Docker Barlow has unfinished business
He’s been called a first-year sensation, a star midfielder, even a Brownlow Medal fancy.
Fremantle’s Michael Barlow looks at himself and instead sees someone who has played just 22 AFL games and has plenty to prove.
For one, he can’t promise that he will pick up an average of 28 possessions in every game this season as he did in his startling introduction to AFL ranks in 2010.
His glittering run of 13 matches ended with his left leg snapping under the impact of a sliding teammate Rhys Palmer at Patersons Stadium.
Critics lauded Barlow’s poise, skills and composure before that unlucky break, but the on-baller said that he viewed himself as far from the complete footballer.
His defensive work, for example, was lacking in his eyes.
“To be honest my 2010 season from the outside looking in everyone was really stoked with it, but I think there were areas in my game that I really needed to improve and adapt for the betterment of both myself and the team,” Barlow said.
“There’s areas I want to improve and people from the outside looking in might not think I’m going as well or fulfilling the potential that they might have thought back then.
“But if I’m contributing towards what the team wants to achieve, providing that 100 per cent effort on game days, then I can be very content and I’ll be very happy.”
The 24-year-old’s return to training on January 5 following his Christmas break marked almost 18 months to the day since his leg broke.
The vision of the fallen Docker futilely attempting to stand on the injured leg against Port Adelaide, only for it to give way, was unforgettable.
Barlow, however, prefers not to remember it at all. He admitted to mentally moving on soon after the collision.
In his mind, he was lucky to simply be at Fremantle, with the injury only a minor roadblock compared to the negative perceptions he had overcome to earn a shot at an AFL career at the age of 22.
“It’s something I didn’t dwell on much even in the initial stages because I’m so fortunate to be in the position I am,” Barlow said of the injury.
“I’m paid to do what I do and the club was fantastic in looking after me and getting me back to playing footy last year.
“I played nine games last year and I’ve only played 22 games of footy personally.
“For me there’s a lot of unfinished business going forward from a personal point of view, but that all ties in with how we want to succeed as a playing group and as a club here at Fremantle.”
Not that there haven’t been hardships and setbacks along the road to recovery.
The first, which Barlow concedes was the most difficult, was watching from the sidelines in 2010 as Fremantle played in finals against Hawthorn and Geelong without him.
He then had to maintain his patience until round 13 last year when he played his comeback match.
The midfielder picked up 25 touches against Melbourne that day and had onlookers already penning plaudits about his return.
It proved short-lived with soreness in the joint forcing him to miss Fremantle’s next two matches.
Barlow said even in retrospect he did not think he had come back too early.
“You can’t cheat your way through anything because they (the sports science staff) are right on top of their game and they’re absolute professionals in what they do,” Barlow said.
“I was given the all-clear and there were little things that prevented me from probably playing.
“But after that I was able to get eight games in a row eventually and I would have taken that every day of the week from the point of the injury going forward.
“I was stoked with what we were able to achieve and couldn’t be more thankful to the sports science guys, physios, the doctors for what they’ve been able to do with me.”
The final hold-up came at the end of the season.
Athletes returning from a broken leg often over-compensate with their balance and movement and Barlow subsequently found himself needing a minor calf operation.
Little more than three weeks out from the NAB Cup, he now feels he is finally hitting his straps with an eye towards playing an early part in the pre-season.
There will be no lack of confidence in the leg withstanding the physicality of the game when he returns to the field.
“To be honest when you’re out there playing footy it’s the furthest thing from your mind,” Barlow said.
“You want to just be achieving with the other 21 guys out there to get the results.
“You can break a nail or get stood on your foot.
“You can’t be conscious of one area of your body because you’re going to be behind the eight-ball from the word go.”
Under the regime of Ross Lyon – a coach renowned as a hard taskmaster – Barlow feels he is learning considerably more.
But the Victorian lays much of the credit for that not at the feet of Lyon, but stoppages coach Mark Stone, with whom he has worked closest during this pre-season.
Body positioning, attracting the ball and reading cues around congested situations have been priorities and as Barlow remarks, it is all about improvement.
“You can always improve,” Barlow said.
“I rubbish suggestions that I don’t need to learn because that’s definitely not true.”