A long AFL season and finals series takes its toll on the body. Every year there are injured stars who become part of a ‘will they play, or won’t they’ narrative leading up to the biggest game of the year.
As we approach the conclusion of the 2021 season, it’s the likes of Melbourne’s Steven May and the Bulldogs’ Cody Weightman with injury clouds hanging over them, unsure if they’ll be able to take to the field in what is the biggest game of their career.
In 1999 though, all eyes were on North Melbourne midfielder Anthony Stevens, after the Kangaroos midfielder suffered a devastating ankle injury in the preliminary final that threatened to rule him out of the third grand final of his career.
In a story that has since gone down in AFL folklore, Stevens managed to participate in the game, collecting 11 touches in the first quarter before tearing his pec in the second term.
Stevens says it was only participation in the Thursday’s training session allowed him to play against Carlton that weekend.
“The doctors had said it was pretty much a 14-week injury, but Denis (Pagan) said, to his credit, he’d give me ten minutes on the Thursday, and if I could get around at training then he’d play me,” Stevens told SEN.
“I got out onto the track for ten minutes, [but] I couldn’t feel my ankle hitting the ground after Doctor Harry Unglik had juiced me up … it was a really weird feeling.
“I was a bit nervous leading into the grand final, but it was actually perfect. I had enough feeling in my ankle that it was sore, but not painful. The medical team nailed it and I was pretty happy to get over the line and get out there, it’s a great memory.
“It was just the worry that I was going to let down the boys if I actually went out there. That was the biggest concern for me.
“I had the courage that I knew I could probably get through after doing ten minutes … I ended up not playing the whole game because I tore my pec muscle off the bone about 15 minutes into the second quarter.”
Those ten minutes of training for Stevens to prove his fitness are seen as a true testament to the courage and Shinboner spirit constantly shown by the former captain over the course of his career.
He almost didn’t get out onto the field to prove his fitness though, with a pre-training test potentially going horribly wrong.
“I had to go into Melbourne’s CBD to get jabbed up … Harry was pretty excited at the time because he believed I could get through the game. He took me straight to Denis’ office,” Stevens said.
“Denis, as much as Harry was the doctor, thought he was the expert, so he had me doing what he called ‘the ankle test’.
“He had me hopping around his office, hopping backwards, forwards, crossways, upside down. At one stage something just went crack in my ankle and I collapsed to the ground. I thought it was over.
“He still gave me ten minutes even though he thought I wouldn’t get through. I went out and got around ok even if my kicking was pretty ordinary. He had some doubts because I’d collapsed in front of him, but I was able to get through … it was a hairy moment.”
Even though the pec injury ended Stevens’ game early, he finished the 1999 season with a second premiership medallion hanging around his neck, but without the backing of Denis Pagan and North’s medical team, he never would have been in a position to play.
Despite winning the 1999 Syd Barker Medal and putting together arguably the best season of his career, Stevens says if he wasn’t cleared to play, there’s no way he was going to push the issue.
“It was a concern leading into the game, [but] you’ve got to have confidence in your medical staff, and I did. We had a medical team full of absolute superstars who did everything they could,” he said.
“They would have told me if I wasn’t up to it, so in the end I never would have played in that grand final if I didn’t actually think I could get through the whole game, because it might have gone down to the wire.
“I had physio three times a day for that whole week … I was trying to keep off it as much as I could, it was aching and it was black and blue up to my knee because of the work I was getting done on it trying to keep the fluid out of my ankle.
“The medical team, with Denis Pagan, would have definitely pulled the pin if I wasn’t up for it. I was lucky we had a first-class medical team that was led by Harry Unglik at the time.
“As it would have hurt me I would have just walked away [if I wasn’t fit]. I wouldn’t have had any regrets in walking away and being a part of sitting on the bench or doing something like that.”
In most seasons, there’s at least one hard luck story heading into the grand final, whether it be Cameron Mooney remaining unselected for Geelong in 2011, Bob Murphy missing the Western Bulldogs’ triumph in 2016 through injury, or Robert Scott’s absence in 1999.
This year though, it’s Melbourne’s Nathan Jones. With the former captain, three time best and fairest winner and 300 game player missing out on what would have been the final game of his career.
Stevens says if anyone deserved to play in this year’s grand final, it was the Demons’ champion.
“Nathan Jones, who I absolutely love as a footballer, to see what he’s done over the journey with Melbourne and to get them to where they are today to then miss out, I have a tear in my eye for that boy,” he said.
“He’s an absolute superstar and an icon of that footy club. You’d do anything to get to get to a grand final and for him to miss out is just devastating … [but] the footy club comes first and is bigger than any player.”