The Inner Sanctum’s count down to the 2022 AFL Premiership season rolls on with another edition of A Decade Down.
In this chapter, we bring one of the two Brownlow medallists from the 2011 AFL draft, Tom Mitchell.
Originally born in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Mitchell completed his high schooling at Hale School in Perth. He was drafted at pick 21 by the Sydney Swans under the father/son rule after spending his junior footballing days at Claremont.
Mitchell’s father, Barry, played 170 games for the Sydney Swans and won their best and fairest award, the Bob Skilton Medal in 1991, also winning the E.J. Whitten Medal in the same year as the best Victorian player in the State of Origin. He later played also for Carlton and Collingwood.
Of all those in the 2011 draft pool, it is fair to say that Mitchell’s midfield talents hold him up as one of that year’s best prospects.
A rollercoaster start in a stacked midfield
Despite all his individual accolades, Mitchell has only been a part of a premiership squad for one year in his career to date.
This was his rookie season in 2012, where Sydney went on to defeat Hawthorn in a classic grand final.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, he couldn’t make his debut in his first year on an AFL list, largely due to injury problems.
When he was able to see the field in NEAFL matches, he impressed massively. Of course, it was always going to be hard to break into what was ultimately a premiership midfield when being constantly interrupted by injuries.
When given the chance at the elite level, Mitchell wasted no time making himself known in the AFL world.
He debuted for the Swans in Round 10, 2013 in a seven-goal victory over Essendon at the SCG, gathering 18 disposals and kicking a goal.
The very next match he won himself the Rising Star nomination that week against the Crows at AAMI Stadium, upping his previous tally to a mighty 31 disposals.
He would ultimately finish fifth in the Rising Star, behind eventual teammate Jaeger O’Meara, Brad Crouch, Oliver Wines, and Aaron Mullett.
The following season was much like his rookie season, largely interrupted with injuries. Mitchell found himself unable to break back into a strong 22, playing just six games after 14 in 2013.
But midway through that year, Mitchell had his famous 64 disposal and four goal game in the NEAFL, which remains a state league record to this day.
The midfield group consisting of Josh Kennedy, Kieren Jack, and Luke Parker led Sydney to the minor premiership and a grand final appearance, keeping Mitchell firmly on the sidelines.
Mitchell, unfortunately, missed all three finals that Sydney played in 2014. After three seasons of playing for a dual grand final side, he wasn’t able to feature in either of them.
2015 was the true beginning of the breakout of Tom Mitchell’s career.
In his fourth season, Mitchell had career highs in games played in a season as well as for disposals, marks, and tackles.
He finally broke through into the rock solid midfield group and became a crucial player in the starting 22.
From early on in his career, it was clear the type of player that Mitchell was and still is. An inside midfielder who is a complete ball magnet and is still elite with his efficiency by hand and foot. This became more clear by becoming a consistent starter from 2015.
Much of Mitchell’s 2016 was another one of improvement. This season was different again though, as he started to pick up the accolades.
In May, Mitchell became the winner of the inaugural Goodes-O’Loughlin Medal in the Marn Grook match against North Melbourne. He picked up a ludicrous 41 disposals and 10 tackles to leave the SCG with the medal draped around his neck.
This was part of a very dominant season for the Swans as a collective. They received their second McClelland Trophy in three seasons and surged all the way to the grand final against the Bulldogs.
It was finally Mitchell’s time on the big stage, named on the bench for the grand final 22.
But at the same time, it was an unfortunate day for Mitchell and the Swans. After dominating the 2016 home and away season with a 17-5 win/loss record, they came away second best on the day that mattered most.
The Western Bulldogs completed their Cinderella story and won the premiership from seventh the lowest in AFL history.
Mitchell himself recorded 26 disposals and 13 tackles, career-highs in a finals match.
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Happy hunting Hawks
Along came the off-season, and along with it, some tough decisions that had to be made with the playing list.
