The  football life will always be  a battle for tough guys like Tim Callan.

The football life will always be a battle for tough guys like Tim Callan. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

A few years back I was having coffee with Tim Callan in a Seddon cafe and we got to talking about his football journey.

Tim had originally been picked up by Geelong under the father-son rule (his dad,Terry, played 62 games for the Cats). Between 2003 and 2007, Tim played 15 senior games at the Cats and won their team's VFL best and fairest in 2007.

At the end of the 2007 season, Tim sought a trade to the Western Bulldogs where he played a further 19 senior games, including a few impressive finals appearances.

Tim was one of my favourite players to run out with each week. He prepared himself meticulously, adhered to a strict on-field discipline and was physically courageous to the point of silliness. He's also the only bloke to miss the dart board on three successive Mad Mondays, but that is neither here nor there.

Like so many players who embark on the AFL path, though, his time in the game was too brief. His talent and effort deserved more than the grand total of 34 league games. 

In 2008, as the two of us hunched over our flat whites, he told me something that has stayed with me ever since. Here is my recollection of what he told me.

"Most kids are drafted as one of the stars of their junior teams. They have been put in the middle of the ground and let loose to roam free and do as they please. Their offensive talents have been honed over years of practice. 

"It's only once they get to an AFL club that many of them realise they may not be a star in their team, let alone the entire competition. Only then do many of them realise they have to adapt, find a specific role for the team.

"That is my point of difference. I've never been a star. My whole footy career, through juniors and right up until now, I've been a defensive role player."

I got to thinking about my little piece of Timmy Callan wisdom this week when the annual debate surrounding taggers roared to life once again. Something that I think may have been missed in the whole Brent Macaffer/Trent Cotchin debate is that it takes a great deal of skill and cunning to tag a player of Cotchin's quality.

The cartoon picture we sometimes get of this one-on-one battle is that there is one exquisitely talented player trying to play the game and one player who is a joyless thug. This cartoon is not fair and I would go one further - I think it shows a lack of understanding about how broad the skills in our game are.

As someone who has been both the tagger and the taggee, I have some idea of the mental resilience it takes to overcome either scenario. But my appearances on either side of that coin have only been very occasional. I have nothing but admiration for those players who endure these rigours week in and week out, Macaffer and Cotchin being just two of many.

Most weeks, despite the close attention of the opposition's best "defensive role players", the stars continue to shine. Jobe Watson, Scott Pendelbury, Gary Ablett, Cotchin and co are able to control the game through sheer will and with the help of their teammates. I'm amazed by how often the great players play so well. 

For the role players, the taggers, the stoppers, football life will continue to be a battle - both on the field and in trying to justify their curious ways to so many critics off it.  What keeps them warm at night is a deep sense of self worth that only comes with doing a tough job for your mates and your club.

In 34 league games for the Cats and the Dogs, Timmy Callan put to work his negating skills that he had sharpened since he was a boy. It made him as much a part of footy as the glimmer of the shining stars.