Michael Barlow will play his 100th game this weekend and the Fremantle star’s unlikely path to the AFL has set the tone for others like him.
Fremantle selected Barlow in the 2010 rookie draft, weeks before his 22nd birthday.
Barlow was overlooked at draft age for a number of reasons. He found plenty of the ball, but was inconsistent and skinny, with clubs not seeing a high-enough ceiling of improvement in him to risk a draft selection.
Recruiters now have a particular focus on athletes rather than natural footballers, simply a product how the game has evolved over the years: however, Barlow was not seen as someone who could cut it in a modern midfield at the time.
Barlow obviously worked hard to improve his weaknesses but he shows that not all AFL-quality players are ready at 18 years old.
Barlow had an immediate impact with some considering him a chance for the Brownlow Medal in his debut season, before a severe broken leg halted his year.
He is now one of the elite midfielders in the competition, and a vital part of Fremantle’s success this year.
Draft scouting and recruiting has come a long way in a short amount of time, with mature age selections like Barlow being few and far between in the 2000s.
Clubs are now pumping far more money into their list management departments in order to find the hidden, mature age gems out in the state competitions, as well as the under 18s.
Barlow – along with the likes of James Podsiadly and Dayne Zorko, who both made immediate impressions upon debuting – can take some of the credit for that change in mindset.
Lower-level competitions like the VFL and the SANFL are now watched carefully for the next crop of mature age players. Just last year, Williamstown midfielder Kane Lambert was picked up by Richmond after multiple years of playing at VFL level, while Coburg’s reigning best and fairest Adam Saad has been ever-present this season for the Suns.
Collingwood brought in Adam Oxley from the NEAFL to fill an immediate list requirement, and the former Redlands defender has similarly played almost every game this season.
There are now numerous stories of players like Lambert, Saad and Oxley coming in every year with clubs knowing they can turn to older players to fill gaps or to add depth to their lists.
A side benefit of this increased spotlight on the state competitions is a rise in the quality of football played, deepening the talent pool further.
Players now know that they have eyes on them from AFL clubs, and talented players who haven’t been drafted in recent years have to look no further than milestone man Barlow to know there’s always a second opportunity to make it to the AFL.