Connor Blakely poses during Gold Coast's official team photo day at Heritage Bank Stadium on February 21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

IT WAS the kick up the bum Connor Blakely needed.

The one early in his career that put him on the right track.

The one that helped drive him to play nine years in the AFL system despite serious injuries, mental health battles and competing in a Fremantle midfield that boasted one current and one future Brownlow medallist.

When Gold Coast runs out against Werribee in Sunday's VFL Grand Final, it will be Blakely's final game on an AFL list after announcing his retirement earlier this week.

Nine seasons and 78 games are twice the duration of an average career in the AFL, and after spending his final 12 months without a senior game at the Suns, it's been quite a journey.

Connor Blakely in action during the VFL match between Richmond and Gold Coast at the Swinburne Centre in round six, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Blakely was drafted to a Fremantle team in late 2014 that was hunting premierships, walking into about as professional an environment as you could get.

Ross Lyon was at the helm, Matthew Pavlich was the captain, emerging superstar Nat Fyfe was in the midfield (we'll get back to their relationship later), David Mundy, Michael Johnson, a young Lachie Neale were all on-board. They were loaded.

However, the cliff came quickly. After losing the 2015 preliminary final to Hawthorn and starting the following season with 10 straight losses, the young West Australian was given an extended run of matches in 2016 to prove his worth.

It was round two in 2017 when Blakey got a lesson that would shape him.

Playing Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval, he lined up alongside Aaron Young in the middle of the ground.

Port's midfielder outworked the young Docker, got goalside, and kicked an opening quarter goal. It didn't go down well with the coach.

"I got an almighty rev-up by Ross at quarter-time," Blakely told

"Then at half-time, and we were still down by about 50 points, he replays that exact clip he was talking about at quarter-time.

"This was one of Ross' downfalls, when he went, he went hard in terms of feedback, and he said "doing this sort of stuff, you'll be on our list a couple of years and be done in the AFL with efforts like that. You can't do that.

"I got one more touch for the game and finished up with five touches."

Connor Blakely in action during the match between Fremantle and Sydney at Optus Stadium in round 10, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

Early the following week, Lyon came to Blakely with an ultimatum.

"You can go back and play for Peel, or you can tag?"

"It was one of those fork-in-the-road moments … let's go, let's tag."

The then 21-year-old went on to follow Marcus Bontempelli, Nathan Jones, Trent Cotchin, Marc Murphy and others, and established himself as someone that could play at the top level.

Blakely was not only holding his spot, he was thriving, winning plenty of the football (24 disposals a game) and helping limit his opponent.

He also played at half-back that season as part of his football education and said Lyon provided a great platform to thrive.

"I like being on the edge in terms of performing at a high level.

"I know everyone's different and a lot of the narrative around coaching now is making it a fun and safe environment, which can work for sure, and you need that, but one of Ross' great strengths is he does build relationships well … but to be able to see weaknesses in your game – and celebrate the strengths – but pushing you to those high standards.

"I think without Ross' influence early on, I could have been a four-year player, 10 games and finished up.

"It comes back to being content and being grateful and nine years is a long time."


Blakely finished seventh in Freo's best and fairest that year and continued to be a regular in 2018 alongside Fyfe, Neale and Mundy.

It wasn't all smooth sailing though. The tough midfielder suffered a meniscus injury midway through the season, and then early in 2019, tore a hamstring tendon that cost him three months on the sidelines.

Although he played the final 14 games of that season, it was here that the mental demons became an issue.

Justin Longmuir took over from Lyon as coach at the end of 2019 and Blakely slipped down the pecking order behind emerging youngsters Adam Cerra, Andrew Brayshaw and Caleb Serong.

"That period really reinforced looking after yourself, being kind to yourself and setting yourself up with friends and family," he said.

"For a period, I was a little lost in terms of what I was doing, who I was hanging out with and I definitely had some times with lower moods, an anxious mind that can run amok.

"I look back and thank god I had the resources I did around me. It helped so much.

"It was an internal frustration. I know I'm good enough to play well at this level, but 'JL', Josh Carr, the midfield coach, the people making those decisions hadn't seen it when I knew it was within me."

Connor Blakely in action during Fremantle's training session at Fremantle Oval on January 12, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

And then there was Fyfe.

While Lyon played a huge part in his career, Blakely also paid credit to the two-time Brownlow medallist – a man he didn't always see eye to eye with.

After Blakely left training early to go surfing midway through 2017, Fyfe, in his first season as captain, broke his young teammate's promise by raising it with the coaching staff.

Blakely was dropped for a match, something Fyfe later admitted "fractured" the relationship.

Nat Fyfe talks with Connor Blakely during Fremantle's official team photo day at the Cockburn ARC on February 16, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Blakely doesn't hold a grudge though. Quite the opposite.

"He's his own man and some people get rubbed up the wrong way.

"He's divisive, but I definitely credit him as someone that's influenced me in a real foundational way.

"I sat with him at the end of 2016 after I just started playing some decent footy … and he said "mate, don't be patient with your career, be inpatient with your trajectory and career".

"It really sat with me.

"We've had some great one on ones.

"I don't look back at any experience I've had, or anyone I've come into contact with in my life and think negatively. Everything I've gone through and will continue to go through, things don't always go your way, but you've got to find a way to enjoy things you go through."

Connor Blakely poses during Fremantle's official team photo day at Cockburn ARC on January 25, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

And after nine seasons, his time has come to an end.

Blakely says the joy of having his parents travelling from Bunbury to Ikon Park on Sunday will mean the world to him.

"It's a fantastic job and I've had so many good times and learnt so many lessons," he said.

"I've just felt it's time to let go. I'm at ease with the decision.

"You want to win a premiership, play 200 games, be a life member of a football club, but the reality is that's the exception and not the rule.

"To play for nine years and be able to live this out has been sensational."