For the first time in his short career, second-year Lion, Alex Witherden has been selected in the 40-man 22Under22 squad. He caught up with AFLPlayers.com.au to discuss the achievement, his year to date, Luke Hodge’s influence, and what he gets up to away from the spotlight.
Firstly, congratulations on being selected in the 40-man, 22Under22 squad. Is it a concept you’ve followed before?
Thanks Simon. Yeah, every year you have a look and see the emerging players who are picked in the squad, and it is definitely something that you’d like to be a part of. I know a few of the boys up in Brisbane were part of it last year, and I know the players that do get picked often go on to have successful careers.
How would you assess your 2018 season?
I think I started slowly just coming to terms with the different game style we have been playing compared to last year, in the manner that we’re a real team-based defence compared to one-on-one. I have been getting used to the zoning, and took the first month of the season to get accustomed. Post that, I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent most weeks.
So this would be the first time you’ve learnt to defend in a zone?
Yeah, it is the first time I’ve done it. In the under-age competitions, you’re usually just one-on-one with your opponent, which is what they want to see players play on each other and get the best players to stand out. But now, you work within a system and a team structure which was a bit different. Getting your head around that and not just worrying about your own backyard, you’re thinking about helping others and communicating and being in the right spot, because all it takes is one player to be out of position and the whole system can fall down.
Having Luke Hodge back there with you would have accelerated your learning?
He’s been massive, both on and off the field with the standards he sets. Whether it be training, the way you conduct yourself throughout the week, the amount of time you put in to watching vision or doing extra touch. Even how you speak in meetings and during a game and how you challenge teammates, he has really helped me grow and develop in those areas. On the field, he sets high standards for everything, in the past we would have let little things slip through the cracks, but not anymore, and that’s where our development and continual growth is going to come from.
Did you have an impression as to what Hodge would be like? And has he lived up to that, or been slightly different to what you expected?
He’s pretty similar to what I thought he would have been like. What you see in the media from Hodgey is what you get. He’s one of the boys outside of the club, which has probably happened more than I thought it would. I thought he would have spent more time with the coach and the senior boys, but he has been really good with spending time with the younger guys. He is like any normal footballer, he likes the banter around the change rooms and when appropriate, having a beer with the boys.
Surely, you have some funny stories from his time up there…
There’s a few! When he first got up here, we went to this Mexican place that we go to dinner pretty often, and it wasn’t his birthday, but we told the restaurant it was, and they brought out a tequila shot and a big hat, and they started playing music as well. I’ve never seen a man be as embarrassed as he was when that happened. That was a nice ice-breaker early days.
Whose idea was that?
It was mine actually! In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just thought it would be a bit of fun for the younger boys. He did appreciate it because he loves banter and stitching blokes up. It was pretty funny at the time.
Has he tried to get you back?
He got me back not too long ago. We had a team meeting, and I went to sit down somewhere else and he told me to come sit next to him, which I thought was a bit strange. He acted as if he wanted to talk about football, and then Fages told the group to look under our chairs and whoever has a little piece of paper under your chair, come up to the front because you have to dance. I looked under my chair, and obviously there it was! I had to get up the front and dance in front of the whole group, so he stitched me up there.
What were you dancing to?
I was dancing to Barbara Streisand. That is what he had on at the time, so that’s the hand I was dealt. Fages likes playing music before our meetings so it was just going to be luck of the draw.
You have only been there while Fagan has, so you can’t discuss what happened prior to his arrival, but how has the environment grown in his time at the club?
He’s been exceptional with what he has brought to the club. The care that he possesses for each player and his ability to build relationships has rubbed off on all of us, and I think we’re a tighter group because of it. Him and David Noble have set a strong foundation for the next 4-6 years with what we’ve got here with the younger players.
Being a Victorian and moving interstate, I imagine he has played somewhat of a father-figure role for you and the other younger players?
He absolutely has, because he moved from Tassie to Melbourne at a young age to pursue what he wanted to do. He has been through the same experiences himself, and even with his move up north to coach us, I’m sure he was a little bit homesick, so we were able to have a lot of honest conversations and he was able to guide us through the process a lot better. He took us out for countless breakfasts and continued to call us and provide any support we needed, which made the transition from Victoria to Brisbane a lot easier. To have an understanding coach and a figure to go to has been great.
