Something to smile about: Lincoln McCarthy. Photo: Pat Scala
This time last year, with his second season as a Geelong footballer about to start, Lincoln McCarthy was getting ready to go on holiday. He'd prefer to have been where he is now - with a fully healed foot and regarded by coach Chris Scott as part of the Cats' best 22 - but knows it was an uncommon blessing.
''Not many 19-year-old footballers can go off travelling around Europe at this time of year, that's the positive you can take out of it,'' McCarthy says of the navicular injury that wrecked his 2013 season. He bubbles with the conviction of someone who can't see the point in moping when there's so much to smile about.
Once the moonboot came off, he and girlfriend Tayla headed to London, on through Italy, did a Contiki tour from Amsterdam to Barcelona, and finished up on the Greek Islands. He laughs at the memory of sitting hunched over a computer in a village on Ios, riding every bump of Geelong's round-eight loss to Collingwood while Tayla lay by the pool.
They made new friends, young blokes from Gippsland he still catches up with. Hiking the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, on narrow paths along jagged cliff edges, he thought, ''Jeez, I probably shouldn't be doing this.'' He reflects that it probably helped his recovery and built his confidence.
The Cats had seen a similar injury end Matthew Egan's career, and knew the value of taking his mind off the job he couldn't do. ''When the body's negative things don't work quite right,'' he says.
All is functioning smoothly now, and he is eager to make up for lost time. It feels like an age since he was running sprints with David Wojcinski, heard a crack in his foot, felt a searing pain, and thought, ''That can't be good.'' That was August, 2012; his one and only game, against Greater Western Sydney, had come two months earlier and amounted to 18 minutes after coming on as the sub.
He was nervous going into the NAB Challenge opener against Collingwood, and regards simply getting that game under his belt as a small milestone. He'd hoped to play VFL at the end of last year, but an increase in weight training upset the facet joint in his back and scuppered that plan.
McCarthy has learnt when to be patient, to pull himself away when others take on extra running. And when to pull the rip cord, too; a first-quarter hit on new Magpie Tony Armstrong was instructive of the power in his 177-centimetre frame. ''I was just lucky to be put in a good situation there, not so lucky for Armstrong I suppose.''
In Alice Springs last week McCarthy felt rushed, that he put himself under pressure when he had the ball and had more time to use it than he took. Now 20, he knows his confidence will build, and with it will come the belief that he can be part of the young brigade that Scott has called on to make the team theirs. ''The coaches are telling the players, these guys have to step up otherwise we're not going to go anywhere. The numbers of our senior blokes are dropping, year by year. Even blokes my age, we have to put the pressure on the core group and they'll put pressure on the senior group. It has a domino effect.''
Against North Melbourne on Friday, he'll set out to be at the feet of Tom Hawkins and Mitch Brown at every contest, to outnumber the opposition and play with the composure he shows at training. ''Hopefully kick a goal too - I haven't got one yet!''
He knows he has an opportunity even more precious than an in-season European vacation. The Cats are unlikely to have a debutant in round one, but a popular young man with just 18 minutes of football and a bad break behind him would be the next best thing.
''Probably the last couple of weeks,'' he says of whether he's started to think about being there against the Crows on March 20. ''We're down on small forwards, it's probably my time to step up and grab it with both hands.''