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Mid-season report: Melbourne Demons
Martin Blake, The Age 1 July 2011
THE season 2010 was the year of the late bloomer, starring Fremantle’s Michael Barlow and Geelong’s James Podsiadly, mature-aged players who had been overlooked by ‘the system’, yet who thrived upon finally winning an opportunity.
Enter 2011 and Melbourne’s Dan Nicholson, who to be fair, has not yet reached the levels of output Podsiadly and Barlow found. But Nicholson, who has played the past four games off half-back, certainly was plucked from outside the usual system. More than once, as it turns out.
In 2009 and 2010, Nicholson, 20, was playing with University Blues, having been overlooked at the draft when he was at St Patrick’s College, the Ballarat footballing factory.
He showed himself to be quick, yet something was missing in the recruiters’ eyes. It’s not clear precisely what. But what is not widely known is Uni Blues found him almost by accident.
It was orientation week, 2009, and Nicholson was about to start his degree having moved to the city from his home town Derrinallum, in the western district, a farming community that also produced the former Richmond premiership half-forward and longtime coach John Northey, and Gerard FitzGerald, multiple VFL premiership coach.
University’s two main teams, the Blacks and Blues, were sharing the ground for pre-season training. As it happened, one of the Blues’ senior players, David Brady, knew Nicholson and saw him watching the session from a park bench.
The Blues’ coach, John Kanis, recalled the moment. ”He [Brady] said: ‘What are you doing?’ Nico smiled and said: ‘Just lookin’ ‘. David said: ‘Come with me’. He [Nicholson] trained that night.”
Nicholson was eligible to play VAFA under-19s but the Blues popped him in the seniors. ”We put him up [to seniors] and he was just getting the ball, running and bouncing,” said Kanis. ”We found he did a fantastic job one-on-one. He could win a contest.”
Still a teenager, he represented the VAFA that year, and the AFL clubs came looking, Hawthorn for one, and Geelong. Nicholson was dyed-in-the-wool Hawthorn; in fact, he wore a Hawks guernsey with Lance Franklin’s No. 23 on the back to training. But the Hawks did not offer him a rookie slot; nor did Geelong after a couple of weeks’ training.
Still, the exercise was worthwhile. Nicholson went back to the Blues for 2010, after considering an offer to play reserves with Geelong. ”What came out was his endurance was with the elite AFL guys, and also his speed,” said Kanis, who helped convince him to return to the VAFA, rather than stay with Geelong. ”We said ‘you can play VFL, but the fact is they’ve noticed you in our environment. There’ll be plenty more coming’.”
Kanis was right. Melbourne finally offered him a rookie spot at the end of 2010, and Nicholson went to play at Casey. He had stored away the rejection notices.
When Casey came to play North Ballarat, the club that had overlooked him a few years earlier, he came on a mission. Nicholson played on Myles Sewell, the Liston Trophy winner. He had 33 disposals and was best afield.
Kanis, who is friendly with Sewell, received a text message that night. ”It was along the lines of ‘your boy towelled me up’,” Kanis recalls.
It is love of the game, says Kanis, that drives him. ”He would train with our under-19s … before us, and then train with us as well. At the end of the night he’d be off on his own kicking it up in the air to himself, doing some kind of soccer tricks with the ball. He does love it.
”I thought he’d make it because he had everything there. He’s a very good kid and he’s smart. He could be the most dedicated I’ve seen in a lot of ways. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone train with two different teams on the same night, every week.”
Melbourne elevated Nicholson and picked him for the round-10 clash with Carlton as a substitute. He has held his spot, with a career-high 21 disposals and a goal against Fremantle.
But he has not forgotten where he came from. Nicholson has acted as a water boy several times for the Blues this year. ”It was funny, the Scotch [College] game a couple of weeks ago, he was on the bench with us, and he’d played the previous night,” said Kanis. ”Hopefully he doesn’t get into trouble for doing that!” http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/bolter-from-the-blues-20110630-1gt43.html