Melbourne Football Club have enjoyed a transformational 12 months or so. It’s been a stunning turnaround.
A list full of ‘potential’, who regressed after such promise in 2018, only to live out their hype a few years later.
Dynamic duo Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver are arguably the best tandem partnership in the middle.
Max Gawn continues his long-winded dominance as the best ruck in the competition, while Jake Lever, Steven May and Christian Salem lead the league’s sturdiest defence.
There’s a raft of other rising stars like Bayley Fritsch, Ed Langdon, Luke Jackson, Kozzy Pickett – the list goes on.
But one player who epitomises the Dees’ much improved culture and selflessness is Alex Neal-Bullen. He may not get much praise externally, he may not be a household name of the AFL, yet his impact deserves considerable praise.
At the end of season 2020 and an agonising ninth placed finish, Melbourne started to question whether certain regulars were surplus to requirements. Tom McDonald was one of those and the other Neal-Bullen; both told they could explore their options at different clubs. It was a bitter pill to swallow. However, in truth most supporters would have given them our collective blessing. Disappointed to see them go after years of service but not gutted, if that occurrence played out.
Fast-forward to Round 9, 2021. Melbourne clocked up their ninth straight win, laying a platform for their eventual premiership and two players at the heart of the incredible transformation? McDonald and Neal-Bullen. Two vital cogs to the DNA of Simon Goodwin’s ruthless brand of footy.
For the man affectionally known as ‘Nibbler’ he’s revitalised his Demons career. No longer maligned, it’s been a complete U-Turn in fortunes. We’re all aware of his endurance as the time trial king and running capabilities, but it comes off the back of other key adjustments to his game. The first is keeping it simple. In the past he had a propensity to rush, hack kick and choose the wrong option.
Now he appears to be better balanced, plays the percentages and has developed a refreshing ability to lower the eyes going inside 50 with crisp ‘worm burners’ as they like to be referenced in footy slang. To reinforce this strong element of his game, he finish behind only McDonald, Petracca and Oliver in goal assists last year.
When it comes to tackling he’s elite. Last season he was the No. 1 player in the competition for tackles inside 50. The heat starts with Nibbler, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas and is ably supported by sparring partners Charlie Spargo and Kozzy Pickett.
Neal-Bullen’s is Goodwin’s link man, akin to Richmond’s unheralded Kane Lambert, who finished third, eighth and ninth in their club best and fairests in 2017, 2019 and 2020 respectively. In his very own premiership year, Nibs claimed eighth in the Keith Bluey Truscott.
The South Australian was seen as an honest toiler for years, only to blossom later, execute his role with perfection in 2021 and make his mark.
The terminology ‘role player’ or ‘play your role’ gets thrown around too much for people’s liking, although the intention is spot on. There’s 22 players on the field and not everyone can be a star and earn the headlines and accolades. It’s the unit that wins flags and those willing to sacrifice, roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work for the team, who are equally as important as the dominant accumulators. Neal-Bullen along with players like Angus Brayshaw are the embodiment of this. As a side note, Gus is another example of the values built within the group when you factor in a third placed Brownlow finish in 2018 playing midfield and took it upon himself to alter his position (and role) for the betterment of the team.
Finally, the one component that became apparent last season was the club’s increased emphasis on Neal-Bullen’s leadership. There were constant references – mostly unprompted – by teammates and coaches, who spoke highly of the half-forward’s communication skills and importance to deliver messages on game day. In the media he exudes calmness, is very clear and direct and reiterates the team’s unselfish nature.
On Wednesday night against the Bulldogs his numbers stacked up handsomely.
Neal-Bullen maximised his possessions and was crucial with the pressure game, helping Melbourne respond when challenged. He’s started off 2022 where he left off after a breakout 2021.
For the Demons faithful, the 2014 draft will always be synonymous with the names Petracca (pick 2) and Brayshaw (pick 3), even Lever who was originally taken at pick 14 by Adelaide. But Nibbler at pick 40 is beginning to represent significant value.
Now a firm fan-favourite and you can tell he really bleeds for the club.
On the brink of exiting, through no desire of his own, Neal-Bullen is a genuine symbol of Melbourne’s meteoric rise.
And at 26 his best years could well be ahead of him.