Nat Fyfe had already established himself in Fremantle’s midfield group before Lachie Neale arrived at the club with pick No. 58 in the 2011 Draft. The Fremantle captain shares his account of this year’s Leigh Matthews Trophy winner’s development and how they forged a strong friendship during their six seasons together, in an exclusive aflplayers.com.au column.
It was a while ago now, but I can remember Lachie arriving to Fremantle from the 2011 Draft as part of a bigger crop of young guys that we brought in.
There was Tom Sheridan, Hayden Crozier, Alex Forster, Cam Sutcliffe and Lachie.
He was the fourth guy picked out of that group and being selection No. 58 he wasn’t getting pushed to the front of the media calls.
You could probably say, because of this, that Lachie didn’t make much of an impression until we actually saw him out on the training track.
That was when we started to gauge the sort of player he was and possibly could become.
He was short and stocky back then, as he is now, but was carrying a little bit of extra baby ‘chubb’.
Despite physical appearances, he was always clean with his disposal and ball handling.
With limited opportunity in our group at the time, Lachie didn’t waste his chances, debuting in Round 4, 2012 as the substitute.
Lachie’s development was rapid.
We were a good team at the time, and one that was hard to break in to, but Lachie worked at it and was able to impact in that time.
He showed that he could hold his own as a player and as we pushed through from 2014 onwards, Lachie really began to make his mark on our midfield, becoming a vital part of what we were doing as a group.
It took Lachie a couple of years for him to really work out how the AFL system worked.
Lachie’s trajectory wasn’t without its speed humps – he battled at the selection table throughout his first couple of years and was even dragged in front of then coach Ross Lyon for his off-field decision making once or twice.
Lachie knew what was required of him to become not only one of the best players in the team, but also the League.
That really came to fruition in 2016 when he won his first Doig Medal (Fremantle’s best and fairest).
The 2016 season saw a changing of the guard for Fremantle.
I was out injured the whole year with my broken leg and we had a few departures in the off-season and other injuries to our core group.
Lachie became Fremantle’s main midfielder that year and he really displayed his talent week after week even when we weren’t winning.
That season Lachie went from perhaps being considered just another man in our midfield to one of the most important.
He’s been incredibly consistent throughout his career and that starts with the way he applies himself with his preparation.
Lachie goes about his business quietly behind closed doors and is always looking for avenues to improve – whether that’s seeking out past players, coaching staff or anyone who might help him gain a competitive edge.
He’s always working to get his body and mind in a position to be able to execute what is required of him to the highest standard.
As a result, Lachie’s been able to not only impact most games but most quarters, too.
It’s very rare that you’d see him put together two quarters where he isn’t at his best.
As Lachie matured and the years ticked by where members of his draft class began to move away from the club, we became closer.
We started to rely on each other and then when we went out there in the heat of the battle on game day, that forges quite a strong friendship.
There were some pretty tough times for us during 2016 and 2017 when we weren’t winning many games as a club and so our friendship on-field translated to off-field as well.
There are many memories that we’ve shared but one in particular stands out.
It was after I won the Brownlow Medal in 2015.
Lachie was sitting on the table with me that night and once all the celebrations and media had finished for the evening, we went back to my room at Crown with our manager, Jason Dover, and were ordering milkshakes and dumplings off the room service menu until about 4.30am in the morning.
He stayed with me all night until I had to get up around 7am for media in the morning.
It was quite a special moment for me to be able to share that with him.
If this year was a normal year, and Lachie did win the Brownlow Medal, it would have been special to be able to put it on his neck, feeling like we had really come full circle since that night in 2015.
Being voted by your peers as the Most Valuable Player is a big honour and I hope for Lachie that it means validation, too.
A lot of people are quick to pull apart his game for some reason or another, but he accumulates a lot of the ball and he works incredibly hard.
Unfortunately, sometimes that is still not enough for people.
This year, with the Leigh Matthews Trophy to his name he should feel absolute validation because in the players’ eyes he is the most valuable player in the competition.