At one stage, Ryan O'Keefe had considered leaving the Swans. He's glad he didn't.
HAD Ryan O'Keefe won the Norm Smith Medal three or more years ago, it might have been for kicking six goals from the half-forward line, having saved them all for the most important times possible. He probably, then, wouldn't have turned up to a post-match press conference with a slightly fat lip and 15 tackles beside his name on the stats sheet.
But yesterday, after Hawthorn made the faster start, somebody had to put their foot down. The old O'Keefe might have kicked the goals that made sure his side's resurgence counted, yesterday, he set up the resurgence.
The transformation from goal-kicking forward is one the 31-year-old has enjoyed and it began long before yesterday's double appearance on the presentation stage, which meant he had two medals hanging around his neck last night instead of one.
''I enjoy it. I just enjoy getting in amongst it, where the action is, being physical,'' he said. ''I'm just enjoying my footy at the moment. The coaches have given me the confidence just to back myself in, and to get in there and get physical.''
O'Keefe was sure he wouldn't have won his second medal without his teammates, whether they were getting him the ball or making him look good. He shook his head then smiled remembering a wayward pass to Lewis Jetta during the tense final quarter, the Hawks able to win the ball back but only briefly, with Marty Mattner holding them up before too much damage was done. ''I thought he was quicker than that,'' said O'Keefe of Jetta. ''It probably wasn't my best option. Once I did it, I gave myself an uppercut, really. Thank god Marty Mattner was out there on the other side. Marty saved my skin.''
That's the way the Swans do it and if O'Keefe knew one thing about his side yesterday it was that it would hang in and persist until the final siren. ''It's a credit to the group because we always knew we just had to persevere. We got the momentum, they got the momentum, and you knew that was how the game was going to pan out all day. These games are always going to go down to the wire, to the last few minutes, and that's what we did today.''
His part in that mattered, because he is a player who does exactly what he wants done. The simple numbers said plenty about O'Keefe's game: 28 disposals, almost half of them contested, seven clearances, four inside 50s and, of course, those 15 tackles. He was relentless, robust, all the things he needed to be. He laid five more tackles than the next best and had more tackles than 25 players had possessions.
O'Keefe was a young player when the Swans became the Bloods, deciding to demand more of each other, not wait to hear it from their coaches.
''I suppose the guys that have been around for a while, we built this from the ground up and we just try and set a good example,'' he said. ''It's not all talk and ra-ra, it's all about actions and we tell guys, if you want to be a part of if, you jump on board and help drive it. To the boys' credit, it's not just about the 22 who played today. Right through our whole list, everyone bought in and really made it what it is.''
It is an environment that O'Keefe considered leaving four years ago. Ironically it was Hawthorn, fresh off its 2008 premiership, that spent trade week trying to add him to its forward line, only for the deal to fall through, the Hawks reluctant to part with their first draft pick, the Swans demanding it, the Hawks ultimately unconvinced of O'Keefe's desperation to leave and O'Keefe eventually signing a new three-year deal at Sydney. The next year he made his first move into the midfield and won the club's best and fairest. Last night, it all felt long ago.
''That happened, what happened, and that's done and dusted. I've forgotten about that,'' he said. ''Once it was all done I made a commitment to everyone here and I'm just so happy to be a part of this club.
''It's a sensational club right from the top to the bottom, all the support staff and everyone like that. This week's been a huge week, not just for the players but for everyone involved in the club.''
After Nick Malceski snapped the goal that made sure of Sydney's win, with just 34 seconds to go, O'Keefe thought two things: ''How long left, and blow the siren please.''
Then he was briefly a bit too concerned for his team.
''Some of the efforts from the boys were just enormous in that last bit of the game,'' he said.
''When 'Mal' kicked that last goal it was just, 'get the world behind the ball, bottle it up and make sure they couldn't score'. There were a couple of stoppages there and I think I said, 'we can't have a point, just take another stoppage' and it ended up being a goal, which wasn't too bad.
''When it did go through I think I just bolted back behind the ball and so did everyone. I thought: 'hang on, I'd better get back into the middle, no one's in there'.''
Despite all that, it seems O'Keefe already knew how it would end. ''He came up to me before the game today and grabbed me, patted me on the head and said 'don't worry, we'll be right','' said his coach, John Longmire. ''And he was right, which I'm pretty happy about. He led from the front. I thought all our leaders did that, but Ryan went into the middle and he was sensational. To have 15 tackles at this time of year, in a grand final, it's what [the team] needs. He was enormous.''
Norm Smith Medal voting
12 Ryan O'Keefe (Sydney)
7 Brad Sewell (Hawthorn)
5 Daniel Hannebery (Sydney)
5 Lance Franklin (Hawthorn)
1 Jarrad McVeigh (Sydney)
Drew Morphett (ABC)
Brett Ratten (chairman)
Neil Cordy (Daily Telegraph)
Tim McGrath (K Rock)
Mick Malthouse (Channel 7)
Emma Quayle joined The Age as a cadet journalist in 1999 and has been covering football since 2001. She has won awards from the Australian Football Media Association and AFL Players Association for her feature writing, and specialised for many years in covering junior football and the AFL draft. Emma's two books - The Draft and Nine Lives (the story of former Essendon wingman Adam Ramanauskas' battle with cancer) - were published in 2008 and 2010.
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