Lachie Sullivan celebrates his first league goal during the match between Carlton and Collingwood at the MCG in round eight, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

IF THE answer was no, Lachie Sullivan could have been playing amateur football in front of a few hundred people in Glen Iris on Saturday afternoon, rather than making his debut in front of 88,362 hardcore football fans at the MCG on Friday night. But the answer was yes. Finally. 

In the hours and days after last year's Rookie Draft, the 26-year-old contemplated returning to his local club St Kevin's Old Boys in the Victorian Amateur Football Association. The dream was finally over. Or at least he thought it was. 

The Western Bulldogs had shown interest late in the year and loomed as his last chance. Luke Beveridge was a fan and called Sullivan directly a couple of times. But despite the alignment with Footscray, the club passed on the VFL skipper who had won the past two best and fairest awards. The Bulldogs didn't need another midfielder and used their rookie spots on delisted pair Taylor Duryea and Lachie McNeil. 

After his best season yet in the VFL, where Sullivan won the Coaches MVP Award, finished third in the J.J. Liston Trophy and was named captain in the team of the year, the full-time electrician was devastated. 

That's when Collingwood said yes. First to a meeting after Sullivan's managers Liam Pickering and James Pitcher from Bravo Management reached out to Magpies recruiting boss Derek Hine. It started over the phone, then progressed to a sit down with Collingwood's VFL coach Josh Fraser. The Magpies initially wanted him to join the VFL program, but a trial during the pre-season supplemental selection period changed everything.


"I didn't know what I was going to do (after the draft). I probably went through a week of limbo, where I didn't know what was going to happen, whether I was going to give up and go back to SKOB (St Kevin's) or not. Thankfully, we got on to 'Dekka' (Hine) and he got me down to training and the rest is history. But it definitely could have been the case where I'm playing VAFA right now instead," Sullivan told after his debut on Friday night. 

"'Pickers' reached out to him. Collingwood was looking for midfield depth. We thought we would just try our luck. I had a meeting with them. I didn't know if it was going to be VFL or AFL, but it must have gone well. I had a medical four days later and then was training on the Wednesday. Even then, I didn't know if it was going to be AFL or VFL."

Despite winning its 16th flag months earlier, Collingwood invited six players to train with the AFL program across the summer. Sullivan was the sixth invite, after delisted pair Jack Bytel and Brynn Teakle, Magpies VFL pair Josh Eyre and Campbell Hustwaite, plus Collegians defender Sam Sofronidis all started on day one of the pre-season in November.

The Magpies had three available list spots and needed some defensive coverage with Nathan Murphy facing an uncertain future at the time, following a 10th concussion in last year's Grand Final, which ultimately led to him being medically retired last month. They didn't necessarily need another midfielder. But Sullivan shone in match sim in January and starred in the intraclub opposed to Tom Mitchell, Nick Daicos and Jack Crisp.

He got the spot. Finally.

Lachie Sullivan in action during Collingwoods training session at Olympic Park Oval on April 3, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

"Every session was do or die," Sullivan said.

"You would go home and think about every single thing you did in training. I was just head down, never got ahead of myself, just stayed locked in for that period. Even when I got the phone call, I didn't have an inkling, I thought it was potentially 'no' so it was pretty awesome."

Sullivan started his VFL journey at Port Melbourne but didn't cement a spot there, returning to St Kevin's Old Boys where he dominated in the VAFA, helping the club win the 2017 A-Grade premiership by winning the rising star award. He joined Footscray in 2018 and played eight games around a second Ammos flag for SKOB. 

Things clicked in 2021. Sullivan finished fourth in the reserves best and fairest at Whitten Oval, behind Robbie McComb and Will Hayes – two players drafted out of Footscray – around long hours as a sparky. He was named captain in 2022 and won the best and fairest, before going back-to-back last year to get up on stage again at the Charles Sutton Medal last October.

Long-time Essendon list manager Adrian Dodoro showed interest ahead of the 2022 Mid-Season Rookie Draft. Daniel Giansiracusa had coached him at Footscray and rated him. But Sullivan hadn't nominated the previous year and wasn't eligible. That was when he went and got a manager. 

"I had so many setbacks," he said. "You play well at VFL level and you think you could potentially do it at the highest level. But there were definitely times where I didn't think it was going to happen; it is so hard, and some people's journeys are different. Here we are today."

Collingwood coach Craig McRae stopped a meeting last Thursday to tell Sullivan he was going to make his debut against the Blues, after considering him for Anzac Day. The wait was over. Although he would have to wait a little longer, starting as the sub last Friday night.

But when Beau McCreery was subbed out with concussion halfway through the second quarter, Sullivan was activated into the game and kicked a goal with his first kick in league football, less than three minutes later. McRae and Daicos celebrated on the bench like the Pies had won a final. 

"It was sort of an out of body experience," he said. "I never thought it would happen like that. It is so amazing to be part of such an amazing club like Collingwood and to make my debut against an amazing club like Carlton, and to win it with two minutes to go. It was amazing to be a part of."


Brody Mihocek was the last established state league star Collingwood recruited when they plucked the then 24-year-old key defender from Port Melbourne and transformed him into a premiership forward. But before then, Hine also recruited Sam Dwyer from the Borough via pick No.27 in the 2012 Rookie Draft. The 26-year-old recruit ended up playing 39 games for Magpies across three seasons before returning to the VFL after being delisted. 

Now Sullivan has had a taste and proven he can play at the level – he finished with 10 touches, a game-high eight score involvements, five tackles and four clearances from 43 per cent game time – the challenge is to back it up, starting this Sunday against West Coast. 

"I think I can," he said. "I went alright and felt pretty good out there. I felt pretty good at the end. I had a first wind when I first came on, but I feel if I can play on a stage like that, I can do it. But we go back to work on Monday."

Brad Smith, Sullivan's old boss at Bradlec Electrical, has ridden the journey with the inside midfielder. The AFL interest. The heartache. Everything in between.

Not many outside of family have been as invested. It is why Sullivan has still be allowed to drive the work van since signing the contract with Collingwood in February.

Although, it might be time to give the keys back. Sullivan won't be back anytime soon.

Not that Brad is upset.