Fremantle midfielder Michael Barlow has set his sights on returning to football as early as the first round of the NAB Cup next year.

There were fears for Barlow’s footballing future after he broke his leg in dramatic fashion in July, but just over two months later, he says he is on track to be back for Fremantle’s first pre-season game in 2011.

“We try not to (target a return date) but the way we’re going, barring setbacks we’re looking good to get a good pre-season into my legs and we’ll see how we go from there from the perspective of round one, NAB Cup,” Barlow said on Monday night.

“I have full faith in the physio department and medical department at Fremantle.”

Barlow was one of the AFL’s fairytale stories of 2010.

He made his debut in round one after he was rookie listed from VFL club Werribbee and instantly became one of Fremantle’s most important players before he collided with teammate Rhys Palmer in that fateful round 13 game against Adelaide.

But he said the road to recovery had been smooth so far and that he had received good feedback from his surgeon.

“It is nine weeks now and my fibula is basically fully healed, which is the outside bone, and the tibia is well on its way,” Barlow said.

“The fracture lines are still vaguely evident but the way the callouses are healing over that is really promising according to my surgeon and I’m fully weight-bearing now. I’ve got a bit of a limp but I’ll build my left side back up and away we go and I’ll get back to shuffling around awkwardly like I did for the first 13 rounds.”

Barlow was speaking after he was a runaway winner of the AFLPA Best First Year Player Award. He polled 442 votes, ahead of second-placed Dustin Martin who had 129.

The 22-year-old was 13 days too old to be eligible for the NAB AFL Rising Star. But far from being bitter about narrowly missing out, he said he was in awe of how well some teenagers had adapted to senior football.

“Maybe if I was 18 years old and got drafted into the system I’d like to think I’d still be around and be on the list and still be playing AFL footy but it’s a guessing game as to what would have happened,” he said.

“For guys like Dustin Martin and Dan Hannebery and those kind of guys who have come in at that age and have the impact they’ve had, it’s a credit to them and I take my hat off to them.”

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