AMID the flurry of last-minute calls around Jeremy Cameron, Adam Treloar and Jye Caldwell at the end of last year's Trade Period, one other went unnoticed.  

And for Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin, it was about who he wasn't trading, rather than who he was bringing in. 

While Tom McDonald grabbed the headlines as a Demon put up for sale, fellow contracted forward Alex Neal-Bullen was also offered to clubs without a nibble. As Cameron, Treloar and Caldwell found new homes, Neal-Bullen was just as grateful, albeit to be playing at the same club. 

"I reckon Goody called me within a minute of the phones going down and said, 'How are you feeling mate, I'm that excited to have you back day one of pre-season'," Neal-Bullen told this week. 

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"There was nothing from my end where I was disgruntled, I was that excited to be part of Simon's football team."

The 25-year-old had a deal until 2021 but had enjoyed a frustrating season in the Queensland hub limited to seven matches due to form as well as a four-game suspension for a sling tackle on Adelaide's Will Hamill. Post-season, he walked into an exit meeting with Goodwin, list manager Tim Lamb and then forwards coach Justin Plapp. 

"At the end I was sitting there in frustration where I feel like, because of the COVID, you had no consistency with what I was doing," Neal-Bullen said.  

01:11 Mins
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Some cunning play and an incredible finish from the boundary

Alex Neal-Bullen's smart play hands him the free kick, but the finish is something else

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"We literally had an honest conversation where the football club told me how they feel about where I stand and my word to them was that I respect this decision so much purely on the basis of its honesty. 

"They could've gone the other way of not telling me until there was an offer there, whereas I was aware. I went into the off-season understanding that potentially my off-season was going to be elsewhere but never did I not think I was part of this footy club.

"Goody's been a huge part of my development as a person and also a footballer. That's something that a lot of people don't realise, as a football coach you have a huge responsibility to develop these young men coming through to become great people. 

"I can honestly say Goody's had the biggest impact on my football career, but also on me as a person. I've spent seven years here which is the equivalent of my high school years. He's been there since day one and I hope he's there till my last day."

In 2021, Neal-Bullen has bounced back strongly, playing all nine games alongside small forwards Charlie Spargo and Kozzy Pickett under new forwards coach Greg Stafford. 

"It's pretty powerful. You don't walk into the club and necessarily think, 'I'm 25 and they're 21 (Spargo) and 19 (Pickett)', it's the energy we provide each other on game day that we can feed off," Neal-Bullen said. 

"I was speaking to a mate who's a Melbourne fan the other day and he was asking how it is playing with Kozzy Pickett. In 10 years when I'm no longer in the system, it'll be something where you look back and think, 'Wow, I was so lucky to play with Kozzy Pickett at the time'. 

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"The biggest factor is having the support in the area I play in that high half-forward role of Charlie Spargo, Kozzy Pickett, Jonesy (Nathan Jones), Kade Chandler.  

"We now have a team within a team. We know what each other's strengths are so we can put them on display.

"That for me is being able to flourish, if the ball is in the air, Tommy McDonald will bring it to ground and that will allow Charlie, Kozzy and me to go to work. 

Alex Neal-Bullen hugs Kozzy Pickett in Melbourne's win over St Kilda in round two, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

"It's taken years to develop cohesion in the team but we're at the level now where you're not looking at your teammate thinking, 'I'm not sure what he's going to bring today'. We know what each other is going to bring so we can show our strengths."

For Neal-Bullen, those strengths are his hard-running efforts as a half-forward and ability to apply pressure. Originally drafted as a midfielder, he's been moulded into a forward and is this year averaging a career-high 3.2 forward-half tackles per game. 

The Demons have consistently spoken about the increased maturity of their playing list this season and Neal-Bullen's approach off-field speaks volumes. After spending the early parts of his career studying disability teaching, he's back studying this year with the help of a teammate. 

"I realised I'm now at an age where I can balance the demands of footy and also put time into studying and getting something out of it rather than going through the motions and ticking off a short course or a diploma," he said. 

00:32 Mins
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Demons open their account with this delightful goal from the pocket

Alex Neal-Bullen perfectly roves and dribbles from the boundary

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"I've got the support of the footy club to go and do that, but it also allows other people to see that. For the young boys coming up, getting used to the AFL demands, they see that as possible.

"For me, I put the head in the books and am doing a bachelor's degree in business and sport management through Torrens University. Seeing Tom McDonald complete his degree made me want to pursue that and now I've got players younger than me, James Jordon for example, who's now wanting to follow what I'm doing."

Neal-Bullen remains unsigned beyond 2021, and while nothing official is imminent, the South Australian is confident his tenure will be extended with both parties again on the same page.

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