If you don’t believe football is one long chain of sliding doors moments just ask Brandon Ryan … if his head stops spinning long enough to him to answer.
“If” is the key word for the 25-year-old 200cm forward, who will head to Brisbane next month after he was traded from Hawthorn in the last hour of the AFL trade period yesterday.
It is a move that caps one of the most meteoric rises in AFL history by a player who went almost four years without any football and 12 months ago was playing what is commonly called ‘park football’ with the Maribyrnong Park Lions in Essendon District Football League.
And all because of a sequence of events that began with the totally unrelated appointment of Adam Kingsley as 2023 coach of the GWS Giants.
Kingsley took ex-Adelaide Crows 300-gamer Ben Hart with him to Sydney as assistant-coach, leaving a coaching vacancy at the Northern Bullants in the VFL.
Who filled that job? Former Collingwood and Fremantle player Brodie Holland. And where had he done his coaching apprenticeship? The Maribyrnong Park Lions.
Although Holland’s six-year stint at Maribyrnong Park ended in 2014 he had coached a young local named Luke Ryan, now a club champion and All-Australian at Fremantle, and the cousin of Brendan Ryan.
Holland had continued to follow the fortunes of the Maribyrnong Park Lions, and knew of the Ryan connection. So when he replaced Hart at the Bullants one of his first signings was Brendan Ryan.
It was a belated second-chance at VFL football for the lightly-built forward, who grew up at Barwon Heads on the Bellarine Peninsula, west of Melbourne, and by his own admission was “a fair way off it” when it came to AFL aspirants.
He was overlooked by the Geelong Falcons, the local NAB League side which is a massive part of the traditional AFL pathway from the region, and instead played with the Geelong West Giants in the Geelong Football League.
He did enough with the Giants to earn a VFL contract with North Melbourne, but in two years at North in 2018-19 he did not play a VFL game due to injury. And after Covid effectively wiped out his 2020-21 seasons he had pretty much accepted his AFL dream was over as he found himself playing at Maryibyrnong Park.
Based at Monk Oval in suburban Moonee Ponds, it’s a small club with a surprisingly big list of AFL products. Among them are ex-Melbourne/Collingwood defender Lyndon Dunn and five current AFL players – Collingwood premiership player Brody Mihocek, Gold Coast’s Touk Miller and Rory Atkins, Melbourne’s Joel Smith and Fremantle’s Luke Ryan.
Like Brandon, Luke was passed over by AFL scouts in his teenage years, and was going on 21 when drafted by Fremantle with pick #66 in the 2016 National Draft. Inadvertently, he was the inspiration for his cousin to give serious football one last crack after Holland offered him a run at the Bullants.
And since then it has been one crazy whirlwind. After seven games with the Bullants he was picked up by Hawthorn with pick #12 in the AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft, and after four VFL games with Hawthorn’s VFL affiliate Box Hill he was making his AFL debut.
It was Round 20 against St.Kilda at Marvel Stadium. He took five marks – two contested and three inside forward 50 – and kicked 1-1 in a 29-point loss. The following week, in front of 62,134 at the MCG, he kicked three goals as the Hawks upset eventual premiers Collingwood by 32 points. He returned to the Box Hill side for their run to the finals before adding a third AFL game in Round 24.
Having joined the Hawks on a six-month contract, the young man they call ‘Sticks’ had done enough to earn a 12-month extension signed on 23 September, when Hawthorn list boss Mark McKenzie trumpeted his “real potential”.
“Brandon has all the traits to develop into an important player, with his impressive aerial strength and his forward craft,” McKenzie said at the time.
Now, not even two months later, Ryan has signed another contract. This time it’s a three-year deal with the Lions which will effectively see him become Chris Fagan’s back-up key forward for Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood after the exit during the trade period of Jack Gunston and Tom Fullarton.
Ironically, Lions list boss Dom Ambrogio confirms than Ryan had been on the club’s radar at the time of the Mid-Season Draft after his brilliant start to the VFL season, and would have been “every chance” to have been picked up by the club if they had a list vacancy and therefore a pick in the draft.
Remarkably, Ryan, who only appeared on the Lions trade week radar last week after Gunston’s shock request to return to Hawthorn, has now signed three AFL contracts and is yet to even begin an AFL pre-season.
And while he can expect a warm welcome to Brisbane from his new teammates when summer training starts next month it is going to be tough for them to top the unforgettable moment when his extraordinary climb of 2023 began.
It was Wednesday night, 31 May, when Ryan was training with the Bullants at Preston City Oval. They were doing a full-ground drill under coach Holland when all of a sudden a bunch of trainers, who had been huddled around a mobile phone on the boundary line, raced onto the ground.
They headed straight to Ryan with the news that he had been picked up by Hawthorn in the Mid-Season Draft. Soon the entire playing list mobbed the man of the moment in the middle of the ground.
And the first phone call Ryan made when things settled down after training? It was to his cousin Luke. Not just to share the news but to ask some advice on what to do next. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.