Off the scales: the dramatic rise of Clayton Oliver

Normal text sizeLarger text sizeVery large text sizeClayton Oliver’s opponents know that the midfielder’s strength replicates that of a wood chopper.Those who have passed him in the corridors at Melbourne say his lightning hands and firm grip can startle you if he grabs you on the shoulder to capture your attention.Clayton Oliver has been in top touch this season. Credit:Getty ImagesSuch brute force is evident in the way Oliver plays, either wrenching the ball from congestion or muscling his way through a crowd to find enough space to set up Melbourne’s next move.“He has just got this incredible determination to win the ball and keep going at it until he gets it,” Brendan McCartney, a former Demons’ assistant, said.Oliver’s kicking, once haphazard, has become deft as the ball penetrates helpless defences when it leaves his boot rather than ending its journey in opposition hands.His fitness, once questioned by anyone who saw him plying his trade at the Murray Bushrangers, now allows him to radiate energy as he moves from stoppage to stoppage, ready to gyrate his hips into the moving ball’s path.And Oliver’s willingness to be a team player, reinforced in private and sometimes emotional chats with coach Simon Goodwin at the end of last season, is evident as he embraces what it takes to be key part of a threatening midfield rather than being content with being a dominant midfielder.“We needed to work on a few things in my game, so we (Oliver and Goodwin) had a good chat about that. He’s good about it. He does it from a place of care and he wants for you to get better,” Oliver said.Advertisement“You know where the care is coming from because you already have that underlying relationship. I was probably a bit stubborn at the start but as the relationship has grown, now whatever he says, you just do it because he is trying to help you out and to make you and the team better.”Oliver, the AFL Coaches Association MVP, is among the favourites in Sunday’s Brownlow Medal and next Saturday he is a key to Melbourne’s hopes of a drought-breaking premiership after years of toil to reach this point.He acknowledges that an observation McCartney made about Oliver seeming at peace when he plays is on the money.“I’m a lot more comfortable with my game. I understand it a bit more, and I know what I have to do. I keep things pretty simple ... I don’t have to think about too many things,” Oliver said.The first time Melbourne officials met Oliver after school at his unit in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, he arrived late, bouncing a footy as he crossed from the nearby football ground.He had been mucking around with local mates, Jy Simpkin (North Melbourne) and Laitham Vandermeer (a potential grand final opponent at the Bulldogs).“It was pretty much the only thing we ever did. It was basically just footy, footy, footy,” Oliver said.He did not look like the athlete who had run in state cross-country championships during primary school after growing 20 centimetres and putting on 20 kilograms while battling osteitis pubis in the off-season.His diet wasn’t elite either, having told a Richmond coach he’d had coffee and McNuggets on the drive from Shepparton to Punt Road to play as a top-up in their VFL team.It wasn’t unusual for him to be up after midnight watching a movie, consuming energy he needed to train or play.But Melbourne knew Oliver came from a supportive family and could turn into a special player as he matured.They just needed to be sure they could smooth a few edges so when Goodwin - who remained a coach-in-waiting - spoke to Oliver before drafting him he didn’t muck around.“I was pretty heavy in my draft year. At a meeting with Melbourne they said, ‘how badly do you want to get drafted?’ I was like ‘pretty badly ... I just want to play footy’,” Oliver said.“‘Goody’ said: ‘We are going to bring scales down to the draft combine and you can jump on them. If you are under 85 kilograms, we’ll pretty much draft you.’ I managed to get under 85. I was stressed about it for about six weeks.”For a month and a half, he kept the football packed away and mapped out a fitness program with then Murray Bushrangers high-performance manager Matt Glossop, whose message had taken a while to get through to the charismatic but sometimes obstinate youngster who had made the Victorian under-12 schoolboys team.‘I managed to get under 85. I was stressed about it for about six weeks.’Clayton OliverGlossop made sure Oliver was committed, then they went to work, with the 17-year-old having to send him a photo each day before 10am to prove he’d done weights.Glossop was conscious not to overload the youngster, but Oliver’s afternoon program consisted of swimming, riding or running. He did most of the work on his own as schoolmates geared up for summer. Eating was to fuel the program, not satisfy the taste buds.He did not let Glossop or Goodwin down, his competitiveness making him slightly obsessive as he knuckled down to meet the moment.Oliver also put runs o

