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Matthew Pavlich: The journey to one

300 games in a snapshot Take a look at Matthew Pavlich's career stats in 90 seconds
Instead of having to devise tactical solutions to issues, I’d turn up to the footy and just sit back and enjoy the show
Tony Goodrich, Sacred Heart coach
As seen in Docker Mag

In 2014, MATTHEW PAVLICH became the first WA-based player to reach 300 AFL games. The qualities that got him there – dedication, leadership, a team- first mentality and skill – were forged well before the greatest player in Fremantle Dockers’ history arrived at the club. STORY: COSTA KASTANIS

Not wanting to place any pressure on him, Steve Pavlich told his seven- year-old son he didn’t have to play Australian Rules football if he didn’t want to. But the expectation was inescapable for Matthew.

His father was a South Australian footballer who played for SANFL side West Torrens from 1967, when he was a 14-year-old playing under 17s, until his retirement in 1987. Steve later coached the reserves, and he would take Matthew to West Torrens’ home ground Thebarton Oval every weekend to watch the Eagles play at all levels.

Matthew spent much of his childhood wandering around the club grounds and inside the change rooms. When father and son would return home to Kidman Park, not far from the Thebarton gates, the football day was not finished.

“He’d come watch the game I was coaching, and then back home it’d be ‘lets have a kick dad’,” Steve says.

“He loved the game.”

Matthew loved sport in general. “He grew up always having a ball to play with,” Steve says.

“It became natural; it was either a tennis ball, or a cricket ball, or a football or a basketball. He always had a ball.”

Matthew liked the other sports, but he didn’t have much of a choice with football. It was in his blood. When his younger sister Jesse was in school, she was tested at the Australian Institute of Sport to see what sport she was best suited for. The result was Australian Rules.

Matthew also loved soccer, but at age seven he had to choose between it and Australian Rules.
“He played soccer first and he was a good soccer player,” Steve says.

“I told him if he didn’t want to play footy, he didn’t have to.

“But he said, ‘no dad, I want to play footy’.”

And so, Matthew Pavlich joined the under 8s football team at St Francis Lockley’s Primary School. There was only one problem - the team needed a coach.

“The principal said we needed parents to put their hands up because there were no teachers who could do it,” Steve says.

“If they couldn’t find a parent, the kids wouldn’t play.”

Steve could feel Matthew’s eyes turn towards him, as if to suggest his dad might be the man for the job.

“I said to Matthew I didn’t want to be a standover coach and I’m sure someone will put their hand up,” Steve says.

“So we sat there waiting for someone to put their hand up.

“No one did, so I became his first coach in footy.”

For Steve, it was a different perspective on coaching, but one he valued greatly.

“Many of these kids didn’t have any idea how to catch a ball,” he said.

“It was a great learning curve for me and really enjoyable after coaching at SANFL reserves level.”

Matthew played his first game at Flinders Park Primary School, which was near his Kidman Park home. Having come from a soccer background, where there was no offside rule at junior level, he initially struggled to grasp the concept of playing in one position.

“In soccer, he would run from goal to goals,” Steve says.

“On the bigger football ground, he was trying to do the same thing that he did at soccer, get to every contest.

“At quarter time he was bright red and I thought he was going to collapse.

“I told him ‘you’re going to kill yourself doing that’.”

Steve’s advice to his son was to run smarter rather than further.

“I told him not to try and read where the ball is going to be the first time, to try and be where the ball is going to be the second time and that way you won’t have to get to every contest,” he says.

“After that, he settled into it. It seemed to come natural to him, being able to read that second kick, which held him in good stead for his future development.

“Funnily enough, we can probably credit soccer for his incredible work ethic on the footy field.”

Some of Matthew’s other characteristics began to emerge in his first year of football. Steve recalls the leadership his son displayed on and off the field throughout that season, leadership, he says, was incredibly rare in someone so young.

“I used to spend most of Friday night trying to figure out how every child would get equal time on the ground and how we’d rotate so I didn’t have all the good players on at the same time,” he says.

“Matthew was supportive, he didn’t mind coming off or playing less to give someone else a go. And if we were playing a side not as strong, he’d ask to play full-back.”

Matthew would also take on the unofficial role of assistant coach to his father.

“He’d go out there on game day and help line the team up,” Steve says.

