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Where are they now? Shirley

Robert Shirley of the Crows chaired off after his 150th match by Brent Reilly and Simon Goodwin the AFL Round 21 match between the Adelaide Crows and the West Coast Eagles AAMI Stadium.
Robert Shirley of the Crows chaired off after his 150th match by Brent Reilly and Simon Goodwin the AFL Round 21 match between the Adelaide Crows and the West Coast Eagles AAMI Stadium.
I liked to be on the borderline and made sure I had to scrap for everything.
Rob Shirley

In this instalment of Where are they now? we venture to the Eyre Peninsula to catch up with respected club man, Robert Shirley.

The tough onballer overcame a number of obstacles, including being delisted early in his career, to play 151 AFL games – ranked 19th all-time at the Adelaide Football Club. By his own admission, Shirley wasn’t blessed with the talent of some of his high-profile peers, but his work ethic and selfless attitude saw him become a much-loved member of the team in the mid-2000s.

Originally from Whyalla, Shirley grew up playing country football...

“It was always my dream to play AFL, but you never think it’s going to be a reality. While I was playing in Whyalla, it was always a case of just getting the best out of myself. The environment I was playing in was a good one and my coaches got the best out of me.

“I also spent some time with Woodville-West Torrens, travelling back and forth from Whyalla. Mum and Dad used to drive me four hours each way for training and games. A lot of credit goes to my parents for putting in the time and effort to allow me to follow my dreams.”

At the age of 17 Shirley moved to Adelaide to further his studies and football career …

“I finished Year 12 in Whyalla and got accepted into a course at the University of South Australia. I started with the Eagles Under-19s that year and also played a couple of reserves games. Footy-wise, it was a fun year.

“I would’ve liked to play a few senior games, but the following year I went out to the Eagles pre-season and really put my head down. (Coach) Mark Mickan saw something in me and gave me an opportunity. I was originally an emergency in my first senior game, but someone ended up being suspended for Round One, so I got the gig and played the rest of the year.”

At the end of his first year (1999) in the seniors at SANFL level, Shirley was selected by the Adelaide Crows with pick No.67 in the AFL National Draft. He played 23 games in his first three AFL seasons, but was delisted and re-drafted by the Club at the end of 2002 …

“I was pretty raw still, coming out of the country. My skill level probably wasn’t quite up to scratch either. The Club re-drafted me, but it was still a bit of a kick in the guts because I played 17 games in 2001 and still had a pretty good year in the SANFL in 2002.

“It was a bit of lack of opportunity as well. Tyson Stenglein was the No.1 tagger at the Club, and that was probably the role I was earmarked for at some stage. In 2004, we had a change of coach during the year and ‘Craigy’ (coach Neil Craig) saw something in me. He played me in a lot of games in the second half of ‘04’ and ‘Stinger’ (Stenglein) left the following year. It was a combination of a bit of luck, opportunity and working on some areas I had to improve on.”

‘Shirls’ cemented his spot in 2005-06, playing every game in a strong Crows team that reached consecutive Preliminary Finals. He won the Coach’s Award in both 2005 and 2007. Despite all this, Shirley never felt assured of his position in the side …

“Some days, you could be satisfied with the way you were performing, but I was never comfortable. That always kept me on the edge, which was really good and I think actually helped. In saying that, I think I might’ve been able to take my game further if I did have that little bit of extra confidence, but that was just me. I liked to be on the borderline and made sure I had to scrap for everything.”

The tagger had the role on dual-Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd in both Preliminary Finals. He still reflects on those two fateful days in September …

It’s part of footy and you do move on, but as an old fella you never really forget. They were both opportunities to play in a Grand Final. We had the wood over Sydney at that time, so if we’d got to the Grand Final either year, who knows what would’ve happened … but we didn’t get there.

“If we’d performed better earlier in the finals series, especially against St Kilda in the Quarter-Final at home in 2005, it might’ve been different. That loss flipped us to the other side of the draw into the path of West Coast, who had the wood over us.

“Even so, we had our chances in those two Preliminary Finals. I do reflect back on those games occasionally. I don’t think you ever really forget those missed opportunities because playing in an AFL Grand Final – and winning one – is every player’s dream.”

At the time, Judd and fellow superstar of the competition Gary Ablett praised Shirley’s ability as a tagger, describing him as one of their toughest opponents …

“It was great to hear that from such champions of the game. I definitely think there were better taggers going around than me, but maybe I played the game a little bit fairer than some of the others. I guess that earned me a bit more respect amongst those guys.

“I greatly appreciated them making those comments and I still love watching those guys play. Brent Harvey was another, who always gave me a tough time. I follow all the guys that I played against and it’s interesting to see how opponents line up against them these days.”

