Essendon’s Michael Hartley had to work hard for AFL lifeline and is determined to make it work
EMERGING Essendon defender Michael Hartley admits he threw away his first AFL opportunity.
Having grown up outside the AFL bubble in Penrith in Western Sydney, he came to Melbourne as an 18-year-old thinking a decorated career at the elite level would “just happen”.
Given his big frame and even bigger potential, one good game in defence during the AFL Under-18 National Championships in 2011 was all Collingwood had to see.
Playing in defence, Hartley held the eventual No. 1 draft pick that year — Jonathon Patton — to one goal, enough to get him a rookie list spot.
Natural sporting talent was what got him to the Magpies, but the move south soon brought a rude shock.
“I was just a kid but I thought, ‘I’m going to be the next big thing’, like everyone would think I reckon,” Hartley said.
“But it hit me pretty early on that it was pretty tough and I was probably a little bit out of my depth to be honest.”
After two injury-riddled seasons and only five VFL games, the 198cm, 102kg defender was delisted.
A booming right-footer, Hartley spent the days that followed toying with the idea of an NFL punting career in America.
“My shoulders were horrible and I just didn’t think footy was going to work out for me,” he said.
“I can kick pretty far so I thought I might give it (NFL) a shot.”
Father Colin and mother Bonny changed Hartley’s mind.
Colin was convinced his son — who admits to only taking up football at school so he could get days off classes — had more to give in Australia’s own game.
Within a week of his delisting, Hartley met with three VFL clubs as he searched for a new home before settling on struggling stand-alone club Coburg where he was promised a game on the best opposition forward every week.
Out of the professional system, he also had to search for a job and was soon unpacking shipping containers before later working night shifts at a cheese factory.
The labouring work only made him more determined to earn another shot at the elite level.
“I have so much respect for the VFL guys because they’ve got to work all day and they’ve got to train at night,” Hartley said.
“I don’t know how guys do it. I just thought I had to try my best to get back into the AFL so I don’t have to work.”
Hartley credits Coburg and its coach, former North Melbourne midfielder Peter German, for pushing him back to where he wanted to be.
“Germo was very tough, very hard on me because he thought I could be pretty good,” Hartley said.
“I needed that really because I’d sort of just strolled through life pretty easily. But he taught me a few things down at Coburg and told me to work a bit harder, so I did.”
Hartley’s first year at the VFL outfit was solid but not spectacular and draft night brought no good news.
However, Hartley underwent an intensive physio program to get his shoulders right over the proceeding summer and did not miss a game in his second year at Coburg, developing into the competiton’s best key defender to earn VFL Team of the Year honours and tie for the club’s best-and-fairest.
The Bombers — who had Hartley on their radar 12 months earlier — took notice and selected him at Pick 68 in the 2015 National Draft — the third-last selection used by any club.
“I knew it was 100 per cent what I wanted to do, I was ready for it and I was going to give it my all,” Hartley said.
“So getting the second opportunity was awesome.”
With Essendon having 10 senior players including experienced key defender Michael Hurley serving doping bans last year, Hartley was thrown in the deep end but quickly learnt to swim.
He was given jobs on the best forwards in the game week-in, week-out — Sydney superstar Lance Franklin, Geelong’s Tom Hawkins and West Coast’s Josh Kennedy among them.
“Because of circumstances in many ways, players got opportunities last year,” Essendon performance coach Mark Harvey said.
“Mick was one of those. He went down and played in defence and based on what happened last year we were under a fair bit of pressure in defence but I thought he grew enormously in those circumstances. I think from that he has improved significantly and we’ve been able to fast-track him in the defensive area.
“He’s still got a way to go but now he’s playing in a better team and I think it will help him through.”
Hartley played 19 games last season and signed a contract extension in September, tying him to the club until at least the end of 2018.
Footy now means more to the 23-year-old than ever and he is determined to make the most of his second chance.
“The boys have been really welcoming, the club’s been awesome, the supporters are outstanding,” Hartley said.
“It’s a dream come true and hopefully I can hold onto it for a little bit longer than last time.”