The small man from a smaller town who won the AFL’s biggest award

Australians love to travel, to explore this wide brown land of ours. It’s fair to say that the 2020 lockdown has changed our travelling habits.

Instead of soaking in the rays on the beach and the plains inland, most Australians have had to explore the outside world in their screens and in books.

Instead of visiting Lake Grace (population 507), you can look at the small streets and three footy ovals, or read up on its history. Instead of rolling through Moggs Creek (population 89) on the way to the Twelve Apostles, you can look at the satellite view of the town.

Almost everywhere in the world, from Aachen to Zuwarah is at your fingertips, but not under your feet. For now, the closest that most people can get to visiting a place is through an illuminated screen.

To that extent, welcome to Kybybolite, South Australia (just).

Just a two-by-two block, footy oval and some netball courts. If you don’t zoom in on it enough, it sort of disappears. If it took three hours to do all 97 kilometres of streets in Brighton, Karen, it’ll take you about 10 minutes to finish Kyby.

Just 102 people lived in Kybybolite in 2016, with an average age of 42. Mostly farming and agricultural, and best known for a research farm in town.

And the products of the mid-2000s crop of the Kyby Tigers under-14s side.

The productive crop

Most small towns, even footy-mad small towns, rarely boast elite footy players. It’s a product of Australia’s disparate landscape. Lake Grace may lay claim to Nat Fyfe, and Lance Franklin is a proud product of Dowerin, but they usually are one-offs.

That junior side, from little Kyby in the borderlands, can lay claim to three AFL players. It places the town as one of the most productive per capita places for elite footballers in recent history.

Only Osborne in NSW (the “club without a town”) and Kalkee in the Wimmera can claim per capita bragging rights over Kybybolite, but Kyby is unique in producing three AFL players from the same generation, even the same junior sides.

The first was a sure pick to be a star — Jack Trengove. Trengove got nabbed by Melbourne at pick number two in the 2009 draft, and became the youngest captain in VFL/AFL history by age 20.

When he played, he was good. But it took time to get back out there. Trengove finished up his career at Port, with 89 games under his belt. A good career for any player, despite the hype.

After Trengove came Alex Forster, a mid-sized defender who had gained attention through his draft year. Forster made the Under-18 All Australian Team, and played league football for Glenelg as well. Forster profiled as a good ball user out of defence who could also stick with opponents, but like Trengove, injuries changed his trajectory.

The former number 29 draft pick managed only one game in his two years on an AFL list, but he has gone on to be a solid player at SANFL and country levels since.

And then at pick 58 there was Lachie.

Why did Neale fall?

Despite playing local senior footy from the age of 16, being selected in the midfield of the SA under-18 side and getting senior SANFL games while still being under-18 eligible, Neale was a fringe prospect as a junior.

He literally slipped under the radar.

A Brisbane Lions AFL players runs for the ball as two Western Bulldogs opponents look on.A Brisbane Lions AFL players runs for the ball as two Western Bulldogs opponents look on.
Neale has certainly proved height doesn’t matter.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

As the AFL evolved into a more professional sport, emphasis was increasingly placed on finding the right body types to fill roles, and moulding players to fill them.

As legendary NBA coach Red Auerbach (allegedly) said, “you can’t teach height”. You can teach tall players to do different things, but you can’t grow shorter players to be taller.

Coming into his draft year, Neale was small. At 174 centimetres, only a handful of players had been taken fresh in the national draft at that height or below between 1999 and 2010, and just four in the top 50.

In more recent years, the trend away from shorter players has changed. Perhaps the realisation hit that for as much of the game known in the northern states as aerial ping-pong is played above the head, a lot of the important bits are played at ground level.

Neale himself put it best, when interviewed before the draft:

As Neale entered his draft year, two things broke his way. First, he grew about an inch, which may have been enough in the eyes of some recruiters. It is hard to believe that such a minor factor can change opinions, but footy is often a game of small margins.

Second, and far more importantly, Neale played so well that he couldn’t be refused. He racked up touches at the Under-18 Championships, in schoolboy footy and at local level.

He also proved that he could compete against bigger bodies in senior footy. Neale enhanced his reputation the same way former Kyby teammate Trengove did — he stood out in a senior SANFL final.

While none of the ardent draft watchers placed Neale in their Phantom Drafts and there was no sizzle reel online for him, Neale was picked up by Fremantle in the third round of the draft at pick 58 — one round later than his other former Kyby teammate, Forster.

It was late, but Neale had the same opportunity as the number one pick.

The evolution of Neale

Lachie Neale handballs a football while being tackled by a Western Bulldogs player.Lachie Neale handballs a football while being tackled by a Western Bulldogs player.
Fremantle’s peak years unfortunately didn’t coincide with Neale’s.(AAP: Tony McDonough)

Neale started at Freo as a small forward, like many draftees. Playing senior footy almost immediately post draft, it didn’t take long for him to find a place in a strong Dockers outfit. His first year was almost unrecognisable from the player we know today.

For a player who averaged more than seven clearances per game last year, he only earnt seven in his entire first season.

Over time, Neale was added to an already potent Dockers midfield mix, floating between Fyfe, Mundy, Barlow and Co. Once he proved height didn’t matter when the ball was on the deck, he was able to truly show what he could do.

It took until 2016 until Neale locked his spot up in the Fremantle inner core — after the peak years of the Dockers had ebbed away.

How Neale stood out this year

Before 2020, everyone knew Neale could win the hard ball and ensure his team would keep it. This year, he introduced the most dangerous element of all for a modern player — risk.

With a better set defensive structure behind him, Neale was willing to try to do more with the ball and live with the consequences that it occasionally wouldn’t come off.

A turnover in the forward line for the Lions is usually just another chance for its stellar intercept markers to create another attacking opportunity, and lock the ball in their forward half.

Neale’s disposal efficiency sank this year, and his turnovers rose, but so did his score involvements and metres gained (when adjusted for shorter games). Instead of being a ball accumulator, he became a super aggressive weapon.

Neale also has the most shots on goal per game of any season in his career to date — better than even when he was playing as a forward. While Brisbane seems to encourage more risky shots on goal, Neale is also finding space to get those shots off.

In modern footy, that extra split second is what separates a good player from a great one.

The arrival of Jarryd Lyons and development of young players like Jarrod Berry and Hugh McCluggage, has allowed Neale to further evolve his role. Even in the accumulation of individual awards, the team is paramount in footy.

Playing in a good team helps of course (just four of 23 Brownlow winners since 2000 played for sides that missed finals) but one player can only do so much.

On Saturday night, Neale dominated in the clinches and was arguably the best on ground for the Lions. Sometimes the other team is just better on the day.

Neale led the Lions for clearances, score involvements, effective disposals and was second for metres gained, marks and inside 50s in the Lions’ comprehensive loss to Geelong.

Sometimes even the best efforts of one player can’t lift a team of 22, especially when facing a dominant side.

While he doesn’t leave the 2020 season with a premiership medallion around his neck, Neale does have a Brownlow Medal and a place in the conversation for the best player in the game.

There might have to be a new sign in Kyby too:

Welcome to Kybybolite — Home of 2020 Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale.