This article was published in April, 2016.
Tony Liberatore remembers well the week the Western Bulldogs picked up Caleb Daniel in the 2014 National Draft.
Bulldogs recruiting manager Simon Dalrymple was soon on the phone to Liberatore, the 163-centimetre rover whose 283-game career included winning the 1990 Brownlow Medal.
“Simon said to me ‘Look, we’ve picked this kid up and a few of the assistant coaches have some doubts because he’s only small (167cm), but we think he can play’. So he asked me to give Caleb a call, which I did,’’ Liberatore said.
“I rang him and I basically just said congratulations on being drafted and you’ll really enjoy coming down to the Bulldogs. It’s a really good club.
“I just trotted out the old saying ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog, and said to him, if you need any advice or any help along the way, don’t hesitate to ask.’’
Daniel, 19, has since played 14 games for the Dogs and was handed the Round 4 Rising Star nomination after his 23-disposal effort in the 35-point win over Carlton.
“When I spoke to Caleb he came across as someone who was really confident in his abilities without being boastful, and it struck me straight away that he was quite mature for his age and full of enthusiasm and that he was going to be all right,’’ said Liberatore (pictured right).
He said Daniel reminded him of the Bulldogs player who was a bit of a mentor to Liberatore early in his career: 167cm “Wee Georgie’’ Bisset.
“I went back and had a look at some of the footage of Caleb when he was playing Under 18s football in Adelaide and he really stood out with his speed and ball use. Then I saw some clips of him playing senior footy with South Adelaide in the SANFL and I thought to myself, ‘gee, this guy’s got some tricks’,’’ Liberatore said.
“A lot of guys our height never even get a look in on draft day simply because of their height, but at the end of the day height really doesn’t have much to do with it. If you can play you can play.
CLICK HERE to read our interview with Caleb Daniel soon after he was drafted
“And the way modern football is played, you’re probably seeing more and more smaller guys who fit into the style coaches are after.
“Possession and pressure acts are just so important, and they’re what Caleb is all about.
“He’s got a good footy brain, good endurance, he uses the ball well and he’s very courageous. He’s smart enough to know that his go is not going to be competing one-on-one in the air, it’s about keeping moving and knowing that when the ball gets on the ground you’ve probably actually got an advantage over your direct opponent.
“And bear in mind that he’s doing well at Etihad Stadium, but he might even come into his own more when they’re not playing under a roof in the middle of winter and the ball’s going to be on the deck even more often.’’
Liberatore heard the ‘too-short’ jibes often enough throughout his own 17-year AFL career, but believes those days may now have passed.
“If you’re playing good footy, regardless of whether you’re 6ft 7’’ or 5ft 2’’ then you deserve your spot in the team. But throughout all little guys’ careers, you’re always going to have people who are ready to say ‘he’s too small’ whenever they have a couple of average games, but that’s just a fallacy as far as I’m concerned.
“With someone like Caleb, you can’t help but fall in love with a kid like him and the way he plays.’’
“Libba’’ is proud to say that he was on board right from the outset.
“Not long after that first phone call to Caleb, I remember saying to (club president) Peter Gordon, ‘look I think this kid’s going to be a cult hero for our club’.’’
If Daniel maintains his current form, Liberatore’s prediction might not be short of the mark.