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Gov back on the fast track

Mitch McGovern Interview April 14 Channel Crow checks in with Mitch McGovern on his progress after playing in the first three rounds of the AFL season.
... I was very close to throwing it in.
Mitch McGovern

Mitch McGovern’s journey to the AFL has gone from a standstill to full throttle - again.

A few years ago, McGovern’s dream of following his father, Andrew, and older brother, Jeremy, into the AFL was wavering.

The West Australian was overlooked in the draft as an 18-year-old in 2012, and managed only a solitary quarter of football the following season because of a stress reaction in his foot.

McGovern eventually returned from the long-term injury with the Claremont reserves in early 2014. But he was underdone after such a long spell on the sidelines and his body broke down again.

The forward went back to the Wembley Football Club in the Amateur League, seemingly a long way off from the AFL.

Gradually, McGovern worked his way back to Claremont’s league side. He kicked 10 goals from 11 games with the Tigers to put himself back on the radar of recruiters.

The mature-age recruit was selected with Adelaide’s third pick (No.43 overall) in the 2014 National Draft, capping off a whirlwind six months.

“This time last year, I never would’ve dreamed of this happening,” McGovern said on draft night.

“I’m almost speechless. It’s unbelievable and still quite overwhelming.”

The high of being drafted didn’t last long, as his career stalled again.

McGovern developed an Achilles injury, which would dog his entire first season at Adelaide.

He had to wait until Round Five to make his SANFL debut, playing a couple of games before his Achilles flared up again and forced him back into the rehabilitation group.

The frustrating trend continued until the latter rounds of the season when he was able to put five games together, including a four-goal haul against reigning premiers Norwood.

Mindful of McGovern’s injury history, Adelaide’s physical performance team placed the 21-year-old on a modified program when pre-season started last December.

“I was raring to go come day one of pre-season, but they held me back,” he said.

“The physio staff and doctors did a terrific job with me. I think I’m reaping the rewards now.” 

McGovern increased his workload in the New Year and did enough in only a few weeks of full training to be selected for his first-ever NAB Challenge game against West Coast at Unley Oval.

The 191cm, 89kg, forward’s second pre-season match was at Mount Barker near his home town of Albany. McGovern showed glimpses in his first two NAB Challenge games, but it was his performance in the final hit-out against Gold Coast that gave coach Don Pyke and his match committee something to think about leading into Round One.

The second-year Crow kicked two goals from 14 possessions, as well as hauling in six marks and laying five tackles. Injuries to forwards Charlie Cameron and Riley Knight helped to create the initial opportunity, but McGovern seized his chance and held his spot for Round One.

His AFL debut came in a high-scoring shoot-out against North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium.

McGovern worked his way into the game. As many players on the field appeared to tire in the first hit-out of the season and under the reduced interchange cap, the hard-working debutant got going. He took a couple of strong pack marks and had three shots at goal in the last quarter. Unfortunately, he went unrewarded on the scoreboard but his presence for a first-gamer was impressive.

“I found myself gaining a bit more confidence in the last quarter,” McGovern said.

“Everyone was fatigued but, I don’t know, maybe playing your first game you have more adrenalin than everyone else. I got a few more legs at the end.

“I couldn’t finish those last few goals, but that’s footy, isn’t it?”

McGovern’s first AFL win came a week later in the Showdown.

“It’s a huge relief knowing that you’ve won your first game of AFL football, and to do it in front of your home crowd – 51,500 people – was amazing,” he said.

“Also kicking my first goal in that game was awesome … and to share it with Wayne Milera and Paul Seedsman (who played in their first Crows wins as well) was great.”

McGovern now has three AFL games to his name with a fourth, against Sydney at Adelaide Oval on Saturday night, firmly in his sights. The rapid rise has surprised even McGovern himself.

“It’s pretty surreal and has sort of exceeded all expectations,” he said.

“When Mum and Dad came over to do my jumper presentation before my debut, Dad almost shed a few tears. He was talking about how I had a few serious foot injuries back in 2012 and how I was very close to throwing it in.

