WHEN Stephen Wells calls, you know the wait is almost over. That was the case for Shaun Mannagh an hour before night two of the 2023 AFL Draft.
The legendary Geelong recruiter wasn't calling to promise anything, only to conduct a last-minute reconnaissance mission.
Mannagh had waited longer than most for this call. From country footy to the VFL and back again, the 26-year-old never stopped believing he would one day be drafted, even if recruiters weren't interested in him for a long time.
That changed in 2023.
The half-forward/midfielder sent a final message to the bevy of recruiters spread out across Ikon Park in September, winning the Norm Goss Medal after kicking six goals from 27 disposals in Werribee's VFL Grand Final loss to Gold Coast. But it wasn't just that game. He was named in the VFL team of the year, finished second in the best and fairest, fifth in the JJ Liston Trophy and seventh in the VFL Coaches MVP Award after averaging 25 touches and kicking 40 goals.
Like many mature-age recruits, it has been a long grind to this point, spent playing on dusty suburban grounds a mile away from the bright lights of the MCG or under the roof at Marvel Stadium. Mannagh joined North Albury in the Ovens and Murray Football League after leaving the Murray Bushrangers at the end of 2015. No VFL or state league clubs reached out.
Brownlow medallist Jason Akermanis was coaching the club at the time and sent him down to train with Richmond's VFL program for a week ahead of the following season. Then Tigers VFL coach Craig McRae saw enough in a few sessions to invite Mannagh back for a proper trial the following summer. Travelling back and forth from Albury, he earned a contract at Punt Road, but opportunities were scarce in the reserves, amid a period when Richmond ended a 37-year premiership drought and built a dynasty under Damien Hardwick.
Mannagh spent most of 2019 playing for his local club Lavington back in the powerful Ovens and Murray League, while still on Richmond's VFL list, kicking five goals to lead the Panthers to premiership glory over Wangaratta. He chose to move to a standalone club in 2020 and signed with Werribee before the coronavirus pandemic hit. While Victoria was in lockdown, Mannagh relocated to the Northern Territory when given the green light and played a dozen games for Wanderers.
Despite making inroads in 2022, it wasn't until this year that Mannagh finally started attracting interest from AFL clubs. Geelong considered him mid-season but went for 25-year-old Woodville-West Torrens midfielder Mitch Hardie instead. Mannagh underwent a medical with the Western Bulldogs in late May, but the club handed a lifeline to Footscray wingman Caleb Poulter.
Like the Cats, Fremantle has successfully raided the VFL across the past decade. Luke Ryan, Lachie Schultz and Sam Switkoswki played for Coburg, Williamstown and Box Hill before heading west. More than a handful of Dockers officials met with Mannagh days before that famous VFL Grand Final performance. When Schultz requested a trade to Collingwood and then moved to the reigning premiers in October, Mannagh underwent a medical with the Dockers. They were keen, but so was Geelong.
Wells and head of football Andrew Mackie met with him once. When Wells called to touch base on draft night, he knew that Port Adelaide had met with Mannagh earlier in the day. The Power were on the clock for the first time at pick No.48 and had two other picks within the next 10. The Cats weren't going to risk missing out, and pounced earlier than expected at pick No.36. The long road from the other side of the Victorian border has led to Kardinia Park.
"To a degree this year was my last chance, but at the start of the year, the ship had definitely not sailed. I signed with [Essendon great, now player manager] Scotty Lucas two years ago, and coming out of COVID, I knew I had to get work, given I was 23, 24 and time was running out to get on a list. The plan was to have a really big 2022 and try and get a rookie spot or a train-on spot. It didn't eventuate," Mannagh told AFL.com.au.
"Scotty and I sat down again at the start of this year and focused on those first four or five games. Obviously didn't happen mid-season, but I put myself in a good spot. Werribee had a great year winning 17 in a row. When the team is succeeding, individuals shine a bit brighter.
"I'm here now, but I am the type of person that still would have believed that next year I could have got a crack at it if things hadn't have panned out. James Podsiadly was 27 or 28. Marlion Pickett was 27. There are examples out there. I never had that negative mindset towards it because it isn't going to get you anywhere. I always grit my teeth and moved on from disappointments."
