Grant Birchall has retired. He does so after four premierships and 287 games, without anyone having a bad word to say about him.
The off-hand comment Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan made when he signed off on a conversation about the 33-year-old said so much about the esteem in which the defender is held.
Luke Hodge and Grant Birchall celebrate the Hawks’ 2015 premiership.Credit:Eddie Jim
“Write a good story about him. He deserves it,” Fagan said.
That’s not hard when it comes to the unassuming Devonport product with the hunch-backed running style and the piercing left-foot who was a key component of the Hawks’ golden era.
“He’s just a good bloke, a good bloke to have a beer with and not one to push himself to the front or want to be the hero. He just got the job done,” Fagan said.
In the four flags he played in, Birchall averaged 24 touches, a big-game player among big-name players.
Alastair Clarkson with Grant Birchall.Credit:Getty Images
“Loyal” was the first word that Alastair Clarkson, who coached him in 248 of his games, used when asked via email to describe Birchall. His ex-coach knew how special he was to his teammates and how special they were to him.
Everyone at the club understood what he could do on the football field, but Clarkson articulated it with the same precision Birchall used to carve up opposition defences.
“[He] never sought the limelight, yet his contribution was consistent, his application reliable, and his courage under-rated. Could play tall or small, quick or aerobic, and he read the game so much quicker than his opponent,” Clarkson said.
“He had a great capacity to read the opposition defence, and spot targets with his trusted left hoof. He had the rare quality to be able to decelerate, then execute a short pass when the opposition were convinced he was going to penetrate long.”
For his part, Birchall expressed gratitude at what his coaches taught him, and wonder at how lucky he was to join a club in the 2005 national draft that was brimming with talent.
“It was unbelievable to be part of it all. I never ever thought in my wildest dreams I would end up being a four-time premiership player,” Birchall said.
“I’m just blessed to have such great players around me and fantastic coaches and all that, it was an unbelievable ride. I pinch myself sometimes. I don’t know how the bloody hell we did it, but we did.”
In his career he sang the song after victory 195 times, 68 per cent of his career being part of a happy team at Hawthorn.
In his first 11 seasons he played 240 games but then battled to be on the park for three seasons, managing just eight games as a knee injury took hold. He was All-Australian in 2012 and placed in the Hawks’ best and fairest three times.
“His ability to see an option and hit an option in the blink of an eye, kick off almost no steps, just face it and go bang was probably his hallmark,” Fagan said.
“From 2011 to 2016 he was arguably the best half-back flanker in the competition.”
Fagan thought he could add to the Lions and the veteran took the punt. It was a gamble that paid off, with Birchall playing 39 games as he taught lessons to others that will last a lifetime.
Grant Birchall has enjoyed his time at the Brisbane Lions.Credit:AFL Photos
Again Birchall is thankful to Brisbane, his teammates and the medical staff who kept him out there.
“It’s worked out really well. I’m really glad I made the move. If you had told me I would punch out two full seasons of footy I would have taken that before I went up to Brisbane,” Birchall said.
He sensed the brotherhood as soon as he walked through the Gabba’s front door.
“I knew it was a club on the rise, the boys have been great, I have really enjoyed being one of the elder statesmen, one of the older guys within the team to try to help them,” Birchall said.
They made one preliminary final and were pipped on the post last week against the Western Bulldogs but Birchall shares Fagan’s optimism about the Lions.
“He’s on the right path and I hope the boys can lift the cup up for him one day. That would be great to see,” Birchall said.
A premiership player with Hawthorn before he turned 21, he chipped his two front teeth in the Hawks’ famous upset win over Geelong in the 2008 grand final.
The damaged fangs earned him the nickname “Beav” when ruckman Robert Campbell referred to him as “Bucky Beaver”, and it stuck.
He loved playing under the passionate, driven and competitive Clarkson, gathering lifelong friends as much as the pill.
The club’s values aligned with Birchall, who still ranks his debut in round one, 2006, when he played in Launceston in front of a huge contingent of family and friends, as close to his favourite day in footy.
“He always put the needs of his mates and the team above himself, which earned him popularity, respect and trust among teammates and coaches,” Clarkson said.
They both laugh at the fact the Clarkson family now own the labrador the coach gave Birchall in a well-meaning gesture when he needed to walk to recover from a calf injury.
“He’s never been a dog owner or lover despite declaring to me he liked the idea of owning a dog. Needless to say, the Clarksons were proud owners of two labradors after just the one night,” Clarkson said.
Birchall has plenty of memories but plenty to look forward to as well. He and his partner Brit are expecting a baby boy on January 4, an arrival timed as perfectly as a Birchall drop punt.
“I am a little bit relieved and also a little bit sad because it has been 16 years, a long time in the game, a little bit of mixed emotions,” Birchall said.
“Not having to have the pressure of preparation or performance is going to be a bit of a change, which is what I am looking forward to.”
Grant Birchall celebrates the 2014 premiership, one of four flags he played in for Hawthorn.Credit:Getty Images
He has no regrets because the down-to-earth Tasmanian with the cheeky grin knew his time was up, admitting that fact to Fagan when they discussed the topic as the season progressed.
“I just wanted to make the most of it. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned, I didn’t want to have any regrets. I just wanted to go out there and play hard, be my absolute very best and just be a team player,” Birchall said.
“That is always how I thought and if I did that I could walk away with my head held high. I just tried to keep it real and if I could honestly say at the end of the day that I did my best and left it all out there then that’s all that matters.”
You could not ask for a better footballing epitaph. Birchall is a good football story, and one not hard to tell.
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