Sheahan "Biscuits" Arnott
Never Over The Hill
It’s a tough road to become an AFL player. Only a tiny fraction of those who try make it to the highest level. Even fewer play one game. Fewer still are genuinely memorable on the field. But the rarest gems in this great game of ours are those players who leave behind an indelible image of a single, defining moment in the minds of those who saw it.
Every Freo fan remembers where they were when Stephen Hill snuck onto the ground deep in the last quarter of the 2013 Qualifying Final. After being shafted by the AFL, Ross Lyon’s mantra was “anyone, anywhere, anytime.” To Stephen Hill, that meant him, there and then, but we’ll come back to that later…
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
After a stretch of relative success, Fremantle found themselves at the bottom of the ladder, and top of the draft order at the end of 2008. Lucky for the club, the top end of the draft pool was filled with homegrown talent. Future walking West Australian headline Nic Naitanui’s athleticism was intoxicating, while Daniel Rich was already a two-time WAFL premiership player. Jack Watts was locked in at pick 1, leaving Freo with whichever of these two rolled gold prospects the blue and yellow trash bags across town didn’t take.
Days out from the draft, rumours began to swirl that Fremantle’s draftniks had their eye on a scrawny kid from West Perth who’d been named All-Australian at the Under-18 level. Clearly, the scouts felt Rich was a known quantity nearing his ceiling, while this Hill kid had all the makings of a game-breaking wingman.
Handed the famous number 32, Hill wasted no time making his mark in the league kicking a goal in his first game and picking up 3 Brownlow votes and a Rising Star in his first Derby as the Dockers ran down a 23-point halftime deficit. Rich, of course, won the Rising Star that same season, but Hill scored a gong of his own in his second season - the AFLcA’s Best Young Player award.
BREAKING THE STREAK
Hill played his first 94 games in a row and established himself as a popular if frustrating member of the team. Opposition coaches began to invest more time into stopping him as his line-breaking ability and lethal kick separated him from most of his teammates. Danyle Pearce was brought in to attempt to lighten the load on Hill, but he was still the team’s Rolls-Royce.
His slender build had always been the big question mark hanging over his head and as he and the club tried their best to fill his frame out, his body started to rebel against the stress and strain it was put under. It wasn’t the first time the club’s fitness had pushed a player’s body too far - Paul Medhurst and Paul Hasleby were both victims of Chris Connolly’s obsession with making his players more powerful.
Most Dockers fans can close their eyes and picture what happened on that fateful day in Geelong. With 90 seconds left on the clock, Hill lurks onto the ground. Instead of picking up a man, he sits out on his own 15 metres off the contest. The Geelong players don’t see him, but Aaron Sandilands - sporting a helmet that looks more suited to a white-collar boxing night - does.
Sandi spikes the ball forward and the exhausted Cats players don’t even bother chasing as Stephen Hill takes 5 bounces, ignores Luke McPharlin with his arms out in the centre square, ignores Son Son Walters on the lead, crosses the arc and - to quote Lord Mayor Basil - sends Freo into a home preliminary final for the first time.
I remember it more vividly than almost any moment in my life. Jumping up from the couch, embracing my mate and cheering Hill home like Bart Cumming urging Kingston Rule down the Flemington straight. It was quite brilliant, Shane.
YOU KNOW THE ****ING DEAL
Between the long overdue retirement of The Coodabeens and the emergence of Pickett Palace, there was a dearth of footy songs in the zeitgeist - and probably for the best too. But Perth-based rapper Slackjaw attempted to fill the vacuum with an ode to his favourite player - Stephen Hill.
And the strains of “Stephen Hill, Stephen Hill, every time he gets the ball you know you know this s**t gets real,” have been ringing in my ears since 2014 - coinciding with his best year of footy. 24 touches and 4 goals playing as an inside midfielder against the Dogs in Indigenous Round and a Glendinning-Allen Medal for his 32-and-3 game in round 15 were defining games in a season where it looked like he’d take his place among the game’s truly elite players.
(explicit language warning)
But for whatever reason, it never felt like he truly reached the heights he so often looked like he might. Soft tissue injuries robbed him - and us - of his last 3 seasons, and we’re left to reflect on what might have been.
LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE
So, did we get the best of Stephen Hill? Certainly, we saw what he was capable of, even if it wasn’t all the time. 211 games is a remarkable achievement for any player but, like Sisyphus, whenever it felt like he was reaching his peak we were cruelly denied for one reason or another. Daniel Rich may still be running around, but give me Hill at that pick eleven times out of ten.
But be that as it may, he left his mark in the hearts and minds of we Freo faithful. As explosive, smooth and skilled as anyone to pull on the purple - and as menacingly graceful-an-athlete as any since Michael Holding - he got the chance to chisel his name into footballing folklore, and he took it.
Now excuse me while I go and watch the goal for the hundredth time this week.