Adam Ballard had just captained England in their second successful European Championship. He was returning from Zagreb, Croatia after leading his country to 5 victories and the ultimate prize.
“Once we left the tournament, and went to the airport, got on the train travelling home, in the clubs for the celebration and back at work the next day, every time someone asked what the medal was for. I had to give the same old explanation.”
“Then I’d get “so, what is Aussie Rules? It really took the shine off the whole thing.”
No fanfare was expected, yet the disregarding reception made it a downcast homecoming. For the 23 year old Ruckman, under appreciation has constantly accompanied the sport. As has self-sacrifice.
“Everything I’ve done in Aussie rules up until now has been self funded.”
“I went to Prague in 2008, Croatia in 2009 and Milan 2010. All of which I paid for myself.”
“Every trip has cost around £300, that includes all flights, accommodation, kit, meals, supplies, energy drinks. Everything.”
Playing on days that eat into annual leave from work, scrambling for enough players to train on pitches that are dimensioned to facilitate for other sports and facing belittlement from those who see little to no value in the game, are all part of the internship that any Australian Rules Football player in England must serve.
It is not an unjust query to pitch: why commit such time and effort in exchange for such little detectible reward? His reply is cluttered with sentiment and affection for the simple pleasure of playing the game.
“I enjoy it. It’s different and I’m good at it. As much as you don’t get any external kudos, the intrinsic rewards are really good. “
“I take stick for it, everyone takes the mick. But I’m just playing and getting better for me rather than what anyone else thinks.”
The evident passion provoked by the game is spoken much more convincingly than the gentle grumbling of his grievances. It is not an easy game to play in this country, competition is fleeting and facilities are flagrantly underdeveloped, yet his initial, earnest affection for the sport has not dwindled.
“I just love it. The roughness, the camaraderie, even the vests.”
Adam’s rise to the top of the domestic game, which is yet to enjoy its own much needed growth spurt, was the product of chance and curiosity. Whilst working in Australian themed nightclub Walkabout in Durham City, he worked alongside many Australians, giving the place a facade of authenticity. They also provided the bulk for the Durham Swans, playing in the Walkabout Northern Premier.
The persistent chattering about their national game was overwhelming and, with a 6 foot 5, athletic frame, Adam proved a natural recruit.
“Because I play basketball and I’m quite athletic they said why don’t you come on down. I went to a couple of training sessions and just started playing with them.”
Surrounded by knowledgeable enthusiasts eager to impart with their native wisdom, Adam became infatuated with a game he had never considered.
“Being in that atmosphere with guys talking about it, you want to be involved and you want to play it more than anything.”
“Also, playing with better players helped me improve a lot.”
His debut season saw him improve enough to earn an England spot; the result of barely six months of exposure to the sport.
From greenhorn to Captain of the European Champions in a year sounds like a meteoric feat , but seems like humble progression for a young man who resists any inclination to self promote.
“I only got spotted because I was English and on a good team with good players.”
He has sported the England Dragonslayers jersey in three European Championships since, claiming gold on two occasions and giving performances at his now homely Ruckman position that have warranted selection into the European All Star 3 times.
With no pay and no recognition, his niche achievements are the product of an internal and unyielding enthusiasm that is now taking him to Victoria, the mecca of Australian Rules Football.
“I didn’t want to stay in the same town my whole life. That’s just not me. And then I got into this sport.”
“Playing Aussie Rules, has made me want to go more. I want to find a club, work my way up, and try and get into that first team.”
There is no promise of milk and honey. He has signed no contract, nor been recruited by an international scout.
“There’s rumoured to be some pennies involved in it. Sort of like Northern League soccer over here.”
“But I’ll be working on top. I mean, I’m not expecting a lot of dosh. If any.”
The uncertainty, naturally, is dimmed by his desire to continue this journey with the game he realised only four years before.
“I just want to give it a go and see what happens. I’m not going to get an opportunity like this again. So, why not?”