Tom Boyd lived the dream. Now let him live his life

There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.

Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”

“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.

I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.

I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.

Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.

Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.

I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)

In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.

Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.

At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).

I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.

He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.

First published in The Age, 18 May 2019

The pop art legend hiding in the hinterlands

In the lush subtropical hinterlands behind Noosa Heads, 90 minutes north of Brisbane, a short dirt road takes you to the home of one of the pre-eminent artists of the last century.

In a large, bright studio, down a short incline from the home he shares with daughter Zoe and her partner, Peter Phillips – who made his name in the early 60s in the vanguard of British pop artists along with Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and David Hockney – continues to paint.

Along with large, more abstract recent works and some of his earliest sketches, a few of his most famous pieces are here, including the giant Art-O-Matic Riding High (another painting from the same series, Art-O-Matic Loop-Di-Loop, was used as the cover of a 1984 album by the Cars called Heartbeat City).

But Phillips left behind the style which made him famous, and which he helped pioneer, a long time ago. “I definitely don’t favour the early work,” he says. “I am excited about some of the newest pieces, possibly because it is what interests me most at the moment.”

Recently,  Phillips, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, opened his studio to the public as part of the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. And in spite of whatever misgivings he may have, the event was called POP!, even though the work on display spanned his entire career.

Phillips will always be associated with his early work, even if he refuses to be defined by it. But that’s not his concern. “I’ve continuously evolved and done what I wanted to do, not what other people wanted of me,” he says.

Phillips grew up in Birmingham during the Blitz. “I still get chills when I hear the resemblance of an air raid siren,” he says. “I don’t recall much detail from those early years, but I do recollect burning houses.”

Militaristic themes appear in his latest work. On an easel in the studio, a new painting depicts a fighter jet being loaded with ammunition on one side. On the other, a grinning Ronald McDonald holds a microphone; in between, a young woman poses for a selfie. Two men in overalls carry a crucifix; a piglet suckles from its mother; small explosions erupt in the background.

In work like this, Phillips appears to be exorcising old fears. In 1980, he says, “I composed a painting called Mediator 3 which features a rather large python, the taxidermy model of which was in my studio at the time. I had a profound fear of snakes, and thought if I painted one in detail, it would help. It didn’t help. In that same piece, I also painted a burning house. That didn’t help either.”

His early work wasn’t so grim. In the late 1950s, he attended the Birmingham School of Art, where he learned to paint, before moving to London and the Royal College of Art. There, he says, he was told how not to paint.

He rebelled. So did many of his peers. Allen Jones was thrown out, and Phillips came close. “If you were a talented artist at the time, you were expected to paint landscapes, still life, portraits, and so on,” he says.

Instead, Phillips and his friends began creating work that was vibrant, eye-catching and obsessed with popular culture and commercial iconography – a reaction to the stuffiness of the times.

His teachers were aghast. “They couldn’t believe people would be concerned with this stuff. Some were irrationally angry,” he says. Art critic Lawrence Alloway dubbed it pop art “because it was popping off the walls”.

Phillips says “I was very stubborn – still am. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew I needed to be a good boy and play the game. If you win, you get to make up your own rules.”

By that definition, Phillips has won. In Australia courtesy of a Distinguished Talent visa from the federal government, he ironically now works on large landscapes with abstract features, as though rebelling against his past, even if some of the old obsessions still feature.

Don’t ask him what any of it means, though. “What you see is what you get. Don’t even try,” he advises. Much of its power, though, lies in its ambiguity and juxtapositions of contradictory imagery and information.

Everything on display in Phillips’ gallery is from his own personal collection. Some of it, he says, is sentimental, while other pieces are unfinished. The rest is in galleries and private collections in Europe and America. “This is the first time so much of my art is in Australia.”

