Bulldog Tom Liberatore has averaged 10 clearances in 2013
TOM LIBERATORE will turn 21 on May 16, two days before the Western Bulldogs take on Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium, but don't expect him to celebrate the occasion with an all-night binge.
On that front, the young Dog is once bitten – indeed, hard-bitten – and twice shy.
Perhaps because of this, Liberatore's coming of age as a man coincides with his coming of age as a footballer.
Last August, the promising midfielder received a season-ending, club-imposed, four-match suspension after police found him drunk and in possession of an ecstasy pill in Melbourne's notorious King Street nightclub precinct.
The Bulldogs also ordered Liberatore to find full-time employment for six weeks, during which he wasn't allowed to train at the club.
Liberatore appears to have heeded at least some of the life lessons that have been thrust his way, since transforming himself into one of the AFL's premier hard-ball winners.
In the process, his strong on-field response has earned, and regained, much respect.
Before his misdemeanour, Liberatore was already on the rise as a player. In his last 13 appearances of 2012, he showed great consistency for a youngster in a battling team, averaging 22.4 possessions (including 11.7 contested), 6.5 clearances and 3.9 tackles.
But in the opening month of this season, he has taken his developing game to an entirely new level.
Back in early March, Bulldogs development coach Ashley Hansen told BulldogsTV that Liberatore had been challenged to not only become the best clearance player at the club, but the best in the AFL.
After a strong pre-season, in which he has improved his running power while adding size and strength, he is on track to achieve this lofty goal.
Liberatore is averaging 24.75 disposals (15.75 contested), eight tackles and 8.25 clearances.
At the time of writing, he was in the top 10 in the AFL in clearances (equal fourth), centre clearances (equal fifth), contested possessions (eighth) and tackles (equal second). However, he was poised to overtake a few higher-ranked stars.
Remarkably, he has had almost as many tackles (32) as uncontested possessions (36).
Last week against Adelaide on a rain-sodden AAMI Stadium, the Dogs were flogged but Liberatore produced the best of his 37 games to date, amassing a career-high 33 possessions, including 23 contested.
His contested-ball tally places him equal-13th since Champion Data began recording the statistic in 1999. (The record is held by Chris Judd, who had 28 as an Eagle against the Brisbane Lions in 2006.
If we take away Liberatore's only down game this season – when he was tagged by Richmond's Shaun Grigg and managed just 10 touches (six contested), two clearances and five tackles – he has averaged 30 possessions (19 contested), 10 clearances and nine tackles.
Calder Cannons region manager Ian Kyte, who was involved with Liberatore in the TAC Cup under-18 competition, is proud of the way he has responded to his wake-up call.
"When Tom got his kick in the backside last year, he would have gone away and decided that if he didn't knuckle down and do everything to the best of his ability, he was going to put a wonderful career in jeopardy," he told AFL.com.au.
"He's put his head down and shown people that a little hiccup isn't going to worry him, and proved that not only does he deserve to be there, but he can become one of the best midfielders going around.
"He hasn't always toed the line but he's always come back from those things pretty well.
"I reckon he's always wanted to play like he is, and everything that's happened has probably just made him more determined than ever to do it."
Kyte said Liberatore was exceptional at the Cannons in "setting examples on the field in terms of the way the game should be played".
"In my 20 years in the TAC Cup, he's the best clearance player I've ever seen," he said. "I never had any concerns that he'd be able to transfer that to AFL level, and he's doing that."
Kyte is impressed with the left-footer's continued improvement, and believes there is still much scope for development.
"His kicking is improving all the time, and he's getting better bit-by-bit in every other area too," he said.
"He seems harder at it. He goes in one side of the pack and all of a sudden he comes out the other side with the ball in his hands. I don't know how he does at sometimes."