From brutal Swansong to sweet Sandover: Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher during his time at Sydney. Picture: sydneyswans.com.au
Sam Fisher during his time at Sydney. Picture: sydneyswans.com.au

A delisted Swan is the Black Ducks’ newly-crowned Sandover Medallist and he has all his doubters and critics lined up in a row.

At just 22, Sam Fisher has travelled to all parts of Australia on his footy journey, which he hopes is just getting started – a second time around.

Western Australia and the WAFL – just the most recent pit stop on his route to redemption.

The silky left-footed forward-turned midfielder last night stunned a COVID-19 safe packed Crown Ballroom by upstaging a highly fancied field of stars by claiming Western Australia Football League’s coveted Sandover Medal in its centenary count, no less.

But should we really be shocked? No, no we shouldn’t, especially once you’ve taken a deep dive into the last three years since he was left in the footy wilderness after being culled by the Sydney Swans.

The WAFL’s respected cohort of experts rated former Collingwood Magpie Jackson Ramsay as the hot Sandover favourite with a host of state league stars also firmly in the mix such as previous winners Aaron Black, Jye Bolton, Kane Mitchell, Lachie Delahunty and Haiden Schloithe.

Despite racking up almost more touches of the Burley than anyone else in the eight-game home and away season, even the keenest of pundits didn’t have the dashing Swan District deliverer on their Sandover radar.

But that won’t diminish how deserving he was.

Fisher was up around the top of the leaderboard from the get go and clinched the medal in the final round, two votes clear of 2014 champion Black and three of pre-count favourite Ramsay.

The 2020 Sandover Medallist, Sam Fisher. Photo: WAFL

Like in his footy tale to date, multiple things were against him heading into the footy unknown in 2020.

He crossed from VFL club Northern Blues to Swan Districts, the WAFL’s cellar dwellers over the past two seasons.

The campaign was a struggle from a team perspective, with just three wins from eight starts.

But that didn’t stop Fisher from catching the eye with his piercing left leg and flowing locks as the chief leader of the Swan’s engine room.

He’d go onto earn 13 votes in six of the eight games (2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2) – remarkably four vote-getting games came in losses including his sole three-vote effort.

Fisher’s Sandover triumph against all odds saw him become the 10th Swan to win the medal, the first since Andrew Krakouer in 2010, and a feat in his debut WAFL season, achieved by champions of the past such as Haydn Bunton Sr & Jye Bolton of the modern era.

Fisher’s inspiration?

“Ken Duff, you’d have to go into the archives to find his name, I reckon,” Fisher said with a chuckle in the post-award media conference.

“My grandfather [who played for Geelong in the old VFL days], he actually passed away [almost a year ago to the day], which is why it’s a bit sad, but I think he’d be pretty proud of where my footy has got to.

“Growing up, coming out of Canberra, the footy wasn’t massive … it’s obviously a rugby predominant background, but my mum’s side of the family are all from Geelong, so my grandfather would pick me up every day after school and we’d go down to the oval and have a kick … he’s just been massive and I couldn’t thank him enough.”

Continuing down memory lane, Fisher grew up barracking for Geelong due to his strong family ties to the area but worked his way through the AFL Canberra junior ranks with Marist College and Ainslie before U18 footy with the Rams and into the Allies setup for the 2016 National Championships.

His eventual path onto Sydney’s list as a Category B Rookie also came via the Canberra Demons in the NEAFL & GWS’ Academy which saw him ironically play in a premiership for the Giants’ reserves against the Swans.

He honed his craft predominantly as a half forward in Sydney’s NEAFL side in 2017, kicking 25 goals and making it to a second successive grand final.

There was no immediate call on his future – he was given the opportunity to do a second preseason at Sydney and was told that if he returned in good shape, he may be re-rookied.

In a Q&A with Jacob Gaynor on nowuc.com.au, Fisher revealed how his AFL dream came to an almighty halt.

“I trained the day of the rookie draft and was at the club that afternoon … Sydney’s coach came in and said to me, ‘sorry we’ve had to make the call. It could be a big mistake but we ended up choosing AJ [Alex Johnson]’.

“It was brutal. I never really had any warning or indication of what direction the club was going in … I was shattered.

“It was honestly so hard to believe because I’d had such a great year in the NEAFL. I thought I’d done everything to deserve another year on the list. It felt almost similar to being drafted, it just didn’t sink in.”