Previously, he’s lived in Majorca, Costa Rica and Switzerland. Why Noosa? “The weather. The people. The nature. The food. The clarity of light,” he says. “The older I get the more I like the quiet and prefer nature over cities. And I don’t like neighbours.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2019

David McCormack on being Bandit, Bluey’s dad

As the frontman for Brisbane band Custard, David McCormack was an anomaly in the ultra-serious early-90s world of indie-rock. In an ocean of angst, he was a goofball: whimsical, absurd, childlike and funny.

He can still be all of those things. But McCormack, who turned 50 last year, has two young daughters now, and around a successful soundtrack career as well as occasional reformations of his old band – now more of a hobby – he lives the dad life.

He’s also living it out in cartoon form: McCormack is the voice of Bandit, the dad dog in the ABC Kids animated short series Bluey, which chronicles the adventures of an irrepressible six-year-old blue heeler, her younger sister, Bingo, and her mum, Chilli.

Since premiering last October, Bluey has been a runaway success – with over 75 million plays, according to the ABC, it’s the most-watched show on ABC iView. A series of three Bluey books will be out in time for Christmas, and on Thursday it was announced that Bluey has been renewed for a second season. And it’s brought McCormack a very different kind of new-found fame.

Bluey is aimed at five- to seven-year-olds: that age when kids, like dogs, just want to play all day. Bandit and Chilli (voiced by Melanie Zanetti) are the perennially exhausted but loving parents doing their best to keep up with them.

The episodes are sweet six-minute adventures as relatable for parents as they are recognisable for kids: looking for a lost soft toy (Chickenrat); discovering the natural world (The Creek); making grandma dance (Grannies); a trip with dad to the dump (The Dump).

“How good is going to the dump!” says McCormack. “I relate to that totally, because I do love going to the Refuse Transfer Station, as it’s called now, with the kiddies. They gave me the script and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I don’t have to try too hard to get in the vibe of it.”

Another favourite is The Pool. “The dad takes the kids to somebody’s pool, but in that sort of laissez-faire dad way, forgets to bring all the important things, like sunscreen and flotation devices and thongs to wear on the hot concrete and towels and all that sort of stuff.

“And then the mum turns up and saves the day, she brings all the boring stuff that’s essential. And that’s pretty accurate for my life. My wife is like, do you tell them what’s going on? It’s pretty much like they’ve peered into my life and written it. But it’s universal, right?”

McCormack’s involvement with the show came about by chance, via contacts made with his soundtrack company Sonar. “I thought it was just going to be reading a couple of lines, but I ended up reading all of them for the pilot.”

Initially, he had very little idea what he was reading for. He’s based in Sydney, and voices the part of Bandit remotely, in isolation. The rest of the show is produced in Brisbane, his home town.

“They send me the script, they highlight my lines, and I just read my lines,” he says. “I don’t have to act, I don’t have to change my voice or anything. I don’t hear anybody else talking; all I do is literally read what they tell me to and that’s it. And they do all the animation and all the other voices and the music.

“So I had no idea what it would look like. And then they sent me the pilot and it was like hey, this is pretty good! And it’s a very Brisbane-looking show, it’s all classic Brisbane skylines and architecture and animals, which takes me back to my formative years.”

Another Brisbane band from the same era and with a similar sense of play, Regurgitator, have recently released a children’s album. “When you hear about it you go, of course, Regurgitator would do a kid’s record,” McCormack says.

He marvels at the turn of events himself – “Who would have thought in 1992 that we’d be talking in 2019 about me being the voice of a parent dog?” – but says his parents got the rudest shock. “They’re like, what’s this dog show kids are saying you’re doing the voice to?”

Voicing Bandit, and having daughters of a similar age profile to Bluey and Bingo, has opened McCormack’s eyes to the enormous children’s entertainment market: a world away from the slim pickings available to Custard, now practically a heritage-rock band.

“Kids get involved and suddenly you go, ‘wow – there’s eight different kids’ channels on Foxtel!’ There’s this whole world of bizarre kids’ stuff out there,” he says.

