knew my football ability was there but there were other things to work on which is why I decided to train on for the rest of the season, despite not playing.

Funnily enough, I had one of my best seasons at local footy at Northcote Park as a result of doing the extra training and learning from the teachings they provided. I owe a lot to those guys and the other Essendon VFL players for helping me.

It was a great group that year, and even though I didn’t play, I felt like we were all really tight. Patty Ambrose was involved then and he is now playing regularly in the senior side, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti was also involved so it’s great to be playing with them on the senior list now because we went through all of that together.

In the back of your mind, you always want to play AFL but because it’s such a limited opportunity at the top level you basically don’t believe it’s possible. The dream is there, but it’s a matter of toiling away in the meantime at the highest level possible and hoping that you’ll be lucky enough for someone to throw you an opportunity.

Personally, I met a great group of people while being involved in the Essendon VFL program. I still speak regularly to the guys from there and having that relationship helps you to get through the long nights and the wet winter training sessions. Even the guys at Northcote Park who I was playing with on weekends but not training with, they spurred me on and motivated me and never had an issue with me not training. I owe them a lot.

I had the opportunity of studying in America the year after which was too good to pass up at the time, and I was at an age where I may as well throw caution to the wind. I was lucky enough that when I came back from that Matthew Little was still at the VFL and asked me to come back and train and make it back to the list for the next season.

I was lucky to be given another crack.

I spent two seasons in the VFL, and the next year I was playing AFL. It’s not a common pathway, and opportunity is nothing if you don’t take it and make the most of it.

I’m definitely not the most gifted player — I’m not overly big — but I can put in the hard work.

You have to take the chance when it’s there.