CARLTON had reason to be excited.

When the final siren sounded at what was then known as Visy Park to bring a close to a thrilling Northern Blues victory over Williamstown in the VFL season opener back in 2014, the Blues knew they had a couple of prospects on their hands.

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Patrick Cripps, in his first game wearing the navy blue after he was recruited to the club with pick No.13 in the previous NAB AFL Draft, had registered 34 disposals and a goal. Sam Docherty, also making his first appearance in club colours after a trade from Brisbane a few months prior, had finished with 20 disposals and a goal.

But they weren't the only fresh-faced debutants to catch the eye on that afternoon.

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Making his first senior appearance for Williamstown on that same day was a diminutive midfielder by the name of Michael Gibbons. In his typical workmanlike manner, the teenager won 19 disposals and kicked a goal to mark himself alongside Cripps and Docherty as one of the game's best performers.

Fast-forward the best part of five years later and both Cripps and Docherty had each been named Virgin Australia AFL All Australians, Cripps had won dual Carlton best and fairests, while both had been handed the prestigious honour of being named co-captains of the club. The days of playing VFL football, for them at least, were well and truly a thing of the past.

Gibbons, however, still wasn't on an AFL list.

Michael Gibbons gets a kick away for Williamstown in the VFL in 206. Picture: AFL Photos

A total of 677 picks over six years had gone by over the course of that period – consisting of 441 national draft picks, three pre-season draft picks and 233 rookie draft picks – without Gibbons being given his chance.

The question of why Gibbons wasn't handed an opportunity was a mystery then. And, given his form 18 months into an AFL career that is seemingly improving with each week, it remains a mystery now.

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"Am I surprised by what he's doing at AFL level? No, I'm not … I'm not surprised at all," Williamstown's premiership coach Andy Collins told AFL.com.au.

"What people didn't realise about Michael is that he's got an incredible game intelligence. He was one of those footballers who missed out on being drafted because supposedly they're too small or they may miss an occasional foot target, but you can just see now that he's thriving.

"Allan Jeans used to use this analogy about Gary Buckenara … he used to say, 'he's a good driver in heavy traffic'. Gibbo just needed to play AFL football to make that step across, but he's landed just the same."

Gibbons, 25, is offering Carlton exactly what Williamstown thought he would offer any AFL club, if provided the chance – a reliable and dependable player. The fact he has featured in 33 out of a possible 34 senior games for the Blues since joining the club on the eve of its 2019 season, missing just one match due to a shoulder injury, is testament to his consistency and his durability.

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It's also testament to the fact that he can indeed cut it at this level, a fear AFL clubs had obviously harboured in the six years prior to his recruitment.

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But he's more than just cutting it. Champion Data notes that Gibbons rates 'above average' for general forwards in a series of important statistical categories this season, including disposals, contested possessions, forward-half pressure acts, tackles, score assists, score involvements and goals.

Not bad for a player deemed not good enough by every AFL club, 677 times.

"He is consistently getting better numbers," Carlton's forward line coach Cameron Bruce told AFL.com.au.

"He's having more of an impact, in terms of his score involvements. Those simple things, like the understanding of playing to our system and the craft, positioning and patterns involved in that, they mean that we can function better.

"What he does better than a lot of others is that he trains at genuine intensity. That gives himself the best possible chance to improve and that's why he's able to have an impact."

Michael Gibbons in 2020

 

2020 Avg.

Position Rating (Gen Fwd)

Disposals

13.7

Above Average

Contested Possessions

4.8

Above Average

Marks

3.2

Above Average

Fwd Half Pressure Acts

10.2

Above Average

Tackles

2.7

Above Average

Score Assists

1.0

Above Average

Score Involvements

4.7

Above Average

Accuracy %

58.8%

Above Average

Goals

0.8

Above Average


There wasn't much more Gibbons could have done to earn his chance. In his five years at Williamstown after he was overlooked at the 2013 draft, the prolific onballer had won two JJ Liston trophies for the best player in the VFL, a Norm Goss Medal for the best player in the VFL Grand Final, and a VFL premiership with the Seagulls.

He just needed one club to take the punt.

Carlton, in a move understood to be driven by the club’s football boss Brad Lloyd, became that club. 

"He's a phenomenal young leader with an intellect to rival Sam Mitchell

- Andy Collins

Rather ironically given their unique history at Visy Park a few years prior, the list spot for Gibbons became available when Docherty’s season-ending ACL injury in December 2018 opened up an availability to recruit the 175cm playmaker via the newly introduced Pre-Season Supplemental Selection Period.

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"There were a lot of people who spoke about what Michael couldn't do on the footy field, but I'm so glad Carlton saw what he could do," Collins said.

"He's a phenomenal young leader with an intellect to rival Sam Mitchell. A young Sam Mitchell was really confident around senior players and very confident in his knowledge of the game.

"At half-time of one game we were playing, I remember I was reaching out to the boys and I was asking the group to help me. Gibbo came up with some terrific insights into that particular game and suggested some things that we could do. We incorporated those things into our game.

"He might have been 20 years old at that time, but he was in our leadership group in his second year at Williamstown. He's always been a really good kid in that he's really respectful, but he's also got an incredible insight into the game. I'm glad that Carlton seems to be recognising that."

Michael Gibbons' VFL career by the numbers

 

2016-2018 Avg. (59 matches)

VFL Ranking

Ranking Points

117.8

#4

Disposals

27.9

#2

Contested Possessions

12.1

#9

Uncontested Possessions

15.7

#5

Clearances

6.7

#4

Score Involvements

6.2

#12

Score Assists

1.1

#21

 
And there's still more to come. Throughout Gibbons' final three years at Williamstown, he consistently improved to rank top-10 in the VFL for disposals, clearances and contested ball. He also ranked 12th for score involvements. The Seagulls put it down to his endless desire to become a better footballer.

Uncontracted beyond this season, there is seemingly no doubt the Blues extend his deal well into the future to continue reaping the benefits Williamstown saw throughout his time at the club.

"Every year he spent at Williamstown, he got better," Collins said.

"He's so incredibly driven. We're all looking at him and seeing him play some really good footy, but he would be a guy who would say, 'you wait'. He would think he still has so many areas of his game to improve on."

There is perhaps one intangible that is impossible to measure when it comes to Gibbons, however. But it's an intangible that Collins knew he would offer to any club he walked into, and one that insiders at Carlton recognise as one his most significant assets. That's his leadership.

"He just brings so much energy and enthusiasm," Bruce said.

"He also really brings a great level of communication. He's got awesome footy understanding and he sees the game so well, so I rely on him a lot throughout the game.

"Because of his attention to detail and his determination to get better, he's invested the time and continues to invest the time into getting better. He obviously values the opportunity that he's got."

Collins doesn't need a second invitation to agree with that sentiment.

"The one thing that's important to know about Michael Gibbons ... all of the coaches at Williamstown loved him as a son, and all of his teammates loved him as a brother. That's the special quality of Gibbo."