Bomber slow to take off but now he’s flying high

Shining light: Michael Hibberd is proving a major plank in Essendon’s 2013 success. Photo: Simon O’DwyerSo comfortable has Michael Hibberd looked at AFL level from the moment he stepped into the Essendon side three seasons ago that you’d think it had all come pretty easily to him.

The truth is, outside of game day, it’s been anything but. First, Hibberd had to battle just to get the chance to play, overlooked at draft time two years in a row before finally being picked up by the Bombers from VFL club Frankston at the end of 2010.

Then came the injury hurdles, the cool-headed defender suffering two major soft-tissue injuries in both of his first two seasons.

Then came a mess of his own making, a drunken nightclub incident in July 2011 that had him face court and fined for unlawful assault and recklessly causing injury. Hibberd was suspended indefinitely by Essendon, his AFL ambition almost curtailed before it had barely begun.

Now he’s plying his trade against a backdrop of Essendon’s performance-enhancing drugs controversy.

But if people are searching for evidence of that saga taking a toll on the Bombers’ performance, they’d better look anywhere but in the direction of the cool-headed 23-year-old half-back.

Hibberd, with an AFL career still just 28 games old, is proving a major plank of Essendon’s undefeated start to the season, and will be again on Friday night as the Dons take on Geelong – the AFL’s other unbeaten side. And after his various struggles, he’s not taking anything for granted.

”When I think about some of the stuff I’ve gone through, with the suspension and the hammies, it kind of hits you pretty hard at the time, but you come out stronger,” he says.

”It’s taken me a while to get here, and I just want to make the most of it and be the best I can be.

”I’m far from arrogant, but I want to be one of the best players every week, I want to beat every opponent I play on. I just want to be competitive and help us win games of footy, and any accolades are just a bonus.”

But a bonus at the moment that is well deserved. Because Hibberd’s trusty left foot is causing plenty of damage to opponents. He’s ranked second in the AFL for effective long kicks, equal fourth for intercept possessions, and equal fourth for combined rebound and inside 50s.

Averaging 24 disposals a game, only once has his kicking efficiency slipped below 75 per cent. But his attacking bent hasn’t come at the expense of his defensive expertise, the judgment call of when and when not to go the subject of much work between him and back-line coach Sean Wellman.

”I guess I’m lucky it’s something that comes pretty naturally, but reading the play and dropping off opponents at the right time is something Sean Wellman and I have worked on a lot, and we’ve been watching a lot of footage,” he says. ”It’s improving the more games I play and the more confident I get.”

And Hibberd won’t have to look too far on Friday night for a few more tips, even if they’re courtesy of the opposition. ”I’ve watched a lot of Corey Enright’s stuff over the last couple of years. He’s an absolute star. He’s a great intercept mark and a master at dropping off opponents at the right time … If I could get half as good as he is, that’d be great.”

But simply to have the opportunity to study a champion at close quarters is something for which Hibberd is grateful, an AFL career seeming a long way off when his TAC Cup peers were being picked up left, right and centre.

He’d played just one year with Dandenong Stingrays, even then injury intervening, plagued by groin problems and playing just half the season. Overlooked on draft day, he headed to Frankston, then coached by former Kangaroo and later Essendon assistant coach Shannon Grant.

”He did everything he could to get me on a list, but it wasn’t to be. I probably wasn’t ready for it, to be honest,” Hibberd concedes. ”I went back to Frankston for 2010, when Simon Goosey was coach, and he was the same, pumped me up quite a bit. Fortunately, Shannon was working here then. He spoke to [recruiting manager] Adrian Dodoro and the coaches, and they called me just before the pre-season draft. I had a meeting, had a training session and did OK, and they called my name out, which was great.”

After overcoming an early-season injury in 2011, Hibberd had played nine out of 11 games in the seniors by the time his nightclub fracas managed to injure his standing far more seriously than any torn muscle. Suspended by the club for the rest of the season and missing out on a finals appearance, it was a hard lesson, but one that he says has proved valuable.

”It really woke me up,” he says. ”I realised how much I loved playing footy and being around the club, and the next pre-season, I think I really grew up. I trained really hard, put my name up for selection in round one, and played the first five games before I did my hammy on Anzac Day. It was a big wake-up call, and something maybe I needed.

”I’d always trained hard when I was on the track, but there were a few things off the field … I really think I’m starting to become more professional now in the way I approach my rehab and the pre-season. And the club was good enough to stick with me and give me guidance where I needed it. Hopefully, I can repay the faith.”

Improved fitness is Hibberd’s latest goal, and the gains there have been as impressive as his increasing returns in games.

”When I got here, endurance was definitely one of my weaker points, but I had a really solid pre-season this year. I went to Colorado [for a high-altitude training camp] and that’s really helped me. I’m up in the running now with some of the midfielders, and that’s something that continually needs to improve to be a good AFL player.”

Fortune hasn’t necessarily always smiled on Hibberd. But he’s found that old cliche about the harder you work the luckier you get also proving a truism. And in 2013, that is proving Essendon’s good fortune as well.