By JEFF STEPHENSON
THERE was a time during the opening stages of this NEAFL season when Hayden Bertoli-Simmonds felt he was personally responsible for the Bombers’ frustrating and at times devastating start when the club put together a horrendous run of five successive losses.
He had just been appointed Redlands’ captain and like the rest of the playing group was looking to 2017 with a controlled sense of confidence and hearty anticipation.
Those early season road bumps hit hard – very hard.
Losses to Canberra, Gold Coast, Sydney University, Northern Territory and Aspley make for horrendous reading, yet it is not overstating the fact that at least two of them – maybe three – were matches the Bombers’ might have won.
That they didn’t only added to the worries.
Hayden, who at 22 (he was 21 when appointed), is the youngest player to captain at NEAFL level, couldn’t pinpoint the problem, but as the club’s on-field leader it enveloped him heavily.
“You feel like it’s your fault – that you’re to blame,” he said.
“I’d come from the leadership group last year and the captaincy gave me a more personal responsibility.
“Now, I know you can’t think like that but I felt I had a responsibility towards the group and it was how I was thinking at the time.”
The famous win against Brisbane Lions at Tidbold Park helped resurrect his outlook.
He forgot about the “blame-taking” tendencies, got back on track – not that he was ever off it – and charged into the role with his customary leadership qualities on and off the field and his brilliance as the hard at it, take-no-prisoners midfielder we’d all come to know and appreciate.
So, what has he thought of the captaincy – particularly as it was thrust upon him at such a young age?
“I’ve enjoyed it – absolutely.
“Even at the start when things were not going so well, I still enjoyed it.
“You are an intermediary between the coaches and the players.
“I think I’ve developed a closer relationship with the coaches and I talk a lot during the week with Jarrod as the leader in that part of the ground (midfield) and pass on what he sees to the others.
“It’s the same with Leigh.
“I’ve always tried to lead by example and this role is an extension of what was happening last year in the leadership group.”
With Hayden, there is no such thing as posturing as a figurehead.
He gets in the thick of it and has earned huge respect from teammates, opposition players and coaches alike for the way he goes about his work.
There is no gilding the lily with him – everything is charged by an action and a reaction.
If something is not working then he figures it necessitates change or a more efficient and tougher work schedule to improve whatever it is that is failing.
Maybe that indifferent start to the season was the result of bad habits; perhaps the group was not cottoning on to the game plan; or could it have been a touch of over-confidence – a sense of sitting back and waiting for things to happen.
Hayden took them all on board and soon enough there was a change in fortune.
The second half of the year has seen a dramatic turnaround in so many statistical areas, from contested possessions, to contested marks, to efficiency in kicking, to an increase in inside 50s, to hardball gets, to uncontested possessions.
The improvement has been consequential.
Hayden, along with Leigh and the assistant coaches, could see the game plan coming together.
“When we were struggling at the start of the year there were definite reasons why some in the group might drop off – walk away.
“But it never happened.
“There is a tightness in this group.
“The results and the improved efforts in the back half of the year show that.”
“Look, we are still statistically able to play in the finals.
“We can certainly shape the finals structure over the next few weeks and while people are saying finals for us have gone out the window, it’s still a possibility.”
Having said that, even Hayden at his most optimistic, concedes it’s a long-shot.
What he and the rest of the group have been focusing on is building a foundation.
“I don’t want to disregard the next two games, but strong performances will give us the chance to take a fair bit of momentum into next year.”
As the reigning NEAFL Rising Star, Hayden has been on many an AFL club’s radar and he hasn’t given up hope that a career at the elite level still awaits.
“I still have an aspiration to play AFL – I’m not afraid to say it’s my dream, my goal.
“I’m old enough to know I can’t control what happens on the outside.
“If it doesn’t happen then I’ll keep driving Redland.
“I love playing footy and I enjoy playing at Redland.
He’s seen several mature-age rookies get a chance – look no further than his mate Josh Smith at Collingwood.
“Yeah, you don’t need a reminder. It’s right there in front of you.”
Hayden will graduate in November in Business Management, majoring in marketing.
He’s already cracked the 50-game barrier with the Bombers, he’s won personal accolades and he’s garnered the respect of so many in the industry.
Hayden’s leadership is admired by all at the club.
He demands the best of his teammates and they look up to him as the young and powerful leader who always gives of his best – and then some.
While the Bombers might not play finals football this year they are in very good hands and that momentum Hayden was talking about could prove a potent ingredient for season 2018.