Chris Dawes doesn’t feel like he’s played overly well since he has been back, and yet people have kept telling him he’s been in good form. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Dawes was away overseas when it came time to decide on a new club. Four things about Melbourne had appealed to him, from when it became clear he needed a new club. Number one? He liked the look of the list. Number two? He knew Mark Neeld from Collingwood, and thought it would be good to again work with his old coach. The third reason was that moving there meant shifting just a few hundred metres down Swan Street, and the fourth reason was Mitch Clark.
“It’s funny how things turn out. I met with a few clubs before going overseas, and when I saw Melbourne I met the coach, the chief executive and an assistant coach at the vice-president’s house. And all four of them were gone by the end of the next season,” Dawes said. “But Mitch was probably the biggest reason of all I came here, he was a seriously good player in his first year here and I remember thinking we could work together quite well. As it turned out I don’t think we ever trained in the same training session together, let alone played in the same side.”
There are other reasons the reality has not quite matched the rationale. So far, that is: he has lost none of his hope in the list and, in fact, become more sure of its potential. Dawes had a knee reconstruction before Collingwood drafted him and played through his share of sore spots before leaving two years ago. But two days into his Melbourne career he tore a calf, and two minutes before the last game of the season he injured the other one. In between there was one hamstring strain, a second one, an injured ankle, another torn calf and a knee injury that needed surgery in the middle of the off-season and meant cancelling a do-it-yourself training camp in Arizona with Clark, who had quickly become a good friend and whose struggle with depression Dawes found difficult to watch.
“There were times he hid it really well, and it’s made me want to educate myself a lot more on mental illness, so I know how to identify the signs when people aren’t going well,” he said. “It’s hard to know what to do other than be there as a mate, really. Sometimes people will push you away, and sometimes they'll push you away but you shouldn’t let them push you away. It was hard to watch and my problems were nothing next to what Mitch was going doing through. My only problem was suddenly having to say things like ‘I’ve got to manage my body’, which I’d never really had to do before.”
Through it all, Dawes was sure he had made the right move. Despite all the losses he felt he was where he needed to be “and having a good time. I suppose I wasn’t worn down, as opposed to some of the guys who’d been through the same thing so many times before and had more of the emotional scarring that comes with that.” When he couldn’t play he thought a lot about how he wanted to play, and when soft tissue issues held him up again at the start of this season he knew why he needed to get back as soon as he could, and what he wanted to do when he was there.
Dawes doesn’t talk himself up, at all. He’s a “second forward”, a “support”. He’s “far from the most talented player around”. But watching the Demons start the year without him he saw them kick sideways and backwards, not confident to go forward. He really, really wanted to get back out there, soo when he trained he made sure he trained well enough to not only go straight back into the senior side but to go in with some energy and aggression, to play with some real presence.
He doesn’t feel like he’s played overly well since he has been back, and yet people have kept telling him he’s been in good form. “There’s no way I’ve been at my best, but people keep saying ‘you’re in better form now’ and I think that’s because of some of the work I put in last year on my focus,” Dawes said. “Even though my body hasn’t been great I’ve gotten a lot better in the last 18 months at being aware of how I’m feeling and I’ve gone into games a lot better prepared mentally. I’ve put some real effort into that leading into games, even leading into training sessions and even though last year was a tough one for various reasons I felt like I improved as a footballer. I’m not sure how many observers would agree with that, but I was a lot more confident about what I was doing when the ball was in my area than I’d ever been, and that was mostly because of that mental preparation.
“I’ve gotten better at acknowledging things. If I’m nervous, I’m nervous. I’m better at saying ‘OK, I’m really nervous about this shot at goal’, then thinking ‘that doesn’t matter’ and shifting my focus onto what I really need to be thinking about. I didn’t have a great lead-in this year, but watching us play made me feel like I could make a difference, that if I was there I could help the guys, be a sort of reference point in the forward line more than anything. I was confident I could do that. Last year was frustrating, more than anything. And hard. Being at a new club, wanting to make a good impression, and I suppose being able to do the things I'd been brought here to do.
“Now I think I’ve realised that even if I’m not in great form I can still bring a bit to the forward line in terms of being a bigger body and hopefully getting the guys playing a bit more assertively. If I can do that and it can rub off on some of the other players then that would be really good, because body language is really important for us given where we’ve been. And I think it’s really started to improve.”
Dawes knows what he wants to do when he’s done at the Demons. He’s getting married at the end of the season and wants to move to New York for a while once he’s retired. He is more than halfway through a law degree and he and Paige have already started their family: they have two pugs, Bert and Barney.
But he won’t be going anywhere for a while. “I’ll be doing well to get to 30 the way my body’s going, but I’ve got two years left on my contract and I reckon that’s when this group will be really coming together. Last year it was, ‘how are we ever going to play finals?’ and this year it feels more like ‘if we work as hard as we can and the list is managed well and we kept getting such good coaching, then there’s no reason we won’t get there.’
''Now it’s just a matter of knowing what we’re capable of and doing it more and more regularly so that it becomes the standard. And when it comes together, I just know I’m going to want to be part of that. I’ll be hanging on here for the premiership.”