HOW DO you prepare for a game you don't know you're playing in?
It's a question that has kept Melbourne youngster Toby Bedford on his toes most weeks this year. The exciting forward has been involved in 10 AFL games so far this season, eight of them as the medical substitute and six of them spent unused.
Already, it leaves him ranked No.5 in the League for most games spent as substitute since it returned to the game last year and No.1 for most games as an unused substitute. Not that it has particularly bothered Bedford.
The 22-year-old has been effective on the two occasions where he has been asked to replace an injured teammate, and just as important in the two other games where he's been handed a place in Simon Goodwin's starting side.
"I just try to prepare like I'm playing a normal game," Bedford told AFL.com.au.
"I live with Kozzy Pickett and Luke Jackson and they're preparing like it's a normal game and I'll do everything the same as them. I'll just prepare like I'm playing. Obviously, it's hard mentally at times. You're on the bench for a long time. But it's all worth it once you get on."
Bedford has got on just three times in the past nine weeks, but has contributed five goals in that span. His ability to perform as consistently as he has, despite the uncertainty of his ongoing role, is highly appreciated internally.
It's also testament to Bedford's concentration, his readiness and his growing importance within Melbourne's hopes of going back-to-back this season. His job is difficult and, although not always ideal, is always relished.
"During the games, I'm just watching from the bench but I'll always try and keep myself in the game at all times. I'll try and emotionally keep involved. I'll watch the boys and encourage them when they're coming off," Bedford said.
"It's been tough at times, but I go there not hoping to get on but knowing that there's a possibility that I will. I just need to try and focus on the game at all times. If an opportunity does come, I'll always try and take it with two hands."
Coming into the year, Melbourne had spoken highly of Bedford's dedication to his improving his craft over the last two seasons. But he has been forced to do so with barely any meaningful footy to his name.
Recruited from the club's Next Generation Academy at the end of 2018, Bedford played just two senior games in his first three seasons with the Demons amid a period where COVID-19 heavily cut into the VFL schedule.
"It's been hard," Bedford said.
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"COVID has impacted everyone, but I probably only played around 15 games for two years that actually counted for anything. It made it really hard to try and break into the side, obviously we've got a really strong side at the moment as well.
"But I'll just try and go into training each week and try to get better. I feel like my footy is finally showing some positive signs and good things are starting to seep through on the field."
The last fortnight has been particularly important for Bedford, with Melbourne marking Sir Doug Nicholls Round by rebranding to Narrm – the Aboriginal name for Melbourne that comes from the Woi Wurrung language spoken by the traditional owners of the city and its surrounds.
Welcome to Narrm Football Club
The Melbourne Football Club has rebranded to Narrm for the 2022 Sir Doug Nicholls RoundRead the history
Bedford, a proud Bunuba man, celebrated one of two goals in the club's loss to Fremantle on Saturday evening by paying homage to the club's Indigenous jumper – designed by Wurundjeri/Dja Dja Wurrung artist Ky-ya Nicholson Ward.
"It's been unreal for me and my family. My family, they're all in Western Australia, but to see that they were so proud and so happy for it happen. To get that recognition, it's been unbelievable," Bedford said.
"I'm from Fitzroy Crossing up north. It's a fair way away, about a four-hour drive from Broome. I try and get back once a year. Obviously, COVID has been impacting that in the last couple of years. But I try and get back once a year.
"They're just so happy that we're getting that recognition here and that it's starting conversations for everyone to learn and be educated more down here. My family are just really proud of the club and proud that we've taken that initiative as a club."
Melbourne will now look to respond from its first defeat of the season to Fremantle last week against Sydney on Saturday night, and will do so with the backing of more than 60,000 members after the club broke its membership record earlier this month.
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The Demons now hope to get to 65,000 members, with Bedford hailing the impact the club's home fans have had since returning from two years of COVID-19 enforced lockouts and interstate trips.
"Obviously, the last two years have been impacted by COVID and we haven't really been able to play in Melbourne with fans. To be back and playing in front of our home fans in Melbourne has been great. The boys have been loving it."