A debut at 28 and an AFL premiership at 29, James Podsiadly went through plenty to get to the top of the tree in Australian Rules football.
He speaks to The Inner Sanctum about his journey through two rookie listings, dominating the VFL, Geelong, Adelaide and his latest venture – AFL Max.
Jack Hudson: You’ve had one of the most remarkable journeys in football – what do you enjoy the most looking back?
James Podsiadly: There’s no doubt, regardless of what level of sport you play, it’s the people you meet in it.
I look at the people I’ve met, the people I’m close with and the ones I don’t see very often and they’re all quality people, that’s what our industry brings.
Most of my close friends that I have I’ve met through footy, so no doubt I’ve enjoyed the relationships and meeting a diverse range of people.
JH: What was the feeling like after being picked up in the rookie draft?
JP: In 1999, 20 years ago with Essendon.
I think I had only played 11 games of footy before that draft.
I did a pre-season at Essendon and Adrian Dodoro, who is still the recruiter now, was the recruiter then.
They took a punt on someone that was really raw to the game, which is what I was.
My memories of that period were ‘how easy is this?’, being a young 18-year-old having only played 11 games and all of a sudden I’m on an AFL list training with Matthew Lloyd, James Hird and Scott Lucas who were absolute superstars.
I’d really done nothing, and you learn very quickly you’re a long way off where they are and where the game is at.
You don’t have the mental maturity when you’re that young to realise that, it took me a number of years to work that out.
JH: What was Kevin Sheedy like initially with you?
JP: My memories of ‘Sheeds’ is actually different to what coaches are like now, where they’re focused probably on the top 30 of the list, but I remember he knew who you were, where you came from, the position you played.
It was a lot different back then.
To see a guy and a legend of our game work and basically motivate a team to achieve what they did in 2000 was awesome to be a part of.
The team they had with the Johnsons, Hardwick and Fletcher down back was a joy to be a part of.
JH: Then you were delisted then Collingwood nabbed you, had more of a taste there in pre-season, what was it like?
JP: I started to physically mature in the two years at Essendon and got a little bit fitter and stronger and then Collingwood picked me up.
I was fortunate enough to play a few Wizard Cup games back then and I played on Tony Lockett and Barry Hall, it was Plugger’s return game.
I remember lining up on him in my first Wizard Cup game thinking it’s a bit bizarre, but I didn’t feel out of my depth.
Then Collingwood was for a year, the reality of that I probably still wasn’t mentally mature to understand what it meant to be an elite athlete.
I had an okay season, there was a period during the season that Mick Malthouse said I was close to getting a game because a few of the key forwards at the time weren’t in great form, but their form turned around and my opportunity sort of passed.
JH: You became a VFL star for many years, run us through your years with Werribee.
JP: Some of the most memorable years of my life really and I have some great friends from that period.
Six years at Werribee and I think during that period there was a different AFL club which asked me to do a pre-season with them and I was close to being rookie listed or drafted.
There were opportunities to play football in different states, play country footy for more money at the time, but my goal was to become a life member of the club when I went there.
Fortunately, I was named captain and I learned a lot in that period as a young leader.
I think my time came to an end and I moved onto Geelong, but my memories of Werribee were awesome, a couple of prelims, a grand final and we played finals basically every year.
JH: You trained with plenty of clubs, including the Western Bulldogs and Richmond, did you ever think you’d get there?
JP: There was Sydney and Geelong as well, but I think at the end of every season I got a phone call from a club and it was positive, but the more you get rejected, the further away you feel.
I suppose I never doubted my ability to play against people in the AFL, because the beauty of the second-tier competitions was there was always AFL players you’d play against.
Either I’d line up on them or they’d line up on me.
JH: The Liston Trophy in 2008, how great was that for you?
JP: It was a complete shock, I remember the night.
Not many key forwards win league best and fairests or those type of medals.
It’s one of those things you move on really quickly from it and it’s nice to reflect on.
I was fortunate enough to be invited back to the VFL presentation night last year at Crown and did a bit of a Q&A with Daisy Pearce on stage.
It was good to go back and I think all second-tier competitions play a pivotal role not only in the development of the next generation of AFL players, but also the guys like me.
JH: The Geelong VFL move may have been your best move – what made you want to do it?
JP: The move was more around my career outside of football as a strength and conditioning coach as I had just finished an exercise science degree and the opportunity came up to captain their VFL side.
To be a permanent fixture there I knew I was going to learn from some of the AFL players from a leadership perspective, there was a great coaching system there and then it was Steve Hocking, he was the driver in my role at the time at S&C and it turned into what it did.
JH: Finally scooped up at 28, how did it feel?
JP: At the time you’re living day by day and trying to be a better player, at the time it felt like I was ready.
I felt grateful at the time because the club obviously took a risk, even if it wasn’t a big risk and I just wanted to be a better player.
I was in a great club with a great team, so I was fortunate really.
JH: What do you remember about that first year at Geelong?
JP: I remember the step up to AFL from where I was at to that level probably wasn’t as great as I thought, because I thought my first year at Geelong prepared me.
I became fitter, stronger and I felt I was ready and part of a really good team and environment and a good game plan at the time.
Back in 2010, the game was played differently where as a forward you were probably more one out and had some space to work in.
