After Shepparton United’s come-from-behind win in a 2006 Victorian county football final, Peter Tossol – coach of a rival club Mansfield – made what then seemed a bold judgement.
Tossol, never one for populist hype, was a spectator in the grandstand and quizzed a reporter on what he’d thought of 18-year-old Michael Barlow’s contribution.
“He was good wasn’t he?” the reporter replied. “He’s a good player.”
“He’s not a good player,” Tossol fired back. “He’s a gun.”
This was high praise from a man who knew his stuff. But those comments, had they found their way to print, would have raised an eyebrow or two.
No surprise there. Barlow didn’t boast the 189cm, 92kg frame he does now. He was a lanky, underdeveloped, mopped-haired boy with a running style of a wounded duck.
It was another year before the remainder of the Goulburn Valley’s football community could see where Tossol was coming from.
By then Barlow, 19, was an elite midfielder in a strong competition. He finished two votes shy of Mansfield’s Trent Hotton for the league’s Morrison Medal.
Tossol, who played with Melbourne in the 1980s and is one of country football’s sharpest minds, then said Barlow was “one of those very rare players who has the God-given ability to read the play so much better and quicker than anyone else” and labelled him “the best young player I have seen in years”.
If only others then had shared Tossol’s faith in Barlow, the AFL community might not be heralding the 22-year-old’s debut an “overnight sensation”.
In the weeks since his first NAB Cup appearance for Fremantle, a flurry of emails and text messages between his ex-Shepparton United clubmates discussing his progress have held one overwhelming sentiment: “Surely you didn’t doubt him?”
His pre-season form, coupled with Sunday’s 33-possession, two-goal debut against Adelaide, only affirmed what those who had followed his progression knew – the kid has what it takes.
Unlike the impression he gives when gathering the ball, Barlow, a product of that famous football factory Assumption College, Kilmore, did not find the journey to the top as easy.
In his case, the showbiz saying “it takes many years of hard work to be an overnight sensation” rings true.
He was overlooked for TAC Cup club Murray Bushrangers at 16 and 17, during his best-and-fairest-winning season at senior level he was bypassed by Victoria Country selectors, then was ignored after a St Kilda pre-season invitation when coach Ross Lyon reached out to a retired forward Fraser Gehrig.
A rookie list position also went begging.
A move to VFL club Werribee and selection in the VFL team of the year again raised hopes – with the Tigers being North Melbourne’s feeder club.
Again his dreams were dashed.
Barlow, then three years into a four-year degree in town planning at the University of Melbourne, was considering a return to country football on completion of his studies.
It took a second VFL season, another team of the year selection, a club best-and-fairest and a runner-up in the JJ Liston Trophy to get noticed.
Draft day went by and again no luck. Whispers of Essendon came and went. A lesser character might have sulked or thrown in the towel. But Barlow was now aware that football, like life, isn’t always fair.
A month later, just shy of his 22nd birthday, Fremantle threw an unlikely rookie draft lifeline.
“He looked like he’d played 100 games,” one of Barlow’s former coaches said after watching his 27-possession game against Melbourne in the pre-season.
Two equally impressive efforts followed, as did promotion to the senior list.
And that same poise, style, grace, endurance and insatiable appetite for the ball was no doubt what many watching at the weekend saw. Maybe some Melbourne clubs will regret not taking the punt Fremantle did.
Barlow’s experience ought to aid him in his pursuits. A solid family upbringing (he’s the middle of five siblings, two older brothers and a younger brother and sister) will always keep him grounded.
His mother Jenny was herself an elite level netballer in Victoria and the UK. His father, Herb, is a dentist.
The whole family watched from the Subiaco stands on Sunday having travelled from Victoria and South Australia.
The AFL media has gone into overdrive with phrases like “best debut in memory” and “meteoric rise”.
But if anyone had bothered to ask those who’d long believed in Mick Barlow, they wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Published by Fairfax Media, March 29, 2010