“I’m yet to find out whether it’s the path to riches, but it is the path to being popular at school drop-off time. Lots of other parents are like, ‘Hey! Did I hear your voice on…’ It’s sort of like 1994 all over again, but in the primary-school world.”

First published in The Guardian, 16 May 2019

Chasing rainbows with Aldous Harding

The third album by Aldous Harding, New Zealand’s woman of a thousand voices, is called Designer. Its sleeve represents the title vertically – white on matt black, in a form that immediately recalls the pulsar signal on Joy Division’s classic 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. Like Joy Division, Harding’s name is missing.

On the video for the album’s single, The Barrel, the viewer is led through a tube of drapes to find Harding, in black with a white ruff around her neck and a very tall straw hat. She looks straight down the camera lens – until the hat is pulled down to cover her entire head. Later, she dances in a blue mask, and by the end of the song, in her underwear.

It’s surely the strangest, most disconcerting clip we’ll see or hear this year, full of jarring lyrics that the sparse, eerie music highlights. You can make of it what you want. It’s just Harding being Harding, albeit Aldous (her stage name) rather than Hannah (her real one): a born performer, who either compels or repels listeners by virtue of her sheer otherness.

On a Skype call from New Zealand, a conversation that goes for well longer than the allotted time is filled with long pauses, odd digressions and elliptical observations as she tries to explain her art. “I’m not really trying to do anything, you know, they’re just ideas,” she says. “I can only follow these ideas and the imagery around the choices I make.”

Harding is artfully deflecting the possibility that Designer is especially designed. The first songs that came to her, she says, happened while she was on the road, touring her second album Party – the album which elevated her from a Kiwi curiosity to a cult star, praised by, among others, a one-time New Zealand DJ called Jacinda Ardern.

Those songs, she says, were darker than the ones she wrote at home. “I’m unaware of how much of it is conscious,” she says. “Maybe it was a subconscious strive for balance, which is all I feel like I’m ever trying to do. But even that balance is invisible to me; I couldn’t tell you exactly what that looks like. And if I did, it would be incredibly boring for both of us.”

And she quotes Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Harding is no ingenue, though. Growing up, her mother worked in the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, at the bottom of South Island. “I remember sitting in the dingy old dressing room and watching my Snow White video while she was rehearsing … She did clown work, and she’s a puppeteer. So I know how to work a space, which is all my job is, really.”

If you’ve never seen Harding work that space, look up her rendition of Horizon on Later… With Jools Holland, from 2017. It’s a stark piano ballad of just a few widely spaced chords, played by Harding’s producer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey. Harding sings it perfectly, but it’s the eye-popping theatricality of her performance that lingers.

The connection to Parish came about through both bravura and chance: Melbourne songwriter Laura Jean suggested he might like to work with her; Harding inquired; Parish said yes. “I’m not much of a fan-girl,” Harding says. “Of course, it felt amazing. But at the same time, I didn’t grow up desperate to meet these people or work with these people.

“I remember going, oh, great. That’s positive. But I didn’t punch the air or anything.”

Designer’s nine songs are probably Harding’s most focused set yet – or most balanced, as she suggests. But it’s still an enigma wrapped in a riddle, as she deploys, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, different voices from song to song. Trying to pin her down, on record or in conversation, is like chasing rainbows.

“I guess they’re characters,” she says of those voices. But they’re all her. “It’s an instrument, you know – people change the settings on their guitar, depending on where they want to take you, or take themselves. That’s what they’re there for, and because I am a theatrical, diverse person I don’t see any harm in that, in embracing all of those parts.”

“I guess that’s kind of what Designer is about … I knew what people would do with that word. We all know what that word means.” She loses the thread, thinking through what she’d do with that word herself. “Maybe I was going for a combination of, this is something I’ve worked really hard on, you know, in my head, for you to understand or to feel.”

