They usually say the first time is the hardest. For Lachie Neale last night, it seemed a magnitude harder than the last time he stood triumphant on the Brownlow Medal stage.
“It doesn’t sit very well at the moment. I’m sure it will sink in at a later date,” Neale said after the win.
“I’m pretty rattled, to be honest, so apologies if this doesn’t go too well. I did not expect this.”
It takes a lot to shake Neale on the field but, for a moment on Monday night, Brisbane’s talismanic midfielder had seemingly met his match off it.
At the end of a crazy and chaotic count with 11 different leaders across the night, Neale stood alone on top with 31 votes.
Neale was not the favourite heading into the night; much of the focus was instead drawn to names like Daicos, Bontempelli, Petracca and Butters.
In the end, much like the result of countless contests, Neale was the last one standing with his hands on the prize.
This season wasn’t the smoothest ride for Neale. Late in the season, his Brownlow hopes looked over when a flu and niggling injuries took their toll in what has been the longest season to date.
Neale’s form tailed off and the Lions looked a little shaky coming into the final stretch of the season.
“I feel like personally, my form is average from when I’m at my best. I don’t feel like I’m letting the team down though.” Neale told Fox Footy in August.
Rather than resting on his laurels, Neale did what he does best and put in the hard yards to get back on track.
“I feel like I pride myself on my preparation and watching vision but I’ve doubled down on that,” he said.
“I’ve doubled down on my touch, my stoppage craft and speak to people close to me that I trust and know my game as well as I do and figure out just small parts where I’m probably not at my best and what I can do to get back to that.”
That hard work saw him win seven votes in the last three rounds to overtake and hold off the rest of the pack. It also saw him become the oldest Brownlow medallist for nearly two decades, and the fourth-oldest in more than four decades.
This is how Lachie Neale won his second Brownlow Medal.
Walk the walk
Only 110 V/AFL players have been fortunate enough to win the Brownlow Medal — about 1 per cent of all league players to play a senior game since 1924. But even that number looks giant compared to the multiple-winner club.
“To be amongst some of those names who have won two is unbelievable,” Neale said after his second win.
Just 16 players have been lucky enough to take multiple medals home. These are names that litter footy history books and the minds of fans alike.
With his win on Monday night, Neale’s name joins that prestigious list. But to do so, Neale had to shift his game a little more and persevere through injury and illness.
It is well known that Neale’s path to the AFL was relatively unconventional.
Overlooked by most due to his size, Neale was taken by Fremantle as the 58th pick in the 2011 draft. Despite playing much of his junior footy as a midfielder, Neale broke into the Dockers’ senior side as a small forward who played far taller than his listed height.
Neale’s innate ability to read the play allowed him to contribute almost immediately, playing in the 2013 grand final as a 20-year-old.
These days, Neale is firmly known as a midfielder, one of the current era’s very best, but this year has marked a slightly different version of the Brisbane star.
Despite their star-studded midfield, the Lions struggled a bit at the coalface last year.
The question wasn’t talent but, instead, balance — having the necessary parts to both win the ball and use it well. It is often a part of the game that is hard to pinpoint.
The Lions desperately tried to infuse more pace and size into their midfield grouping late in the season, with little success.
The 2022 trade period saw a reshaping of the group. Former Bulldogs midfielder Josh Dunkley nominated Brisbane as his new home, bringing immediate size and burst to the club. The Lions were also able to add talented youngster and goal-of-the-year winner Will Ashcroft, whose ability vastly outmatched his age.
Alongside some other shifts, it reset the identity of the Brisbane midfield.
These moves largely pushed Neale closer to the inside of the contest, forcing him to sacrifice some of his line-breaking skill to focus on the inside part of his game. The move has paid off in spades for both the club and Neale.
No-one has won more clearances this year than Neale, who was often used to release his explosive Lions counterparts. Neale’s ability to not only cleanly pick up a disputed ball but also use it effectively shines out.
Neale’s focus has long been not on his own performance, but on making his team better.
That often leads to his work being lost for the trees and bodies around him, camouflaged by a cacophony of athletes in motion. It could also be why the umpires have rated his impact higher than the All-Australian judges, given their close vantage point in these contests.
It has meant that some parts of his game have been sacrificed. In total, Neale’s overall contribution to scoring has lessened, with fewer raw score involvements.
Instead, he is serving as the prime mover, the first touch in a scoring chain, more often than ever before. It has also meant his defensive game has stepped up, working harder both ways and to limit opposition midfields.
The shift and hard work have worked both for him and the club, with another Brownlow around Neale’s neck and the Lions preparing for a grand final.
Focus on the flag
If there was a bigger reason for Neale’s resolve being shaken, it could be that his main job — winning a flag — is yet to be finished. Neale knows that premierships do not exactly grow on trees.
His local junior footy club, the mighty Kybybolite Tigers, have been waiting almost half a century since their last premiership in 1974 for another one, a product of the tough competition in the Kowree-Naracoorte-Tatiara Football League. It is likely the longest drought in South Australian Country footy, but the locals are no less passionate about the club.
Neale was not in the room in Melbourne with the rest of the league’s elite, nor were his Brisbane teammates. Football’s night of nights was absent its biggest star. Neale and the rest of the Lions were primed for a bigger battle ahead.
“I’m sorry I’m not there … I’m not actually that sorry — I’m pumped that I’m not there. I’ll see you on Saturday.” Neale said.
While the wait has been slightly shorter for the Lions since their three-peat between 2001 and 2003, it is no less anticipated by those north of the border. The Lions have gone through a lot in those passing years — the good and the bad years adding up over time. Neale, and the rest of the Lions, are desperate to end the drought.
“I’m just very fortunate and privileged to be in this position to play off in the last game of the year with my teammates who I love and respect so much,” he said.
“So, hopefully, we can go out there and put on a good show for our supporters and the club.
“At the moment, I’m picturing Harris [Andrews] holding up the cup with Fages [coach Chris Fagan] at the end of it.”
That ending would put a fitting end on Neale’s stellar season, and the dreams of all Lions fans across the country.