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Balic glad to be back home

Ben Guthrie  February 5, 2018 11:31 AM

I know I can play AFL football, it was just about getting my head right

HARLEY Balic should have been happy. He had just been drafted to Fremantle with pick No.38 in the 2015 NAB AFL Draft.

But before the 19-year-old from Mordialloc, a bayside suburb in Melbourne's south east, could even press for a senior match in his debut year in 2016, he was back under the surgeon's knife having his third bout of surgery on a wrist injury he first suffered when dunking a basketball at school in 2013.

Stuck in rehab, devoid of the people who loved and cared for him, and experiencing a desperate longing to return home, the midfielder instead began to feel isolated and anxious.

Balic was a talented basketballer, having represented Victoria at Under-16 level, but after giving up basketball at the start of 2014 his smarts and craftiness around goal while playing for the Sandringham Dragons came into sharp focus for the recruiters who were scouting him.

Injured and not being able to display those traits, while not having a release outside of football (he used to hit golf balls at the local driving range but that didn't last long as he conceded he wasn't very good) and living in an unfamiliar environment began to consume him. 

"I started feeling not like myself," Balic, now with the Melbourne Football Club, explained.

"I got some bad anxiety and even panic attacks."

Balic said he experienced what he termed as "depressive episodes" with feelings of loneliness creeping up on him. He would become exhausted from over-training and conscious of how far behind fitness-wise he was after returning from the wrist injury.

"I went through stages where I'd shut myself off and I started becoming really unhappy," Balic said.

After his first season in the League was written off by the wrist injury, he made his debut against the Western Bulldogs in round three last year.

The athletic midfielder played four games for the Dockers between rounds three and seven (averaging 13 disposals and kicking three goals), before the club listed him as missing the round eight game against Richmond through illness.

The next week Fremantle announced the youngster had been granted a leave of absence to deal with a personal issue, which saw him return to be closer to family in Melbourne.

"Eventually how I was feeling mentally, I realised that if I didn't get right I wasn't going to play good football," Balic said.

"So I came back and looked at a lot of things, spent some time with friends and family and felt happier with those people around me and I knew that's where I wanted to be."

Balic returned to the club after a month's break and resumed his playing duties for WAFL affiliate Peel Thunder, but a hamstring injury suffered at training in July left him distraught and the Dockers again gave him permission to return home.

After that second visit home, Balic realised if he wanted his AFL career to continue he couldn't stay in Perth.

After seeing through his initial two-year mandatory draftee contract "out of respect for the club that drafted me", Balic approached coach Ross Lyon and football manager Chris Bond and asked for a trade to a Melbourne-based club.

"I spoke to Ross and he was really good about it. I wouldn't say he was happy with my decision, but he was happy knowing that I was going to be happy," Balic said.

"I had a close relationship with him. He was amazing for me. To have his guidance and him be really supportive of me coming back whenever I wanted was amazing."

That close relationship saw Balic often invited to dinner at the Lyon household, where he would spend time with the coach's children.

"Ross knew everything that was going on and I was an open book with him and he was with me," Balic said.

The Demons agreed to a swap with the Dockers, sending pick No.66 in exchange for the midfielder/forward and handing him a one-year deal.

Now 21, Balic fits Melbourne's age profile and figures to be in contention for a senior spot depending on how he fares in the upcoming JLT Community Series.

Balic averaged 30 disposals and seven marks during his WAFL career playing mostly through the midfield, although he has been training with the forward group in his first pre-season with the Demons.

When AFL.com.au spoke to the softly-spoken Balic in Maroochydore following the club's first main training session of the week on Tuesday, co-captain Nathan Jones tried to playfully interject and encourage his new teammate to elaborate on how good he has been training.

Jones wasn't trying to make Balic feel uncomfortable, far from it. Instead, he was trying to make him feel part of things, and helping the former Docker in his transition to his new club has been a responsibility the club's leadership group has taken on.

"Our job is to help educate him on how to get the most out of himself in every session," leadership group member Tom McDonald said.

"When he's been out on the track he's done some great things and we think he's got a lot to offer."

Balic has missed just a handful of pre-season sessions – with a bout of gastro and a sore hip the only interruptions in the "most consistent block of training of [his] career".

"I know I can play AFL football, it was just about getting my head right," Balic said.

"Now that I've done that I don't see any reason why I can't (play at the highest level). I'd like to play as soon as possible, hopefully round one, and play good footy for this club."

Off-field he is far more settled and he said it was already having a positive effect on his football. Balic is living with his girlfriend, Ebony, and best mate, Jack.

"I love coming home, making dinner and chilling out," he said.

"It's fun being around them again and Mum and Dad (Nancy and Eddie) are (living) just up the road, so it's awesome having them right there. That's how I've always wanted it to be."