Whether you enjoy what Harding does or not maybe depends on how comfortable you are with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in her work, and her. “That’s how I feel a lot of the time, because like a lot of people, I am a lot of different things at once. And sometimes it’s hard to understand yourself, or accept yourself and whatever state you’re in.

Does she enjoy unsettling an audience? “I enjoy doing the thing that I find interesting really well,” she says, suddenly sounding very uncomfortable herself. “Segments of my generation seem to have an issue with admitting they’ve been affected [by something], you know, they’ve [got their] hands in their pockets.

“Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m not somebody who could necessarily hold your interest in any other way. I don’t know a lot about art and music culture. And I am a little shy, and I like that I am who I am, and I can get up there and do something interesting, knowing that the person up there is not necessarily the person you would meet, and how nice that is.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 26 April 2019

21 July 1969: The day that stopped the clock in Vietnam

Bill Wilcox’s watch stopped dead at 2.20pm on 21 July 1969 and never restarted. A field engineer in 1 Squadron in the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) in the Australian army, he’d been up in the Long Hai hills in south-eastern Vietnam for about 10 days. He and his mates were due for a break.

It had been dirty work, even by wartime standards: dropping into active tunnel systems used by the Viet Cong, at risk of underground combat or possible asphyxiation and mine demolitions.

The irony was the engineers were mostly destroying their own mines, laid two years earlier. Nearly 23,000 US M16 “jumping jack” mines had been buried in a barrier aimed at isolating their enemy combatants in the jungle.

But the field hadn’t been properly secured. At enormous risk to themselves, with many soldiers lost, the North Vietnamese army learned to excavate and redeploy the mines against Australian forces.

Wilcox and the rest of 1 Squadron were heading back to base in a helicopter when they received the news that members of the 6th Battalion, of the Royal Australian Regiment, had strayed into a minefield in the “light green”, with one killed and many more wounded.

The “light green” was an area on the map that had been partially cleared – where defoliants including Agent Orange were used to strip the forest canopy of cover and where mines were likely to have been buried.

With nowhere for the helicopter to land amid the rubber trees, Wilcox and five others, including medical officer Capt Robert Anderson, were winched down. Another was Sapper Dave Sturmer, who spotted a three-pronged stick in a tree indicating that three mines were in the area.

But only one had gone off.

After they landed, the first person Wilcox came to was Frank Hunt, later immortalised in Australian folk group Redgum’s song I Was Only 19: “Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon.” Along with other members of his battalion, Hunt had been listening to a broadcast of the moon landing the previous evening.

But Hunt had survived. In the song, written by John Schumann, his name had replaced that of Lieutenant Peter Hines. Hines’ body lay several metres away, though he too had survived the initial blast and had been giving directions until his death.

Hunt was in a bad way and was one of the first to be “dusted off” – slang for medically evacuated. “He copped it in the lower body and legs and he was smashed up real bad,” says Wilcox, now the president of the Oberon and Blue Mountains RSL sub-branches.

In the meantime, one unexploded device was located nearby. One more remained. Wilcox and company taped off safe areas, trying to clear enough space for a helipad so the remaining injured could be airlifted out.

Then the medical officer, Captain Robert Trevor Anderson, took a step outside the tape.

Jumping jacks, when disturbed, would spring from the earth into the air before detonating around waist height, but this one blew up beneath the soil, directly under Anderson. Somehow, he remained standing, still conscious, his clothes torn off.

“I was thrown probably 10 metres away, after the explosion, and I didn’t black out, I was still conscious,” Wilcox says. “I looked back and all I could see was red – like a stump – and it was Anderson.”

Corporal Johnny Needs was about 20 metres from the blast but took a single piece through the heart. He died in a comrade’s arms. Wilcox took more of the metal, mostly in his left side and knee.

Some of his own equipment saved him. “A heap of pieces went straight into a battery box, which saved my left hip, otherwise it would have smashed it as well as my knee.” His watch also took a hit for him.

