“The players voting, that means a lot to me,” said Hawthorn’s Tom Mitchell upon receiving the AFL Player’s Association Most Valuable Player, a simple, but important recognition of those he plays alongside.
Unlike the Brownlow Medal or even the Coaches Association Awards, the AFL Players Association Most Valuable Player Award (AFLPA MVP, or the Leigh Matthews Trophy) is chosen by the competitors themselves, making this event, the AFLPA MVPs all the more special and meaningful to the men who pull on their team colours every week.
It was a relaxed night at the Plaza Ballroom; the players without ties and appearing more comfortable, with teams mingling with each other, chatting over dumplings and beers (for those players whose clubs hadn’t made the finals) or salad and water (for those whose finals series were just a week away). They gathered and shared stories from beyond the hallowed MCG turf and the training track.
The AFLPA MVPs felt like a player-run event. And rightly so, because the Players Association was created to represent the players, their rights and their say, in what has become a very official and ‘marketable’ AFL competition.
The idea that the game is extremely commercialised is one that resonates with the players, who take nights like these to reconnect following the home-and-away season, to banter like old mates and discuss life away from football.
Geelong legend Billy Brownless echoed this idea, explaining how this event was enjoyed most by the players, as he recognises that the game of AFL, on and off the field is becoming more challenging to manage.
“It’s getting harder. There’s footy shows, radio and people are watching every AFL player now and they don’t seem to get any time on their own. The scrutiny and commitment may be a bit harder than when I played,” Brownless said.
“Events like these are really beneficial to keep the players grounded.”
The AFLPA MVP awards night was much more intimate compared to the cut-throat expectations of Australian Rules today and it allowed the players to let loose a little, socialise and catch up before the intensity of finals picks up again for some, while other players were already focusing on what 2019 has in store.
Patrick Dangerfield, the AFLPA president and Geelong Cats superstar clarified that their awards mean so much and brings a strong sense of pride to the collective playing group.
“What’s so great about these awards is that they’re voted by the players. If anyone could recognise brilliance, it’s us, who play against these wonderful players,” Dangerfield said.
To be recognised by your peers is the ultimate accolade. To be acknowledged by those that do what you do is the greatest compliment.
Trent Cochin is one of those players and leaders that AFL players admire and respect.
Cotchin, who was named Captain of the Year, discussed how ‘leadership is born out of culture’ and how he is not only privileged to lead his Richmond side, but is honoured to represent the whole playing group.
“Captain is a title, but leadership is an environment. [The people around me] create an environment for others to be successful and they’re the real captains,” Cotchin said.
Callan Ward from the GWS Giants was recognised as the Most Courageous Player. He is known for putting his head over the ball, and may have earned the nickname "cement head" but made sure to mention his fellow players – the likes of Dayne Beams (Brisbane Lions) and Matthew Lobbe (Carlton) amongst others who are battling mental illness.
Tim Kelly of Geelong was awarded Best First Year Player after his break-out season at the Cattery, a spectacular achievement for the man who was over looked in five drafts. His belief and commitment to earning a place on an AFL list and succeeding at AFL level is evident in his work ethic.
“I always sort of had a little guy in the back of my head saying if I keep working on my game and kept working on things, a bit of luck would swing my way and I would get an opportunity”
Kelly’s teammate Patrick Dangerfield was in awe of the midfielder’s first year at AFL level, praising his accountability, from training until game time.
“He’s come into AFL and averaged 23 disposals and kicked 20 plus goals, it’s quite astonishing. But you see the work he puts in during the week and how he trains and the standards he sets for himself and the players around him, it’s not surprise [that he received his award],” Dangerfield said of his teammate.
And of course, Tom Mitchell was crowned the Player’s Player, the Most Valuable Player in the league, racking up 773 votes ahead of Carlton’s Patrick Cripps on 579 votes.
Mitchell was simply ‘proud and privileged’ that his peers voted him as their Most Valuable Player, but turned his focus to the team game that he has played so well in 2018.
“I try not to get caught up in the external noise. As long as I’m pleasing my teammates, then I’m doing my job.”
Life in the AFL can be lonely. Scrutiny and criticism from fans, media and officials dictate how a player acts on and off the field. Each player, no matter their club, faces living a fishbowl lifestyle where bright lights are cast upon them at all times and judgement occurs at every move.
But nights like these where the players make the final call, prove that it’s the people around you that truly understand and respect you and your game.
And while everyone craves recognition every now and then, whether it be from the media, their fans or their clubs, the AFLPA MVPs prove that the most valuable recognition of all, is the credit from your peers.