THE fairytale of Michael Barlow has given the football cognoscenti a shake, planting a rare seed of self-doubt: what if we don’t know best after all? Yet his greatest lesson speaks to us all — no matter how many times you get knocked down, don’t stop getting back up, don’t ever lose sight of the dream.

Barlow’s is a very Australian story, with a central character who would not have been out of place on a different field, in another time, fighting a battle more cutthroat even than AFL football in 2010. Dig for the root of this resilience, and you’ll unearth the crossheads of a nation’s history — immigration, goldrush, war, toil of an unforgiving land by hard men and even stronger women and, above all, persistence.

Michael is the middle of Herb and Jenny Barlow’s five children, the third of four boys. His father — the third in four consecutive generations of Herb Barlows — is a Cobram dentist who grew up at Rushworth, where his grandfather, the pioneer of this magnificent moniker, alighted from England. He soon decided running a butcher shop had greater prospects than digging for gold, laying the foundations for his sons to make a life on the land.

“Dad got tuberculosis on the way home from the war,” Herb says of the second Herb Barlow. “My two older sisters were born, and he spent about four of the first five years of his marriage in Heidelberg repat.”

“They couldn’t even sit on their dad’s lap because he was infectious,” Jenny says, adding how old Herb had marvelled at his wife, Julie, who spent the post-war years lugging a suitcase and her children between their Rushworth farm and hospital in Melbourne. “They were amazing people really. Herb had major, major health issues, but they just got on with it. Julie used to always just say, ‘He’ll be right’.” And he was. Herb left hospital minus five ribs and a lung, and with his spine surgically mended from skull to base.

“That was the early ’50s,” Herb says of his father. “And he died in 1995.”

Jenny’s father, Pat Beirne, was from Drogheda, County Louth; he contested the Northern Ireland championships in the 220-yard sprint. As Michael’s catalogue of AFL rejection grew, she’d try to soften the blows by chipping him: “Have you told them your grandfather’s Irish? They’re going over there getting kids all the time!”

Long before laser treatment, her dad had a shamrock tattoo removed so he could join the Royal Air Force, leaving a dimpled square of tortured skin on his arm. Come peace-time, he sought a better life in Australia, leaving behind three sisters who would never marry because they couldn’t afford a dowry. “Dad always wanted to make something of himself,” Jenny says.

Her mother knew what she wanted, too. “She chased him rather more vigorously than he chased her,” says Jenny.

Encouraged by his wife to finish the studies denied him by the war, Pat became a teacher, moved the family to Canada, then on to Coventry in the English Midlands. It was there that Herb and Jenny would become more than the friends they’d been at Melbourne Uni where they initially met. And it was there that their eldest children, Herb No. 4 and Domenic, were born.

An exploration of the Barlow family tree is pertinent because it lays bare Michael’s DNA. Ray Carroll, who coached the Barlow boys — including their 1972 school best-and-fairest winner Herb — at Kilmore’s Assumption College, puts it plainly. “This is a family of the highest character.”

Their bond is heart-warming. Asked what she misses most about Michael since he moved to Perth, 18-year-old Maisie says: “I miss all my brothers. It’s just good having them all together, because they’re a lot of fun to be around.”

We’re almost up to Michael, but a sketch of his siblings fills out the picture. Herb, 25, studied pharmaceutical science and lives in Port Fairy, having returned from a working holiday in England during which his father says “he became very proficient at darts and drinking beer”. Dom, a year younger, is in Adelaide studying dentistry, having switched from physiotherapy, and before that mechanical engineering.

“Talk about resilience,” Jenny says. “This is his seventh year of studying.” Maisie is working through her gap year before studying science at Monash, starring on the netball court for Shepparton Swans, a source of great pride for Jenny, a Goulburn Valley netball legend who represented Warwickshire and trialled for England. And then there’s Declan, who has been amusing his family for most of his 20 years.

“We don’t talk about Dec,” Herb laughs. “He just exists.” Maisie calls him “very witty”; Jenny says he’s “a trick, always joking”, and has always been clever. Come school awards nights, Dec would tell his parents, “You’d better bring the wheelbarrow!” then be mortified when he picked up only one gong. Playing footy, he’d tell Herb all the way home in the car how well he’d gone. “I’d reckon I must have been at a different game,” says Herb.

Yet beneath the bluff is that Barlow persistence. Three years ago, when Michael was starring for Shepparton United, Declan was struggling to get a game in the under-18s. Against undermanned Rochester one week, he volunteered to change sides to make up the numbers, then asked his parents if he could make the switch permanent.

A couple of weeks later, they played Shepparton, and Declan lined up at centre half-back against one of the opposition’s guns. Herb turned to Jenny and said: “This is going to be a long couple of hours.” But the kid who jokingly talked a better game than he played, who just wanted to be out there having a go, played the game of his life. “I didn’t in my wildest dreams think he had that in him,” Herb says. “To this day, that’s the best day at the footy I’ve ever had.”

Herb and Jenny Barlow have had some pretty amazing days and nights at the football in recent months, which brings us to the equal second favourite for the 2010 Brownlow Medal, 22-year-old Michael John Barlow. If his forebears have given him the tools to pen his chapter in the family’s tale, he has done them proud.

Jenny says Michael knows what not to take too seriously in life. His prominent nose has long been a source of amusement. The possibility that he was only recruited by Fremantle to make Matthew Pavlich feel better has been raised in the Barlow household.

