James Harmes at Western Bulldogs training on November 27, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

JAMES Harmes was nervous when he walked into the Whitten Oval for the first time in November. And for good reason. Games between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs have been ferocious either side of the 2021 Grand Final in Perth. They don't like each other.

Harmes was usually in the middle of the animosity, trying to get under the skin of Tom Liberatore or distract Marcus Bontempelli. Those memories have faded but not been forgotten, much to the amusement of many inside the Bulldogs since the deal was done. 

The 28-year-old remembers a particularly willing encounter in a game played behind closed doors at Marvel Stadium during the pandemic in 2021. He was tagging Liberatore and copped it from everyone. They came for him again a couple of months later at the MCG – again in front of no one – before Harmes played a role in ending the Demons' 57-year premiership drought later in the year in the west. 

Now Harmes and Liberatore are teammates after the Victorian was traded to the Bulldogs in exchange for a future third-round pick during last October's Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period.

After playing 152 games across a decade at Melbourne, Harmes needed a fresh start at the end of last season. Last winter was a slog. He fell out of favour at the Demons and out of love with the game. But he has rediscovered the passion this summer, building towards a round one clash against the side he just left on March 17. 

"It was funny coming here, I remember most games against the Doggies and there were always words said to each other. I've tagged 'Libba' a few times and gone back and forth a few times. I remember a game in 2021, there was no crowd at Marvel and it was just me and him head to head. It was on," Harmes told AFL.com.au on the Western Bulldogs' pre-season camp in Mooloolaba.

James Harmes and Tom Liberatore compete for the ball during the Toyota AFL Grand Final between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs on September 25, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"I've always had a lot of respect for 'Libba'. I'm glad we're on the same team now. He has been great since I got here. We just looked at each other and knew we've had some good rivalries in the past and smiled. But if I'm being honest, it was daunting coming in because I didn't know if the boys were going to like me. The first few weeks I was a bit standoffish, but it has become very normal quickly."

Harmes didn't think he would end up at the Western Bulldogs. Essendon came for him at the end of 2022, but with two years to run on his contract, Melbourne wouldn't let him go. Richmond also showed interest last year after former Demons midfield coach Adem Yze landed the gig at Punt Road.

But when Dogs list manager Sam Power and senior coach Luke Beveridge sat down with Harmes and his manager, Tim Hazell from Vivid Sport, last October, the move made sense for everyone. And it has made even more sense since Bailey Smith ruptured his ACL in December.  

"I didn't think I'd be coming here. The Bulldogs would have been the last on the list, not because I didn't want to come here but because I didn't chat to the Dogs at all last year until the Trade Period started. It happened late," Harmes said.

"When they came to my manager, I was pretty surprised. Timmy rang me and told me the Dogs were super keen. When I sat down with Bevo and Sammy Power, it just felt right. The interview was only supposed to be an hour and we ended up spending more than two hours at Bevo's house. 

"It felt like Bevo had a lot of confidence in me to play good footy again, which is probably what I lacked last year. I lost a lot of confidence and felt like the coaches didn't believe in me much even though I was playing good footy at VFL level."

Harmes knew he needed a change halfway through last year. After being a permanent fixture between 2016 and 2022, he played the first two games of 2023 before taking mental health leave. Things changed when he returned. He was squeezed out of the side, managing only seven more senior appearances – three as the sub – around 10 games for Casey in the VFL. 

Footy had stopped being enjoyable and started being a grind. Turning up at the club each day was tough. By the end of the season, Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin did the right thing by him and told him to explore a fresh start to kickstart his career. 

"It was a big grind for me to go into Melbourne every day. It was nothing to do with the boys or the coaches or the club, it was more about just me and where I was at in life. I'd been there for 10 years going into the same place. I think a fresh start was exactly what I needed," he explained.

James Harmes in action during the match between North Melbourne and Melbourne at Blundstone Arena in round 21, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

"I had to have a little break from footy. I played the first two games, but I just wasn't enjoying myself. Even then it was a grind for me going in, even when I was in the ones. I just wasn't happy and felt like I needed some time away from the game. That really helped me and re-energised me. The Dees were really supportive, but I felt like when I came back I lost the trust of the coaches a little bit. I remember being the sub against Gold Coast and playing well and ended up getting COVID and form was good at VFL level, but got dropped again. Every time was a whack to the confidence. 

"I really didn't enjoy my footy for six months. It was a grind for me to go in most days. By the end of the year, I needed to get out of there and they sensed that as well. 'Goody' and myself get along really well and he even said it is best for your footy to go and have a look around."

Harmes has invested a lot of time in his mental health since stepping away from the game last April. For a good-time guy from Devon Meadows, he wouldn't have been open to seeing a psychologist in the early stages of his career. That has changed. And the impact has been profound. 

"It was a year of a lot of learning, not getting to that point where I needed some time away from footy. There are going to be more challenges in my career, so it is about dealing with them. I see a psych now and I'm not embarrassed about that, whereas I would have been embarrassed about that in the past. I definitely feel like my mental health is in a better place than in the past," he said.

James Harmes evades Tom De Koning during Melbourne's clash against Carlton in round 12, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"If I'm not in a good mental space, if I'm not happy it definitely affects the way I play, worrying about other things, my training habits and my life. It is just about staying on top of that, seeking help when needed. I feel like the stigma is not what it was 10 years ago. Everyone is going through something. I'm excited for this year because last year I wasn't in a good headspace and still found ways to perform, where this year I feel in a much better space."

Sometimes, change is as good as a holiday. Changing environments at this point in his career has reinvigorated Harmes. 

"The first weeks are like going to a new school. The program is very similar in many ways, but seeing new faces and meeting new people and finding your spot in the group has freshened me up," he said.

"I was at the Dees from 18 and I was there for 10 years, it was all I knew. At the Dees I was pigeonholed to be the funny guy and carry on a bit, whereas here I have taken a step back and tried to slide in quietly. It has been good to learn new terminologies, new game styles and new gameplans."

James Harmes during a Western Bulldogs match simulation session in Maroochydore on February 1, 2024. Picture: Western Bulldogs

Harmes has worked his way into his first pre-season at the Dogs. He was slow out of the blocks after contracting COVID-19 at his wedding just before day one, but since the start of January, Harmes has left his mark on the group. 

He kicked four goals in hot, wet and humid conditions in the club's intraclub in Maroochydore last Thursday, showing the quality he can add to a stacked red, white and blue midfield that will also include pick No.6 Ryley Sanders.

"I will most likely play as an inside mid. That's where I've trained all pre-season," he said. "I'll spend a fair bit of time playing as that high half-forward as well, which I'm happy to do. I've done that my whole career. I haven't done any tagging this pre-season, but who is to say that I won't this season?"

Harmes will always be a Melbourne premiership player. He is still close with many former teammates, including captain Max Gawn, who nailed the MC duties at his wedding to American, Corey Taylor, in November. But now he has the jumpstart his career needed at the Western Bulldogs. Expect him to make the most of it.