Off the scales: the dramatic rise of Clayton Oliver

Clayton Oliver’s opponents know that the midfielder’s strength replicates that of a wood chopper.

Those who have passed him in the corridors at Melbourne say his lightning hands and firm grip can startle you if he grabs you on the shoulder to capture your attention.

Clayton Oliver has been in top touch this season.

Clayton Oliver has been in top touch this season. Credit:Getty Images

Such brute force is evident in the way Oliver plays, either wrenching the ball from congestion or muscling his way through a crowd to find enough space to set up Melbourne’s next move.

“He has just got this incredible determination to win the ball and keep going at it until he gets it,” Brendan McCartney, a former Demons’ assistant, said.

Oliver’s kicking, once haphazard, has become deft as the ball penetrates helpless defences when it leaves his boot rather than ending its journey in opposition hands.

His fitness, once questioned by anyone who saw him plying his trade at the Murray Bushrangers, now allows him to radiate energy as he moves from stoppage to stoppage, ready to gyrate his hips into the moving ball’s path.

And Oliver’s willingness to be a team player, reinforced in private and sometimes emotional chats with coach Simon Goodwin at the end of last season, is evident as he embraces what it takes to be key part of a threatening midfield rather than being content with being a dominant midfielder.

“We needed to work on a few things in my game, so we (Oliver and Goodwin) had a good chat about that. He’s good about it. He does it from a place of care and he wants for you to get better,” Oliver said.

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“You know where the care is coming from because you already have that underlying relationship. I was probably a bit stubborn at the start but as the relationship has grown, now whatever he says, you just do it because he is trying to help you out and to make you and the team better.”

Oliver, the AFL Coaches Association MVP, is among the favourites in Sunday’s Brownlow Medal and next Saturday he is a key to Melbourne’s hopes of a drought-breaking premiership after years of toil to reach this point.

He acknowledges that an observation McCartney made about Oliver seeming at peace when he plays is on the money.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with my game. I understand it a bit more, and I know what I have to do. I keep things pretty simple ... I don’t have to think about too many things,” Oliver said.

The first time Melbourne officials met Oliver after school at his unit in Mooroopna, near Shepparton, he arrived late, bouncing a footy as he crossed from the nearby football ground.

He had been mucking around with local mates, Jy Simpkin (North Melbourne) and Laitham Vandermeer (a potential grand final opponent at the Bulldogs).

“It was pretty much the only thing we ever did. It was basically just footy, footy, footy,” Oliver said.

He did not look like the athlete who had run in state cross-country championships during primary school after growing 20 centimetres and putting on 20 kilograms while battling osteitis pubis in the off-season.

His diet wasn’t elite either, having told a Richmond coach he’d had coffee and McNuggets on the drive from Shepparton to Punt Road to play as a top-up in their VFL team.

It wasn’t unusual for him to be up after midnight watching a movie, consuming energy he needed to train or play.

But Melbourne knew Oliver came from a supportive family and could turn into a special player as he matured.

They just needed to be sure they could smooth a few edges so when Goodwin - who remained a coach-in-waiting - spoke to Oliver before drafting him he didn’t muck around.

“I was pretty heavy in my draft year. At a meeting with Melbourne they said, ‘how badly do you want to get drafted?’ I was like ‘pretty badly ... I just want to play footy’,” Oliver said.

“‘Goody’ said: ‘We are going to bring scales down to the draft combine and you can jump on them. If you are under 85 kilograms, we’ll pretty much draft you.’ I managed to get under 85. I was stressed about it for about six weeks.”

