Not long after being delisted by the Swans, Michael Talia sat down with AFLPlayers.com.au to discuss his time with the Western Bulldogs and Sydney, his personal battles, and hopes for the future.
What have you been up to since things came to an end with Sydney?
I’m in the process of moving out of my house in Sydney with my girlfriend. We have to be out of here by the 6th of November so we’re quite busy organising things like removalists. It’s been a busy time.
And you’ve had some weddings to attend?
My brother’s wedding was over the weekend in Adelaide and that was a really good weekend. The week before that we had Sam Reid’s wedding and the week before that it was Daniel’s bucks party in Sydney. I’ve been also catching up with family and friends over the off-season and trying to work out what my next step is in terms of my footy and off field if football doesn’t work out.
What was your involvement in Daniel’s wedding?
I was one of his groomsman. His best man was one of his oldest friends from school. Because he has two brothers, he didn’t want to choose one to be the best man!
Going back a little bit, and just after things ended with the Swans, how have you been? Are you feeling some stress considering it’s an uncertain period for you?
Yeah, it’s definitely been a whirlwind. Not having played a senior game during the year I certainly wasn’t delusional — I always thought it was possible that my time was going to end. But I was receiving consistently good feedback on my form in the NEAFL from the coaches. Henry Playfair was letting me know that I was playing well, but they just couldn’t fit me into the side. I don’t think anything can prepare you for when you’re told that they’re not going to go with you. They were Horse’s words. As much as you’re not delusional about it, you still can’t prepare for it because everything since I was 13 or 14 was about focusing on football because it’s all I’m good at. Then you couple that with the fact that I’m playing interstate and my family is at home, and I’m organising removalists and disconnecting my power bills. There’s a lot of stuff that goes through your head. Dennis Carroll was really good to those who were delisted, though. He pulled every bloke that got told into a room and went through a runsheet, asked us how we were feeling and told us to come into the club the next day once the dust had settled to discuss what life looks like after football.
When that happens and you hear terms like, ‘life after football,’ I imagine you wouldn’t even be considering life after football?
No, I’m hoping desperately for another chance. I did speak to St Kilda not too long ago because they were after key defenders. They did just pick up Logan Austin from Port Adelaide which probably doesn’t help my chances. The next step for me is talking to my manager and going through both the delisted free agency period and then the rookie period after that. If it is my time, though, we’re not delusional and will be prepared to put things in place outside of football. I definitely haven’t given up and feel that I have something to offer an AFL club.
Have you spoken to anyone else beside the Saints?
No, St Kilda was the only club. They came forward and expressed an interest, and I think they inquired about Tomlinson also. Then it was out of Logan Austin and I, but he requested a trade and ended up there.
Has the potential to play alongside your brother ever crossed your mind? Jake Lever’s not there anymore and perhaps they need some defensive depth…
When I was at my brother’s wedding at the weekend I was in the toilet and Taylor Walker was there at the same time and I jokingly asked whether he could get me a rookie deal. He had a bit of a laugh. Obviously it would be a dream come true to play with Daniel, but not knowing what their list is it like makes it hard.
Your time at Sydney was interrupted by injury. You debuted for the club in Round 1 of 2016 after getting to the club that off-season, then you injured your ankle and never played a senior game again…
Yeah. So I came over to Sydney and broke my finger and had an operation in the pre-season, then I got myself over that and attacked the pre-season. I played every NAB Cup game and Teddy Richards was injured at the time which led to me getting a spot in the team for Round 1. They were really happy with how I was going, but then I broke my foot in the last five minutes of the game. I also got 10 stitches in my head in the first quarter. The diagnosis from my foot was a Lisfranc injury, so it was serious. They told me I’d be out for 8-12 weeks. I had a few complications after that and the bones hadn’t mended properly due to a lack of blood supply in the foot, so that was another setback. I tried to keep a positive attitude during the whole process, and got myself nearly back and was about three weeks away before having the incident off-field, which was extremely disappointing. In a way, I’m sort of happy that it happened because it opened my eyes. I know it sounds stupid, but it forced me to mature a lot off the field and let me see who was closest to me when things don’t go right. It’s held me in good stead, not just for football but for life after football.
When you say it forced you to mature, are you referring to the circles you hang around with and the way you treat professional sport? Or something else?
Yeah, definitely. One in terms of the people you hang around with, and two in terms of the people who are there for you at the time. Not only that, I was working that year when I got injured because I needed an outlet away from football, so I got involved with a charity called Whitelion. They’re a not-for-profit organisation and during the time when I made that mistake they were really helpful. They opened my eyes to realise that my life is nowhere near as bad as some of the kids who go through the program and don’t have a home, don’t have parents, don’t have a stable income or a job or even identification. That incident has also opened my eyes to a career pathway post-football, whether it’s counselling, youth work, social work, primary teaching — just working with people.
