This afternoon at the MCG Melbourne contested possession beast Clayton Oliver plays his 100th AFL game at the start of his sixth season against Fremantle, having been drafted by the Demons with the 4th pick overall at the 2015 NAB AFL Draft. After playing 13 AFL games and spending time in the VFL during his debut 2016 season Oliver had a break-out 2017 season to win Melbourne’s best and fairest at just 19 years of age. Oliver has maintained a high standard ever since, being selected in the 2018 All-Australian team, won his second best and fairest in 2019 and was selected in the extended 40 player All-Australian squad in 2020.
Oliver has been extremely durable throughout his AFL career and has played 89 consecutive games from Round 1, 2017 which is the longest current streak by a Demons player. Despite being just 23 years of age Oliver has been Melbourne’s most consistent player from 2017 to 2020, being the only Demon to finish in the top five of the best and fairest in all four seasons. Playing as an inside midfielder Oliver’s strengths have been his ball-winning, particularly the ability to win contested possessions, vision, handball execution, durability, tackling and consistency.
In a video interview on melbournefc.com.au the question was asked “Clarry, game number one hundred, that is a special milestone, what does it mean to you at this point of your career?” Oliver responded “Yeah, it is pretty crazy, I’m a kid from the country, didn’t think I would play a game of AFL, to be playing one hundred is pretty cool, so excited to play this week and verse Freo Round 1.”
Early life and junior career
Clayton Oliver was born on 22 July 1997 and his introduction to playing Australian Rules Football was through playing Auskick at about five years of age. Oliver played club football in Echuca until under 12’s and then moved to Mooroopna for bottom-age under 14’s.
In his bottom-age year of Under 18’s in 2014 Oliver played just three games for the Bendigo Pioneers Under 18’s TAC Cup team due to a combination of being overlooked and having an osteitis pubis injury. Oliver gained some experience at senior level in 2014 playing for Mooroopna Football Club senior team in the Goulbourn Valley Football League, he won the league’s Rising Star Award.
Oliver moved from Echuca to Mooroopna in 2015 to reduce the amount of travel required to attend school for his year 12 classes at Goulbourn Valley Grammar School in Shepparton. Oliver also changed TAC Cup clubs, joining the Murray Bushrangers.
Due to osteitis pubis Oliver missed most of the 2015 pre-season with the Murray Bushrangers, after playing one practice match he was selected for Round 1 and built his match conditioning and form as the season progressed.
Oliver wasn’t selected for any of Vic Country’s games at the 2015 Under 18 National Championships, but did get the opportunity to play two VFL games for Richmond in July. When Oliver returned to the TAC Cup with the Murray Bushrangers he took his game to another stratosphere and with a phenomenal second half of the season won the Morrish Medal as league best and fairest in the TAC Cup, polling 15 votes to finish one vote ahead of Jade Gresham and Darcy Crocker.
During the 2015 TAC Cup season Oliver played 16 games for the Murray Bushrangers, averaging 10.1 kicks, 14.1 handballs, 14.3 contested possessions, 4.5 marks, 5.9 tackles, and 1.3 goals per game, he had a disposal efficiency of 70.4%. Oliver polled 31 votes in the TAC Coaches Award to finish runner-up, eight votes behind Jade Gresham and he was selected on the interchange in the TAC Cup Team of the Year. In the 2015 Tac Cup season Oliver kicked 20 goals, ranked third for the Murray Bushrangers behind Josh Schache (34) and Luke Smith (22) and equal 19th overall.
In an interview with Cal Twomey on afl.com.au in November 2015 Oliver spoke about his rapid rise into draft calculations, saying “I didn’t think I had any chance to get drafted this year, I was just more focussed on next year because I didn’t do the pre-season and stuff, just thought I didn’t have much of a chance. Then sort of as the year progressed I got invited to the National Combine I thought I might have a little bit of a chance this year, it came out of nowhere really.” On his 2015 TAC Cup season Oliver commented “Form second half was obviously a lot better than the first half, it was just a lot more consistent, probably each week I started to play a little better, sort of got a little bit more confident with myself. Yeah, winning the Morrish Medal, Round 9 I had one vote, I thought oh well it doesn’t really matter anyway, (winning it was) pretty exciting.”