At the time, the Swans were facing a major issue trying to get players signed under the salary cap. Mitchell rejected a low-ball contract offer, before requesting a trade to Victoria.
In October, a familiar foe came knocking. After being persuaded by coach Alastair Clarkson the deal was done, and Mitchell pulled on Hawthorn’s brown and gold.
The deal included picks 14 and 52 going to Sydney in return for Mitchell and pick 57.
It worked out greatly in Mitchell’s favour; he was playing under a significantly larger contract, while being the best player in his position on a team that was not done contending yet.
After four seasons at the elite level, 2017 displayed the full potential that Mitchell had.
Out of the 22 games that season, there were only six games where he recorded less than 35 disposals. He subsequently broke the record for most disposals in a season with 787.
Despite Hawthorn missing its first finals series since 2009, Mitchell’s performances earned him his first of three Peter Crimmins medals.
As well in 2017, Mitchell entered the record books for not only the most disposals for a single season, but also in a single game.
In Round 9 against Collingwood, he recorded 50 disposals, cracking into the V/AFL all-time top 10, equal with John Greening and Tony Shaw, and one behind Adelaide’s Scott Thompson.
In Round 1 of 2018, Hawthorn faced Collingwood, who would quickly come to fear the Hawks’ midfield machine. In the 34 point win, Mitchell recorded 54 disposals, which remains a league record today.
This prompted a famous line from Pies’ coach Nathan Buckley, saying that the impact of Mitchell’s record numbers were “overblown”.
It was a sure sign of what was to come in an electric season, with his stellar midfield displays making him the early favourite for the Brownlow Medal.
In terms of individual output, his first two seasons at Hawthorn were extremely similar. So similar in fact that Mitchell was just one disposal away breaking his disposal record from the season before.
After a down 2017, the Hawks finished inside the top four, but exited in straight sets, losing to eventual premier Richmond and Melbourne.
Hawthorn winning more games during the home and away season along with his huge stat lines ultimately meant more Brownlow votes for Mitchell.
In the long run, it worked out alright.
Mitchell finished the season with 28 Brownlow votes, narrowly beating Collingwood’s Steele Sidebottom.
By far his greatest achievement to date, he became the first Brownlow winner from the 2011 draft class.
Mitchell’s accolades rolled on, and he became the back-to-back victor for the Peter Crimmins Medal, joining elite company to do so in Sam Mitchell, Shane Crawford, Paul Salmon, and Jason Dunstall.
He capped off the best season of his career in style, also earning All-Australian selection for the second time.
The terrible turnaround
What was meant to be a 2019 season where he would carry over such exceptional form and cement himself as one of the best midfielders in the modern era unfortunately never had the chance to begin.
During a pre-season training session, Mitchell broke his leg, which ended his 2019 season before playing a game.
From this season onwards, Hawthorn began following a downward trajectory, and the club still hasn’t made finals again since the straight-set exit.
It was the beginning of one of the toughest periods for the club in nearly 20 years, ending in moving on four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson as the list rebuild continues.
Mitchell returned in 2020, and slowly regained his ball-attracting abilities as the season progressed.
Many thought he couldn’t be the same player he was before the injury, looking at how bad leg breaks have affected the likes of Michael Barlow and Nathan Brown before.
In 2021, he was able to turn the tide and win his third and latest Peter Crimmins Medal.
Mitchell’s career has been one that can be summed up in a few key words; overcoming setbacks and coming back stronger.
He’s battled throughout his career with injury after injury, both minor or major, and still returned at the best of his potential.
Ten years in and he’s already put together such a decorated career, it may end as a Hall of Fame-worthy one.
In today’s AFL landscape, where contested, inside midfielders who’s strengths lie in winning more of the football than their opponents are so crucial, Mitchell has shown he can do it better than anyone multiple times.
His efficiency with the ball is what makes him elite in his category, and one of the best in the league today.
He’s an intrinsic part of Hawthorn’s efforts to rebuild and surge back up the ladder, and at 28, he’s still got plenty of good footy ahead.
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