Good fit: Michael Hibberd in No.1. Photo: Wayne Taylor
MICHAEL Hibberd met Merv Neagle at an Essendon function at the start of this year. They were seated together by chance, but by the end of the night Hibberd felt like he had made a new friend.
''We sat together for a few hours so we had a good chat, and he was easy to talk to,'' Hibberd said. ''It was good. With everything that happened, it was good to meet him and good to know that we got along so well.''
Neagle died four months ago in a truck accident that devastated the players who had worn red and black alongside him. In the aftermath, Hibberd paid attention to what the bold, hard-running wingman's teammates said about him, and could see how much he had meant to them.
Neagle was on the 22-year-old's mind when he went to see coach James Hird recently, to ask whether he could move into the No. 1 guernsey worn by Neagle in the 1980s and left vacant since his eldest son, Jay, was delisted at the end of last year.
So was Mark Harvey, a champion of the club Hibberd also met for the first time this year. So was Mark Johnson, who played in the 2000 premiership, as well as former captain Jack Clarke and the 11 No. 1s who have played in Essendon premierships.
Hibberd wore the number for Frankston in the year he was drafted, but did his research before he dropped in to see Hird, and is glad that he did.
He isn't the only player changing numbers for next year, with Nick O'Brien taking over No. 10, worn most recently by Mark McVeigh, Tom Bellchambers taking Ricky Dyson's No. 2, and Brendon Goddard taking Brent Prismall's No. 9. Joe Daniher will wear his father Anthony's No. 6. Fellow draftees Jason Ashby, Dylan van Unen, Martin Gleeson, Sean Gregory and Nick Kommer to take numbers 14, 33, 35, 37 and 38 respectively.
''No one was wearing No. 1 so I spoke to Hirdy about it,'' Hibberd said. ''I think it has more 100-game players than any other number at the club, so it's a special number at Essendon, and he seemed pretty happy with what I saw in it and was happy for me to take it on.
''There's some great players who have worn it, and a lot of premiership players as well, so it would be nice to follow them. They drill it into us at all the functions we go to, and when you see all the premiership players and get to meet people like Merv you see the friendships they have and how they're friendships that last forever.''
Hibberd's second season at Essendon was punctuated by soft-tissue injuries, which cost him a handful of games but helped him realise how important it is to do everything right in rehab so that when you come back, you come back well.
The half-back was part of the small group the club sent to sample altitude training in Colorado last month, which has given him confidence about how the coaches regard him.
''It was a good way to start the pre-season and hopefully it's something that will help me feel fitter and more confident going into next year,'' he said. ''I'll be 23 by the time next season starts … at that age where I have to take a bit more control of my career and make sure I'm in charge of what happens from here.''