Before being picked to play the Hawks on Sunday, playing AFL that weekend was not on my radar.
Bucks had spoken to me the week leading into the Queen’s Birthday game and said I was getting close, however, I ended up missing the match due to some foot soreness.
Then we had the bye and after that I thought my immediate chances would likely have diminished because I would need to string some form together in the VFL.
In the main session before each game, we have an informal meeting with the playing group and Bucks and the coaches use that as a chance to run through the changes to the team and how we’re likely to line up.
Going into that, I heard a couple of whispers that perhaps I was a chance to get selected, but there was nothing concrete.
Bucks was quite understated when he announced it, simply saying that ‘Josh Thomas will come in.’
The whole group gave me a round of applause and there was plenty of handshakes and congratulations, which was nice to receive after a long time out.
It was a pleasant surprise.
The last time I played the Hawks they went on to win the flag, and when we faced them on Sunday, they were sitting outside the top eight. Unsurprisingly, after more than two years, we have also had a lot of change.
I had many nerves going in after such a long absence, and I would describe it almost as a second debut. In fact, in the days leading up to the game, I think I would have received as many, if not more, messages of good luck than my actual debut.
It was strange being in the rooms pre-game and running out onto the ground because it had been so long between games, yet I could remember vividly doing it before. It was a weird feeling, to be perfectly honest.
As the game progressed, it all started to feel more familiar and I began to relax as thoughts of expectation and nerves made way for the feeling of constant exhaustion.
When I lined up for goal in the first quarter, I thought ‘this would be a nice start if I can kick this.’
It was right on my distance range and fortunately, I managed to kick it straight. All the boys got around me and it was a special moment.
Coming in to the game, I was a little worried about the rotations. Prior to my break, I was able to come off whenever due to the fact there wasn’t a cap. This was my first game with the 90 rotations, and as it turned out, we lost two players which forced me to to stay out on the ground even longer!
It’s fair to say I ran out of legs late in the game.
It was a really big match for us, especially with Pendles playing his 250th. However, the Hawks were a bit better than us on the day and, unfortunately, we couldn’t get the four points.
While I’m writing this piece as a means to move forward, it is important to look back at where I was before returning to football.
In some ways, I have more perspective on footy and have more interests outside of the game than the first time round.
I now put less pressure on myself and on my footy, yet at the same time, I’ve never been more driven to establish myself as an AFL footballer.
Perhaps I took things for granted prior to being banned. Now I think I have developed a good balance on and off the field.
My university is extremely important to me and it takes a lot of my focus off field. However, when it’s time to be at the club and train, I put 100% of myself into it. I don’t want to waste any time because I realise now how quickly it can be taken away.
I did university full-time when I went back to Brisbane, and I did some part-time work at a gym and also as an Uber driver which has been well-documented.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any funny stories to share from my Uber experience, but I would have done over a thousand trips during the course of 12 months, yet thankfully not a single person had any idea I had played for Collingwood!
If I got chatting to a passenger, I would not want to continuously explain my story of what had happened. This means that I was often forced to come up with some pretty strange answers on the spot to explain what I had been up to for the past five years.
During my time back home, I was just a normal 23 or 24-year-old who went to work, who studied, and who hung out with mates on the weekend — add to that some grueling weekly running sessions with Keeffey to try and stay on top of our fitness — but really, I had no involvement in footy for the first time in my adult life.
In fact, it wasn’t really until the back half of 2016 that I started to watch football more closely, because our return was beginning to creep up and I felt the need to watch more before re-joining the group.
Outside of the obvious support networks like my parents and close friends, I received tremendous support from Tim Hazell who is mine and Keeffey’s manager.
He was with us through everything from the first day and saw it out right to the end. His help was invaluable and he was amazing from a support point of view, and so diligent in trying to get every outcome for us.
In fact, our whole management team at Vivid really went over and above for us, and we’re both extremely grateful.
It’s been doubly challenging for Lachie this year, because not only did he return from a long absence, but he has had to pick up a new role playing forward.
At least my role has been largely similar to when I was playing two years ago. Having said that, he has taken the move in his stride and is starting to play some good football.
I’m sure he isn’t far away and it would be unbelievable to play alongside him in the seniors again.
Ultimately, I want to stay in the team however, AFL is most definitely a week-to-week proposition, that’s just the nature of the caper. You can’t be complacent and you can’t look too far forward.
While it’s been nice to, in some ways, close the door on that chapter, I hope this is the start of a new one.
I am forever thankful to the entire club for the second chance and would love to repay the faith they have shown in me.
For the moment, all I can do is try to improve week by week, and see where that takes me.