“‘Forward pocket, you’re standing there, you’re standing there’, and then he’d spread out the midfielders.”

Steve says Matthew was clearly a standout player in the team, but what impressed the coach most was his willingness to share and not dominate, when he easily could have.

“He was very good on the field at that level but he was just so team- oriented, he’d go out of his way to share the ball around with his teammates and support them,” he says.

“If there was a kid who couldn’t catch the ball, if that kid took a mark for the first time, Matthew would be over to that child and patting him on the back.”

Steve eventually took a step back once the school got some more teachers who could coach the football team. There were countless moments throughout his primary school years in which young Matthew displayed his potential. Mother Jan recalls her personal favourite – a passage of play out at Woodville that left onlookers questioning if what they’d just seen actually happened.

“A lad from the opposition had the ball and he was in the process of kicking it,” she says.

“He dropped it from his hand onto his foot, but it didn’t get to his foot. Matthew intercepted it, turned around immediately and kicked a goal.

“He’s read the ball off this lad’s hands. His reflexes were that good, that between the player dropping the ball from his hands to getting to his foot, he’s nabbed it. It left everyone stunned.”

Some onlookers in his early years even questioned whether Matthew should have been playing.

“I remember a game for St Francis where Matthew was playing well,” Jan says.

“This lady from the opposition team was standing near us and she was getting very angry.

“She demanded that she see his birth certificate because she didn’t believe that he was young enough to be in the side.

“It was so funny. I just stood there and didn’t say anything.”

Matthew supported West Torrens throughout his early years. The club merged with Woodville to become Woodville-West Torrens in 1991, the same year the Adelaide Crows became SA's first AFL team.

Ten-year-old Matthew played in the very last mini-league game West Torrens participated in at Football Park before the merger.

After primary school, he attended Sacred Heart College, where he joined the football team and kicked a goal with his first kick in his first game. He also played for Woodville- West Torrens’ development squad. Matthew always played against older kids in his junior days.

“At 14 he was playing under 17s for Woodville-West Torrens and in the under 16s State team,” Steve says.

Despite being the ‘little kid’

by virtue of his age, Matthew’s performances on the field were big.

“I remember a game when he was in year 10 playing for Sacred Heart’s First XVIII, which is usually upper school kids,” Jan says.

“He kicked 13.1.

“For a year 10 to be playing First XVIII and kick 13 goals, it did annoy the opposition a little bit I think, especially the older kids.”

One of Matthew’s greatest on-field attributes was his ability to play whatever role his team needed him to. Steve remembers a Sacred Heart game in year 11 against Assumption College during the annual school exchange in Adelaide.

Matthew had kicked six goals to half-time playing at centre half forward, but it wasn’t enough.

“They were really struggling at three-quarter-time, so they threw Matthew into the ruck,” he says.

“He just had an outstanding last quarter and turned the game around.”

Teacher Tony Goodrich coached Matthew in year 11 and 12 at Sacred Heart. He remembers a humble lad who was ‘one out of the box’.

“It was obvious to me that he was an exceptional talent,” he says.

“It’s rare for a year 11 to be able to have such a profound influence on a game, but Matthew could.

“Instead of having to devise tactical solutions to issues, I’d turn up to the footy and just sit back and enjoy the show.”

But it wasn’t Matthew’s exploits on the field that stood out as Tony’s most vivid memory. In year 12, Matthew was playing State 18s and for Woodville-West Torrens, meaning he wasn’t always available for his school side.

An annual clash was coming up against Assumption College, in Melbourne, which was a significant date on Sacred Heart’s football calendar. Matthew’s State duties had been completed and the opportunity was there for him to play.

“He declined the offer,” Tony says.

“He didn’t want to take somebody else’s place who had been a regular member.

“There are kids who have been drafted to the AFL on the basis of their performance in that game, but he thought it was the right thing to do.

“That’s always stuck with me as a really good measure of the content of his character.”

The year before Matthew played for SA in the 1998 under 18s carnival – the springboard to AFL selection – he hit a road bump.

Near the end of 1997 he was diagnosed with osteitis pubis (OP).

“For three or four months he wasn’t allowed to do anything,” Steve says. “For someone who loves sport so much, it was tough to take.”

But Matthew was determined to overcome the injury, and he was willing to do whatever it took.

“He was shattered, but he was very disciplined,” Steve says.