Herb notes that Michael “sometimes struggles with the English language”, laughing as he reels off examples of comical mispronunciation. Freo’s “entertainment co-ordinator”, David Mundy, recently asked Michael what he thought about holding a quiz on away trips. “Michael said, ‘Good idea’, and David said, ‘Righto, you’re in charge of the quiz then’.” Michael thinks Mundy is a good delegator. Herb thinks there will be some pretty strange questions in the quiz.

Mention football’s conventional pathway and Herb shakes his head — not out of bitterness that Michael missed the ride, but because “the system” convinces kids that if they don’t make it at 18, they never will. “That’s terribly sad for a kid,” he says. He has seen too many either say “stuff it” or go bush for money. Neither tends to produce a healthy outcome.

He has never seen Michael so dejected as when he was cut from the Goulburn Valley under-15 schoolboys squad. “He was going to Assumption the next year, and their first match of the season was against GV schoolboys,” Herb says. “I asked him, ‘What happens now?’ He said, ‘I’ll just have to wait another year to show them how good I am’.” A year on, he had 35 possessions against the team that rejected him.

And on it went. Not deemed good enough for Murray Bushrangers’ TAC Cup team, he matched Shane Crawford’s possessions haul at Assumption. Primed to shine for Vic Country in 2007 while starring for Shepparton United, he was the last man cut from the squad. “He always had someone who could beat him along the way,” Herb says.

By now he was studying urban planning at Melbourne Uni, and travelling home on weekends with Dom to play for United. Their father laughs every time he crosses the Goulburn Valley Channel near Murchison, at the memory of them breaking down on the way back to the city one Sunday, and killing time by stripping down and doing their rehab, standing in the freezing water watching the traffic pass by.

Jenny says you need someone to believe in you, and for Barlow that was Craig Blizzard. United’s then footy manager called his old mate John Beveridge, St Kilda’s veteran recruiter, and told him he should come for a drive. “How good?” Beveridge asked. “You’re not going to like what you see,” Blizzard told him, “but what’s inside is unbelievable.” Beveridge stood behind the goals with his notepad and pen, a plea from Blizzard — “look past the wounded-duck run, don’t take what you see as gospel” — ringing in his ears. At quarter-time, Beveridge said: “He’s taller than I thought, he looks slow …” By game’s end, he’d counted 43 possessions and nine tackles.

“He was running down people who were faster than him,” Beveridge told Blizzard. “His mind’s either quicker than his body, or he just knows what to do.” The pace question is interesting. Barlow did the 2008 pre-season at St Kilda, and was beaten only by Robert Eddy in three-kilometre time trials. Endurance is his pet subject, yet at the state screening trials that year, the “wounded duck” ranked in the top 5 per cent over 20 metres.

The Saints decided he wasn’t what they were after, taking Eljay Connors from Echuca instead, but Herb says Michael was by now emboldened.

Impressed by coach Simon Atkins knocking on his door, he moved to Werribee and continued his education. At the end of a stellar 2008, Jenny recalls Atkins saying to him: “I don’t know what they’re looking for, I don’t know why you didn’t get drafted, but you’re coming back next year and we’ll try something else. And I can promise you, you’ll be on a list at the end of the year.”

By last November’s draft, fresh from inclusion in a second VFL team of the year and Werribee’s best and fairest, he’d talked to six clubs. His mates in Melbourne floated the idea of a draft celebration barbecue, but his parents cautioned patience — just in case. Again, his name wasn’t read out.

Jenny told her devastated son: “You’ve achieved hugely, Mikey, but maybe this is the level you’ll play at, and you’re a gun. That’s very credible, very substantial.” He looked at her and said what he’d said every other time his heart had been ripped out: “But Mum, I just know I could do it.” The next day, he was running 200s around the Cobram footy ground. “He’d just pick up his bag and off he’d go,” Jenny says. He trained with Essendon for a week before the rookie draft, and when the Bombers chose Kyle Hardingham, who’d been targeted by Fremantle, the Dockers picked Barlow. Herb still wonders if there was spite at play, but so be it.

In Shepparton, Blizzard’s phone rang. “Your boy’s just been picked up,” Beveridge told him. “You know, I’ve got a funny feeling he’s going to break all the rules, and he’s going to be great. I just hope a kid like that shakes the system.” Thirteen rounds into his debut AFL season, he’s done that and then some.

The Barlow brothers have been backing Michael for most possessions every week, initially at big odds, and he has filled their wallets five times. Jenny asked young Herb if he’d put money on him for the Ross Glendinning Medal, and received a text message back saying: “Mum, I don’t know why people wouldn’t back him!” An aunty had $50 on him for the Brownlow at 1000-1. Declan has taken to declaring: “Cash cow, Jenny, cash cow!”

Asked if achieving such an all-consuming goal has changed him, Jenny says “he’s trying awfully hard to be Michael, because he likes who he is”. After a Dockers clinic in Templestowe last Sunday, he hooked up with Melbourne mates and raised a glass or two and, after a night back in his own bed, he was sweating it out in Cobram. “He does the time when he’s done the crime,” she says.

Before flying west again, he dropped in at Shepparton’s Deakin Reserve and took a few drills at training. Blizzard said he hadn’t made it five steps onto the ground “before six blokes had had a crack at him”. It won’t soon be forgotten that he boarded a plane in Perth recently with his keyless-ignition car still running in the long-term car park.

Driving around “doing a few jobs” with Jenny on Tuesday, he got hold of her iPhone and replaced a screen-saver picture of Maisie with a madly grinning Michael Barlow self-portrait. After he’d gone (having forgotten his runners and phone charger), he sent Jenny a text message which she calls “the essential Mikey”.

“Just want them to know that I’m still just Mike Barlow. Love you Mum, and sad I’m heading back. But loving what I’m doing.”

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