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Q&A — Michael Barlow

Welcome back, it was good to see you out there again on Saturday night!

Yeah, thank you. I think it was about 11 months since I had played at AFL level. I’ve had a couple of long stints on the sidelines with broken legs — the first one took 12 months — and I kind of never got that one right. Going through it again, I had a good case study to use, and I’d like to say the 11 months this time went quickly, but they probably didn’t. I was proud of the effort that it took to get back to the level — mum, dad and my auntie were there — so it was pretty special.

When you said you didn’t get the other one right, were there some noticeable things you did differently the second time round?

The injury probably wasn’t as severe this time around, but I listened to my body more and approached things in a more mature fashion. I was more patient with the recovery as well.

Going back to the game, it must have been nice to get a Joe the goose from Tom Lynch to get you going?

Well, if you go back about 30 seconds I did about a 150 metre run to get there! It was a pretty difficult night for the team, especially the first half, but I felt that I built into the game and I reflected the team in a way. The first half was dominated by Adelaide, but then I got a little bit more involved after that. It was nice to build a bit of confidence for myself that I can still contribute at the level.

Did it take you some time to pick up the pace of the game?

Yeah, I’d say it would have. It is an advancement from the NEAFL, and to be fair, it had been 11 months since I played against Carlton last year. I didn’t play any JLT games, so it was a steady build up. I played a couple of practice matches through the NEAFL against QAFL teams, so to work your way through there into the NEAFL, and then to the AFL meant that I went through three tiers to get a crack. I also view Adelaide as the benchmark in terms of transition and skill execution and toughness — they have all bases covered — so there’s no more significant test than that one.

Were you a little bit frustrated that your strong form in the NEAFL wasn’t rewarded in the first five weeks? That you had to wait till Round 6?

Yeah, I probably harboured some frustration, like a lot of players do. Probably 60-70 per cent of each list is made up of those players that are on the fringes and in the second tier, and with some significant injuries, I’ve never taken my AFL career for granted. But working through a process to get a game indicates that the Suns are in a good position, but in years gone by, a player with my experience might have been thrown back in sooner. To have to work through and find my form is good for the footy club, but at the same time, it’s no secret that players that are in those situations and on the periphery harbour frustrations and disappointments from week to week. You need to ensure that you handle that in a professional manner, and I felt that overwhelmingly I did, but as players we do have moments where we lapse and we don’t. However, it is about making sure those moments are brief and you move on quickly.


What did you think about Rhys Palmer and Nick Suban tweeting some positive thoughts in your favour?

It’s good to have their support, but it’s probably an example of when players are in the system, they don’t have the chance to really speak openly and understand what they can and can’t say, as opposed to American sport where it’s more open. But when they leave the game and the restrictions come off, they feel more comfortable. I’m really good mates with Nick and Rhys, and they were two guys that I touched on before that throughout the back-end of their careers, they found themselves in and out of the team, but their form at the lower levels was quite good. So that might have been a bit of frustration more so from their end due to some of the stuff they endured in their career, but were using me as an example.

It’s an interesting point you make, and not talking about you and being less specific, do you feel that players can sometimes be given up on too quickly? Your mate Matt de Boer is a good example of someone who was essentially moved on at Fremantle, but is now in GWS’ best 22…

Yeah, and the Matty de Boer one, which I’ve spoken to you before about his rise and the ability to commit himself and invest himself, which he has done for a long time. He’ll be the first to admit that he has limitations in his game, but you can see that he’s gone to a club where their aspirations are to win a flag each year. GWS are going to be in the discussions when the whips are cracking, and I was fortunate enough to be at Fremantle when we were playing consistent finals footy and when you’re in that situation, if your form is going well and your selection is validated, you get picked. From his point of view, he’s gone to the perfect club with the characteristics he has in terms of leadership and to play a role. Back to your initial question, the value of potentially having a mid-season draft and trading and all of that, a lot of players who would find themselves in that situation would be very appreciative of the opportunity to go to another club. You might look at a guy like Anthony Miles at Richmond, who is someone I have followed closely, is banging the door down but is going against Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin and Dion Prestia, and is probably looking for opportunity elsewhere. At the same time, he could still play good finals footy if the chance presented itself. He’s one of hundreds of players that might benefit, and it can be circumstantial at times. I’m sure it’ll play out in the years to come.

I wanted to go back to your recovery… I know you remained upbeat publicly, but behind closed doors were there any times where you thought it’d be easier to give this away? Did the negativity creep in?

