Corey Wagner leaves the field after a Fremantle win during round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

FREMANTLE defender Corey Wagner remembers feeling rattled when he was unexpectedly called up for his club debut when the Dockers met Gold Coast at Norwood Oval in round five.

The Gather Round clash was Wagner's first at AFL level since representing Melbourne in the final round of 2019, and his nerves and the pressure he placed on himself were evident with two early turnovers.

After three months in the WAFL, however, Wagner has returned a different player in the past three weeks, re-emerging as a confident and efficient rebounding defender who is using his attacking strengths.

Against Geelong in round 20, the former North Melbourne and Demons midfielder/forward used the ball at 78.3 per cent efficiency with his 23 disposals and had a career-high 468m gained.

Corey Wagner in action during round 15, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

The key for Wagner has been playing with freedom and moving on quickly from mistakes, rather than worrying about what his form might mean for his place in the team.

"To be honest, I wasn't really expecting to come in [against Gold Coast in round five], so I was a bit rattled and I tried to do everything too right and put a bit too much pressure on myself," Wagner told this week.

"I got smothered a few times and was rattled early, but the more footy you play through the year the more confident you get with your kicking and I've just kept going for my kicks after those mistakes.

"JL (coach Justin Longmuir) has brought that mentality back to move on and enjoy and trust what you've been doing. It's been good.

"I've really enjoyed the last three weeks and it's just felt like another game instead of worrying and being nervous too much, which I thought I did at the start of the year to keep my spot."

Corey Wagner in action during round six, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Wagner's ability to slot into the backline in the past three weeks is an endorsement of the value of spending time in the WAFL to gain confidence, as well as an example of the impact coaching can have when a player is encouraged to move on quickly from mistakes.  

The defender also highlighted the impact of veteran forward Michael Walters on his last three weeks, with the 32-year-old a constant source of encouragement from the other end of the ground.

"Sonny has been huge for me, running all the way from the forward line to say just keep going for [your kicks]," Wagner said.  

"He's been massive actually and the biggest one who has said, just keep going for it and that's what you're there for.

"I'm still missing a few, but it's why you're an AFL player, so it's what I should be doing. If you're not using your strengths, then what's the point of even being there?"

Corey Wagner kicks the ball during round 20, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The persistence Wagner has shown this year to rebound from a scratchy start and carve out a role in the team should not be surprising, given how his career has played out so far.

Drafted to North Melbourne with pick No.43 in the 2015 NAB AFL Draft, he was delisted unexpectedly after eight games in two seasons, spending 2018 with Casey Demons in the VFL and winning the club's best and fairest award.

Melbourne then gave him a second chance via the Pre-Season Supplemental Selection Period ahead of the 2019 season, with the 181cm speedster adding 11 games in another two-year AFL stint.

It was that second delisting that hit hardest for Wagner at the end of the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, bringing doubts that he would be able to scale his way back into the AFL again.

Corey Wagner in action during round three, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

"The fire was always still in the belly after Melbourne and I felt like I had a lot left in me, but after getting delisted twice you have those doubts and wonder is that it now?" said Wagner, who returned to the VFL and signed with Port Melbourne.

"Then I struggled to find a passion outside footy and job-wise I struggled a bit. My partner Michaela was really good.

"We only played nine games in 2021 with Port Melbourne, so I wasn't really enjoying footy and I wasn't enjoying my job landscaping. Then the year after I got into estimating.

"But the change of coaches with Adam Skrobalak coming in, I had a really good relationship with him and just started enjoying footy and enjoying life. I wasn't really focused on AFL, I was more focused on setting myself up outside of footy."

Corey Wagner in action during VFL round 10, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

With his balance away from football on track, Wagner's coach proposed a move to half-back, with the midfielder/forward immediately on board.   

It proved the change that got Fremantle interested and a meeting with Dockers list manager David Walls followed.

"We were talking about life and life balance and being set up outside of footy so you can focus on playing and everything else works around it," Wagner said of his meeting with Walls, who first interviewed him in 2015 and clicked again with the Queenslander.  

"That's when you play your best footy, when you're free and loving the game, and that's what 'I've tried to bring to my game here.

"It's a big win from where I've come from last year to here. It's been a positive year, but it's still not finished and I still want to finish the year off strong and stay in the side give myself every chance to be in the team next year too."