Footy’s in the blood: John Butcher

John Butcher with Jasper Pittard. Picture: portadelaidefc.com.au

From growing up to country Victoria to being a top 10 draft pick and now back in the SANFL with Central District, John Butcher’s football journey has been anything but normal.

You grew up in Maffra, what was your childhood like?

Just like many people growing up in the country; outdoors a lot, well and truly into our sport, older sister, younger brother.

Mum played netball, dad played footy and then coached, so we were always around the footy club.

I played cricket in the summer, bit of golf, bit of indoor soccer. I tried my hand at everything.

Footy and cricket were the main things.

Why was footy the main one out of all those?

I loved my cricket, I’m a cricket tragic and it’s number one, I love watching, playing.

I was slightly more talented in footy and dad was never a cricketer and played over 300 games of local footy and then was a player/coach, then coached.

He’s coached in some capacity since 1990, so he’s been doing it for 30 years.

Footy was always in the blood, and the local players there were your heroes growing up and then you’d shoot up to Melbourne on a weekend and watch a Saints game when we could, we were mad St Kilda supporters.

What was your time like at the Gippsland Power?

I just followed the generic pathway for young footballers, I started in Auskick, played my juniors at Maffra until under 16s and then underage under 17s I got the invite down to Gippy Power in the under 18s.

I played most of the year in the bottom age and then top age as well.

I had Michael Hickmott, Aussie Jones, Damian Carroll, my three years at Gippy Power, all very different people and fantastic coaches.

I had a lot of friends who were involved, they were a great couple of years.

I headed down to Morwell to train, which was an hour from Maffra and I did that a couple of times a week.

Then the TAC Cup, you go all over Victoria to play games.

We had a reasonably strong team and it was always fun travelling around to play the best young footballers in the state.

The year in the lead up to the draft, very highly touted, how did you deal with that pressure?

It was a long time ago now, but I was still going to school then and footy you played it for fun back then.

There was a good bunch of kids who were at the same school in the under 18s team and we talked footy all week and then play on the weekend and then repeat, repeat, repeat.

You didn’t take much notice of it; I was lucky enough to play for Vic Country as well for a few years in the under 18 championship well and that took me around Australia.

I think I’ve played in every state or territory now, so I’m very fortunate about that, and it took me overseas to South Africa with the AFL-AIS academy with the under 17s.

Rubbing shoulders like Michael Voss, Nathan Buckley and Luke Darcy as coaches and Kevin Sheedy.

Growing up watching those stars of the game, it was bloody amazing to be around them.

What was your initial reaction when Port drafted you?

I was 17 down in Melbourne and Port called my name out at number eight and it all happens very quick.

You’re down there with family and friends and Choco Williams it was at the time gave me the jumper, we went out for dinner afterwards and they said pack your bags and jump on a flight on Monday morning.

I’d never been over to Adelaide before that and never knew anyone over there, but I was lucky enough it was me, Andrew Moore and Jasper Pittard who were Victorian boys.

AFL clubs are amazing how they do it these days, stayed in with a host family who treat you like one of their own and make the move as a 17, 18-year-old kid from interstate very easy.

Getting drafted is the first thing, but then the AFL environment and a pre-season etc, it’s a whole new ball game from running around in the TAC Cup and training once or twice a week.

A couple of frustrating years, how’d you stay focused and determined during those injury-riddled years?

I did, the AFL career didn’t start ideal and didn’t really play in my first year and second year I didn’t get much of a pre-season either, but I got out on the park later in the year.

Injuries are a part of footy and especially growing up as a tall, your body seems to need more time and you’ve got to know when you can push and when you can’t.

They took it pretty slow and it was my back initially which gave me a few problems my first year.

There’s always a few people in the rehab group at an AFL club and you sort of work together and you stick focused, you still go and watch the games and you aspire to get out on the field and be a part of it, so, you just have to have small goals in mind and work on things you can in rehab.

I put on some weight and had goals like that, and once I got out there I was more ready to go, and you go from playing against 17-year-old kids to hardened men, because you soon get shown up, that’s for sure.

Your debut, a rough one, what do you remember about it?

I’ve tried to erase it from my memory to be honest, but I know Tommy Jonas and myself debuted together, different paths obviously now, he’s captain of the club and they’re going really well.

I don’t know the numbers, but Buddy and Cyril had probably kicked six each at half-time and we were probably down by 100 at half-time and lost by 165 points in the end.

Welcome to the AFL.

