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Hartley the Burger backman with the lot

MICHAEL Hartley shoulders a heavy defensive load at Coburg.

He’s grateful he can, for not long ago shoulder problems threatened the career of the classy key backman.

His long absences show up in his Sporting Pulse games log. 

From Penrith in NSW, Hartley played the last four matches of Collingwood’s 2011 VFL season as a 17-year-old. 

He then joined the Magpies as a rookie, his stocks having risen after he held Jonathon Patton to one goal in the national Under 18 outing. 

But he made only five VFL appearances in his two years as a Pie. He also underwent five lots of surgery and estimates he spent a total of nine months in a sling.

“It was very deflating,’’ Hartley, 21, said. “First year at Collingwood and that happens. It flattens you. It was very hard. I’d do surgery and do all the rehab and think I was right. Then I’d come back and it would happen again. More surgery…’’

In his first outing in black and white, in a NAB Cup game against GWS, Hartley  hurt his left shoulder. The following week against Melbourne it was the right shoulder.

“They just kept popping out,’’ he said. “I ended up having bone grafts on both shoulders. It’s fixed them right up.’’

After being delisted, Hartley  decided to stay in Melbourne. “If you want to play good footy you’re better off in Victoria. Going back to NSW would have been the easy thing to do.’’

He was still in a sling when he joined Coburg last season. But over 15 matches  he proved two things: he was over his shoulder ailments  and that he was among the best tall defenders in the VFL.

And he got his 2015 season off to a spectacular start, a clear best-afield when opposed to Richmond’s Ty Vickery. He hauled in 12 marks and when the ball did hit the ground he gobbled it up Pacman style. There was also a clear smother that denied the Tigers a goal when they were making a run at Coburg.

Hartley’s performances last year led to an invitation to the state combine and talk he would be drafted.

He was disappointed to be overlooked. “Definitely. I was really flat. But thought, well, another good year in the VFL won’t hurt. A year older and a bit  stronger… things will look after themselves from there.’’

Hartley was similarly frustrated when Essendon passed on him as a top-up for its NAB Challenge team. The Bombers were keen and put him through a medical. Ultimately they were concerned about his shoulders.

“They didn’t think I was strong enough. I didn’t think that was right – I’d played a full year of footy the year before and I was right to go - but that’s what their doctor reckoned and that was it. I thought it was really weird. But I  understand they didn’t want to be held responsible if I got injured playing for them.’’

 Coburg coach Peter German wondered how Hartley would handle the disappointment of missing out on the draft.

“I thought, ‘What sort of a player am I going to see now: will he drop his bottom lip?’ But he came back really positive,’’ German said. “When you throw in the Essendon thing he actually copped a double. But he bounced back strongly from that too, used it for motivation.’’

German has enjoyed watching Hartley mature, as a player and a person, in the past 18 months.

“If I go back to before last season, he was almost the joker of the club. I wasn’t sure how seriously he took his footy,’’ he said.

“But he’s a different fella now. He’s one of our key leaders, basically captaining the backline, and he’s  taken his game to another level.’’

How?  Hartley was renowned for his spoiling last year: the sight of his right fist mashing the ball out of hands was a common sight at Coburg games. 

This season he’s taking more marks, collecting the ball and clearing it with run. 

In other words, he’s shouldering a heavy load, thankful he finally can.