“He did everything the physio asked of him. He did all his exercises, everything he could to make himself right.

“To be 15, and see the commitment he made to get himself right, it was very impressive.”

Matthew beat the OP and he took his place in the SA under 18s team in 1998.

With his birthday falling on 31 December, he played as a 16-year- old. Matthew impressed and his name was being circulated loudly in discussions for the upcoming AFL Draft.

Jan remembers a State game out at Prospect Oval, when a man approached her.

“He handed me a card, and he said, you’re going to need this,” she says. “It turns out he was a player manager.”

Matthew was technically still a year away from draft age, but clubs back then were allowed to select one underage player turning 17 in the draft year. The interest was large. Steve says he and Jan received letters from Geelong, West Coast, Collingwood, and local clubs Adelaide and Port Adelaide.

But Steve and Jan were determined for Matthew to stay in SA and finish his final year at Sacred Heart.

“Clubs offered him a lovely family to live with and a new school to finish year 12 at, but we said we’d prefer for him to stay in Adelaide and do that,” she says.

“So we were hoping Adelaide or Port Adelaide would take him.”

But come draft day, neither SA club selected Matthew, both electing to draft taller players.

“That was disappointing for him,” Steve says. “He thought the Crows or Power would pick him up.”

In 1999, Matthew played at league level for Woodville-West Torrens under coach Mark Mickan.

His first two kicks in his first game for the team were goals. Matthew later represented his state at SANFL level and helped beat Victoria in a memorable match at the MCG.

Steve will never forget what coach Michael Noonan told him after the match.

“He came up to me and said: ‘You’ve got a special son, there’.”

Towards the end of what Steve described as a big year for Matthew was the AFL Draft, again.

This time, there was no doubt that Matthew would be drafted. The only unknown was, where?

“He got a letter from nearly every club.” Steve says. “Matthew now realised he was going to go early in the draft.”

The selfish side of his parents wanted him to stay in SA, or go to Victoria, which wasn’t too far away.

But there was strong interest coming from the West. Fremantle was loaded with early picks in the draft. The club had selections one, four
and five. It was already committed to taking local product Paul Hasleby with one. Collingwood, which entered the draft with picks two and three, was going to take ruckman Josh Fraser with its first selection.

“Collingwood were pretty keen on Matthew, so we thought that is where he was going to go with pick three,” Steve says.

But the Magpies decided to trade that pick to Richmond for selection seven and ruckman Steven McKee.

“I didn’t think Richmond, who had Brendon Gale, Matthew Richardson and other big players, would go for Matthew,” Steve says.

“It looked like he was going to go to Freo.”

Steve was correct. Freo Dockers recruiting manager Phil Smart called out player 4391: Matthew Pavlich, Woodville-West Torrens.

“It was a weird feeling,” Jan says.

“You’re elated that he’s been selected, but you know he’s going to WA and it’s a long way away.”

And so Matthew left Adelaide bound for Fremantle. Jan has ensured that, to this day, his bedroom remains just as her son left it. A picture of his idol Tony Modra is pinned on a board above his bedhead, along with autographs from other Adelaide Crows’ players, a Pearl Jam concert ticket and sports carnival ribbons he’d won over the years.

Matthew touched down at Perth Airport and made his way to Aquinas College to join his new team for a pre-season training session.

“We’d just got home from a funeral, and we got a call from the club,” Jan says.

“They said he was in intensive care after passing out during his first training session. “Not long after that he was in a car accident, he ran into the back of teammate Troy Cook.”

But Matthew soon settled in and did exactly what he’d done in every football team he’d played in – he impressed. His parents received another phone call during the week of the club’s round 5 game against Melbourne at the WACA in 2000.

But this time, Matthew was on the other end and the news was good. “He rang up and said ‘I’m in mum and dad’,” Jan says.

“I was a nervous wreck. But then again, I have been for every game Matthew has ever played.”

The club flew Matthew’s family to Perth to watch their son make his AFL debut.

“We saw him when he emerged from the race,” Steve recalls.

“His eyes were large and staring with great focus. Then he took this deep breath, you could see how excited he was.”

He kicked two goals with his first two kicks in AFL football.

The words of Fremantle legend Shaun McManus, in a special presentation in the rooms before Matthew’s 300th game, sum up what he accomplished in the ensuing 14 years:

Matthew, you saved this football club,” McManus said.