Being out on the field being a young fella and Buddy’s running rampant at the other end, obviously not ideal getting flogged, it was a pretty special occasion to debut in Victoria in front of lots of family and friends there.

The scoreboard wasn’t great and back in 2011, it was a tough period as a footy club, every club has those years.

The next week, you kicked six against the Bulldogs, what was that like?

That was a funny old game as well, because we were 10 goals down at quarter-time.

We were coming off a near 200-point loss and all of a sudden, you’re in front of your home fans and the Bulldogs were a weaker side at the time as well.

You’re 10 goals down at quarter-time, there was nowhere to hide.

I was lucky enough to get on the end of a few and kick straight through the big sticks.

From a personal point of view, it was good to get a few goals early in the career, but it was definitely a rough time at the club.

We went through a battle but obviously the club has come out the other end and now they’re around the mark and competitive.

Played in the first ever game at Adelaide Oval, what was the build up to that like?

The last game of the year against Melbourne and we got to have a taste of Adelaide Oval and what was coming in the next few years.

That was an amazing build up to play, the surface there is pristine, and the ground is probably rated the best in Australia with both footy and cricket.

All footy clubs love coming to play on that surface and cricket is a massive thing here too.

It’s a world class facility and both SA clubs are so lucky to play there every second week.

To play and train there, it’s one of the best sporting grounds in the world and one of the best things the SA government has really done and brought people back to footy

You got dubbed ‘The Future’, what were the origins of the nickname?

Yeah, I hated that nickname, it’s one of those things you can’t control.

Especially the media, it’s such a big part of sport and so many accredited agents, there’s just so many things happening.

Once the media got ahold of it, I think it was Jason Davenport might’ve started that one and it grew legs, but it definitely wasn’t a self-titled name.

I didn’t like it, but once it grew legs, there was no stopping it.

I copped a bit of banter throughout my career of it, and that’s part and parcel of it.

At the end of 2011, your contract was up in the air – were you close to moving?

It was a funny one, I had only played the four games, and before that, you get a two-year contract from when you’re drafted, and I hadn’t played a game and wasn’t worth much at all and hadn’t really discussed contracts.

I was lucky to get in and go alright and then it became a big thing.

I think that was a media driven thing as well; you’re out of contract and playing reasonable footy, it never really crossed my mind.

John Butcher playing for Port Adelaide in the SANFL. Picture: portadelaidefc.com.au

I think there was some interest from a couple of teams, but it never got passed anything.

We never discussed anything with any other clubs and Port gave me the opportunity, and the way I’ve been brought up, especially with country footy, is you stay loyal to your club, and I was always happy to stay here and lucky enough to get seven years at Port.

Your brother was drafted to the club at the end of 2011, how good was that?

Danny played some good TAC Cup footy, he was a runner-up in the Morrish Medal and got rookie listed, so it was great to spend some time with him.

He had a couple of years on the list and he had a bit of a rough trot with injuries as well, it was great to have him over and see him have a crack at it.

Completely different players footy wise, and it was a bit easier for the family to come across and watch us.

Everything changed with Primus to Hinkley, what was the atmosphere at the club like and how’d it switch?

The place was going through a rough time and Matty was at the helm, and no fault of Matty, we were a young club and had some aging stars on the way out and some young lads coming through who didn’t have the grounding or games under the belt to go through that period.

Off the field we probably didn’t have it all together, sponsorship wise, money wise and coaching wise.

It was a tough period and Kenny come in, and we lost a teammate in John McCarthy, we couldn’t get any lower at that point.

With the help of other coaches and Keith Thomas did a great job, likewise, has Kochie, to bring the club back to relevance.

The coaching department did a great job with the boys.

Football is a funny game and 2014 you get on a run, we got ourselves really fit and the confidence is up.

When you’re up and about it’s hard to stop.

It can turn very quick, we had a good run when we made the finals and it was a great culture to be a part of, we just missed out that one year in the prelim, and I guessed we slipped a little bit, but it seems they’ve got it back together this year and push on and go all the way.

That goal against Fremantle at the end of 2015 and the Port fans getting behind you, how much did that mean to you?

I always had great support from our supporters.

There was no better feeling than playing in front of an Adelaide Oval home ground, a great atmosphere all the time.

It was late in the year, I missed a few that day, I had taken a few marks, had a few shots but couldn’t get one through the big sticks, so it was good to wobble one through just before half-time.

There was relief to get one through, but the crowd was always supportive, we had a bit of fun.

I had some great moments in footy and I’ll fondly look back on them forever.

