Pavlich the one that got away
It is one of the lesser-known AFL draft tales, but it took an astonishing draft bungle for Matthew Pavlich to move west and become the most significant figure in Fremantle’s history.
The decorated skipper was overlooked by all 16 clubs when he first nominated for the national draft in 1998, but it is in South Australia where there has been the most angst, with Adelaide and Port Adelaide letting him slip from under their noses.
Having been born at 11.45pm on December 31, 1981, Pavlich was eligible for the ’98 draft by 15 minutes despite still being 16 and yet to begin Year 12.
“I nominated on the basis of hopefully being picked up by one of the two Adelaide clubs,” Pavlich said.
“It was a bit of a kick in the guts at the time, but certainly it made me stronger and made me realise that ‘Yeah, this is something I really do want’.”
Ironically, the Crows looked to Pavlich’s future home state for one of their selections: East Fremantle product and No. 63 pick Clint Kirey, who never played an AFL game.
He may be one of the biggest names in WA’s rich football history, but Pavlich is adamant he is still a Croweater at heart and has not given up hope of one day playing State-of-Origin for his state against WA.
“I’m definitely a South Australian. I’ve been living here for a significant amount of my life and absolutely have embraced that lifestyle and the people of WA; it’s been a special place for me. But I’m still South Australian,” he said.
“For SA, I played under-16s and under-18s, I played in the SANFL state league game as a 17-year-old, and yet I haven’t had the opportunity to play for SA once I got to the AFL.
“It’s something I lament a little bit. To run out there with the SA tricolours on against Victoria or WA would be something special.”
Pavlich comes from well-known football stock, with father Steve and uncles Mark and Greg all playing together for West Torrens in the SANFL.
He appears to have little in common with his dad a skilful but injury-prone flanker with a raking left foot in a football sense, but rates him as far and away the most important influence on his career.
“He’ll sit back and observe and watch and be really cautious about what he says. He’ll only give his opinion if I ask for it,” Pavlich said.
Being from interstate has helped fuel a circus of speculation about Pavlich heading home each time he has reached the final year of a contract, much to his chagrin.
“I guess there’s always going to be innuendo around guys coming out of contract, especially when they’re from interstate, until such point as they sign,” he said.
“But I’ve always been perplexed and almost baffled it’s almost as if people are making up things to just fuel the fire.
“I’ve always wanted to see my time out here and get genuine success. I’ve got a burning desire for this club to become something really great.
“I feel as though I’ve been very fortunate with my time in Fremantle to achieve a certain amount individually, but there’s a huge desire to get great team success, and that’s my drive and passion and mission.”
As Fremantle entered the 2006 finals series playing irrepressible footy on the back of nine straight wins, then-coach Chris Connolly said the club’s bleak history would act as a spur.
“We’ve been the butt of jokes in AFL football and been seen to be a basket case,” Connolly said at the time.
Pavlich does not share those “butt of jokes” sentiments and said he has not felt mentally burdened by playing much of his career in an unsuccessful team.
“Chris had a unique way of articulating things and maybe that was his individual way of expressing what he thought,” Pavlich said.
“I never had that approach or had that feeling. Sure, we haven’t had the team success that we would’ve liked.”
Having smashed eventual premier West Coast by 57 points in Round 21, there is a view Fremantle could have already won that elusive flag if the Dockers had made it to the last Saturday in September in 2006. But that missed opportunity five years ago does not keep Pavlich awake at night.
“I don’t really look back at things too nostalgically or look at ‘what ifs’. We weren’t good enough in the preliminary final against Sydney and that’s that,” he said.
Pavlich is similarly phlegmatic when speaking about his ultimate dream of leading the Dockers to their first premiership the major hole in his career as it stands.
“Because you’re consumed on a daily basis with the way you train, the way you play, the way you prepare, it doesn’t really register until you sort of sit back every now and then and take notice of it,” he said.
“Obviously it’s a dream and something I’d love to achieve, but you know, sometimes that’s the way the cards fall and there’s only so much you can do.
“You can only prepare and train and dedicate yourself as much as you can, and drive your teammates to succeed. If it happens, it happens. Great.”
Talking to Pavlich, you get the sense he is equally as proud of his life outside football as he is of anything he has achieved in the game.
He has always led something of a double life. As an iconic figurehead of WA football, and a genuine superstar in a team that has never had many, a moment barely goes by where he is not reminded of his status when in public.
An autograph here, a quick photo there at restaurants, airports or just walking down the street. They are tasks he happily completes with a smile and a friendly word, yet Pavlich finds the idea that he is a celebrity funny.
“I honestly don’t see myself as famous. I sort of see myself as an identity that plays football,” he said.
“I don’t want to abdicate my responsibility at all as a role model because I totally understand that. But the fame and celebrity bit I find almost humorous to a certain extent.”
It is his “normal” life that Pavlich credits with helping him be the footballer he has become. He has completed a part-time science degree at UWA and is now doing an MBA, and said having to find time to juggle study in between training sessions was a blessing.
“I found that gave me a reality check. A bit of perspective in my life,” he said.
“Football is an all-consuming life. So to have some balance and focus your attention on something completely different for a handful of hours a week was really important for me and I think it benefited my football no end.”
When the conversation turns to his wife, Lauren, who Pavlich married in December, the 29-year-old has a glint in his eye and flashes a cheeky smile as he adds: “That was the other good reason of going to uni. It’s as normal a story as you could imagine really. It’s plain and pretty boring.
“We met in one of the first-year units and we knocked around in the same group for a little while. We went our separate ways for a while, remained friends, and then sort of worked out a few years later that it was a bit more than that and it progressed from there.”
For a player who has achieved virtually everything imaginable in a personal sense, including five best-and-fairest awards and and six All-Australian guernseys, the obvious vacancy in Pavlich’s trophy cabinet is a Brownlow Medal.
Not that it bothers him. He doesn’t understand why he has often been among the bookies’ favourites and says he has never felt capable of taking out the game’s highest individual accolade.
“I don’t think it’s ever been realistic. The game that I play as a tall forward and spend a little bit of time on ball and in a team that in the past realistically probably hasn’t won enough games it’s just never registered,” he said.
Could Pavlich, who spent his childhood in and around footy changerooms as his father coached underage teams, one day coach the Dockers?
He says you can never say never, but currently does not have a passion for becoming a coach.
If that changes, following in the footsteps of recent champions such as Michael Voss, James Hird and Nathan Buckley and coaching his old side would have its appeal.