MABIOR Chol relentlessly refreshed his phone late on deadline day, waiting anxiously on the couch, watching time tick down on October's Trade Period. Now more than three months on, the key forward is feeling refreshed, ready to relaunch his career at Hawthorn.
The 27-year-old was one of the most intriguing trades of 2023, moving to a third club just 12 months after a brilliant breakout season for Gold Coast, despite having two seasons to run on his four-year deal at Heritage Bank Stadium.
After kicking 44 goals in 22 games in the absence of injured star Ben King in 2022, Chol fell down the depth chart last year, restricted to eight senior appearances despite excelling at VFL level, where he kicked 40 goals – including five in the preliminary final and four in the Grand Final – to help lead the Suns to the club's first state league premiership.
Chol arrived at Waverley Park on a four-year contract in November, but was confined to a modified program away from the main group before Christmas, after injuring his posterior cruciate ligament in the VFL Grand Final win over Werribee in September.
But after a methodical build across December, the 200cm spearhead has been unleashed in January, quickly making an impression in training and match simulation sessions as part of a new-look forward line.
"My body is going pretty well now. I started slow, coming back from some PCL damage. I wasn't too aware of it at the time, but then had scans. I was modified pre-Christmas but now transitioned back into it after the break," Chol told AFL.com.au this week.
"The club have been great in looking after me to get my knee right. I'm in a good place now. I feel in a good spot physically, I did a lot of conditioning before Chrissy and built the base, now it's working on footy fitness around the camp."
Chol spent the first six years of his AFL career at Richmond but struggled for senior opportunities under three-time premiership coach Damien Hardwick, playing 31 games in yellow and black. With club greats Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch the two key focal points in the dynasty, the South Sudanese-born, Brisbane-raised forward exercised his free agency rights at the end of 2021, returning to Queensland to join the Suns.
When Hardwick was appointed as Stuart Dew's successor in August last year, Chol's playing future in Carrara appeared clouded from the outside. Yet internally, Hardwick was happy for Chol to stay and fight for a spot, although with Academy product Jed Walter arriving – eventually via pick No.3 – and Jack Lukosius firing alongside King in 2023, the club encouraged him to test the market for his own benefit.
Chol said there is no bad blood between him and Hardwick and he was not forced to move clubs. Rather, with his career stuck in neutral, Chol and his manager, Ash Blair from Pacific Sports Management, who he signed with early last year, made the decision to change gears.
"I respect 'Dimma', he has been a great coach for a long time. I honestly don't know why people make up those stories that we don't get along. We actually do get along pretty well. It just came down to what's best for me long term. To hit the road and move was the best option for me. I'm pretty grateful that I'm here now at the Hawks and excited for the years to come," he said.
"Things didn't really work out at the Gold Coast the way I wanted them to as a club and player (in 2023). Me and my manager thought it was probably best to look somewhere else. I am super grateful I played for the Gold Coast and made a lot of good friends up there, but footy comes first. I'm really excited about the change."
Hawthorn wasn't the only club that met with Chol. North Melbourne explored the move. Brisbane showed fleeting interest. Adelaide was firmly in the hunt. But the Hawks made the most compelling pitch, led by list manager Mark McKenzie, senior coach Sam Mitchell, GM of football Rob McCartney and high performance boss Peter Burge, who worked with Chol at Punt Road.
"It came down to my position and the game time that I'm after. I'm going to have to work really hard for my spot here, but after having a chat with Sam and Rob as well, I felt like we had a really good understanding of what's required to play my best footy," he said.
"Playing alongside Mitch (Lewis) and 'Breusty' (Luke Breust) and 'Gunners' (Jack Gunston) and these guys was also something that appealed. There are a lot of talented young players here as well, which is exciting, with Jack Ginnivan and Nick Watson and those types. That's what dragged me across the line."
Despite winning one less game in 2023 than 2022, Hawthorn made bigger picture inroads last year. It fast-tracked the development of a young midfield group, but was still ranked 16th for goals, ahead of only West Coast and North Melbourne. The Hawks hope Chol can form a lethal partnership with Lewis, who has averaged 2.4 goals per game under Mitchell, around veteran duo Breust and Gunston, plus new faces in Ginnivan and Watson, who arrived at the club via pick No.5 in November.
"I feel like we've been working really well together in training. Mitch had a slow start before Christmas but is now back into full training with me. I feel like we're bouncing off each other, communicating really well and I feel like our relationship is only going to get stronger the longer we work together," he said.
"We've got two really experienced players in Jack Gunston and Luke Breust who can provide that real level head. Jack Ginnivan has slotted in well. I feel like we've got a great relationship as a group and it's only going to get better as the season goes on."
Three-club players were once rare, iconic names that have become front-of-mind again in recent times due to the popularity of cult footy trivia game Worpel. Now, with player movement rising, they are becoming the norm. Taylor Adams and Brodie Grundy both became three-club players during the Trade Period when they reunited at Sydney.
Chol felt the temperature rising last year. He is aware of the interest in him heading into his first season at Waverley Park. He knows he must improve his consistency, in games and on the track, if he is going to recapture his 2022 form. He now feels he is in the right environment at the right time to get the most out of himself.
"To be honest, I don't feel like I've got a point to prove to anyone, really," he said. "I think personally, I know what I'm capable of. For me to play my best footy I just need to be comfortable and confident. I'm here to play my role for the footy club. I don't think I need to prove anything to anyone. I feel like the club and Sam Mitchell has backed me in to play to my strengths and that's what I'm going to try and bring every week.
"There have been some questions about my consistency at the highest level. That is 100 per cent a focus of mine this year, that is something I spoke to Sam Mitchell about and he has been super in helping me try to have a clear mindset where I can just focus on my job, understanding the structures and playing more with my new teammates."
All's well that ends well. Chol found a club that really wanted him last October. Now he is ready to repay the faith and play his part in the rebuild project at Waverley Park.