Three years is a long time in football.
In 2014, Dan Butler was just another kid dreaming of an AFL career.
Now, the kid described as “quiet” by his former North Ballarat Rebels coach David Loader is making waves in the AFL on a journey not too dissimilar to his time in the TAC Cup.
“He started where he is right now at Richmond, as a small opportunistic forward and, as he grew and filled out his body size, he became more of a midfield-type player for us,” he told aflplayers.com.au.
“He’s always possessed terrific athletic ability. His first five metres are exceptionally quick so he’s always been able to create separation from his direct opponent.
“Once he builds on his ability to do that over long periods of time, he’ll become a really damaging player.”
Long before Butler was selected by the Tigers with pick 67 in the 2014 national draft, the small forward developed his athletic capabilities through a different code.
While it didn’t take long for Butler to transfer his skills to the Aussie Rules field, Loader said Butler’s background in another sport has helped him become the player he is today.
“When he was younger, he had a strong soccer background which has helped him to become clever with his feet,” Loaded added.
“He is one of those players that can create something out of very little, and we’ve seen that at AFL level where he’s tapped the ball along with his feet to create an opportunity for himself or to bring someone else into the game.”
Although Loader and his coaching staff were always confident Butler would get an opportunity, there is one game which stands out as the moment he knew Butler could make it at the top level.
“We played the Queensland state side in Brisbane during Dan’s top-age year and he was having one of those quiet days so we put him in the middle after half-time,” Loader explained.
“He kicked the first two goals of the second half and set up the third just with his cleanness and pace out of the middle of the ground.
“That’s when I thought this kid has got AFL tendencies written all over him and we were all relatively confident he would get an opportunity.”
Despite making his debut in his third season at Tigerland, things weren’t all smooth sailing for Butler after battling knee issues in his first year at the club, which forced him to miss the majority of the season.
With those now behind him, Butler hasn’t looked back, playing nine games since debuting in the round one victory against Carlton.
“Every player in their first couple of years is desperate to make a statement, play some games and then work into making a career at the top level,” Loader said.
“Anything that steps in the road of that becomes quite a hurdle for a young player to get over. Dan would have had some times where he probably thought to himself ‘I need to get myself back up and running and show people I can do it at the top level’.”
“Dimma and the Richmond Football Club have shown the faith in him to give him another year and right now he’s paying them back in spades. This is just another one of those good stories in footy.”
Loader is full of praise for Butler. From his quick feet to typical small forward goal sense, the 21-year-old has been a revelation for Richmond in 2017 and received the Round 11 Rising Star nomination for his 13 disposals and two goals against North Melbourne – the side Loader now coaches at in a development role.
After seeing Butler up close and now as an opponent, Loader suggests his former pupil has similar traits to some of the game’s best small forwards past and present.
“A lot of the time I steer away from trying to compare kids to other players.
“But he’s got little touches of a lot of players. He does some freaky things like Eddie Betts and his forward pressure is just like what Stephen Milne’s was.
“There’s all these types of players you can compare them to but, at the end of the day, they’re their own player and they’ll create their own path.”
While Butler may only be still in the early stages of his career, Loader said he has high hopes for the Tigers’ number 40.
“He’s now playing games like he was in TAC Cup three years ago where he is having a big influence, hitting the scoreboard and becoming difficult to play on.
“The opportunities are now endless for him. He’s gone from being a guy that hadn’t played a game in his first two years to a Rising Star nominee in 11 weeks.
“The sky is the limit provided he continues to get opportunities and continues to work hard, so there is no reason he can’t go on and have an outstanding future at Richmond.
“I wish him the best and hope he continues to show people how good of a player he can be.”