Bailey backs Morabito return
Bailey backs Morabito return

In many ways, tonight's game between Fremantle and Melbourne marks the end of the toughest fight of Anthony Morabito's life.

The Harvey-raised midfielder was coming off a brilliant debut season for the Dockers in 2010 when he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at pre-season training.

Twice in the years since, he worked his way back only to suffer the same devastating injury and have to start from square one.

It is a physical and mental battle few could understand.

Tonight, Morabito, 22, will play his first game for the Dockers since a semifinal loss to Geelong on September 10, 2010.

Four of his teammates in tonight's game hadn't been drafted by that stage and, just to illustrate how long it's been, the jumper he'll wear has changed completely.

There aren't many people who could predict exactly what will be going through Morabito's mind as he walks down the race at TIO Stadium in Darwin, but former Hawthorn ruckman Max Bailey might come close.

Bailey had three knee reconstructions after being drafted by the Hawks in 2005, but returned to play in a premiership last season.

The 27-year-old said returning to the senior side after his third operation rivalled the emotions of winning a flag.

"I still think getting back after the third one for me was probably the most satisfying, that first game back," he said.

"It's an exhilarating feeling.

"I just remember excitement and a few nerves obviously because you're not sure how it's going to go and it's been so long since you've played.

"The physical stuff you can get through not too bad, it's by no means the worst injury you can get, but the mental battle of going through the ups and downs, the rollercoaster ride, for Morabito it's taken four years.

"That's four years of a battle in his own head.

"Most blokes have battles week to week, but they're out there able to do something about them. The thought of looking forward to getting out there is the biggest thing I remember."

It's hard to define a player's potential by any one particular play, but in the case of Morabito there is one which has lasted both in the memory and in the YouTube accounts of football fans across the country.

With scores locked at nine points apiece nearing quarter time in an elimination final against Hawthorn in 2010, the Dockers needed someone to seize the moment and give them an advantage at the first break.

After receiving a handball from Michael Johnson at half-back, Morabito summed up his options and decided it might as well be him.

The teenager burnt off his opponent, took three bounces down a wing and kicked a lifting goal, igniting the home crowd and setting his side on its way to a 30-point win.

Four years on, Fremantle have recorded a host of bigger and better finals highlights and a maiden grand final appearance, with Morabito forced to watch it all from the stands.

Bailey, who was injured when Hawthorn won the 2008 premiership, said every win, every goal and every big moment would have given the young Docker more desire to get back and be a part of it.

"A footy club is all about trying to win games and win premierships and when you can't directly be a part of that, it can be quite hard," he said.

"His side played in the grand final last year so he would have pictured himself. 'I should have been out there', all that stuff goes through your head.

"I watched 2008 from the side and that was hard.

"Your mates are playing in a grand final and a premiership so you're happy for them, but there's definitely that feeling of feeling like you could have been out there.

"It was frustrating but it definitely helped spur me on."

With the battle to return now over, Bailey said the challenge for Morabito looking forward would be to forget about the past four years and set new goals.

"Once you're back in the system you get into the normal mode of things and you lose a bit of that desperation and you lose the hunger that you had because you're no longer battling like you had been," Bailey said.

"It's so much hard work to get back to being in the senior side, then it starts again.

"And people aren't going to make excuses for you after a while because you've had injuries and that, it all goes on to your form.

"You've got to enjoy here and now, then reset and go again for the next hard part."

Morabito's parents have ridden the bumps with their son from day one, and have struggled to deal with the pressure of those around them asking how their son is doing and when he will be back.

His father Vince said he was happy and relieved when his son called him on Thursday to tell him he was selected.

The important thing now, he said, was to just let the boy play.

"It's been a long time coming. It's been overwhelming in a way but we can't put too much expectation on him because he hasn't played in 3½ years," Vince said.

"Just let him find his way through, I think that's the thing that concerns me.

"We'll just enjoy the moment from here on and just hope his luck has changed."

"It's an exhilarating feeling. I just remember excitement and a few nerves …"" *Max Bailey * on his return from a third knee reconstruction

The West Australian

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