Through no fault of his own, the pressure on Tom Mitchell – crowned winner of the 2018 Brownlow Medal on Monday night – to immediately deliver at Hawthorn was intense.
In a tumultuous 2016 trade period, Hawthorn greats Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis were stunningly moved on as the younger Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara joined the Hawks.
The departure of Sam Mitchell, winner of the 2012 Brownlow Medal and a five-time best-and-fairest winner in the brown and gold, had fans particularly aggrieved, while two-time premiership coach Denis Pagan wrote on this very website that he was “flabbergasted” by the move, insistent that “you don’t trade legends”.
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson had a plan, though, and two years on, the trade moves look incredibly astute, with Tom Mitchell following up on a second-placed finish in last year’s medal count with victory in the 2018 edition.
The industrious midfielder was a short-priced favourite to win the AFL’s highest individual honour and polled 28 votes at Crown Casino, a tally that included six best-on-ground performances, to finish ahead of Collingwood’s Steele Sidebottom (24 votes) and Melbourne’s Angus Brayshaw (21 votes).
The 25-year-old was clearly the best player in 2018, winning an incredible 786 disposals, one short of the VFL-AFL record he set in 2017, while he was also the dominant clearance player in the competition, leading Hawthorn to an unexpected top-four finish.
He said afterwards that he was “still in a bit of shock” but that it was a “humbling experience” to win the “tremendous honour”.
Mitchell added that he owed a great debt of gratitude to Clarkson, after he grew frustrated at Sydney where he was “struggling for selection and going through injuries”.
The sixth Hawk to win a Brownlow elaborated on the role of his partner, Hannah, in the post-event press conference, claiming she had helped him make big changes to his diet, before insisting his focus was on a bigger collective goal.
“I used to eat a lot of Uber Eats,” he said.
“I remember some weekends I’d get breakfast, lunch and dinner so I spent about $80 a day on Uber Eats … much better diet now.
“We don’t play the game for individual accolades, although they are very nice when they come along.
“Our main goal at Hawthorn is to win a premiership, so I’m hoping that I can be a part of that next campaign … looking forward to a big 2019 for our club.”
Sidebottom, who will take on West Coast in Saturday’s grand final, challenged Mitchell for the award until the dying stages, while Brayshaw stormed home late to surprise many.
Making Brayshaw’s achievement even more impressive was the fact he played the first three matches of the 2018 season in the VFL.
The 22-year-old was not even invited to the function, instead watching on television from home.
Richmond’s Dustin Martin, who won the award in 2017, was tipped to finish second but had to settle for a share of sixth place.
‘He’s an outstanding player’
Sam Mitchell – now a midfield coach at the West Coast Eagles after playing one season with the club – hailed the younger Mitchell for his outstanding season.
Speaking to The New Daily last month, he said: “He’s an outstanding player, isn’t he?
“We put a lot of time into him when we played against him … he’s been having a fantastic year.
“He’s very hard to stop and if you leave him unchecked, he can really hurt you. Even when he is checked, he can hurt you.
“His workrate, as well as his contested possession and outside game is really, really strong. He certainly deserves a Brownlow Medal at some point.”
He went on to say that Tom Mitchell is “the most prolific ball winner our game has probably seen” and that he had set a new standard for other midfielders to try and match.
How the count unfolded
Tom Mitchell made a fast start to the count, becoming just the fourth player to poll the maximum three votes in each of the first three rounds.
He tailed off after that, though, as the ineligible Nat Fyfe and Sidebottom enjoyed stints in the lead.
Richmond’s Jack Higgins won the goal of the year award and produced a typically entertaining speech in which he insisted his heart was going “a thousand minutes per second”, while Sydney’s Isaac Heeney won the mark of the year.
There was also recognition for Melbourne defender, Neville Jetta, who won the Jim Stynes Award for his work supporting indigenous youths, and Geelong veteran Gary Ablett Jr, who has now recorded the most Brownlow Medal votes of any player.
When Sidebottom hit the lead after Round 16, Tom Mitchell was no guarantee to win, but three-vote performances in Round 18 and Round 19, and a two-vote effort in Round 20 put the Hawks star well in front.
And one vote against Geelong in Round 21 made it impossible for Mitchell to be topped.
A classy speech from the victor followed, even if his coach, Clarkson, seemed to drop off after a typically long and drawn-out count.
The top 10
1. Tom Mitchell, Hawthorn (28 votes)
2. Steele Sidebottom, Collingwood (24)
3. Angus Brayshaw, Melbourne (21)
4. Patrick Cripps, Carlton (20)
4. Max Gawn, Melbourne (20)
6. Rory Laird, Adelaide (19)
6. Dustin Martin, Richmond (19)
8. Dayne Beams, Brisbane (18)
8. Jack Steven, St Kilda (18)
10. Patrick Dangerfield, Geelong (17)
Your club’s best votegetters
Adelaide: Rory Laird (19), Bryce Gibbs (9), Matt Crouch (8)
Brisbane: Dayne Beams (18), Eric Hipwood (6), Dayne Zorko (6)
Carlton: Patrick Cripps (20), Kade Simpson (6), Ed Curnow (4)
Collingwood: Steele Sidebottom (24), Brodie Grundy (17), Scott Pendlebury (15)
Essendon: Dyson Heppell (13), Devon Smith (11), Zach Merrett (10)
Fremantle: Nat Fyfe (16), Lachie Neale (11), David Mundy (8)
Geelong: Patrick Dangerfield (17), Gary Ablett (14), Joel Selwood (14)
Gold Coast: Brayden Fiorini (5), Tom Lynch (5), Touk Miller (4)
Greater Western Sydney: Lachie Whitfield (16), Callan Ward (13), Stephen Coniglio (11)
Hawthorn: Tom Mitchell (28), Jaeger O’Meara (13), Jack Gunston (10)
Melbourne: Angus Brayshaw (21), Max Gawn (20), Clayton Oliver (13)
North Melbourne: Shaun Higgins (15), Ben Cunnington (11), Jarrad Waite (7)
Port Adelaide: Ollie Wines (14), Robbie Gray (8), Jared Polec (7)
Richmond: Dustin Martin (19), Kane Lambert (12), Trent Cotchin (10)
St Kilda: Jack Steven (18), Sebastian Ross (6), Tim Membrey (4)
Sydney: Lance Franklin (16), Luke Parker (10), Isaac Heeney (7)
West Coast: Andrew Gaff (16), Elliot Yeo (15), Jack Darling (11)
Western Bulldogs: Jack Macrae (14), Marcus Bontempelli (9), Lachie Hunter (9)