Oliver’s profile in the 2016 AFL Prospectus said “Oliver the 2015 Morish Medallist, is a contested possession beast. He won the third-most contested possessions per game in the TAC Cup last season, rating elite for a midfielder in clearances, goals, intercept marks, score assists, and score involvements.”1
Being drafted by the Melbourne Football Club, debut AFL season in 2016 and a turning point
On the eve of the 2015 AFL Draft Callum Twomey wrote about Oliver in his Phantom Draft for AFL.com.au “Few (none?) would have predicted six months ago that Oliver would be a top-10 pick. But now that seems one of the draft’s most likely scenarios, with a clump of clubs keen on the tough, physical and big midfielder. The Morrish medallist kicks goals, marks well above his head and has an explosive streak that sees him dominate clearances. He also presented well and tested impressively at the combine last month, which further boosted his stocks.”2 Twomey predicted that the Melbourne Football Club would draft Oliver with the 4th pick overall at the 2015 AFL Draft which was accurate. At the time of being drafted by the Demons Oliver was 18 years old, 187 centimetres tall and weighed 86 kilograms.
At 18 years of age Oliver made his AFL debut in Round 1, 2016 against the GWS Giants at the MCG. On debut Oliver had five kicks, 17 handballs, took two marks, had a game-high seven clearances, an equal game-high 15 contested possessions, polled two Brownlow Medal votes and received a Rising Star nomination.
After playing the first four rounds of the 2016 season in the AFL for Melbourne Oliver was rested in Round 5 and named an emergency in Round 6. Oliver returned to Melbourne’s AFL team in Round 7 and played six of the next seven games, missing Round 10 with a quad injury. Following Melbourne’s Round 14 bye Oliver only played three AFL games for Melbourne from Round 20 to Round 22, he spent the rest of the time playing in the VFL for the Casey Scorpians (now Demons).
In his 13 AFL games for the Demons in 2016 Oliver averaged 5.9 kicks, 13.4 handballs, 4.8 tackles and 9.5 contested possessions per game. In seven games Oliver had at least 21 disposals, in Round 3 against North Melbourne at Bellerive Oval Oliver had 26 disposals and kicked two goals to set season-highs in both categories. Throughout 2016 Oliver’s strengths were his ability to win clearances, contested possessions and his vision to distribute the ball to teammates however areas for improvement were endurance and winning uncontested possessions.
Whilst Oliver was on leave between the 2016 and 2017 AFL seasons he failed a roadside breath test. In mid-November 2016 Melbourne Football Club football manager Josh Mahoney commented “We are extremely disappointed in the decisions Clayton made, which led to this. Not only did he put himself at risk, but he put his passenger and members of the general public at risk and this is completely unacceptable. We have discussed this with Clayton and he is extremely remorseful for his actions. Clayton understands how lucky he was and that nothing more serious occurred as a result of his poor decision-making on this occasion.”3
Due to being on his P-plates Oliver was required to have a blood alcohol level of 0.00 whilst driving. As a result of his offense Oliver lost his license and was fined. Oliver was not suspended by the Melbourne Football Club but after standing in front of the entire playing group and coaches and apologising for his actions was required to “source his own road safety education and organise an expert to present to the players on the dangers of drink driving and the link to road trauma.”4
During episode 17 of the Inside Melbourne Podcast in July 2018 Caty Price asked Oliver “What do you remember about the Clayton Oliver that turned up on Melbourne Footy Club’s doorstep, obviously that first year dropped a few times, there were a couple of tough conversations. The player that you were then to now. Oliver responded “I honestly just had no idea, I obviously knew how to play footy, but it is what you do off the field that probably counts the most and gets you ready for the game on the weekend. I wasn’t doing probably anything right at all, the coach was telling me and I thought I knew what I was doing, Macca (head of development Brendan McCartney) was getting in my ear and he’ll tell I wasn’t listening too much, had the ear muffs on, which I probably did. I just needed to start listening more and by the time I got to my second year I sort of turned a corner and started doing what they told me and yeah, it has worked out.“ Caty asked ‘What was the turning point?’ Oliver replied “Probably when I got caught drink driving, the worst thing that happened but at the same time also the best thing, sort of just a new perspective on things. Sort of began taking things for granted and once I came back from that Goody (Melbourne Football Club head coach Simon Goodwin) and Mahons sat me down but they were real good about it and they backed me in so gave me a bit of confidence. I just started listening and everything that they were telling me to do. They told me to follow a player which was Billy Stretch at the time and I just did what he did for the whole pre-season because he was the most professional around the club, and yeah that is probably when it happened.”
