Tom Fullarton flew to Melbourne anticipating he’d be spending a cold, wet Saturday running around in the VFL in the city’s deep south-east at Casey Fields.
Instead, he’ll be on a charter flight back to Brisbane an AFL winner, thanks to a whirlwind 14-hour chain of events that culminated in the best moment of his footy life yet.
With a nasty scratch down his right cheek and a massive grin on his face, Fullarton was beaming in the middle of the Lions’ rooms just minutes after his side’s remarkable 13-point comeback win over Melbourne at the MCG and belting out Brisbane’s song.
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“This is the moment you dream of as a kid: Playing finals at the MCG,” Fullarton told foxfooty.com.au post-game.
“I’m just glad I was able to play a small part in that win and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t the last place Fullarton expected to be on Friday night, but it was close considering how his morning had panned out.
The 23-year-old, who’d played just 18 games in three seasons prior to Friday night, was selected as a travelling emergency for the crunch semi-final.
The plan, really, was to play him in the Lions’ VFL preliminary final against Casey Demons on Saturday.
That all changed at around 9.30am on Friday when coach Chris Fagan’s name appeared on his phone.
Key forward Joe Daniher had withdrawn from the AFL semi-final and hastily flown back to Brisbane to be by the side of his partner, who went into labour a few weeks earlier than scheduled.
Fullarton was the next cab off the rank.
He was having bacon and eggs with a few teammates at breakfast when Fagan rang and delivered the unexpected news.
“I got a call from ‘Fages’ at about 9.30 saying ‘Joey had to go home for the birth of their child and you’re in’,” Fullarton said.
“I’m glad he told me before breakfast as I probably wouldn’t have been able to stomach it if he’d called beforehand.
“It’s probably good that I didn’t have time to think about it.
“Instead of finding out on Monday, finding out today probably gave me less time to think about it … It probably helped me a little bit.
Yet, as Fagan post-game pointed out, it wasn’t the first time Fullarton had received a similar phone call from his coach.
“Last year that game against Collingwood, Oscar (McInerney) didn’t come up and the only ruck we had was Tommy Fullarton and he had to go up against Brodie Grundy. He’s become accustomed to those things,” Fagan said post-game.
“He was excited. He played in some finals last year and in some of the AFL games he’s played this year he’s been pretty handy. It was good that he got that experience, it’s probably worth 20-odd games I reckon a night like that.”
Considering the significance and timing of Daniher’s decision, Fagan said he thought about gathering players and staff together and addressing them, before changing his mind.
“Then I thought ‘that’s making too much of it if I do that’, so I basically didn’t say anything to anyone,” he said.
“I think the word spread but sometimes you can make too much of a fuss of those things and I thought I was just better off to leave it be.
“The group last week, they showed character when Oscar went down in the first couple of minutes to fight their way through and just figured that these are just the little hurdles that you have to overcome if you want to be any good.”
Fullarton spent some time close to goal as Daniher’s replacement, but ultimately proved handy second ruck support for Darcy Fort, who was also brought into the side to replace a first-choice player — albeit with a lot more notice than Fullarton received.
Fullarton was important around stoppages in the second term as the Lions somehow kept in touch with the Dees, racking up eight of his 10 disposals in that quarter alone.
“My focus going into games is just to compete as hard as I can,” he said.
“I probably played a bit more time in the ruck in that second quarter and was able to use my strength at ground level.
“We just started winning more contested ball and surging more under pressure and our forwards were on their toes ready to make a contest. That’s our brand and I think we were able to get back to that.
“I was just glad I was able to play my role and come away with the win.”
Fort was also important for the Lions. He neutralised many ruck contests against Max Gawn, won four clearances and even pushed forward in the third term to kick a towering goal.
After a dominant first term, Gawn’s influence was seemingly quelled after quarter-time.
“There was nothing special there mate. It was just Darcy Fort putting in a big effort,” Fagan said.
“He’s done that a few times for us this year when Oscar hasn’t been available.
“He’s a man of great character, Darcy Fort, and against all the odds tonight I thought he battled really well and gave us the contest that we needed.”
Fagan said McInerney would be “fit and available” to face Geelong next week. He also revealed the Daniher’s had welcomed a new baby girl into the world on Friday.
“It’s been a win-win for us. We’ve got a fresh Joey Daniher next week and we got a win tonight, so you couldn’t get a better day, could you?” he said.
It almost certainly means Fort and Fullarton will lose their spots for the Lions’ preliminary final.
But that wasn’t the prominent thought in Fullarton’s mind minutes after Friday night’s win, for no one could take away the experience of his first AFL finals win.
“Absolutely that (losing his spot for Daniher) is a possibility, but it’s not something I’m really thinking about now,” he said.
“I’m just soaking it up and so glad I got the opportunity to play in an AFL final at the MCG.”