Who were your biggest supporters through that time?
My mum and dad, Daniel as well. He asked Adelaide if he could fly over from training that week and they gave him the Monday and Tuesday off. My other brother, Adrian as well. I was living with Callum Sinclair at the time and he was a massive support. He said that I stuffed up and made a mistake but knew that I was a good person and supported me through the whole thing. A few of the boys at the Swans were good about it as well, Dane Rampe would catch up with me and get breakfast or lunch. Although it was disappointing, there were a few people who were there to help.
Did you feel supported by the club and that you had their trust?
During the whole process I had access to Tom Cross the doctor. I had access to a psychologist, which is something I have been doing since my second year in the system because I thought it helped to talk about football. I got suspended by the club, and it felt to me that there was a bit of loss of trust and I was on the back foot coming into pre-season last year with that hanging over my head. There was a bit of a loss of trust after it happened.
Did that impact you not receiving a senior game this year?
All the feedback I got this year was that my form was really good. I was emergency for the game against Carlton so I was close to getting a game. They told me to keep going and the fact I was in good form but it wasn’t translating to senior footy was frustrating. At about Round 14, I was told that it was going to be hard to force my way in with Lewis Melican coming on, Heath Grundy was playing really good football and of course, Dane Rampe coming back from injury. I was behind those blokes and what happened the year before wouldn’t have helped either. Not once did I give up, though. I continuously saw Henry Playfair and asked for feedback on how I could get better. It’ll help me as a person in the long run, regardless of whether I get back on a list or not.
You said before that you’ve been speaking to club psychologists since your second year. What was the catalyst behind making that decision at such a young age?
I played four games in my first year at the Bulldogs, and I had come out of the TAC Cup system where you’re the big player, then, you come into the AFL system and you’re a small fish. So after playing four games in my first season, I built myself up and had a big pre-season, but then I didn’t play for the first eight games and I think at about Round 4, Jake Landsberger, the doctor, got me in to see Lisa Stevens who was the sports psychologist and she was a really big help. I’m a worst-case-scenario thinker, so at the time my mind would always go to the negative. She would listen to anything I felt comfortable talking about and that really helped me in my second year. Ever since then I have seen a psychologist and I think it’s a massive area in the AFL and I think we can get a lot better at it.
Having those negative, worst-case-scenario thoughts, and considering what you’ve had to endure over time, how do you separate those thoughts?
I think in my second year I was. You’re a young player and all you want to do is get in and play football. When it doesn’t happen you question yourself, your ability and whether you’re good enough. But after that period and in my fourth year at the Bulldogs, I had a good year under Luke Beveridge and stripped it all back. It was all about mindfulness and staying in the moment. Having an interest outside of football, whether it’s a charity or work helps as well. As you get older you start to realise how lucky you are to be playing a game you loved growing up, even if at times it’s hard. You’ve just got to strip it back to the basics and find all of the positives that you can find through a negative situation, which is what I did when I was injured at Sydney and during the tough period when I made a mistake.
You played 14 senior games in 2015 during your last year with the Dogs. When everything happened with the end of season stuff, did you feel a bit disheartened that you weren’t at the Bulldogs in 2016?
At the time, I had a two-year deal offered in front of me from the Bulldogs. They pulled me in about three or four times during the year and asked me where I was at and why I wasn’t signing. I had to weigh up a few things in my life outside of football as well. I hadn’t made the call until all of that stuff had come out, and then that all happened after the elimination final with Luke Beveridge. I had no idea about what was going on and then I found out that the club, and in particular Luke, were really upset. I was extremely disappointed at how it ended with the Bulldogs and the fact that I wasn’t provided the opportunity to explain myself. Looking back, that had a big impact on going to Sydney and my mindset. I felt that a simple phone call and a conversation would have cleared everything up. It is what it is, and I moved on a long time ago.
As well as the work you’re doing off-field with charity, are you studying also?
I’ve done an advanced diploma in business management through the AFL SportsReady program. I’m also just about to finish a diploma in building and construction, so basically project management on a building site. But with the Whitelion work, and everything that happened after that incident with Sydney, I’ve been wanting to head down the path of working with people. So I guess it’s either a trade or working with people. Whether it’s a bachelor of counselling, or primary teaching, a bachelor of youth work or social work, something like that would be the one that I’d look at getting into.
What are you doing training-wise at the moment?
Sydney gave me a program and I have been working on that for about four or five weeks now – running Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and doing weight sessions every Tuesday and Thursday as well. I’ve still been training really hard in case I land at another AFL club so that I’m ready to go.
And mentally and physically I imagine you’re in the best shape you’ve been in…?
Yeah, physically and mentally I feel like I’m in a good space and I feel like I’d be an asset to any AFL club.
Good luck with it all, mate. I’ve enjoyed the chat.
No worries, thanks mate.