Not really. I’m pretty driven, and I reckon that has come across in my nine years in the system and all of the setbacks with injuries or form that come along with it. To me, it was just another challenge or hurdle that needed to be overcome. When I got the initial prognosis, or diagnosis or whatever you want to call it, it wasn’t as severe as the first one. If it was identical to the first one, there would have been more soul-searching, but I was always confident. I’m so indebted to Lindsay Bull, who was pretty much a one-on-one physio for me, and Alex Rigby. When you get that investment from those guys and the treatment and care they provide, that adds a little bit of inspiration from your own end to validate their work. They’ll ride the emotional stuff as much as you will, because they have an understanding that the physical side will turn out alright. When you’re in the AFL system you’re pretty lucky to be surrounded by fantastic professionals in their field to get the result that you’re after.

Aside from the experts, who else did you lean on?

Mitch Wallis rang me pretty quickly after I did it, because funnily enough I had a fair bit to do with him the year before when he broke his leg. I helped with recovery and the emotional side with him coming through a season where he broke his leg, and his team went on to win a Grand Final. He was quick on the phone and checked in, which I was appreciative of. My family and friends were huge and have been there all the way with football and just life generally, and they’re the ones that see how raw it is at times and when you question why you do it. From there, a lot of my ex-teammates at Freo like Tommy Sheridan, Cam Sutcliffe, Lee Spurr and Garrick Ibbotson kind of bled for me a little bit.

I know you’ve got a bit going on outside of football with the podcast, but were there some other things that you discovered while you were injured that you’d like to pursue when you do give things away?

Yeah, I’ve been really proactive with the external stuff and with my personal and professional development during that stage. In the second half of last year I did some coaching and work with our development group and to be able to provide guidance to the younger players which was pretty special. Even this year and starting in the NEAFL, I got to build relationships with some of the younger players who had just walked through the door, the likes of Charlie Ballard and Wil Powell and I’ll be so excited when they get their opportunity to play in the senior side because I have built that rapport on and off the field with them. When they do get the chance, it’ll be a proud moment to see them achieve their dreams.

How is the podcast going?

We have a bit of a new venture. It was the ‘Out of Bounds Podcast,’ but in the next week or two there’ll be some new branding. It will be part of the Chat Media Group, and there’ll be some other things attached to it like keynote presentations so I’m trying to work through the finer details of that. It’s all keeping me pretty busy.

I’ve picked a good time to talk to you then, that sounds exciting…

Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of one of those ideas and concepts that you have a fantastic idea, but all of hoops to go through can be challenging. But I have some mentors who have allowed me to kind of muck it up first, but then iron it out as we go. It’s been fun.

Every player is different and different things make different players tick, but for you, how important is it to have that outlet away from football?

It’s so important! Especially when you get older, as opposed to when you’re younger and the world is at your feet a fair bit. For me, it was easy when the world was at my feet and the wind was behind my back, but the true measure of character of someone is reflected when you’re slogging away and trying to get a game in the ones when you’re 30 and you’ve got a few knocks when you come back from injury. So to have that balance straightened me up a fair bit, and I’m more motivated to get those things outside of footy to work, and I’m validated after going to an event and being the MC or doing a podcast than sometimes playing footy.


Moving back to footy, how has Stuart Dew settled in?

He’s been great for the club. He’s very personable. I’ve obviously had some challenging conversations with him over a period, but in a very respectful manner. The toughest role of a senior coach is giving the bad news to players who aren’t playing, but I’ve really respected the way he has gone about it. He has been up front and clear with the whole group about where we all sit, and everyone is buying into the greater good. He’s brought the whole club on the journey, whether it be the admin staff or the playing group, which I think is super important because it makes us a driven club and gives us a direction, whereas it might been a bit wishy-washy in the past. Now there’s a clear buy-in from receptionists in the team store, right through to the captains of the football club.

That stuff is all very important, but it takes time. How has he managed to deliver on that, or is he still working on unifying everyone?

Within the four walls, you see how apparent it is with the admin and coaches socialising on different levels outside of the 9-5 workflow. We’ve done a few activities that involved the whole club, like Amazing Race-type stuff, and while that is all very fun, the benefit of it is to make everyone comfortable within our environment, and to make everyone driven and motivated by it.

Just in general and back on field, do you feel the gap between your best and your worst has been bridged a tad?

Yeah, there’s still a couple of examples this year where there’s been some teething issues within games, like against Adelaide and West Coast. But I do think we’re starting to play our brand and we think it will stand up, but in saying that, it will all take time. In short, we’re going in the right direction.

In relation to your body, people jump to the negative too quickly by saying that your injury issues will shorten your career, but they’re perhaps glossing over the fact that some time off could be fruitful for your body… how much longer do you see yourself going on for?

Yeah, I suppose looking at NFL and the running back position where they have shorter career spans than wide receivers who play on the outside, so I can compare that to wingers in the AFL and guys who play on the inside and who bang and crash. I’ve played a lot of my football on the inside, so having two years or so off continual bashing and crashing could really help. I closely monitor how my legs feel, and I know they’ll never be perfect again, but as long as I can compete at the level, I’ll keep going.

Awesome mate, thanks for the chat.

No worries, Simon. Thanks mate.