It has been some journey for Paul Ahern. Taken with pick seven in the 2014 national draft, he suffered two ACL injuries in his time with the Giants, before searching for a fresh start with North Melbourne during the 2016 trade period. Following on from his best performance for the Kangaroos, the 21-year-old sat down with AFLPlayers.com.au to discuss this and more.
Congratulations on your performance yesterday. You must have been delighted with how you went!
Thank you, I was. It’s always better when you get the win for the team and it was an important game for us. I was happy with how I performed — having Higgo and Cunners in there helped me — and just with training and being around those sorts of professionals and training back with the main group has helped.
Can you pinpoint a time over the last few weeks where you realised that you felt comfortable at AFL level?
The first few games I just tried to get used to things and get a feel for the speed of the game, but after three or four games I started to feel comfortable, and having the leaders behind me has been positive and assisted me. Having our standalone VFL team this year helped me because everything they are doing translates to the seniors so that makes it easier when transitioning into the AFL team. Will Walker is a good example of that, he came in this week for his first game and played his role.
You were a high pick back in 2014 and had large expectations, talk me through the multiple ACL injuries and the frustrations you endured back at GWS…
It was very annoying! I was going into my second pre-season and felt really good and confident that I would play a few games that year, and then coming towards the end of that period in February I unfortunately did my first knee. It was disappointing having that setback and then I did my knee again in September of the same year so there was about seven or eight months in between the two. Doing a lot of my rehab in Melbourne when I moved to North Melbourne helped and made it a bit easier being around family and friends to take my mind off footy when things are down. I wasn’t fully back into training when I did the second one, but I started to integrate into some game sense stuff at the 7-8-month mark, and I did it the week going into the first final in 2016 against the Swans.
What were your emotions like having done your second not long after the first?
I felt a lot more devastated when I did the second one because I knew what I had gone through in the first seven or eight months since doing the first, and then you do it the second time and you go through the first month or so where you can’t walk or do much. That first period is devastating right after the surgery, but once I got to North Melbourne via the trade and met all of my new teammates, it made things easier because it was a new environment and they got around me. Once I started hitting the gym and doing straight-line running it made things easier.
How did the trade come about? It seemed like both parties were in agreeance and it was a smooth process…
I was speaking to my manager about it, and the Giants were happy for me to explore the option that was best for me. I remember Leon telling me that if I wanted to stay up there he would be more than happy to keep me, or if I wanted to go home and be around family and friends he would be supportive of that, too. I really wanted to get home and be around family and friends during the rehab period for my second knee injury.
How would you describe your two years at the Giants, despite not being able to get out there and show everyone what you can do?
I really enjoyed my time there. Obviously, it was good to move interstate and learn how to do things on my own. The boys were fantastic to me and I made some good friends along the way that I still keep in touch with now. Caleb Marchbank and Jarrod Pickett both moved to Carlton so I see them a bit.
It must have been difficult moving to a new club and not being able to contribute straight away. Talk me through your first year at North…
I was a bit nervous going into my first day and meeting all of the boys, but they made the transition easy for me. I bonded quickly with Kayne Turner and Luke McDonald and have built plenty of relationships with others since. We have a great bond together at the club, all of the boys like being around each other, and that’s probably why we play so well down in Tassie because we love traveling together and getting out of the Melbourne bubble.
After the second knee, was there ever a moment where you thought football wasn’t going to work out?
I never had any doubts, I always knew that if I worked hard in my rehab, ticked everything off with my physios, and did all that was required, that I would be fine because I had full confidence in my body. I never felt that I wasn’t going to get there and wasn’t going to debut. The setbacks drove me even harder, knowing that I had to wait so long to get the debut.
Which players did you lean on after doing the second ACL? I’m sure others who had been through similar circumstances would have reached out?
A big one for me was Jonathan Patton when I was up at GWS. He was still in rehab when I first got there for his second one. After doing my first rehab, I leaned on him because he had been through it all before, and when I did my second, he had been through the exact same thing so he got around me and took me out for dinner and let me know what to expect. He was a great mentor for me.
It’s hard to not feel for him after his third setback!
Yeah, exactly right! I’m really feeling for him. I hope that he can get it all right and I’m sure he’ll be back bigger and stronger than ever.
Leading into your first AFL game in Round 11 against Brisbane, did you know you were getting close?
I always thought I was a little bit closer, but never really had a full idea of when it might be that I would play. I just kept playing as if I was going to be called up the next week. I came into the club every day with an open mind, and if it was my turn to play, I was going to be ready for that opportunity. Having a taste of it now drives me more and more to keep my spot and keep improving.
You spoke before about some of your teammates helping you out there yesterday, but to finish with 37 possessions — 22 contested — and 12 clearances, it must have been satisfying for you?
Yeah, it was. I was really happy with my performance, and having Jarred Moore our midfield coach down there has been massive for me and my development. I’ve been pushed by a number at the club and that has helped me to settle into the team and is why I have been able to steadily improve and play at the level.
Looking back on that trade, being a former pick seven who was traded two years later for pick 69, it now looks like a bit of a steal and a shrewd investment by North?
Yeah, I don’t really look too much into that sort of thing. Wherever I ended up, I wanted to play good footy, and I’m really happy to be at North right now. Whether they say I’m a steal or not, it doesn’t really faze me or change the way I go about my footy. I just want to repay their faith because they have been good for me since day one, knowing that they were bringing me in and I wasn’t going to play the whole of last year.
Whereabouts in Melbourne did you grow up?
I grew up in Oak Park area and the Pascoe Vale area as well, and played for Keilor Football Club as a junior, and then the Calder Cannons after that. I’m a local boy and it doesn’t take long to get to training.
Which team did you support?
I was a big Richmond fan growing up!
How did you go last year watching the Grand Final?
Every Grand Final you get a bit jealous of the team that wins, but it was good to see Richmond do well after a few years where they struggled. I was happy for them.
When you’re in rehab and dealing with that toll, you need to take your mind off things and escape occasionally. What have you done over the past few years to help with that?
That was a big reason why I wanted to come back to Melbourne. In my first rehab, I did a Certificate IV in business and now I am doing a diploma in business and leadership with a few other boys from the club. That has helped me when I have been injured, and outside of that, I like playing a bit of golf at the moment.
Coming over to North Melbourne with the injury, you would have had to work closely with the rehab team and the physios, what was that experience like? I imagine it was a cautious process…
The physios and the medical staff were massive. Daniel Jones was my rehab coach last year, and at the start he told me to be really cautious and to listen to my knee if it was sore, and so I pulled back a bit of training. I didn’t start running until the four-month mark which is pretty late. They listened to how I was feeling, so if I was sore they would pull back on sessions or give me a day off here and there. What is helping me now is knowing that I have taken things slowly and nothing is going to happen to my knee.
You’re out of contract at the moment. How are those conversations progressing?
Hopefully, we get it finalised in the next couple of weeks. I really want to be here at North, so hopefully it will be sorted very soon.
Brilliant, Paul. It’s been great to watch you perform so well after all the setbacks. Good luck for the rest of the season.
Thanks, Simon. I really appreciate it.