On fronting up to his coach and team-mates after being caught drink driving Oliver commented “It was pretty embarrassing at the time and then apologising to the whole group, I just didn’t want to be in that spot ever again so try and do everything I possibly can to not do that again and that is why I said it is probably the worst thing but at the same time it was the best thing to happen to me.”
Break-out 2017 season to win Melbourne’s best and fairest at 19 years of age
During the 2017 pre-season Oliver wanted to improve his defensive work-rate and endurance running. On 11 March, 2017 Oliver commented to the ‘West Australian’ newspaper “I felt a bit tired throughout the last part of the year. I thought I’d come back in good nick, but that didn’t really work out. Then over the pre-season I ended up losing about 4 or 5kg. I feel 100 per cent. Last year obviously I was running, but I wasn’t running near as well as I should be. I was letting the team down defensively. I knew I had to get fitter.”5
In Round 1, 2017 Oliver returned to Melbourne’s AFL side and for the second season in a row polled Brownlow Medal votes in the Demons opening game of the season, polling three votes for his best afield effort in Melbourne’s 30 point victory against St Kilda at Docklands. Oliver had nine kicks, 27 handballs, took five marks, laid five tackles, nine clearances and 14 contested possessions.
During 2017 Oliver was one of the most improved players in the league, not only cementing his place in Melbourne’s best 22 and playing all 22 games but he also won the Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott Medal as Melbourne’s best and fairest in a landslide at just 19 years of age, polling 530 votes to finish 184 votes ahead of runner-up Jack Viney.
In the 2017 AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year Award Oliver polled 71 votes to finish seventh behind Dustin Martin (122 votes) and Patrick Dangerfield (118) and only seven votes behind third placed finisher Rory Sloane. Oliver was a convincing winner of the AFL Coaches Association’s best young player award in 2017, polling 72 votes to finish ahead of Geelong’s Sam Menegola (38) and Melbourne teammate Christian Petracca (29).
During 2017 Oliver averaged 8.1 kicks, 21.9 handballs, 6.9 tackles, 6.6 clearances and 15.6 contested possessions per game, he polled 12 votes in the Brownlow medal to lead Melbourne. Oliver’s profile in AFL Record Season Guide 2018 said “The on-baller was ranked No. 1 in the AFL for handballs, second for contested possessions, third for clearances, fourth for tackles and fifth for disposals and was unlucky not to make the All-Australian squad of 40.”6
Signing a contract extension with Melbourne and maintaining a high standard from 2018 to 2020
In March 2018 Oliver signed a contract extension with the Melbourne Football Club until the end of 2021 and commented to the club’s website “It was the easiest decision of my life. The club came to me last week, and I talked to my manager and we got it done straight away, so I’m very happy. The club’s in a good place and on the way up, and I want to be a part of it, so I can’t wait. It was an easy decision to stay and I can’t wait for the next four years.”7
Throughout his career Oliver has had a low kick to handball ratio. During episode 17 of the Inside Melbourne Podcast in July 2018 Oliver commented “I don’t even really notice that I handball more than I kick to be honest, it sort of just happens. I just get the ball a bit more in tight than on the outside because I am not the fittest or the quickest so it is more of congested quick hands out to someone.”
Melbourne finished 2018 in fifth position on the ladder with 14 wins and eight losses to make the finals for the first time since 2006. Melbourne won two finals at the MCG, defeating Geelong by 29 points in an elimination final and had a 33 point semi final win against Hawthorn. The West Coast Eagles easily accounted for Melbourne in a preliminary final at Optus Stadium, recording a 66 point victory after the Demons failed to register a goal in the first half. Oliver was named in Melbourne’s best three players for all three finals.