“From there to now, having made my AFL debut it seems like the shortest trip in some ways.

“It’s all worth it now. You look back at that, and the rollercoaster I had last year with my Achilles troubles as well, it’s a huge reward and an accomplishment to finally make your AFL debut.”

McGovern credits his Mum and his Dad, who played 83 games for Sydney and Fremantle in the 1990s, for encouraging him to ride out the tough times and stick with footy.

Seeing Jeremy grow from a raw rookie-listed player at West Coast to one of the most exciting defenders in the competition has also been a spur. It’s more than sibling rivalry, though.

Jeremy has helped his younger brother in the transition to football at the elite level.

“I lived with ‘Jez’ for about six months in Perth in his early days at West Coast,” he said.

“I saw the diet and lifestyle changes he had to make when he was getting tarnished for his weight after coming back for pre-season training. With all the advice he gave me, I didn’t really have to experience things like that for myself, firsthand.

“That’s helped me a lot since I’ve been at the Club and with my introduction to the AFL.”

A late-developer, McGovern also benefited from being part of the work force prior to being drafted.

He was working as a credit officer, chasing up unpaid bills, when he was picked up by the Crows.

“I think working full-time helped me to appreciate life in the ‘real’ world,” he said.

“You appreciate the chance you have a lot more now. Also, having the opportunity to live out of home in Perth, away from friends and family (in Albany) probably helps you mature as well.”

McGovern is also maturing in a football sense.

He admits it was hard to take much out of his injury-interrupted first year at West Lakes, but says his time on the sidelines taught him a valuable lesson.

“I’ve learned a lot about listening to my body,” he said.

“I know now to sing out when I feel that my body isn’t quite right. I think that was my main trouble last year. I didn’t speak up as much as I should’ve.

“You just want to put your head down, work hard and earn the respect of your new teammates but, at the same time you can’t do that when you’re in and out of the team with injury all the time.”

McGovern has forced his way into a forward line being talked up as one of the best in the AFL.

While learning as much as he can from Taylor Walker, Josh Jenkins and, in particular, Tom Lynch, McGovern is just focused on playing his role for the team.

He knows it’s not just kicking goals that will keep him in the best 22.

“My main role is forward pressure and my work rate up and down the field,” he said.

“It’s not really a high-possession game, but I think the more I play and the more I get comfortable with my teammates and the way they play, I might get my hands on the ball a bit more. 

"But as long as the team is winning, I'm happy."

McGovern is athletic, can kick on both feet and has that x-factor you can’t describe, but know when you see it.

He can also jump, as evidenced by his huge (but unsuccessful) marking attempt against Richmond on the weekend. As a kid, the “medium-height” McGovern, who finished top 10 in the running vertical leap at the Draft Combine, was thrown into the ruck because of his ability to jump over taller opponents.

“I tried flying for one on the weekend. I don’t know what I was thinking and (forward line coach) David Teague told me off afterwards for not bringing the ball to ground!” he said.

“When I was younger, I tried to go for a few big marks but I didn’t really take many. 

"Fingers crossed I can take a few this year.”

McGovern’s AFL career is off to a promising start, but he knows the selection pressure at Adelaide means that he, and the rest of the current 22, have to be on their game every week.

Knight received a late AFL call-up last week; Cameron kicked four in the SANFL and recruit Troy Menzel was in the best players again, as the competition for spots in the forward line approaches an all-time high.

“Everyone’s playing really good footy and we’ve got a lot of players to choose from,” he said.

“For me to keep my spot I need to continue playing my role and doing everything the best that I can, and try to keep all the boys around me doing the same thing.”

Andrew and Michelle McGovern will be in the Adelaide Oval crowd to watch their son and his team tackle the Swans on Saturday night. The family’s allegiance has changed over the years, but he expects them to be in the Crows camp this week.

“They haven’t seen me play at the highest level at Adelaide Oval yet,” Mitch said.

“Dad used to support Freo. We had a slight lean towards Sydney when we were younger, but since Jezza has been at West Coast and now myself being at Adelaide, I think that’s all over.

“I hope it is. I guess we’ll find out this weekend.”