With the help of his manager and support network, Fisher began picking up the pieces and plotting his path to redemption.

Sam Fisher in action for the Northern Blues in 2018. Photo: vfl.com.au

The next pit stop was the Northern Blues in the VFL.

More midfield time under Josh Fraser in a Carlton aligned system proved the catalyst for his transformation from clever half forward to a genuine play-making midfielder.

In his two seasons at the Blues, he’d finish runner up in both club best and fairest counts, earn VFL Team of the Year honours in 2019, lead the competition in clearances in that year and have multiple clubs show interest resulting in a state combine invitation.

His artillery was now as full as ever. Speedy, skilful by foot, good in traffic, clean, dynamic, good decision-maker, a balanced inside and outside game, consistent and now ready made.

Naturally, thanks to Carlton’s alignment and its initial interest during Fisher’s draft year, he was invited to train with the AFL Blues on a few occasions during preseasons.

But more drafts and supplemental selection periods passed and his name was not called.

Instead, more areas of his game critiqued and raised as reasons why, not one of 18 clubs would offer him a second chance.

Speed from stoppage? Running ability? Endurance?

So, 2020 called for a new pit stop on his road to redemption.

Before the world pandemic hit Australia’s shores, he and fellow Northern Blues midfielder and fellow draft hopeful Frank Anderson, along with the oft-forgotten part of the trio Deven Costigan, who was on the VFL Blues’ books in 2017, accepted an offer to call Western Australia and Swan Districts home for at least season 2020 and 2021.

Speaking to the club’s website upon arrival, Fisher said: “I see this as an opportunity to improve. They have big grounds and with running being my question mark, if I can prove that on big grounds I have no problems in covering them, it eradicates that query on me.

“I’d been at the Northern Blues for the last two years and I love the club, but this was something I wanted to tick off, and to make sure I’ve done everything I can to get back on an AFL list.

“I’ve sacrificed so much and put in so much hard work that getting a second opportunity would be the ultimate reward.”

After months of waiting and wondering in his new adopted state thanks to the uncertainties of COVID-19, Fisher finally laced up and went to work in the abridged eight-game WAFL season.

He more than proved his worth on big grounds as a hard-running midfielder, averaging 26.5 disposals, 4.2 tackles, 3.7 I50s and 3 marks a game in shortened quarters.

He snuck onto the bench in his second consecutive state league Team of the Year and then went onto stun even himself by securing the Sandover.

“To be honest it hasn’t sunk in,” he said moments after.

“I didn’t come tonight expecting to win, but it’s a massive honour to win the medal … obviously not making finals, which isn’t ideal, I just didn’t think I’d be a chance to be honest.

“Definitely the move at the start of the year, I wouldn’t have thought this would be the scenario I’d be in come the end of the year, but definitely it’s turned out to be a blessing that I’ve moved over to Perth.”

Quizzed by master of ceremonies Mark Readings about his AFL aspirations, Fisher responded: “That’s probably an ultimate goal of a lot of people in this room, and I think coming over here I just wanted to try enjoy my footy as much as I possibly could, and I definitely have at Swan Districts.

“[It’s] still a goal of mine to pursue AFL … I still think I’ve got the qualities to help an AFL team out, I think just a change up from the VFL and moving to Perth … just a fresh start to hopefully try and resurrect my AFL career.

“I wanted to try and prove to clubs that I could run and play on big grounds, so hopefully I did that this year.”

The once raw teenage prospect leaving the grid for the first time was described by Sydney list boss Kinnear Beatson as having “clean hands” and a “clever left foot” when the Swans rookied him.

He also earned this comparison from then Giants Academy Coach Jason Saddington: “He plays a little bit like Toby Greene, Sam is that small forward who can play in the midfield and have some impact on the scoreboard”.

So who’ll cast a line out now? Will Sydney come back for seconds?

Maybe the Giants who overlooked their own Academy member will come to their senses.

Have the Blues seen enough?

How about the fairy-tale, Geelong? the club his grandfather and biggest supporter played for.

Maybe the WA clubs have been hooked while he’s been strutting his stuff in their own backyard?

Or perhaps a club not previously affiliated, who has sat back idly till now.

Regardless of where he ends up, there’s been countless twists and turns, sharp corners to navigate, road blocks and bends, and pit stops in the ACT, NSW, VIC and WA along the way – but this Fisher’s tank is full and ready for the ride.

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