Hello again Bomber fans,
‘Old (football) Father Time’ has finally caught up with me.
After the wear and tear of a football career and enduring a year or two of having to contort myself into all sorts of positions just to put my shoes on, among other impairments, I underwent surgery for a full right hip replacement last week.
I realise some would say: “Hey Gary, how could that be? You never used your right foot in a game!”. I could reply that I was too quick and was always able to get on to my left OR that at least I had a few more right-foot kicks than Lloydy or Scotty Lucas ever had - haha.
Which comes to what I want to talk about in this edition - clubs and players having to deal with injuries.
Some injuries can be avoided with good prevention management and a bit of luck, but most of the time they are just an unavoidable pitfall in the rigorous ‘bash and crash’ of an AFL season.
I was quite lucky in my time as a player. I not only never had to have any surgery but also missed less than 10 games through injury over a 15-year career (if you include my time in under-19s and reserves). Again, some might say I never got near the ‘hard’ ball enough to get injured.
Conversely, a teammate of mine, Dean Wallis, had all sorts of issues and we never really got to see what might have been if he had got a decent run at it.
My first game in 1987 was Wally’s 11th game. When I retired at the end of 1998 having played 243 games, Wally’s only game that year came in round 10 and it was his 87th game.
This highlights the bad luck he had with injury (if you don’t include a few ‘unfortunate’ suspensions thrown in as well). He went on to play 127 games, becoming a dual premiership player.
I feel for all the blokes on our current medium to long-term injury list. Whether they are experienced, like Michael Hurley with his hip infection, mid-career players like Dylan Shiel and Jake Stringer, or new guys on the scene like Sam Draper, Jye Caldwell or young Irving Mosquito, it is such a great challenge to keep them engaged and on track both physically and mentally. Mental demons can arise in all players.
The younger injured player may be thinking, ‘Am I going to be a perennially injured player like the very talented but unlucky Scott Gumbleton, who managed 35 games in seven years due to back related ailments?’ Or ‘Am I going to be lucky like Paul Salmon, who just as he was taking the competition by storm, had to overcome an ACL injury but then went on to become one of the club’s and the game’s greats?’
The older injured player may be thinking, ‘How close am I to the end of my career, or am I going to be able to break back into the team considering some young buck has handsomely taken over my spot?’
When elite football was played part-time, it was the job of club doctors, physios and trainers to manage a player back to physical health.
In this full-time, professional age of AFL football, the African proverb that states ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ could be transposed into ‘It takes the entire club community to manage the injured player group’.
Every individual at the club should be busy playing their own role for the club to be the best he or she can be, but everyone should also be looking out for what they can do to make the injured players’ rehabilitation time more positive and worthwhile.
This is where the ‘village’ comes in.
The welfare manager, high-performance manager and player’s direct line coach, in conjunction with the senior coach, will get together and set out a holistic rehabilitation plan.
The first and most important imperative is to ensure that every single rehabilitative item is ticked off by the injured player, to the letter. We want to avoid the injury re-occurring.
The most important imperative for ‘active’ players is to be getting the best out of themselves as an individual, no arguments there. But the more of these players that can look sideways every so often just to assist in only some small way to engage injured players, the stronger cultured the club will be.
Depending on what stage of their career an individual is at, and considering what their injury allows them to do, what else can they also be doing to keep busy, maximise any down time and stave off any mental demons?
They may be able to assist with some coaching opportunities on match day at AFL or VFL games. They may be included in video review and give game feedback to other ‘active’ players (the pedagogy of education dictates that an individual learns up to 90 per cent more by teaching someone else). They may assist forward scouting by attending games of future opponents and filing reports back to line coaches (and maybe even present back to the group).
Longer-term injured players may also, at times, need small breaks or holidays from the club to re-energise and go again.
The injured group’s lack of on-field presence can get its nourishment by completing some of their rehab on the side of the field in full view of the active players. There will be banter between both groups and the injured group can stay up to date on game-strategy training. You may also match up an experienced player with a younger player within the group and bring everyone through together via a close-knit brotherhood. They should all be included and engaged in as many game review and education meetings as well.
Each player’s exit from the group, especially after a long-term injury, should be celebrated and the others should all get on board to support the first game back and what they do best.
Who knows, we may even get a return game back like Darren Bewick back in 1996. ‘Boris’ had ruptured his ACL in round 11, 1995 and much to his chagrin, ‘Sheeds’ made him play three or four games in the reserves before consideration for senior selection for what was to be his 150th senior game. It worked. When he was finally unleashed in round seven, 1996, the 100th year celebration game versus Geelong at the MCG, the West Perth ‘whirlwind’ kicked an unprecedented nine goals straight in a best-on-ground display.
Until next time,
Gary O'Donnell played 243 games from 1987 to 1998, leading the Bombers as captain for two seasons in a decorated career in the red and black. Known as 'Mr Reliable', he was a vital part of Essendon's 1993 premiership side - a year which also saw him win the Crichton Medal as the Bombers' best and fairest. Blending tales of the past with the present, he'll be a regular contributor to essendonfc.com.au in 2021.