AFTER taking longer to play AFL football than most, Essendon defender Michael Hibberd is wasting no time moving into the next phase of his career.
Hibberd remembers the insular nature of his first 20 or so games after being drafted by Essendon from the VFL in 2010 as a 20-year-old.
There was the worrying that came before each performance, and the wondering every week ahead of team selection. He wanted the team to play well, but was most concerned about staying in the team.
But with that pressure now gone, and his place in Essendon's line-up assured, Hibberd feels ready to take his game up a notch or two for the betterment of the Bombers.
"It's my fourth season now and I know I'm in the team, I've established myself in the team, so I worry more about how we're going and if we're winning or not, more than how I am going," Hibberd told AFL.com.au this week.
This has manifested in several ways.
Hibberd's attacking flair, strength in the air, and piercing left-foot kick makes him an eye-catching player, and one opposition teams put more time into countering in the second half of his breakout 2013 season.
But the 24-year-old judges his performance not on statistics or how many metres he has advanced the ball for his side, but how much he has assisted teammates around him.
"I'm a defender so my first instinct is to defend my man and then help out the other guys when I can…to get back and try and get a spoil in, or go third man up against a big forward, or get first to a ground ball," he said.
"They're the first things I think of. And then when we win the ball, being an attacking defender, I want to be used in attack and to get up the ground and try get the ball.
"I want to let the [opposition] forwards worry about me. I think if they're worrying about me I'm doing a good job."
There was plenty of that last year, when Hibberd played every game and was in All Australian contention at the midway point of the year. Like his side, he dropped away at times in the second half of the year, and is aiming to play well deeper into 2014.
There is also a more intangible aspect to his role on the field this year which has been encouraged by coach Mark Thompson.
"I play in the backline, I see everything that's unfolding in front of me. I've had that knowledge of it all, I just haven't had the voice. This year 'Bomber' has really pushed on me being a bit more of a leader on field and at training," he said.
"That's something I've taken on board and I'm trying to get better and better at; leading the guys around me, and trying to make sure everything's set up."
To get better on the field requires some behind-the-scenes improvements, too. Despite a small hamstring strain in the NAB Challenge – his first injury in a year-and-a-half – Hibberd feels his body has adjusted to AFL demands.
Before joining Essendon, he had endured tough training sessions at the Dandenong Stingrays in the TAC Cup, and Frankston in the VFL, but just not five days a week.
Hibberd's professionalism has also changed, for the better. A drunken nightclub incident, which saw him fined by the court in 2011, as well as cop a suspension from Essendon, was a sharp reminder of how short a football career can be.
That incident behind him, Hibberd focused on building his body to withstand the rigours of the AFL, and used every day at training to get better.
"It's something that took me a while to adjust to. But now I think after being in the system, I'm starting to live and breathe the elite lifestyle of a footballer. It's probably been like that for a year or so now but it took me a while to finally realise what it takes to get the best out of yourself," he said.
"I've just matured a bit more. I'm a couple of years older. When you're first at the club you're a bit younger and want to hang out with your friends and get a balance of hanging out with your mates and playing football at the same time. But it comes to a stage where this is my job and I love doing it. I want to have a big, long career."
Now living in Port Melbourne, near to teammates Jake Melksham, Cale Hooker, Tom Bellchambers and captain Jobe Watson, Hibberd has surrounded himself with some of the prominent figures at Essendon.
"Now my best mates are the guys I play footy with. You feed off the guys you play with and you become who you hang out with," he said.
"Putting good friends around me, like a few of the leaders at the club I'm close with, I just love playing my footy and I'm getting the most out of myself."
Hibberd, and the Bombers, are enjoying the rewards. After a fourth-placed finish in last year's best and fairest he has started 2014 in similar touch, averaging 25 disposals across the opening two rounds.
Last year Carlton deployed Dennis Armfield to mark Hibberd in both games, and he expects similar attention from a defensive Blues forward this Sunday when the rivals meet at the MCG.
The Bombers gave up a nine-point lead with three minutes to play against Hawthorn last week and lost by four points, but Hibberd says there was much to take from the defeat.
"We will probably go through that sort of scenario some stage at training and we have been through it over the pre-season before. It's just getting it right on game day when we're under pressure like we were. Hopefully we'll be ready next time if the opportunity arises," he said.
"We learnt that we played some real good footy in that third quarter and probably showed what we're capable of doing. It showed we could do it against a good team."