You moved to Central District after your time at Port ended, so how did you adapt from the change from AFL to SANFL?

Like the majority of AFL footballers, your time comes to an end sooner rather than later, not many get to go out on their own terms.

I was finished after seven years and then had to decide what I wanted to do footy-wise, and whether I’d go back home or not.

I found some work over here and a partner here, so I decided to stay, but I still wanted to have a crack at the highest level possible at the time.

I spoke to a couple of clubs at the time and I played a bit in the SANFL with the Port Magpies and unfortunately, I couldn’t stay and continue there due to the rules.

Central District was one of the clubs I’d always admired, liked playing against them, had a country club atmosphere out there.

I had a chat with Roy Laird at the time and I was more than happy to sign out there, and we weren’t too far off in my first year there, we played some good footy in the second half of the year and we just lost to the eventual premier Sturt in one of the finals.

Second year we dropped back a bit, and then I decided that enough was enough and my brother was back home in Maffra playing and my dad was coaching and was nearly ready to give it up.

I thought it was time to go home and do that, and that turned out very well and we won a premiership back there last year, which was probably one of my favourite moments in footy – going home to your country club to win a flag with your dad as coach and playing with your brother and lucky enough to have all grandparents alive and kicking, so they all came and watched.

Was that something you always wanted to do?

Always, right from the first time I was kicking the footy at half-time when dad was playing when I was about four or five years old.

You look up to them guys, they’re your heroes and you think they’re god’s gift and you get in and follow the AFL as well.

The local club was always a great environment to grow up in.

I was lucky enough to play in a local grand final the year I got drafted as well, I’ve been very fortunate, and I bring it up to dad who played 300 games and never won a senior flag as a player, and I won two in about 11 games.

It annoys him a little bit, but I’ve been pretty fortunate to do that.

Joined your brother in the NTFL at Nightcliff and played in two flags, how special was that?

That’s another chapter and footy’s taken me up there and they play in summer in the wet season up there.

We won a grand final this March and last March as well for Nightcliff, we broke a 54-year premiership drought which was amazing to be a part of that.

There’s that many volunteers at those clubs, to see the smile on their faces, the tears, the happiness.

Winning that ultimate success means so much to so many people who have put in their time and effort to help that footy club.

Back at Central District and back playing, how were you swayed back on the field?

The strange old year it is, the coronavirus has had me come out of semi-retirement at SANFL level anyway.

I was going to play back home again, I stayed living in Adelaide and I just flew in and out and played enough games to qualify for finals.

The plan was to do the same this year because dad didn’t hang up the boots in the end, that’s what country coaches are like, they hang on for dear life.

Obviously, all country footy ended up getting squashed in Victoria, and I had been in touch early on in the piece with the new Central coach Jeff Andrews.

He gave me a call to see if I was interested in coming back to play and I said ‘nah, nah, it’s long past me, the SANFL’s past me, I’m just going to play footy back home, but I’m doing nothing footy-wise in SA and I need to keep fit, so if you want me to come and volunteer to help some of the tall forwards’, and he said he’d love to have me involved.

I was out doing that, then we stopped for a bit, and then once they made a call on my league back home, we sort of joked about if I wanted to have a game and do you want to do some on-field coaching in the reserves.

I said, ‘I’m getting old and haven’t done much training, but if you want me to do it, I’ll love to do it if the body’s willing’.

So, the plan was to come back through the ressies, and then we’re light on for talls at the Doggies and we had a few injuries in round one, we lost our full forward and centre-half-forward.

The way it worked out in round two I was lining up back at Adelaide Oval, where I’d never thought I’d play again, and I was playing for the Dogs in the SANFL in the league.

It was funny how it worked out, I’m enjoying it, but we haven’t tasted success so far this year, we have a young team and a new coach, we’re playing in bits and pieces.

My age started to show, and I did my hamstring last week, but I’m enjoying my time there.

I just want to play at some level while my body allows it.

There’s a few players at Central looking like they’ll get drafted, is there any wisdom you’ve passed onto them?

We’ve got a couple of young lads playing league footy who look like they’re a chance, and Central always has been a pretty good breeding ground, even with the mature age recruits.

Central do it really well and young Corey Durdin is probably the pick of the bunch this year and lining up in the forward pocket I get to play next to him and watch him up close and do his thing.

He has some serious talent, and I’ve said to him, it’s always about having fun, you’re out there playing with your mates having a kick and having fun.

He’s playing great footy, I know it’s going to be a different year in the draft, but he’ll land on his feet and play somewhere.

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