Midfield Heeney – Full Time Role or Short-Term Fix?


Two games into the AFL season and the Sydney Swans have already established their premiership credentials with impressive wins over Melbourne and Collingwood. While many thought that the Swans had the quality to contend in 2024, it has been an unlikely role change that has been a key factor to their stellar start to the season.

With the well-published injuries to Callum Mills, Luke Parker and new recruit Taylor Adams, there were always going to be question marks around a Swans midfield that was statistically only better than the last-placed West Coast Eagles last season.

But a forced, yet highly anticipated move into the middle for Isaac Heeney now has everyone asking – what took so long?

In his tenth season in the AFL, it seems like every pre-season we hear the same stories about how this is the year that Heeney changes his game to spend more time on-ball. Then, every year it’s more of the same, as he continues to play the same half-forward role.

Except this time is different, as arguably the best-on-ground in both wins so far, is it finally the season that the 27-year-old reaches his full potential in the middle?


The Past

As a highly promising youngster at the Swans Academy, Heeney was a first-round selection in the 2014 draft based off his work as an inside midfielder. However, as many rookies are forced to do, he began his AFL career in the forward line, and it stuck due to immediate success in the role.

Playing what many describe as the hardest position in football, Heeney possesses a rare set of physical attributes that made him a nightmare matchup as a half-forward. At 185cm, he isn’t the tallest player on the park, but his excellent positioning alongside his vertical leap makes him an aerial threat. On the ground, Heeney’s clean hands and explosive speed help him get that extra metre on his direct opponent, creating opportunities from nothing that he can convert on both sides of his body.

A point of difference in the forward line, Heeney’s success in the position made it difficult for Swans coach John Longmire to move him into the middle, as his skill set was much less replaceable in the forward line.

However, despite all this positive talk about his ability to perform in that role, Heeney was destined for inconsistency, which has led to scrutiny in the past. In 2022, he earned an All-Australian jacket for kicking 46 goals in the home and away season, but after just ten goals in his first 13 matches last season, there was plenty of disappointment around his underwhelming performance.

We have seen glimpses of Heeney in the midfield in the past, particularly in the early stages of the 2022 season. In the opening match against the GWS Giants, Heeney attended 48% of centre bounces where he collected 25 disposals and kicked three goals. But the next week, his midfield time was cut almost entirely as he kicked five goals against Geelong, locking himself back into his forward position for the rest of the season.

In 2023, Heeney was used in a different midfield role sporadically throughout the season, with Longmire challenging him to go toe-to-toe with the best players in the competition. On those three occasions, Heeney went head-to-head with Patrick Cripps, Jack Steele and Marcus Bontempelli, all to varying success.


This Season

While his time in the midfield in the past has been limited to a role, in the two games we have seen so far, it appears that Heeney is finally being allowed to play with more freedom.

In the opening match against Melbourne, a combination with new ruckman Brodie Grundy emerged as the difference between the two sides, as the pair combined for 22 clearances in the 22-point win. On a humid night in Sydney, Heeney was clean where others weren’t, and with his strength around the contest, he was a constant threat.

With every other Swans midfielder aged below 23, Heeney took responsibility as the leader of the midfield, imposing himself around the contest with a stat line of 26 disposals, 13 clearances, seven tackles and a goal, almost certainly securing himself the three votes.

Against the Magpies on the night of their premiership celebration in Round One, it was Heeney who once again stole the show, collecting 29 disposals and kicking two goals. On the night, he attended more centre bounces than any other Swan, as he combined with fellow midfielders Chad Warner and James Rowbottom to put together an excellent performance from the midfield unit.

However, we once again saw glimpses of how valuable he is as a forward, as he showed his athleticism with seven marks, including three contested and four coming inside 50. He won one-on-one contests against Brayden Maynard and Charlie Dean in the forward line, while he was also able to create space and take a couple of marks on the lead.


What’s Ahead?

Looking forward to the next few weeks it is unlikely that we will see any change in his role but given his history it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he ended up in the forward line at any point.

Given the Swans’ struggles in the midfield last season, it was clear that they approached the off-season with the view of adding depth to the position; something that could see Heeney’s time in the middle decrease substantially.

After joining from the Melbourne Demons last season, James Jordon has already slotted nicely into the Swans midfield averaging 18.5 disposals per game and looking comfortable in an increased contested role after being deplyed more as a wingman with the Dees..

Taylor Adams was recruited from Collingwood last season with the promise of midfield time, something that he had lost at his former club. It wouldn’t make sense for him to move back to the half-forward line when he returns from injury, playing a role he doesn’t want to play.

Former captain Luke Parker is also expected to return from injury in the coming weeks, and although he was tipped to spend more time forward this season, he led the Swans in contested possessions and clearances last season, something the side will not want to remove completely.

Finally, the skipper Callum Mills is expected to return around mid-season as he recovers from a shoulder injury. An All-Australian in 2022 playing as an inside midfielder, Mills will be looking to return to his best position after being forced into playing a variety of roles last year.

With Heeney being thrown into the middle as a result of the absence of that star trio, Longmire now faces a selection headache going forward. Heeney offers more than the rest playing in a high-forward role, but after his dominant performances against two top-four sides from last year, has he proven to be more valuable on the ball?

Despite his emphatic start to the season in the midfield, it is hard to picture Heeney continuing to lead the Swans in midfield time. He was thrown into the middle out of necessity, and he has succeeded, but he is far more replaceable in the midfield than he is in the forward line.

He will most likely spend more time in the middle than ever before this year, but with the likes of Warner, Rowbottom, Parker, Mills and Adams all at their best when playing on the ball, but there can only be so many opportunities.

He would arguably be leading the Brownlow Medal through the first two weeks, and he will most likely continue to play the role up until the round five bye, but Longmire and the coaching staff have a big decision to make when the rest of the midfield returns.