How have you adjusted to life in Brisbane?
At first, it was a lot different to what I thought it would be. I thought Brisbane would be right on the beach like the Gold Coast, but it turns out the closest beach is about 50 minutes away. The city is nice here, it is a lot smaller than Melbourne, less busy and the weather is really nice up here all the time. You can get outside all year round.
You spoke about your defending before, but you’re quite an attacking half-back who goes for his kicks… does Chris Fagan feel the need to reel you in at times, or is he happy to back you in to really go for it?
Fages is really encouraging for me to back myself and continue to take the game on, but we’ve had conversations at times where it’s about finding that balance between being aggressive and being a bit kamikaze with the ball use. Now, I think I have found better balance where if I am going for a more challenging kick, I’ll make sure that we’re able to defend it, whereas in the past I would have tried to ping one through the corridor which would have left us really vulnerable to the counter-attack. I have become better at understanding the game and what one kick can lead to. Although I have played all games this year and a handful last year, he still understands that I’m still young and trying to improve each week.
How have you adjusted to playing all games this year?
There was a point mid-way through the season where I started to struggle because I don’t have the pre-seasons in my legs. But I felt the continuity of playing each week helped me to continue to develop and work on something different each week and add that to my game. Fages is always big on talking about what you’ve got in your kit bag and what you bring to the team, so I feel that when you have a weakness, if you’re continually playing you can work on it and iron it out and make it less of a weakness.
What are some of the weaknesses you have worked on so far?
Like many young kids, I have worked on my defensive running and aspects of the game. We all love getting the ball, so it is just about making sure you have the balance in your game both offensively and defensively. Not being as big as the other bodies, I have worked on being strong in the contest as well.
What are you working on this week?
I had a few clangers against Collingwood, so for me this weekend it is just about getting back to hitting the easy option and taking what is there in front of me. Also working on that help-side support because a couple of times I was caught out the fat side and might have been a bit too slow to react. As a team, we’re working on getting our ball movement going again — Collingwood did a good job at restricting us.
Are you understanding the errors you’re making on game day in real time, and can you rectify those quickly? Or are you still needing time post-game to look back?
I feel like I’m pretty good at assessing my own game and understanding when I have made a mistake. When you come in on Monday and do your review, you’re comfortable and you know what is going to be on there. That is a huge thing that I have worked out in the last 18 months, whereas you didn’t know what you were doing wrong initially. We have been educated so well, we know when we’re making mistakes.
I saw some footage the other week where Luke Hodge was off the ground reviewing footage, and then running back on and explaining to the player what the issue was. It must be like having another coach out there on the field…
Absolutely! The coaches have been great all year at getting vision down to the bench, but I think he is good at being proactive, rather than reactive to situations. If he sees something, he will get on the phone and talk to the box and will look at the vision straight away. He is an on-field coach in that regard.
What are you like away from footy? What do you like to do?
Away from football, I just like being active and having a hit of cricket or going to shoot some hoops. We will get a crew down to the park and will play a bit of soccer or something like that. It is good to stay moving on the day off and stay active. Otherwise, we have a movie crew, and down in Belinda, it’s $5 to go to the movies, so we nearly see every movie that comes out down there. I like spending time with the boys and getting up to a few shenanigans here and there. I don’t know if you saw, but last week, we sticky-noted Ryan Lester’s place!
Yeah, we got 1,500 sticky-note pads and went around there and put it all over the front of his house. Just little things like that are always good fun. I’m also doing a business management course at the club, so I’m keeping my options open for the future because you never know what this industry holds.
Why was Ryan targeted in this attack?
Because it’s his wedding coming up, so we thought it would be pretty funny to stitch him up and say congratulations in a different sort of way.
Yourself, Hugh McCluggage, Eric Hipwood and Harris Andrews have been included in the 22Under22 40-man squad, are you going to not vote for them and keep them out of the final side so you can have bragging rights?
[Laughs] No, they are very deserving of being in the team, so I won’t do that. Eric has nearly kicked 40 goals in his third year in a team that has won four games, Hugh has played some outstanding games for us and is showing why he was a No. 3 draft pick, and Harris holds things together down back.
Very diplomatic. Thanks for your time, Alex!