James Polkinghorne’s second chance at the elite level is a case of right place, right time.
One of Essendon’s eight top-up players announced so far, Polkinghorne is the only member with previous experience in the role, having been a part of the Bombers’ pre-season competition last year.
After departing Brisbane following seven seasons, the 184cm midfielder signed with Essendon’s VFL side for the 2015 season. It was then that he got the call-up to represent the Bombers in the NAB Challenge.
A year on, as he saddles up to add to his 94 AFL matches, Polkinghorne says being so close to the club made for a swift process when a second stint on the senior list became available.
“It was a bit different for me because I was in there doing VFL training and chatting to people inside the club,” Polkinghorne tells aflplayers.com.au.
“Because I’ve got a bit of a relationship with the guys, I sort of dealt with them directly and it was more through me than a manager. It’s terribly sad for the [suspended] players – and I know a lot of them – but for me it was about sitting tight and seeing what was going to unfold.
“It was obviously a lot to work through at the club with their contingency plan, but luckily I fitted into that. The process of being notified wasn’t too formal. I guess just being in the environment already helped me a bit.”
The 27-year-old’s re-entry into the competition couldn’t have come at a more ideal place or time in his life. Apart from playing VFL in Essendon, he grew up close to Windy Hill and currently resides in the area, with his parents – who he describes as the biggest influences on his career – also living close by.
His second chance also follows a club best and fairest season at VFL level last year. He played the best footy of his career after losing his passion for the game towards the end of his time at the Lions.
In hindsight, the inside midfielder says getting delisted by Brisbane was a blessing in disguise, after the experiences at Essendon led him to enjoying the sport once more.
“I’ve got my love for footy back again. I think building relationships within the club with staff and players really gave me an advantage and in the second half of last year in the VFL, I started playing some good footy.
“Getting that chance last year definitely helped my form in 2015 but now we have a bit more time to work and plan things a bit better and utilise every opportunity.”
Polkinghorne now faces the daunting task of conditioning his body to hold up to the game’s rigours at AFL level before competitive hit-outs begin later this month.
After initially starting on a modified program like the rest of the top-up players, he’s joined the main group and ramped up his training loads and intensity.
While attempting to cram as much as he can into the limited time available, Polkinghorne says his role at the club isn’t limited to what happens on the playing field.
“We’re also here to provide some leadership, drive standards on and off the track and create an enjoyable environment to be around. They may all be challenging at times this year given we’re coming up against some really experienced teams.
“But really helping to build an environment that demands high standards and hard work, but also enjoyment, is where I’m putting my energy into – along with developing my own personal skills.
“Mentally, I feel fresh and young again but with a lot more maturity and I see things a bit differently, which I think is pretty powerful.”
Polkinghorne and Ryan Crowley are two of Essendon's eight new recruits.
Regardless of Essendon’s success this upcoming season, the circumstances present opportunities for youngsters to speed up their development as well as the top-up players extending their careers – many of which were ended prematurely.
Polkinghorne says the playing group is already improving under the guidance of some of the club’s latest recruits.
“James Kelly, in terms of his knowledge of the game and football smarts, has really made an impact on the group. Everything he says is taken on board and he has some great teaching points. He also knows exactly what it takes to get his body to an elite standard.
“One of the young guys who’s looking to step up is Kyle Langford. I’ve had experience with him at VFL level but he seems to have taken another step with his body, put on some weight and increased his power running this year. So he’s going to be a pretty dynamic player, being able to play a number of positions and he’s starting to demand more from his teammates.”
“These circumstances, while unfortunate, mean the young guys and other coaches get to stand up and really take the opportunity to fast-track their development for the year. Players who might’ve only played a couple of games end up playing 10, which will only help out the club’s depth in the long term, so when the guys come back there’s a new standard.”
Off the field, Polkinghorne was beginning to focus on building a career outside of football with study commitments along with work at a number of non-for-profit organisations.
After a year without football, he’ll be better prepared for a second transition out of the game.
“Having experienced it, I’m a firm believer that – however it’s structured – players need to have that [broader] perspective. When you’re in the system, you don’t know anything better, you probably don’t understand the importance of those pathways and opportunities you can grab to help your transition.
“I probably didn’t do enough of that up in Brisbane and I had to fast-track myself last year, but if you can do it while you’re in the system, it will ensure a smoother transition.
“I’ll continue to chip away at those at a slower rate for now.
“For the time being, I just want to do the club proud.”