SO MUCH has changed so fast for Josh Carmichael. He is still getting his head around the fact people know who he is inside the Collingwood Football Club. He still can't believe he gets free Nike boots. And he is still surprised people want to interview him. But they do.
Carmichael was working in a bottle shop and pub in West Croydon less than two months ago, studying construction management at the University of South Australia and chasing a Burley around each weekend for West Adelaide in the SANFL.
This time last year he was playing for Merbein in front of 200 people in the Sunraysia Football League just north of Mildura, a part of the world where he was once better known for his exploits with a table tennis bat than with a football.
Now the 22-year-old is playing in big games for Collingwood.
Last Sunday, Carmichael replaced Brayden Maynard in the last quarter and kicked two crucial goals in front of 72,402 people when the game was on the line, before Jamie Elliott slotted a match-winning goal after the siren to seal a ninth straight win for the Magpies.
"It was pretty surreal. I was sitting on the bench ready to go the whole day. I was pretty relaxed. I think that helped a lot. When I came on, I was fresh and everyone else wasn't so I felt like I had an extra gear. I did what I needed to and the boys rallied in the last quarter. Jamie's goal was just incredible," Carmichael told AFL.com.au during the week.
"It's funny to think that two months ago I was pouring beers and studying and just playing footy in the SANFL. Now AFL is my full-time job and life. It's pretty incredible. Every now and then I'm doing something little at the club like looking over your shoulder at the club and you can't believe you're with these guys. I suppose you just get used to it eventually."
Carmichael has now played three games for Craig McRae's side since being selected with pick No.9 in the Mid-Season Rookie Draft at the start of June, quickly showing enough to suggest the Magpies have unearthed another gem from West Adelaide after plucking John Noble in the middle of 2019.
After collecting 14 disposals on debut against North Melbourne at the MCG in round 17, Carmichael gathered 24 touches – remarkably, all kicks – eight tackles and kicked a goal in his return to Adelaide against the Crows in round 18. He was squeezed out of the 22 when Taylor Adams returned from concussion, before his last quarter heroics.
So how was this 190cm, 89kg inside midfielder only plying his trade for the Merbein Magpies last year? Why did it take until 22 to be spotted by AFL recruiters? It turns out that Carmichael didn't even really like playing footy growing up. He was far more interested in cricket and table tennis. That's why he was never on the Bendigo Pioneers' radar, let alone AFL clubs.
"Growing up was more cricket and table tennis. I played footy every season but was just the stay at home full-forward that didn't really care about footy at all, it was just something to do with my mates. It was always cricket; I love my cricket," Carmichael said.
"Dad was a good cricketer – and table tennis player – so I just wanted to do what he did. I didn't focus on footy until I was about 19 when I went up to Darwin to have a kick in the cricket season. I fell out of love with cricket and went up and played footy in the cricket season and got the bug for it and just kept improving gradually."
Carmichael's dad, Wayne, was a champion table tennis player growing up, while his mum, Chris, was more than handy. There is a long history of table tennis in the family. The Carmichael's would all jump in the car and play competition table tennis on Monday and Wednesday nights and Josh made a decent run at the state championships.
By 15 it was all about cricket for Carmichael, but after playing senior football for Merbein at 17 the pendulum was starting to swing. He decided to head to the Northern Territory and play for Nightcliff when he was 19, skipping the cricket season and starting to take footy seriously for the time.
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It would be another year before West Adelaide took notice after he starred for Waratah in the NTFL and invited him to the club for a pre-season. Carmichael trained before Christmas but spent 2021 back in Mildura before taking the Bloods up on the offer again at the start of last pre-season.
In the space of the first month of this SANFL season, Carmichael went from a complete unknown to a star of the competition. AFL recruiters started flying in to watch him play and the state selectors took notice, picking the kid from Merbein after just six league games.
People inside West Adelaide believe Carmichael's performance against reigning premiers Woodville-West Torrens in round three put him on the map. He collected 30 disposals and 11 clearances and gave the patrons at the Challa Gardens Hotel plenty to discuss. The 34-touch, seven clearance effort against Adelaide's reserves just before the game against Western Australia all but sealed his fate.
"I was working a fair bit in the bottle shop and pub to survive. I worked a fair bit around footy and uni. I'd work Sundays after games and all the old boys in the front bar would tell me how I played and what I needed to work on, which I loved. The SANFL is incredible. Some people in Adelaide support the SANFL only and not the AFL. They are so passionate. There was always plenty of feedback," he laughs.
"I had a great time in Adelaide. I studied full-time doing construction management at Uni SA and living at a uni residence with a lot of uni students. We'd have all the meals there and lots of activities. It was pretty fun. There were probably 180 kids there. It doesn't breed elite athlete habits that kind of lifestyle, but we made it work."
Carmichael spoke to 11 clubs ahead of the Mid-Season Rookie Draft. All of them at least once face-to-face, some twice. West Coast was linked to him with pick No.1. Many expected Essendon to take him two picks later. But he was still available at pick No.9, much to the delight of veteran Collingwood talent spotter Derek Hine.
The Magpies had only five names on their draft board. Four were gone by the time they were on the clock. Jai Culley went to West Coast. Essendon took Massimo D’Ambrosio. Hawthorn and Port Adelaide added ruckmen in Max Ramsden and Brynn Teakle respectively. It meant Carmichael was on his way to the AIA Centre.
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"This was my first draft; I didn't even know how to nominate; I'd never nominated before. I didn't know anything about the draft; I had to get an exemption because I'd never applied before," he said.
"It was probably round three or four (in the SANFL season) when I started hearing things. There was a bit of word around the traps. But then by round five or six I heard from clubs directly. It was a bit of shock to think AFL clubs were asking about me, it was pretty incredible.
"There were so many clubs it could have been. Obviously I just wanted someone to pick me. But I am so happy it was Collingwood. I couldn't have had a better start than what I've had. I'm extremely happy how it's worked out."
When Collingwood's football department tried to reach Carmichael the following morning, they couldn't get a hold of him for a few hours. The Magpies' new recruit was playing paintball with his mates in Port Adelaide, while local talkback radio was discussing the latest player to land in the AFL via the SANFL.
Carmichael moved in with Jack Madgen when he first arrived in Melbourne and it didn't take long for Brayden Maynard to become a fan. The Collingwood defender took him out for dinner soon after he landed and popped his head into the recruiting department the following day to rave.
He has now settled into a house with Beau McCreery, Isaac Chugg and Arlo Draper in Chadstone, adjusting to a new life in another new city, where the difference between taking Citylink from the club to home can be up to half an hour on a bad run.
With three games on the board and so many fighting for so few spots – Jordan De Goey will return against Port Adelaide on Saturday – Carmichael is aiming to play as much senior football possible in the closing two months of the season.
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"I think I can (keep my spot in the team)," he said.
"Obviously there is a lot to learn and every week I learn a hell of a lot. It is pretty good though because everyone is dedicated to getting me up to speed; they have helped me a lot and put so much time into me. I feel like every week I’m improving and learning a lot."
Sunday was different at the Challa Gardens Hotel. The old boys in the front bar weren't being served schooners by Carmichael. They were watching him get to work at the MCG. They might need to get used to that.