Within 45 minutes, Wilcox had been dusted off himself to the military hospital in Vung Tau. With the chopper full, he was strapped to one of the landing runners. Still fully conscious, he watched for sniper fire as they lifted above the tree line.

“I thought, ‘Jeez, if I’m not dead now, I soon will be,’” he says. “I’ve got a little model at home of a chopper with a stretcher on the outside with a little dummy in it – that was me.”

Schumann was a left-wing firebrand and the singer and songwriter of Redgum, one of Australia’s most popular and political bands in the 80s. The song was written from the point of view of Schumann’s brother-in-law, Mick Storen, a veteran from the 6th Battalion. When he wrote the song, Schumann was going out with Storen’s sister, Denise – “Denny” in the song – and he figured he might have a tetchy relationship with Storen.

One night Storen surprised him by coming to a Redgum gig and, after the show, “on the wings of a six-pack”, Schumann asked him to tell him his story.

Denise had warned him not to. History had not been kind to the Vietnam war or those who took part in it. “It was Mick Storen’s courage and trust to step outside the closed circle of Vietnam veterans that [propelled] 19 into the world,” Schumann says.

In 1983, after the song’s release, Wilcox was driving trucks. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been unable to settle into regular work. It was on long-haul shifts that he first heard I Was Only 19 on the radio.

It took a while for the penny to drop as to what Schumann was singing about. “It never hit me until it was pointed out to me that it was about our set-up. It might have been weeks before I even realised. It’s still a very moving thing when I hear it.”

Anderson, who was blinded by the mine that blew under his feet, became a celebrated psychiatrist in Melbourne, served on many veterans’ committees and was the RSL Anzac of the year in 1991. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

Hunt lives on the far south coast of New South Wales. He didn’t kick the mine himself – that was Hines – but was written into the role by Schumann, with consent. “Everyone is Frankie,” he told the ABC in 2015.

These days Schumann is a little tired of talking about 19. He has written a new song, Graduation Day, about police suffering from PTSD. It hits a similar nerve to his classic, and he finds himself fielding unusual media invitations from the likes of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.

“Having a song like 19 in your catalogue is like having five kids, and you love all of them equally, but one of them plays AFL footy – and the only kid of yours that anyone outside the family wants to talk about is the AFL footy player,” he says now.

But he’s also proud. “A songwriter gets to write something like 19, if they’re lucky, once in their life. I researched it really well and I thought about it a lot, but it was one of those songs I wrote in five minutes … I look back and I go, ‘Wow, that was something else.’”

In 2010 Wilcox revisited the site where he nearly lost his life. This year he hopes to go back on 21 July, for the 50th anniversary of something more significant than the moon landing. At 2.20pm, his stopped watch will be right again.

First published in The Guardian, 25 April 2019

Going public, or private, on mental health in the AFL

Let’s say a player at an AFL club has a mental health issue. He, or now she, may be struggling with depression, or clinical levels of anxiety, or even one of the more complex conditions recognised in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

They go to see the club psychologist, and talk things over with the coach and footy manager. It’s agreed some time out of the game is required, just as effectively as if the player was physically injured.

The club and player concerned then face a difficult decision. Should they go public, as Alex Fasolo, Tom Boyd, Lance Franklin and (going back further) Mitch Clark and Nathan Thompson have all done?

In Franklin’s case, he may hardly have had a choice: his enormous profile meant that any absence from the game leading up to the 2015 finals was always going to be heavily scrutinised and would require a public explanation.

Most of us, in less public lines of work, don’t face that question. If we’re lucky, we may have access to stress or sick leave, and we go home to fight our battles privately, hopefully with the support of family and close friends.

Let’s now say a player wants to take this latter option: to keep his or her struggle under wraps, after making the decision that going public will only exacerbate the stress and pressure they’re already under.