Shirley saw the tagging role as a challenge, and also as a means to stay in the team …

“I really enjoyed being out there and tagging was the gig that got me a game every week, so I’m not going to complain about that. It was a challenge every week. It was a build-up basically from Wednesday onwards, planning for who I was going to play on.

“It was exciting and a great test to beat those guys, which I wasn’t able to do every week. I’d have days where my opponent would get the wood over me and, usually, if I lost my position it would go a long way towards the opposition winning the game.”

After fighting to stay in the team throughout his career, Shirley was proud to reach the 100 and then 150-game milestone for the Crows …

“No way did I think I’d end up playing 150 games. I was just trying to stay in the team week-by-week. I never really thought about playing 100 games, or 150 games too much. It was just a case of me playing my role for the side. Over time, 150 games clock up. I’m really proud of that achievement. I also got a lot more out of footy than 150 games. It was just a great experience.”

Shirley’s hard-earned AFL career came to an end in 2009 when he was delisted by Adelaide. He received an offer to play on with newcomers Gold Coast and, although he nominated for the Pre-Season Draft, decided not to join the Suns …

“I was pretty disappointed at the time, as all players that get delisted are. I thought I finished off the second half of the ‘09’ season really well, but that’s footy. Clubs have a list to manage and only a certain number of players they can have. I was told that there were new clubs coming in with priority picks and that the Club had to get into the draft and get some young blood though. That’s life. I didn’t take it all that well at the time, but I’ve moved on from that now.

“I sat down and had a chat to Gold Coast. I was very close to joining the Suns, but in the end I chose a different path. You make decisions based on what you’re thinking at the time. I don’t necessarily have any regrets about my choice. I went to Ainslie in the ACT and played in a couple of premierships, which is something I’d never been a part of before. I had a great time and made some good friendships with players there. I also started doing some coaching, which I wouldn’t have necessarily done at Gold Coast. It was a different environment, but one I enjoyed.”

Shirley, who moved back to South Australia a couple of years ago, has taken the next step in his coaching career, assuming the role as player/coach of Cummins Ramblers in the Great Flinders Football League …

“It’s my first crack at senior coaching. I’ve done a bit of assistant coaching before at Ainslie and previously, but this is my first time behind the wheel. It’ll be a challenge. I’ve already woken up a few times during the night, and had my brain ticking on different issues, but I’m really enjoying it.

“We’ve got a good bunch of lads at the club. It would be good if a few more players came to training, but that’s country football!”

The Eyre Peninsula got a taste of AFL recently when Adelaide and North Melbourne did battle in the NAB Challenge game in Port Lincoln. Shirley attended the game and was also a guest at the Club’s official Community Camp dinner …

“It was great. I’ve been playing footy at various levels since I finished in the AFL and haven’t had a lot of time to catch up with guys. To be able to watch the guys play locally and then catch up with them a couple of days afterwards was a great experience.

“It would’ve been great to be out there running around with them still, but there was no chance of that happening! I’ve definitely aged in the five years since I finished up.”

The 34-year-old also took former teammate Rory Sloane and new Crows coach Phil Walsh out surfing during the Club’s stay in Port Lincoln. The pair described Shirley as a ‘mad man’ for taking on the ‘big’ waves near Coffin Bay …

“It was probably an average day for the locals, but it was a touch on the big side! There was nowhere else we could’ve gone with the conditions. It was good fun to paddle out with ‘Walshy’. I’ve surfed with Sloaney plenty of times but to see the coach of the Adelaide Football Club out there was a different experience. He’s a passionate surfer. Even just sitting in the car with him all the way there and back, I had a million footy questions I wanted to ask but held back a little bit! He’s an interesting man and I think he’ll be great for the Crows.”

Shirley lives in Cummins, about 70 kilometres north of Port Lincoln, and travels across the Eyre Peninsula for work …

“I’m working for Ramsey Brothers (no relation to Crow Keenan Ramsey) on the Eyre Peninsula. They sell farm machinery. It’s been a steep learning curve for me because I don’t have a farming background. I’ve got close family and friendship ties over here, but the farming gig has been a new experience.

“I’m really enjoying it. I’ve learned an awful lot in the last two years and still have a fair bit to learn. I’m getting there slowly and the farmers over here have been really patient with me, knowing my background. Whatever they ask me, I research and find out for them and that seems to work so far.”

Shirley and his young family including kids Annabel (5) and Tom (3) enjoy the country lifestyle. Despite having a passion for coaching, the former Crow has no plans to pursue it at a higher level at this stage …

“One of the reasons we chose to move was to get the kids involved in the country lifestyle. We’ve got two coastlines that we travel to for beach time and holidays. The family environment in Cummins is fantastic, so we’re really enjoying it over here.

“We’re pretty settled where we are. I do enjoy my coaching, so we’ll just see where that leads but it’s a long way from the Ramblers A-Grade to actually coaching in the AFL!”