Brody Mihocek, Marlion Pickett and James Podsiadly. Pictures: AFL Photos

THE 2020s isn't quite the golden age of mature-aged players, but clubs are certainly more willing to take a punt on older recruits than they were two decades ago.

The 2024 Mid-Season Rookie Draft on Wednesday night is set to see a host of players achieve their AFL dream after being overlooked in the national draft, sometimes on multiple occasions.

The MSD's most famous success story since it was reintroduced in 2019 is Marlion Pickett, who debuted in a Grand Final at the age of 27, but it's also seen younger players like John Noble (who debuted at 22), Sam Durham (debuted at 20) and Jai Newcombe (debuted at 19) given a chance after their draft years.

But clubs have also shown a willingness to go much, much older when adding players to their list.

The first eight rounds of this season alone saw two 25-year-olds (North Melbourne's Toby Pink and Richmond's Mykelti Lefau) and two 26-year-olds (Geelong's Shaun Mannagh and Collingwood's Lachie Sullivan) make their AFL debuts, while 24-year-old Joe Richards also joined the club, making his debut for Collingwood at the age of 24.

It's the continuation of a recent trend; in the first 10 years of this century, just 12 players made their debuts after their 24th birthday, an average of 1.2 per season. In the 14-and-a-bit seasons since, there have been 92, an average of more than six per year.


Unsurprisingly, the biggest spike in mature-aged debutants this century came in the expansion years of 2011 and 2012, when a total of 25 players played their first games after their 24th birthday as Gold Coast and then Greater Western Sydney entered the competition.

The other big jump in the modern era came in 2017, which produced undoubtedly the best intake of 24 and older debutants this century. Geelong champion Tom Stewart, the poster boy for second chances, made his debut that year along with four others who have gone on to play more than 100 games: Nic Newman, Alex Keath, Hugh Greenwood and Daniel Lloyd.

Tom Stewart celebrates after the 2022 AFL Grand Final between Geelong and Sydney at the MCG on September 24, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Sandwiched between the likes of Mason Cox and Sam Menegola in 2016 and Brody Mihocek in 2018, it's the golden period of older debutants this century.

While debutants aged in their 30s are unlikely to be seen in the professional era - Essendon's Charlie Hardy holds the all-time record for the oldest debut (round 10, 1921) at 34 years, 100 days - this year has again shown that clubs are still willing to take a punt on older players in the modern game.

Wednesday's mid-season draft should see a handful of mature-agers achieve their AFL dream.

Top 10 players to debut after 24th birthday

(since 2000)

1) Tom Stewart
Having played with the Geelong Falcons as a teenager, Stewart turned out for South Barwon after being overlooked in his draft year, winning a flag there under the tutelage of Cats legend Matthew Scarlett. With Scarlett's guidance, Stewart then impressed in Geelong's VFL program before being drafted at the age of 23 in 2016. Five All-Australians, two best and fairests and a flag later, Stewart remains the poster boy for mature-aged recruits.

2) James Podsiadly
Originally drafted way back in 1999 by Essendon before also spending time on Collingwood's list, Podsiadly spent seven seasons at VFL level before a breakout year in 2009 earned him a spot on Geelong's senior list at the age of 28. He exploded at the top level, picking up 13 Brownlow votes in his debut season and a premiership in 2011 before he finished his career at Adelaide in 2014. He retired after 195 goals in 104 games.

James Podsiadly takes a mark during the R9 match between Adelaide and Collingwood on May 15, 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

3) Brody Mihocek
Overlooked in his draft year despite impressing for Tasmania in the U18 Championships, Mihocek moved to Melbourne to chase his football dream, starting at Maribyrnong Park in the Essendon District Football League. He spent the next four seasons at VFL level, primarily as a defender, before Collingwood took a punt on him in 2017 when he was 24. He's gone on to be a five-time leading goalkicker at the Pies and a premiership player - and he's not done yet.

4) Ben Hudson
Hudson focused on basketball in his younger years before he turned to football in his early 20s, starting at university level in Queensland. Having moved back to Victoria and playing in the VFL for Werribee, Adelaide noticed his potential and drafted him at the age of 24, handing him a senior debut the following year. After a tumultuous time at the Crows, he moved to the Western Bulldogs in 2016, playing 88 games in four seasons there. After retiring in 2011 to move back to Queensland, he was lured out of retirement by Brisbane before finishing his career at Collingwood, his fourth club. He played 168 games in total across his career.

5) Marlion Pickett
One of modern football's most incredible stories, Pickett's early life was anything but straightforward. After a troubled childhood, he spent time in and out of jail – which included playing football with a prison team – before his life took an upward turn when he joined South Fremantle in the WAFL and established himself as one of the competition's best players. After attracting interest from AFL clubs at the end of 2018, Richmond took a chance on him in the 2019 Mid-Season Draft before sensationally handing him an AFL debut (at the age of 27) in the Grand Final that year after he had dominated at VFL level. He kicked a memorable goal in the season decider and landed another flag a year later.


6) Tory Dickson
A best and fairest winner at VFL side Frankston in 2009, Dickson also played in the Eastern Football League after missing out in the national draft before being picked up by the Bulldogs in 2011 at the age of 24. One of the most accurate goalkickers in the AFL, Dickson was part of the club's breakthrough AFL premiership in 2016 and played 114 games in his career, including two seasons of 40 goals or more.

7) Mason Cox
Another of football's great stories, Cox became a premiership player at Collingwood having started his sporting career as a soccer player in Texas and then a basketballer in Oklahoma. Having been invited to attend a US Combine in 2014 and showing some potential to go with his imposing frame, Collingwood took a gamble on him and he moved his life to the other side of the world. Having famously debuted on Anzac Day in 2016, Cox is now in his 10th season at the Pies and can now call himself a premiership player.

Mason Cox celebrates after the 2023 AFL Grand Final between Collingwood and Brisbane at the MCG on September 30, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

8) Sam Menegola
From Western Australia, Menegola was drafted by Hawthorn as an 18-year-old before also spending time at Fremantle but didn't crack it for a senior debut at either club. Having returned to the WAFL and impressed at Subiaco, Geelong took a punt on him in 2015, handing him a senior debut at the age of 24. He went on to play 117 games, including the 2020 Grand Final, and earned selection in the 2020 All-Australian squad.

9) Nic Newman
Having risen from near obscurity to win the VFL's Fothergill-Round-Mitchell medal with Frankston in 2014, Newman was drafted by Sydney in 2015 and broke through for a senior debut in 2017 at the age of 24. After 31 games at the Swans, he returned to Melbourne to join Carlton and has established himself as an important player at the Blues, including a key role in their run to a preliminary final in 2023.

10) Tendai Mzungu
Mzungu spent five years at Perth in the WAFL before a breakthrough 2010 season saw him be pre-listed by new club Gold Coast, which then traded him to Fremantle. He played the first of his 102 games for the Dockers in 2011 and took part in the club's first Grand Final in 2013, kicking the Dockers' first goal in the loss to Hawthorn. He was delisted at the end of 2016 before being snapped up by the Giants, where he played a further four games before announcing his retirement.

Notable omissions: Sam Gibson, Sam Lloyd, Mike Pyke, Lee Spurr

* this article was originally published on May 14, 2024

Tendai Mzungu after the R19 match between Fremantle and Carlton on July 31, 2014. Picture: AFL Photos