Under the guidance of Wells, who has now completed 39 years at the club, Geelong has a brilliant track record of mining for gold at state league level dating all the way back to Podsiadly, who was drafted at 28 in 2009 and became a premiership player two years later.
Tom Stewart, most notably, has amassed five All-Australian blazers in the seven years since the Cats selected the key defender at 23 via pick No.40 in the 2016 AFL Draft, after initially discovering him playing down the road for South Barwon before adding him to the VFL program. Before Stewart, Geelong plucked a 21-year-old Harry Taylor out of the WAFL. The champion defender played 280 games in the hoops, winning two premierships and two All-Australian selections.
Tim Kelly only stayed for two seasons after being selected at pick No.24 a year later at the age of 23, but was an All-Australian by the time he returned to Perth and is now a best and fairest winner at West Coast. Tom Atkins was also recruited at 23 in the rookie draft at the end of 2017 and has now played 105 games and is a premiership player. Brad Close was a 68kg small forward playing for Glenelg at 21 when the Cats picked him up via the rookie draft.
"The club's willingness to take mature-age players and play them, fills me with heaps of confidence that I can do the same thing," Mannagh said. "Tommy Atkins is now one of the best players in the team now, and it makes you think: why can't that be me? it certainly fills with me with a lot of confidence. Tommy Stewart is obviously a five-time All-Australian, just a game to start with would be nice. Look at Tim Kelly, even though he only spent a year or two here."
Mannagh doesn't think he would be sitting inside GMHBA Stadium, training at a facility that has just named its new stand after club legend Joel Selwood and discussing his new life on the Surf Coast if it wasn't for the influence of Michael Barlow.
The poster boy of mature-age picks led Werribee – the club he was drafted out of at 21 to Fremantle in 2009 – back to a Grand Final for the first time in nearly two decades this year, before North Melbourne beat the Western Bulldogs and other clubs to secure the 36-year-old's services as head of development at Arden Street.
"He has taken me to the next level," Mannagh said. "Just the way he has made me believe in myself a lot more. Not just him, but Nick Daffy as well. They have played a massive part in getting me to this level. The way they coach and connect with the players is amazing, always checking in on the phone. Mick's experience as a mature-ager, coming through the VFL and playing AFL, was great to lean on. But the main thing was the belief."
Mannagh is certain Barlow will thrive in his new role at Arden Street and won't take long to take the next step and become an assistant coach. There are only 18 senior coaching roles in the land, but Mannagh thinks the former Docker and Sun will become one, one day.
When Mannagh wasn't training at Chirnside Park during the week and playing for the Tigers on the weekend - and making the long trip from his home in Mordialloc - he was working as the sports coordinator at Altona College. His departure in November didn't come as a shock to those at the school who had followed his progress in the VFL. They were thrilled for him.
"The principal and assistant principal were great to me. They were across as much as possible, as much as you can be with the unknown of the draft. My boss actually said this was the first time she wanted an employee to leave, in a good way. They were really supportive, I owe a lot to them to be fair, working around my footy," he said.
At this age, Mannagh isn't like most draftees. He is married. He has worked a full-time job in education for some time. But that didn't stop the Cats from putting Mannagh in with the rest of the draftees – except for Barwon Heads product Oli Wiltshire – for the pre-Christmas training block.
Mannagh moved into a house in Torquay with first-round pick Connor O'Sullivan, Mitch Edwards, George Stevens, Lawson Humphries and Emerson Jeka for the past few weeks. By the time training restarts in January, he is hoping to be settled in a new house near the club with his wife, preparing to make his mark in 2024. Round one is the goal.
"It starts with the praccy matches. We've got Essendon on March 1, so it would be nice to be in line for that. I would be lying if I didn't say I wanted to play round one and the early rounds of the season. I will give myself the best opportunity over the summer," he said.
"The first few weeks, my training has been good, but I'm sure everything will ramp up after Christmas. I'm only going to get better in this system, so I am certainly hoping to play as many games as I can next year. if that's early great, if not, I will do everything I can for the VFL team until I get a chance."
Mannagh has waited longer than most. Now he is ready to make the most of his chance.