Bachar Houli’s journey from the Spotswood Football Club to the AFL premiership dais has not always been smooth – but it makes for one of the best football stories of the year.
Houli, a devout Muslim, was footy mad as a child, but his parents were initially not keen for their son to pull on the green and gold of Spotty in the under-11s.
Houli refused to give up on his dream, getting his Woodsmen coaches to take him to and from training, where he started to learn the craft.
It did not take long for Spotswood to realise it had a talented young player on its books.
With his closing speed, reading of the play and long-range left boot, Houli began to turn heads, piquing the interest of the Western Jets, who signed him to play in the TAC Cup.
Through hard work and dedication, Houli earned his call up to the big league with Essendon. But after only 26 games, he was on the outer and found his way to Richmond through the 2010 preseason draft.
It was a move that would be career-defining.
Houli is now a premiership player after starring in a 48-point thrashing of the Adelaide Crows in the AFL grand final at the MCG on Saturday.
“You never forget your grass roots,” he said.
“Spotty were fantastic for four or five years, gave me the opportunity to play under-11s footy, especially when my parents weren’t very supportive of it.
“It’s a long journey when you start from not being allowed to play footy to now your parents being your biggest fans.”
Houli was superb in the grand final, with some suggesting the half-back flanker was hard done by in the Norm Smith Medal voting.
The 29-year-old was full of class rebounding out of defence and a steadying influence when the game was at its hottest.
The judges awarded the medal for best-on-ground to Dustin Martin, who polled 13 votes to Houli’s 10.
Houli, who finished with 20 kicks, five handballs, 11 marks, five tackles and 1.2, did not care in the slightest, though did admit he might have cost himself a vote or two by not turning his two behinds into goals.
“This is so much more important,” he said while proudly gazing down at his premiership medallion. “Dusty has been the clear outstanding player in the competition – he deserves everything that comes his way. It’s a great feeling, it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Houli was one of 44 players who had never played in an AFL grand final before Saturday.
While there were nerves for most, Houli was surprisingly calm and it showed in his football.
Houli was able to live in the moment and not get too overawed by the enormity of the game, which helped him settle on grand final day.
“I just wanted to soak it in and really enjoy the experience because you might not get that opportunity again,” Houli said. “I enjoyed the whole week – I was really calm yesterday and today and so were my teammates.”
Houli believes it was “the little things” that Richmond did better than other finals sides.
There was a one-percenter that stood out as a key moment for Houli and it was not even a moment within the game.
“It’s great when it starts from the top and today, Damian Hardwick, relaxed, sharing a gag before the grand final – he relaxed everyone,” Houli said.
“We’ve worked really hard all season, we’ve built great relationships and we’ve come a long way.
“We’ve recruited great players from different clubs that have added to our great culture.”