Sheppard back where he belongs
Sheppard back where he belongs

Brad Sheppard could look back on his first conversation with rookie West Coast coach Adam Simpson as the turning point of his career.

It came on the first day of pre-season training in early November.

The 22-year-old had arrived at club headquarters hopeful, if not overly confident, that his fifth AFL season would prove a breakthrough campaign.

Sheppard was out on the track when Simpson, the dual North Melbourne premiership player he had only just met, took him by surprise by walking straight up to him.

"He came up and said along the lines of 'I know what you can bring to the table and I want you playing half-back for us'," Sheppard recalled.

"That's straight away from day one. I knew that's where the coach wanted me playing. I knew where I sat, whereas in previous years I'd been thrown around everywhere.

"That meant I could get back to looking at half-backs and how they play and have a clear mind of where he wants me."

Sheppard had every reason to feel trepidation until that point.

A 2009 No.7 draft pick, the running defender's report card had been increasingly marked in red across four frustrating seasons under former coach John Worsfold.

Sheppard's first season had been a bona-fide success as he broke into a struggling team early and played 14 matches.

The fact it remains a season tally he is still yet to better is the surprise.

As the club's on-field fortunes took off over the next two seasons, Sheppard's prospects seemingly headed south.

The East Fremantle product managed just six appearances in 2011 - a year when West Coast reached the second preliminary final - and found himself out of defence.

The competition for spots meant being recast in the role of half-forward, a position he wasn't familiar with.

"I'd never really played that as a junior," Sheppard said.

"The only time was when I was a centre half-forward and you'd be a focal target, whereas you come to West Coast and you've got four or five blokes ahead of you, so either you're the decoy or you're getting back to crumb."

Sheppard found himself gradually adjusting to life up forward before another setback, this time with his body.

He had ankle surgery leading into last year and, while he returned for the latter part of the NAB Cup competition, he realised just how much of his running power had been lost.

Sheppard was in and out of the side despite West Coast's raft of injuries. From the outside, it appeared his development had again stalled.

"At the time I thought I was good, but after a full pre-season under your belt you can actually see how much difference it can make," he said.

Sheppard denied the pressure of being a top-10 first-round draft pick had affected him over that period.

"I'm just a good bloke who goes about their work," he said.

"All I do every training session and on game day is just try and do my best.

"I know the last couple of years probably it hasn't been where I'd want to be at this time in my career, but in saying that I'm still relatively young and have hopefully got a lot more upside in my game."

The dashing defender made a conscious decision not to die wondering about whether he could cut it as an AFL player coming into 2014 - the final year of his existing contract.

He did extra training during his off-season break to guarantee he was flying on the track when he first met Simpson.

And he refused to lose faith even when West Coast recruited Elliot Yeo and Xavier Ellis, also both good kicks and capable of playing off half-back.

The intent was matched with Simpson's verdict that Sheppard should be playing that role - a position he firmly believes he is best suited to.

Sheppard was overlooked for round one, but earnt a call-up for the following week's away clash with Melbourne.

The 50-gamer has since strung together five matches, recaptured his run and dare streaming out of defence and is more assured of his spot leading into tomorrow's western derby at Patersons Stadium.

The goal now is to finish the year as an established player at West Coast.

"I'm bringing back my attacking side, my flair," Sheppard said.

"We've got a new game style, which all the back line have to adapt to. We've adapted pretty well, but the biggest thing from Simmo to myself is to utilise my strengths, try to get my run and carry, speed and ball work.

"I've done a lot of work in the pre-season working on my strengths to keep improving them.

"That's your one-wood, that's what you get drafted as."

Sheppard said the influence of Simpson and assistants Daniel Pratt and Adrian Hickmott had restored his confidence.

"He tells you where you're at," Sheppard said of the coach.

"He doesn't sugar coat anything and he's really brought the mindset of playing to your strengths and backing in your ability.

"If you happen to miss a kick or you happen to stuff up somehow, he's really brought out the confidence in the group to keep attacking and keep playing as the player you know you can be."

The West Australian

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