Anyone in the room who was paying attention during Melbourne’s best-and-fairest proceedings last year knew as the count drew to a close that Clayton Oliver was going to win. He had an effectively unassailable lead, and as the other placegetters were called onto the stage, it was only a matter of time before the 20-year-old was ordained as a Keith “Bluey” Truscott Trophy winner. That was obvious for seemingly everyone except Oliver, who despite being warned to have a speech ready as he would win something on the night, still looked around in disbelief as his name was read out as club champion.
Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin speaks of his desire for the Demons to be humble in victory. The club’s view is that, despite the apparent brashness in some of his early career social media activity, Oliver is humble to a fault.
Reflecting this week on that night in October, Oliver said he had been taken aback. “It was a massive surprise. Obviously Nathan Jones and Jack Viney, Michael Hibberd [was] All-Australian and [Max Gawn] Gawny were all great players,” he told Fairfax Media.
“It was pretty surreal.”
But it couldn’t have been much of a surprise for anyone who watched Oliver play last year. He started the season as a teenager, but finished it as one of the AFL’s standout inside players, having averaged just shy of 30 disposals a game; an heir to the league’s clearance and tackling thrones. It added to the lore of Oliver’s meteoric rise, who not even three years after missing selection in Vic Country’s under-18 squad has become arguably his club’s best player. His 2017 feats were all the more amazing because Oliver’s off-season had been turbulent.
Most notably there was a drink-driving charge late in 2016, but as assistant coach Ben Mathews noted, there was more to it than that. “By his own admission he sort of dropped the ball in terms of his diet and probably a few of his habits,” Mathews said.
“It culminated in an indiscretion off the field. I think that was probably a real wake-up call.”
While regrettable, the jolt to Oliver’s system appeared to make a difference. He stepped up his training, doing extra sessions to build the tank that can take him from a contested-ball beast to an all-round star midfielder.
Off the field, Oliver tries to model his habits on teammate Billy Stretch, who has a reputation as one of the club’s most fastidious trainers.
“I’m not really much of an outside player because I’m not that fit, which I need to work on,” Oliver said.
“I had a massive emphasis on that this pre-season. I think I have got fitter but I’m probably not naturally as fit as some people.
Mathews agreed. “It probably took him 12 months to really settle into the AFL lifestyle. And coming from the country, that’s understandable. But what he did after his first 12 months, he really knuckled down,” he said.
“What he’s done in only a couple of years, to be able to play on mature midfielders week in, week out, is very hard to do.
“He hasn’t slowed down in his work ethic. His want to keep improving has been enormous.”
Oliver conceded his first-year efforts left a bit to be desired. “I was probably just playing for a bit of fun [in junior football]. Then when things started getting serious, I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said.
“My first year, I had no idea about footy. [It] was a massive learning curve.
“There’s a few incidents I look back on. It’s not me now. Back then, I was just a little bit immature.”
So, the incidents. The drink-driving was the most serious, but Oliver was no stranger to controversy last year either.
The first was reasonably light-hearted. Having been accused of taking a dive during a mid-season game against West Coast, Oliver hit back at Twitter criticism from Eagles fan and former Australian Test batsman Damien Martyn with a jibe about Martyn’s famous dismissal in the SCG Test against South Africa in 1994, a shot which triggered a lengthy stretch in the cricket wilderness for the West Australian. “Hey Damien, you should just worry about that shot in 1994,” Oliver wrote, even having the cheek to copy a YouTube link of the incident.
The Demon said he would do things differently if he had his time again.
“It was probably a little bit immature,” Oliver said.
“I probably should have thought about it and just said it to myself and had a bit of a chuckle and put it to bed.
“It’s been done. I can’t take it back now. But I sort of move on and forget about it.”
The other moment came a couple of weeks later when Oliver became involved in an ugly over-the-fence war of words with a Carlton supporter during a game at the MCG.
“It’s really not on. I just need to look after my temper,” Oliver said.
He said he got feedback from the club that he needed to lift, although Mathews noted Oliver faced modern challenges.
“We do live in a different world with the social media stuff,” Mathews said.
“Being put in that situation at such a young age is something a lot of people don’t face.”
And Oliver said he did not want to be a robot, feeling there was scope for him to showcase his personality.
“Yeah, I hope so. I think it’s good to build your own brand and have your own character,” he said.
“But you’ve obviously got to keep inside the boundaries and not be too stupid.”
Oliver does not seem too silly off the field. He is studying commerce at Deakin University, and is smitten with girlfriend Sophie, who he said had helped him mature.
“She’s a legend. She does a fair bit for me, she helps me out a lot, she keeps me in line,” he said.
Ultimately, it is team success Oliver and his teammates are striving for. As Mathews identified, Oliver’s brilliance has the potential to make those around him better. The disappointment of last year’s finals near-miss lingers with some fans, but Oliver said the Dees had moved on.
“It was pretty difficult,” he said.
“But I think we addressed it at the start of the preseason. We sort of put it to bed and used it as a bit of motivation through the preseason.”
And Oliver could barely speak more highly of Goodwin – the man charged with ending the Dees’ finals drought.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s just so passionate in what he does,” he said.
“He’s very good at building relationships with people in the club and even outside the club. He’s always talking about giving to others. Just love him.”
Oliver also can’t wait for co-captain Jack Viney to return from injury. While Stretch is Oliver’s off-field role model, Viney is the man Oliver looks up to on the park.
“[He’s] just inspirational the way he plays.”