ALEX Neal-Bullen found himself in and out of Melbourne’s side for the first six years of his AFL career.
And while playing 80 games to the age of 24 is no mean feat, the half-forward wasn’t content with where things sat at the end of 2020.
The South Australian was put on the trade table by the Demons, before settling for another season in the red and blue.
And with a lifeline of sorts, Neal-Bullen had a new vision and a fire in the belly.
“Over my career, to be totally honest, I probably became categorised as just a role player,” he told Melbourne Media.
“That is something I felt this year I was able to achieve – not just be a role player but also damage when I have ball in hand or help my teammates in a way that helps the team.”
In recent years, the Dees have struggled to find their best forward mix, swinging weekly changes and lacking continuity inside 50.
But in 2021, Neal-Bullen joined forces with Kysaiah Pickett and Charlie Spargo to form a dynamic trio that became a threat both with and without the footy.
“As a collective, the small forwards, Kozzy and Spargs, we were able to help each other increase our excellence,” Neal-Bullen said.
“I think Kozzy kicked almost 50 goals for the year, Charlie’s impact with ball in hand – he’s probably the best inside 50 kick – and that tied in well with my defensive efforts, my running to the outside ability to get in chains of scoring.
“By doing that, we were all able to play well.”
The Demons’ three smalls didn’t miss a game between them this season and played a major part in their side’s finals success.
Neal-Bullen, for one, averaged 22 disposals in the three post-season matches – six more than his first 22 games of the year – and became one of Melbourne’s most dangerous players on the attack.
“I didn’t put any more pressure on myself, or I didn’t think about needing to do anything differently, but I probably did have a few more offensive actions throughout the games,” he said.
“I’m not too sure what that was.
“Maybe I went to another level with my running and I was able to potentially get away from my opponents a bit more.
“I think Spargs kicked six goals throughout the finals series, so he elevated his game, and some of Kozzy’s defensive actions, he went to another level.
“So again, we aren’t able to play the games that we play if one of us isn’t performing as well.”
And the reward for Neal-Bullen was not only a mid-season contract extension, but a premiership medallion on the last Saturday in September.
“This is what we’ve all dreamt of,” he said.
“To go back over the last seven years of my time here, you’ve always looked at the clubs that were successful at this time of the year and you always thought that’s where you want to be one day, standing up with a group of mates winning the ultimate success.
“It’s slowly starting to sink in, what we’ve achieved, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”