The luckiest man counts his blessings
Mitch Morton finally achieves his life-long ambition of playing in a premiership team.
IT WASN'T all warm and fuzzy in Sydney's dressing room last night. Amid the kissing, hugging, backslapping and beer bottle chinking, there was some ribbing.
In just his fifth game for this third AFL club, Mitch Morton became a premiership player. And as the cup was literally being passed around and drunk from, the still relatively new teammates of the former Richmond and West Coast player didn't hesitate to point out his outrageous fortune.
Flying high: Swan Mitch Morton celebrates a second quarter goal. Photo: Pat Scala
Josh Kennedy, walking by, said: ''There's the luckiest man in Australia!''
Dan Hannebery: ''The danger man, Morton!''
And then a chime-in from Nick Davis, another former AFL delinquent made good by the Swans: ''Thank the goalkicking coach. Thank the goalkicking coach.''
When at the end of last season, at 24, Morton was cut by the Tigers - the club that gave him a second chance after a three-year, 12-game stint at West Coast - he had no idea whether he would play another senior game. After Sydney's coaching hierarchy requested a meeting, he faced an inquisition.
''They had a lot of questions which were hard questions to answer,'' Morton said last night of the first time he met John Longmire.
''Questions like: 'why do you think your career has gone the way it has gone?' And: 'you know there's a perception of you, do you agree with it?'
''My answer was that all I ever wanted was to be part of a successful team.''
Morton was able to provide the Swans with some substantial evidence of his willingness to achieve. Straight after last season, with his football future entirely up in the air, he took himself to Thailand. Not for cheap cocktails, but for five weeks of kickboxing.
''I got really, really fit,'' he said last night. ''I thought my career was pretty much over, but I thought if someone knew how much I wanted it they might give me another chance. Spending five weeks staying in a room with no airconditioning, training for seven hours a day, I thought might be an indication that I really wanted it. I hoped someone might appreciate that after I'd done it.''
Even if the coaches were sufficiently impressed to offer him a one-year contract, they certainly made it clear that an extra-curricular fitness campaign - no matter how dedicated - would not unlock the gate to the senior side.
Only last month it seemed the select audience that would enjoy Morton's best work this year would be those who follow reserves football in New South Wales. Playing for the Swans' seconds, he booted 79 goals before he received a promotion in round 21 and held his place in round 22 before being demoted again for Sydney's round-23 match against Geelong.
Morton's next three games were the first finals of his career. And yesterday, in the most important, he not only kicked two crucial goals - a consecutive pair that gave Sydney a 16-point half-time lead - but played a part so significant in Kieren Jack's leveller in the final term that the effort was singled out by the coach.
Morton is not the first to say that the Sydney Football Club has changed him, but reflected last night: ''It's made me realise what's important in life. I think I started to believe peoples' perceptions a little bit, to be honest - that I wasn't a team player, that I wasn't this or that. When people tell you it so often it's hard not to believe it.
''I've struggled with that since I was 17. At my first day at training when I was 17, excuse my language but I got asked 'who the f**k do I think I am', and it shattered me. It took me three years to get over it because it wasn't me.''
From well-known Western Australian football stock, Morton's father Noel was a 1981 premiership player for Claremont. One younger brother, Jarryd, played 22 games for Hawthorn while on the club's list between 2007-11. Another, Cale, was drafted by Melbourne with the fourth pick of the 2007 draft. Home for the family used to be Lake Grace which, from a population of around 500, has produced remarkable talent in former Geelong captain Mark Bairstow and Fremantle gun Nat Fyfe, who grew up next door to the Mortons.
''There's not much to do in Lake Grace apart from play sport,'' Mitch said last night.
''Mum knew dinner was on when the sun went down because until then we were playing sport.''
Morton had a posse of around 20 supporting him yesterday, including his father, grandmother and an uncle who left Kununurra at midnight on Friday night and drove seven hours to Darwin in order to board a 7am flight yesterday morning to make it to the MCG.
''It was 31 years ago that dad won a premiership with Claremont and ever since I've seen the interaction he has with his mates,'' Morton said.
''They caught up last night down at Southbank and they still catch up every year. That's all I've ever wanted, and I've got it now. It's the best feeling in the world.''