James O’Donnell’s plans were to take cricket to the next level, but all that changed with an off-hand remark
This wasn’t the plan for James O’Donnell this year. Before Christmas, when the Victorian wasn’t training or playing for Essendon Cricket Club, he was sitting behind a desk working as a junior analyst at CitiPower three days a week, spending the other two days in business classes at Monash University.
The 20-year-old had a plan for 2023. At least, he thought he did. It involved cementing a spot at the Premier Cricket level and taking the next step with his bowling. It also involved ticking off more subjects and advancing his professional career. But sometimes the best-laid plans can be changed for the better.
After making his debut 35 days after joining the Western Bulldogs as a Category B rookie in April, O’Donnell has now played five games for the club and will add a sixth to his tally when he returns to face Fremantle at Marvel Stadium on Saturday.
So how did a boyhood dream become a reality? How does someone who hadn’t played a game of football since his final game for Xavier College in Year 11 end up landing a spot at the Whitten Oval?It turns out a flippant tête-à-tête in the nets between O’Donnell and his new bowling coach at Essendon Cricket Club quickly turned into more. Much more. When the bowling coach is also the Western Bulldogs’ fitness boss, Mat Inness, things move fast. Very fast.
O’Donnell played for Victoria at the under-12 level and was a decent schoolboy footballer until Year 9 when everyone became bigger and stronger than him. He then started focusing on cricket more seriously, but after a growth spurt in his late teens, footy was always an itch that had to be scratched if an opportunity presented.
This was that opportunity. Inness, who was a first-class cricketer for Victoria and Western Australia before transitioning into a career in high performance, introduced O’Donnell to Footscray VFL coach Stewart Edge and they caught up for a coffee and a kick.
When Western Bulldogs list manager Sam Power did his due diligence, the club realised they could use the same mechanism Geelong used to sign Mark Blicavs while he chased qualification for the 2012 Olympic Games, the same lever Collingwood pulled to add Mason Cox as a project player back in 2014.
“I started pre-season at Essendon ahead of what was going to be my second full year at Essendon. That was my third winter not playing and I was kicking the footy every other day and missing it a lot. The itch just started to build and I knew I could do it. I didn’t know the level I could play and I wanted to find out if I could do it,” O’Donnell told AFL.com.au at the Whitten Oval this week.
“Mat Inness was just starting as bowling coach at the Bombers and he was one guy I just started chewing his ear off. I was bowling and I joked to him: ‘Do you need a utility in the VFL next year?’ Then he asked if I was serious. Deep down it was what I wanted to do. He was only half-serious.
“All I wanted to do was try out at VFL because that would be a fast way to find out if I was good enough or not. I thought if I tested myself against those blokes and it didn’t work out, I would not have any regrets at 25. Mat put me in touch with Stewart Edge and we went for a coffee. He asked me how long it had been since I played. When he realised it was three years, he came back to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about the VFL, have a crack at this’. The rest is history.”
To be eligible to join an AFL club via the Category B rookie list rule, O’Donnell couldn’t have been registered in an Australian Football competition for a minimum of three years. He couldn’t train with the Western Bulldogs over the pre-season, but he could train with Footscray. That’s what he did from late January until April, watching Beveridge’s squad from over the fence at Skinner Reserve on Friday mornings in the pre-season, hoping he would join that program, not daring to imagine he would be playing for them in the months ahead.
But after making his debut for Footscray against Southport in April and playing the next fortnight against Carlton and Greater Western Sydney reserves, the match committee inside the Whitten Oval produced arguably the boldest selection of the season to date when they picked O’Donnell to debut against the Blues in round nine.
“I haven’t really had time to reflect on it because it has gone quick, even you play a game and then you’re onto the next week. I don’t think it will sink in until the end of the season, but in terms of how my life has changed, it has completely flipped on its head. I have always wanted this, I’ve always wanted to be a professional sportsman,” O’Donnell said an hour after being told he would return to help fill some of the holes in the Bulldogs’ backline this weekend.
Everything has happened far more swiftly than O’Donnell envisaged. The contract. The debut. The games. Beveridge has been a believer from the start, and it is that ongoing conviction shown by the senior coach and the rest of the coaching department that has allowed him to navigate the meteoric leap from nowhere to the big time.
“I’ve received great faith from ‘Bevo’ and the coaching staff. I don’t take that for granted. I’m very grateful for that, and in some ways, I get confidence out of it,” he said. “Although it’s happened quickly, they haven’t chosen me to play because it’s a cool story. I just think I try my arse off and try to be the best I can be. Whether that’s resonated with them to put that faith in me, that’s pretty amazing.”
Football and cricket course through O’Donnell’s veins. James is the son of former Australian cricketer and St Kilda forward Simon, who has been a popular voice in the sports media landscape for more than two decades. He is also the grandson of Kevin, who played 49 times for the Saints in the 1940s before returning to Deniliquin where he continued to play both sports until he couldn’t any longer.
“I was never able to meet Pa, unfortunately. I was born in 2002 and he died just before I was born. But I learnt a lot about him, not only as a sportsman but as a person and my dad is very similar to him. Dad is my idol, he is someone I look up to so much. He is having as much fun as I am right now. I can see that. He is also someone I can lean on, and I always have,” O’Donnell said.
“In terms of that lineage, it is cool to have that link. My pa wore 18 for St Kilda and that gives me an extra link to the number. Obviously, the name comes with a little bit of pressure, but Dad never put that pressure on me. He would never force anything. He would wait for me to ask questions. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a burden at times; you want to live up to your old man. But I am my own biggest critic in many ways, so I put the pressure on myself more than what my name puts pressure on me.”
The dream is the same as it was this time last year, only the sport has changed. O’Donnell has always wanted to be a professional sportsman, he just thought he’d be wearing whites and standing in the field for hours on end, not wearing the red, white and blue and playing a role – in defence, attack and on a wing – in a side hunting a spot in September.
“Growing up the dream was always footy or cricket. Now to have this opportunity, and knowing what it was like to work, play sport and do uni at the same time – and all you wanted to do was get to the position I’m in now – I’ll never take anything for granted,” he said.
“I love it so much and want to get the most out of myself and reach my fullest potential. I would love to have as long a career as I can and make the most out of this crazy opportunity that I’ve been given.”
Crazy is the right word. O’Donnell’s life has been crazy from the moment he floated the idea to Inness. And it is only going to get crazier if he continues along this trajectory.