Oliver was selected on the interchange of the 2018 All-Australian team, being one of the two Melbourne players selected in the team along with Max Gawn who was named in the ruck. The duo also finished top two in Melbourne’s best and fairest with Gawn polling 657 votes to win ahead of Oliver on 595 votes.
Oliver’s profile in AFL Prospectus 2019 said “Oliver was the only midfielder to rate elite for disposals, contested possessions, intercept possessions, score involvements and tackles last season. He averaged the second-most AFL Player Rating points of any midfielder and recorded over 20 rating points in nine H & A games – the most of any player.”8
At Melbourne’s 2019 best and fairest Oliver polled 464 votes to be a joint winner of the Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott Medal along with ruckman Max Gawn, it was the first time in Melbourne’s history that the club had joint winners of their best and fairest award.
Early in the 2020 AFL season Oliver was criticised for skill errors with his kicking and not winning enough ball on the outside. Speaking about the criticism Oliver had received Melbourne head coach Simon Goodwin commented “Noise is prevalent in our game and it stings individuals but he’s a very proud player. He wants to be a great player, and the best player he can possibly be. I don’t think I’ve seen a player that works harder on his game. Every day he has a day off, he’s working on something else on his game. He’s going to continue to get better.”9
Oliver himself commented “I’m getting the ball a bit more on the outside, so I probably have more time to kick it rather than handball it. But hopefully I can start hitting more targets by foot if I am kicking more. Everyone’s got room for improvement.”10 In Melbourne’s Round 6 victory against Gold Coast Oliver delivered a precision pass to Christian Petracca with just over two minutes remaining in the game. Petracca’s set shot goal from 52 metres out extended Melbourne’s margin to 11 points.
In 2020 Oliver set a new career-high for kicks per game despite the quarters being 20% shorter than in previous seasons due to COVID-19. At the 2020 Brownlow medal Oliver polled a career-high 14 votes to finish equal ninth overall and be ranked second at Melbourne behind Christian Petracca (20 votes). Highlighting’s Oliver’s consistency in all four seasons from 2017 to 2020 he polled at least 12 Brownlow Medal votes.
In his first 99 AFL games Oliver has averaged 9.7 kicks, 17.9 handballs, 3.2 marks, 0.29 goals, 6.2 tackles, 6.3 clearances, 14.7 contested possessions, 0.54 goal assists and 0.56 Brownlow Medal votes per game.
This afternoon Oliver becomes first player selected at the 2015 National Draft to reach 100 AFL games, he is one of only two players from that draft class to win a best and fairest along with number 1 selection Jacob Weitering who won Carlton’s 2020 best and fairest playing as a key defender. Oliver is the only player drafted at the 2015 National Draft that has been selected in the All- Australian team, Weitering, number 25 selection Josh Dunkley and number 66 selection Sam Menegola have each been selected in the 40 player All-Australian squad once but not have made the final 22 player team.
This afternoon 23-year-old Clayton Oliver plays his 100th AFL game for the Melbourne Football Club which is a significant milestone in its own right but also provides an opportunity to reflect on what Oliver has achieved in his career. Over the past four seasons from 2017 to 2020 Oliver has excelled as an inside midfielder, ranking in the top six of the league in all four seasons for each of the following statistics – disposals, handballs, tackles, contested possessions, clearances and loose-ball gets. This level of performance and consistency is a great feat for any player but even more so for a player in their first 100 games. Oliver has achieved several significant milestones including winning the Melbourne best and fairest award twice and being selected in the 2018 All-Australian team and is sure to add to his impressive achievements throughout his career.
Article by Dean Andrews
Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777
1 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2016, 11th Edition, page 240
6 Australian Football League, AFL Record Season 2018, page 225
8 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2019, 14th Edition, page 240
Milestones and Misses
Milestones and Misses publishes articles to celebrate the achievements of sportspeople, mainly in Australian Rules Football (AFL and AFLW) and the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL). In sport as with life in general it is common that milestones are only achieved after overcoming adversity, so whilst the articles on the Milestones and Misses website celebrate sportspeople achieving milestones they also cover the misses along the journey, such as a player having minimal game-time or spending a prolonged period on the sidelines due to injury. The aim of the articles is to enable readers to gain a greater appreciation of the journey the sportspeople have had during their career.