MICHAEL Firrito was so weighed down by injury late last year that he was relieved when he was finally dropped.

The North Melbourne defender had not been dropped for nine years prior to his omission following the Roos' fadeout loss to the Brisbane Lions in round 16, 2013.

By that stage of the season, Firrito was barely recognisable as the versatile defender North had leaned on so much in previous seasons.

The former Box Hill Hawk had alibis for his poor run of form, however. After knee surgery delayed his start to the 2013 pre-season, he suffered a quadriceps injury early in the year and his knee soon became a problem he had to manage again.

Firrito's injuries robbed him of his power off the mark and in one-on-one contests, and severely limited his ability to train during the week.
Understandably, his form dropped off and took his confidence with it.

Largely unable to address the areas that were letting him down in matches on the training track, Firrito needed a circuit-breaker.

It came after another disappointing performance against the Lions, but had been weeks in the making.

"It all just got on top of me in the end," Firrito said.

"My limited pre-season obviously took a toll and then when you're not really training during the week it's a bit of a snowball effect: you're out of form and you can't really change it on the training track. You just have to rely on those two hours on the weekend.

"Brad (Scott) was really good throughout it. It was something we'd spoken about for a while and we pretty much came to the conclusion together that it wasn't the best thing for me to be out there or the best thing for the team.

"It was difficult and hard but it was certainly the right decision. Physically, I wasn't able to do the things that I'm normally capable of."

Firrito spent his first two weeks out of North's team in the VFL with Werribee before taking time off to strengthen his knee and quadriceps under high performance director Steve Saunders' supervision.

As much as it hurt to be sidelined, Firrito said it was a relief knowing he could devote himself to getting his body right.

"Certainly you want to be out there with the boys and helping the team, but it was a relief to just take a bit of a backwards step and try to get myself and my body right," he said.

"It was something I just had to do. I wasn't doing myself any good or the team any good by continuing to play the way I was playing.

"It was a tough little time but we got through it and I'm now looking forward to what's ahead."

Firrito battled through the first half of 2013 before finally succumbing to injury. Picture: AFL Media

With North's best key defenders Scott Thompson (bruised lung) and Nathan Grima (foot) missing 2013's final two rounds with injury, Firrito was recalled to face two of the competition's most imposing key forwards: then-Hawthorn star Lance Franklin and Collingwood's Travis Cloke.

As he has done so often throughout his career, Firrito, 189cm and 93kg, conceded significant height and weight to Franklin and Cloke but kept them honest despite conceding five goals to both.

More importantly, he felt his old self again.

"It was good to get out there and feel like I had my power and explosiveness back, and to be able to compete one on one," Firrito said.

Despite his encouraging finish to 2013, Firrito came out of contract at the end of last season and had to wait until October before being re-signed for 2014.

Firrito was aware of media speculation at the time that his career could be over, but said he spoke regularly with North, particularly Scott, and was completely comfortable with how his football future was decided.

"You can't help but hear about the things that are being written about you, but I was never blindsided by anything the whole time," he said.
"Brad and I were really open and honest with each other. He was great for me throughout that time.

"I knew exactly where I was at and so did Brad, so we were very comfortable with where things were at."

As he eyes next season, Firrito, 30, realises he's no walk-up start on North's backline given the Roos' growing depth.

But he knows that augurs well for North's 2014 prospects and remains confident he can make a solid contribution – especially when his knee and quadriceps have so far stood up to this pre-season's training load without any problems.

"I still see my role as a third defender who can play tall and small, not as the main key defender like I did in those last couple of games," Firrito said.

"You have to be pretty versatile to play that role and I think, when I'm fit and healthy, I can still do that."

Firrito had regained some of his old spark by the final-round clash with Collingwood. Picture: AFL Media