The club, of course, supports the player’s decision and does its best to honour it – knowing, at the same time, that the media will ask questions, that club forums and social media will be chattering about his or her absence, and that the industry leaks like a sieve.

“You’re trying to balance player confidentiality versus public expectation of wanting to know what’s happening,” says a football manager at a club in exactly this situation [not identified to protect the  player’s privacy].

“Our overarching aim at all times is what’s in the best interests of the player, so we’ll always revert to that, but the system both within how we report player injuries and actual media interest in it sometimes makes that a difficult situation to navigate.”

Going public with a mental health problem is often rightly lauded for its courage, especially in the context of competitive sport. They remind us that our sporting heroes are as vulnerable and have as many human frailties as the rest of us.

“We know that a lot of people who have mental health issues aren’t getting treatment, for a start, and certainly young men would be in that category, not just footballers,” says the same club’s head psychologist.

“We know that’s the case, so helping them, broadly speaking, and helping players and young coaches know more about these things is absolutely a good thing, there’s no question about that.”

But while removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues is a worthwhile aim, not all heroes wear capes, or want to be poster boys or girls for a cause. Doing so only adds another layer of scrutiny in a hyper-scrutinised environment.

“There may be a necessity to keep things pretty private, because the recovery process and helping people get back on their feet from some of the challenges they’re experiencing is a sensitive issue and can take time,” says the psychologist.

“It depends on the individual as to how they actually deal with those things. We want their hands to be on the steering wheel, in terms of who needs to know and how they would like to proceed.”

Brent Hedley, the AFL Players’ Association’s head of mental health and wellbeing, agrees that keeping health issues private is a challenge.

“The simple fact is that players’ lives are now more public than ever, and it’s becoming really hard for players to keep things in the background [with] the level of surveillance that occurs through media and the public.

“We’ve obviously witnessed a recent growth in the number of players that have spoken publicly. And while that’s really heartening, and it supports the de-stigmatisation of mental health [issues], we want to stress is that player consent in that process is paramount.”

Both Hedley and the football manager agree that it becomes more difficult when mental health issues intersect with poor on-field performance and, especially, erratic or anti-social off-field behaviour.

Of course, few young workers are as heavily psychologically profiled as elite athletes entering the world of professional sport. Long before prospective players begin their careers, the AFL actively seeks to weed out those unsuited to its particular rigours.

“There’s standard psychometric and psychological testing that the AFL does for all potential draftees, and all that information’s accessible to all of the AFL clubs,” the football manager says.

“We have our own sports psychologists who we engage specifically around the recruitment process, and their job is not necessarily to find reasons not to draft particular players, but to make sure that we have a complete picture to make sure we can give them every opportunity once they do come in.”

Whatever screening a player goes through before being drafted, clubs also need to be aware that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect a person at any time.

According to Beyond Blue, one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime, one in five will experience clinical anxiety, and one in seven will experience both in the space of a single year. And evidence suggests men are less likely to seek help than women.

But, Hedley says, that increasing awareness means that the response to players who do open up about their struggles – whether it’s just to their teammates and club, or the broader public – is increasingly supportive.

“What we do witness time and time again is an overwhelmingly positive public and industry response. There’s a really strong thread of care and compassion,” he says.

“There’s no coincidence that more players are opening up, for that very reason.”

The point is that players need to know not only that they can ask for support, but that they can dictate the sort of support they want and need – hopefully with the cooperation of the media and understanding of fans.

“Ultimately the player needs to drive it,” says the club football manager.

“Like, OK, here are the options in front of me; I’d like to go down this path, and I understand that if I go down that path, then these are the potential consequences.

“And one of them may be that if it’s out in the public, that some people are going to make judgments, that there might be some embarrassment or commentary on it or whatever it might be.

“So the player needs to understand the implications of each option, and it has to be [their] choice, so [they’re] making that choice not under any pressure, but with strong support.”

Lifeline 131 114 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

First published in The Age, 19 April 2019