Some players are great to watch because of their immense physical superiority; they are capable of running faster and longer and with greater agility than the mere mortals around them. Others mesmerise with sublime skills and freakish ability, dazzling with ball in hand or on boot. I like watching Tiger Anthony Miles because he’s an animal.
He is a ball magnet who loves it in close where it is toughest; in amongst the action. His is an interesting story, that of an unfashionable footballer from the country town of Howlong half an hour out of Albury on the Murray River. A young man who had his chance at the GWS Giants for two years only to be delisted after just ten games. He was then unable to find a suitor in the trade market and, to rub salt into the wound, was then overlooked in both the National and Pre-season Drafts.
Finally taken by Richmond with pick 27 in the 2014 Rookie Draft after every club had had several opportunities to take him, Miles made an immediate impact on the Tiger faithful in the pre-season competition. His ability to read the ball around the packs, as well as instinctively attack it when it was there to be won shone through to those weekend watchers removed from the AFL sphere. To those in the inner circles of the Richmond ranks, however, he was less impressive.
Miles was not upgraded to the senior list for the start of the season, with that honour going to experienced duo Matt Thomas and Orren Stephenson. Thomas was the strong midfield body that effectively beat Miles to a spot on the list. Undeterred, he attacked the VFL with force and was regularly listed as being the Tigers’ best player, seemingly collecting more than 30 possessions each week.
The seniors were craving a hard at it ball magnet, but Miles would continue to play in the VFL until he was eventually upgraded in Round 11. Even then, he was forced to wait another week before he would be given his opportunity. Nineteen hard fought possessions and six tackles in the loss to North Melbourne in Round 12 saw him debut for the Tigers, and win the plaudits of the fans.
In the twelve games he would play after that until the end of the season, he would slide below twenty possessions only once, against his old side GWS in Round 19. In fact, the matches immediately following the North Melbourne game, he would tally possession counts of 30, 28, 27, 24 and 28. They are some pretty serious numbers.
A couple of weeks after his debut, Tigers coach Damien Hardwick stated that he and his assistants were surprised with how well Miles was playing at the highest level. To us ordinary football fans, who had been crying out on fan sites and social media for the young man tearing it up in the VFL to be given a go when the incumbents could not get the job done, this was painful listening.
We were left to wonder just why such a player must struggle so hard to get his opportunity when he clearly possessed the most important trait a footballer must possess: the ability to play football. I was reminded of the 1997 movie Gattaca. If you haven’t seen it, let me fill you in.
Gattaca is the tale of a not too distant future where society is using technology to practice eugenics (the improvement of the genetic quality of the human population), and allowing only those people deemed genetically suitable to perform professional/elite jobs. Those people not deemed suitable (ie. those not conceived using genetic selection), could complete only menial work.
It tells the story of two brothers, one genetically weak and one genetically strong, living in a world where their capabilities are assessed and determined by their chemical makeup, and not the human traits of desire and passion. It gives us the ultimate success of the weaker brother by pushing himself to the end of his physical and mental capabilities, as well as using guile and nous to cheat the system in order to gain the opportunities that would be denied him. In the end, he overcomes the obstacles both physical and cultural and achieves his aim of becoming an astronaut, the final scene showing him strapped in, heading to the heavens.
I always saw the film as a good representation of what it is to be human. We can be stubborn, and driven, and wilful, and passionate. We can achieve so much more than we really should be able to. You look around the world today and see the advancements in engineering, construction, IT and pretty much everything, and you see just how extraordinary human endeavour is.
In the back of my mind, I had linked Gattaca to our game, to Aussie Rules Footy. It’s the game that, for over a hundred years, pretty much any size and shape could play at the highest level. From Harry Madden at 6’ 9”, to Tony Liberatore at 5’ 4”, you could be tall or short, or heavy or light, or fast or slow, and if you were bloody good you would still make it.
Something changed in the past 20 years. Recruiters pretty much shied away from anyone who didn’t look impressive in physical testing. If you weren’t over a certain height you were pretty much out. Couldn’t run 20 metres in under a certain time? See ya later. Unable to do the beep test beyond a particular point? Hoo roo.
These are slightly silly examples, but you get my drift. Sam Mitchell was overlooked in two drafts and taken as a rookie. Never mind the fact that he has the ball on a string and is a magnificent kick, the recruiters saw a tubby kid who couldn’t run very fast and refused to take him. Hawthorn, eventually, did, and he became their captain and is now a three time Premiership player.
Which other players might never have been given their opportunity if they were trying to start their career this century? Well, Libba would never have got a go, and Greg Williams would have struggled. How about Tony Lockett and his inability to run out of the 50 metre arc? Tony Shaw probably wouldn’t get a look in, nor would Jason Dunstall, Lou Richards and many more.
The footballing records of these players are extraordinary, and testimony to their desire to succeed. Anthony Miles is 179cm tall and weighs 78kgs; on a stats sheet his physical capabilities are not impressive. He’s not fast, he’s not all that strong, he’s not a great kick, but he can play. Just watch him and you’ll see that he can play.
Hopefully things will turn in the recruiting ranks with the successes of players such as Miles and the seriously short 2014 NAB AFL Rising Star, Lewis Taylor. It would be nice if players such as Miles didn’t have to try so much harder than everyone else just to be given a go. I think that common sense will prevail and an evolution back to the old way will take place, if only a little.
Yes, I love watching Anthony Miles play. It’s like watching one of us out there, giving it a crack with more fire in his belly than any of the athletes he might beat to the ball or give it to after he has done his thing. He perfectly illustrates the Gattaca principle that people are more than what their bodies suggest they are; that there is more to talent than how fast your body can move.
So far, he has only played 13 games for the Tigers but, just like with Gattaca’s protagonist Vincent Freeman, the sky may not be the limit.
Follow Greg Gibson on Twitter: @GregGibbo28