For a month and a half, he kept the football packed away and mapped out a fitness program with then Murray Bushrangers high-performance manager Matt Glossop, whose message had taken a while to get through to the charismatic but sometimes obstinate youngster who had made the Victorian under-12 schoolboys team.

‘I managed to get under 85. I was stressed about it for about six weeks.’

Clayton Oliver

Glossop made sure Oliver was committed, then they went to work, with the 17-year-old having to send him a photo each day before 10am to prove he’d done weights.

Glossop was conscious not to overload the youngster, but Oliver’s afternoon program consisted of swimming, riding or running. He did most of the work on his own as schoolmates geared up for summer. Eating was to fuel the program, not satisfy the taste buds.

He did not let Glossop or Goodwin down, his competitiveness making him slightly obsessive as he knuckled down to meet the moment.

Oliver also put runs on the board with a brilliant second half of the season in the TAC Cup, winning the Morrish Medal after polling just one vote in the first nine rounds.

Clayton Oliver at a training session earlier this month.

Clayton Oliver at a training session earlier this month.Credit:Melbourne Football Club

So good were his highlights that Paul Roos declared him the one to pick as soon as he saw Oliver’s vision. The premiership coach joked that if anyone in the draft was better than Oliver, then he’d happily draft him too.

A smart pick swap with Gold Coast gave Melbourne the pick four they needed to nab the 18-year-old called “Clarry” after keeping Sydney honest by bidding on Callum Mills.

He joined Christian Petracca, Angus Brayshaw, Jack Viney, James Harmes and Nathan Jones in the middle, picking up 22 touches in a brilliant debut at the MCG in the opening round of 2016.

For five seasons he demonstrated his talent, winning two best-and-fairest awards and being All-Australian in his third season, but he was not quite the player the team needed him to be.

His defensive intent and impulse to dispose of the ball quickly infuriated internal and external watchers. He kept building his strength, swimming kilometre after kilometre until operations on each shoulder stifled him, and worked on his touch and his craft, but a component was missing.

He didn’t seem happy in 2020 as frustration built up at Melbourne to the point where any lingering issues affecting team cohesion needed to be addressed.

The hard conversations that followed as he contemplated what life might be like at another club late last season led to him buying in totally to the selfless approach Goodwin knew was essential for team success.

Mark Williams refined his kicking, with the veteran coach’s job made easier as the team became more predictable to each other in the contest, giving Oliver the space he needed to execute his skill.

“You can make decisions based on team chemistry and how many years you have been playing together and you just know what they are going to do,” Oliver said.

“I did not shy away from [improving my kicking] because I knew it was pretty poor, and I needed to work on it. I went head-first into it and tried as hard as I could.”

His kicking in the qualifying final against the Brisbane Lions was sublime as he hit targets inside 50 with ruthless efficiency, driving his legs to find space before sinking in the slipper.

“They can open a contest up now because they are so reliable,” McCartney said.

Oliver has arrived. He’s among the best midfielders in the game and ultra-competitive, obsessive if he puts his mind to something as he does with fantasy soccer and FIFA when he wants to switch off.

He says he hasn’t thought about the grand final yet, telling a mate who asked him the other night whether he could believe he was playing in the decider that he doubted it would hit him until he arrived at Optus Stadium next weekend.

He knows his parents Stephen and Michelle will be watching with pride, having supported him to reach his goal, but that is as far as he has let his mind drift.

“They’ll be over the moon. They will have a few drinks, sitting around the fire, and kicking back to watch the game,” Oliver said.

That’s where Oliver has come from, happy with life’s simple pleasures, as he reflects on the support his family friends and girlfriend Sophie have provided.

“Hopefully I have repaid the favour, in a way, making AFL. It was unbelievable what they did. They’ve sacrificed a lot,” Oliver said.