When you have people of a Gary Ablett, Steve Johnson, Paul Chapman, Jimmy Bartel delivering you the ball, they probably make you look pretty good as well.
That definitely helped.
JH: Then there was the change in coaches from Bomber Thompson to Chris Scott, Gary Ablett leaving – what was it like at Kardinia Park with that changing of the guard?
JP: I remember we got smashed in the preliminary final by Collingwood and they went onto win the drawn grand final.
I think the team was a little bit tired and cooked, but Scotty came in and my memories of that period, he just reset the group, tweaked a bit of the game plan, mainly around a team-style defence structure, but the offence was just Geelong, take the game on, get the ball in and compete in front of the ball, which is what we did.
At the time, Bomber left and Gaz left, I think Tom Harley retired the year before that, there was a fair bit of change, but you realistically wouldn’t have known is as the positivity was still around.
Matthew Scarlett was probably the leader that went under the radar externally but internally he was very influential.
Guys like Joel Corey, Corey Enright, Cameron Ling, the continuity in leadership was still there.
Scotty coming in refreshed the group, and when someone new comes in, people need to prove themselves again and that’s what happened to the players that had been there for a while.
JH: What a year in 2011, did you ever dream you’d get to a grand final?
JP: I definitely dreamt it, I had a vision when I was playing VFL, I had a vision of winning an AFL Grand Final.
I didn’t ever think consciously I’d get there and think about it, but absolutely dreamt it and we shouldn’t stop dreaming.
JH: What was it like to play the grand final?
JP: The week leading in was awesome, the focus is on two teams, but Geelong had been in three grand finals previously so treated the week as normal, which is hard to do.
They did from a preparation perspective as much as there was a bit of excitement for the group.
The game itself for me individually was a little bit short-lived going off halfway through the second quarter, but I think the grand final was always made out to be the main thing, but that year we had the one-month period we had coming into the finals, we felt we couldn’t be beaten.
We smashed Collingwood in the last round of the year and played quality teams in the finals and just beat them, we never thought we were going to be challenged.
JH: Subbed off with injury, was it tough to watch on?
JP: Nah it wasn’t.
I spent about a quarter in the rooms with the injury and came out and knew we were going to win, but it wasn’t hard, because the reality is it was about the team winning and creating some more history, so it was great to be a part of.
JH: You played a further 34 games across the next two years, and then departed Geelong – how many clubs were keen on picking you up?
JP: There was four that I had meetings with and had contract offers from, and then I chose Adelaide.
JH: How did you enjoy your time with the Crows?
JP: We loved it.
My wife Claire and I loved it, we made some great mates in Adelaide, both at the club and outside which almost validated our reason for moving over there.
The footy club was awesome, two years of playing, one under Brenton Sanderson and Phil Walsh came in and I played that last year in the SANFL after a back injury.
Two years of coaching as well.
JH: You got to your 100th game against Collingwood, how sweet was it to get to that milestone?
JP: When I played one game of AFL, I had in the back of my mind I wanted to play 100.
It was something that was driving me through pre-seasons and games to play 100.
I really wanted to play 100 games for Geelong, that was my goal and then when that didn’t sort of eventuate and the contract wasn’t there, I thought I could still contribute to a team and still get to 100 games, and if I didn’t think I could contribute that last year, then that 100 games thing wasn’t going to be driving me flat out.
But I still had this goal I wanted to play, so it was nice to achieve it.
JH: The passing of Phil Walsh – how tough was that for you?
JP: It was an incredible period of time.
I was the oldest player on the list at the time, so I felt at the time I had this sort of obligation to look after and talk to some of the younger guys to make sure they were okay.
You don’t really think of yourself at that time as it was such a sad period, but I think the leadership we had – David Noble, Andrew Fagan, Rob Chapman – they just fronted up and were supe
JH: You did some work with the SANFL squad, how good was that?
JP: The last few years of my playing career, it started at Geelong, you start to work with younger kids and I think that’s something I learned watching some of the boys.
Matthew Scarlett used to work with Harry Taylor, Joel Corey and Cameron Ling would work with Joel Selwood, the knowledge transferring to the next generation is there.
I took that mantel on and started to work with younger players, I really enjoyed that mentoring and coaching element.
JH: Run us through the AFL Max idea, how did it come about?
JP: It was an idea that I had when I was playing and coaching but could never conceptualise how to bring it to life.
I used to see coaches’ kids coming to the Crows’ centre tackling the bags and kicking balls around.
I thought whether the AFL would think about having a play centre around kids letting loose and being active, so that’s where it started and it’s evolved into a business and a venue which is more, as much as it’s about fun and entertainment with school holidays and birthday parties, we’ve got a great education offering which is working with schools and OSHC group providers to help improve kids’ wellbeing.
There’s also the football element where we have indoor footy at nights and footy development academies within the venue.
It’s become bigger than what I thought it was going to be, and our offerings are only sort of expanding.
JH: How has it gone throughout this year?
JP: It’s been a tough year for any business in our space – if you have a leisure venue during COVID, it’s been tough.
We shut down and we’ve been shut down again.
My message to my management team is that we’ve got to take the longer term approach and think about where we’re taking AFL Max and make sure we’re driving our vision to get there and that is working with schools, making sure kids still have a safe place to have fun and learn.