BEN KEAYS had it all worked out. After being delisted by Brisbane at the end of 2019, the midfielder had set his sights on a return to Victoria, where he had spent some of his youth, for work and study. He was going to play in the VFL for the Box Hill Hawks and hope to reignite his AFL career that way, even if Keays thought it was a long shot.

But the Crows had other plans and in nearly the season-and-a-half that has passed since then, it has been an inspired choice. After being selected by Adelaide as a rookie pick weeks after his axing from the Lions, Keays finished fifth in the Crows best and fairest last season. This year, he is their second leading disposal winner, averaging 27 touches a game and also spending time as a forward.

"I thought deep down that I did deserve another opportunity. I always had that self-belief but the industry doesn't always work out like that and sometimes you don't get rewarded, so I was pretty clear headed," Keays told this week.

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"I didn't really get too down in the dumps. I was pretty levelheaded. I thought that if another club picks me up it would be a bonus and was lucky enough to land here and I haven't looked back. I've loved it here and it's been a great experience and leaving home was really good for me. It opened my eyes a bit and I developed as a person, so it's been a really enjoyable journey."

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Keays' arrival at Adelaide took even him by surprise after he had managed just four senior appearances for the Lions between 2018-19. A quick chat with Crows list manager Justin Reid late in the year planted a seed that there could be some interest from Adelaide, but when he didn't hear any more from the club he had all but moved on from the potential of a relocation to West Lakes.

"We had pretty much one conversation, it was pretty brief and then I didn't hear from him again for another couple of months. I thought they were turned off but it turned out they just wanted to not let on that they were interested, so when they picked me up it was a really big surprise, but it was a welcome one that's for sure," he said.

The change of environment has led to a change in game style for Keays, who entered the AFL system as a member of the Lions Academy having shown his wares as a ball-winning midfielder. His first two seasons at Brisbane led to 26 games before he was squeezed out of the improving line-up under coach Chris Fagan.

Watching on from the sidelines as Brisbane made its swift move up the ladder, including back-to-back finals series in the past two seasons and last year a preliminary final defeat, was somewhat bittersweet for Keays, who felt a part of the rise but also at arm's length.

Ben Keays wins the hard ball against Hugh Greenwood in round three, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"It was really tough, especially being a fan of the Lions. I was a Brisbane Lions tragic my whole life, Dad was a Fitzroy [supporter] and my family was. I did find ways to enjoy it still being around the club, but it was pretty disappointing when we had a couple of really tough years where we were struggling and the wheel started to turn," he said.

"That's how footy goes – new kids come in and they wanted to freshen up the team and different guys get a look in, and then something starts working and they want to stick with that and that's how it goes. I didn't get down in the dumps on that and I just wanted to keep working hard and improving my game. I knew that that hard work would add up one way or another, whether it was at Brisbane or somewhere else."

When he did play for the Lions, it was often as a wingman or in a forward role, not the customary inside midfield position that Keays believed he fits best. Adelaide saw that side to his game and threw him the responsibility as one of its chief ball-winners under coach Matthew Nicks. The 24-year-old ranks behind teammate Rory Laird for clearances at the Crows (with a total of 38 for the season) and nearly half of his disposals have been contested.

"It suits my game better being on the inside and in the crash and bash, so I do think I'm a different player, I think I've added things," Keays said.

"And I also think the work I did through that period at Brisbane is now starting to show. I've got to keep at it and keep working."

He will be on the front line in a midfield battle this Saturday night against Port Adelaide in the Showdown at Adelaide Oval. Keays made his debut for the Crows in last year's clash with the Power, but it was played in front of a tiny crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"We have a lot of respect for Port and we know how well they've gone in the last couple of years. We had them twice in the pre-season and so we got to see firsthand how they play, and they were pretty red hot then. I think we've done our research and we're going to match up well with them."