Austin O’Connor-Stubbs’ dream job in the football department of an AFL club lasted five months and one match.
Essendon were forced to make the football analyst redundant due to coronavirus cost cuts.
“I have a 100 per cent record at AFL level, at least. I got one game and we won,” said O’Connor-Stubbs, 23.
He’s not alone, with hundreds of club and AFL staff stood down in the past fortnight. Many will never make it back to the jobs they had.
O’Connor-Stubbs is determined he will, at some point, but he knows with the industry set to contract that doing so might be difficult in the short term.
He is not one to give up hope easily. “I never walked out annoyed or disappointed. I was just so grateful, for my opportunity at the level,” O’Connor-Stubbs said.
“The redundancy is not the hardest thing I have been through.”
At 15, O’Connor-Stubbs’ eyesight began to deteriorate as the blind spot we all have on the periphery of our eyes began to creep into the middle of his peepers.
He was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy and was losing about 3.5 per cent of his sight a week.
Within months he became legally blind, although O’Connor-Stubbs prefers the term visually impaired.
“It’s like when you look at the sun and then look away; you have got that patch of colour in the centre of your eyes,” he said.
“That is what I have got permanently in the centre; it’s fireworks – like a glare you can’t see through.”
A sports fanatic, O’Connor kept bowling in junior cricket although batting and fielding was impossible. And the Bendigo boy kept playing football for his local club Marong and then Bridgewater, as a midfielder.
“If I was close to the ball I would be able to see it,” he said. “If I was playing behind or forward of the ball I would struggle. So I just tagged, following someone around and trying to shut them out.
“From then on I was becoming a tactician and thinking of different ways to help the team.
“I honestly believe that I figured out ways I could give myself little advantages in a game of footy even with little sight.”
An opposition analyst’s brain was being moulded and his eyesight began to improve enough (how the condition affects each individual varies) to make a career in football realistic.
O’Connor-Stubbs didn’t stop to wonder, enrolling in a bachelor of sports science at Victoria University, focusing on skill acquisition and further study outside of his degree, setting whatever sight he had on learning what he needed to progress in football.
He can reel off names of people who assisted him, from local coach Craig Gadsden to those at the Simon Black Academy, where premiership Hawk and former Magpie Clinton Young became a mentor.
Eventually O’Connor-Stubbs won a place in David Wheadon’s super successful Next Coach program, which has more than one senior AFL coach among its alumni.
He made contact with former Sydney player Ryan O’Keefe, the Maribyrnong sports academy, and former North coach Dean Laidley, who was coaching at Maribyrnong Park.
At each point he was given direction and reached out to others, a habit that found him in a cafe late in 2018 having a coffee with then Richmond assistant coach Ben Rutten.
The half-hour chat was gold for the young man and Rutten put him in touch with Tim Livingstone, who also helped.
Months later he received a call out of nowhere from Rutten – who had joined Essendon – suggesting he apply for a job at the club as part of his development.
The Bombers’ Rob Harding interviewed him and although he did not get the gig, the feedback was at another level. O’Connor-Stubbs put it into practice with the Bulldogs’ AFLW/VFLW program, then led by Paul Groves.
Once he found an elevated platform near the boundary and put his trusty binoculars to his eyes the game would come alive as he zoomed and focused and considered.
Not that everyone was convinced. Post-season he applied for coaching jobs at local clubs as the next part of his development and kept being knocked back, with the rejections topping 20.
He suspects, but doesn’t know, that perceptions around his eyesight may have played a role in many of the decisions. Wheadon kept teaching him and when another job came up at Essendon, O’Connor-Stubbs applied again.
This time Rutten was senior coach in waiting underneath Worsfold as Essendon. The Bombers were impressed and willing to give him his chance.
“I gave it everything I had and got the job,” O’Connor-Stubbs said.
He moved from Footscray to Tullamarine to work at the Hangar for four days a week from November through to March.
The job was everything he imagined it would be as he took in valuable lessons from the football brains around him, people such as Rutten, James Kelly, James Jarvis, Mark Harvey, Blake Caracella and others on the Essendon coaching panel.
The Bombers went well too, winning both the Marsh Series matches and then O’Connor-Stubbs watched them defeat Fremantle from home in the opening round.
“I was relieved because I felt like I had an input,” he said.
Then the AFL shut down the season.
He felt for Bombers football manager Dan Richardson when he had to tell O’Connor-Stubbs they could not keep him on.
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the way of the industry and the current COVID-19 circumstances,” O’Connor-Stubbs said.
“Even though I am finished now I was so grateful for the opportunity and I have learned so much in a short amount of time.
“The coaches and the club have been awesome. Every day since, I have heard from someone from the club and they have provided me with heaps of feedback to work on.”
The road that Rutten helped him walk down has come to an abrupt halt, for now.
He knows he’s not the only one as he spends the time finally compiling all the notes he has taken over his short journey and is researching further education and other opportunities so that he can become more multi-skilled for the industry in the future.
Applying for the Jobseeker allowance or going back to university are cards plenty of people have been dealt.
“At the end of the day I’m so grateful for the experience I had at Essendon, I wasn’t made redundant because of performance. I will be much more confident stepping into the AFL system. I know I am capable,” O’Connor-Stubbs said.
By Peter Ryan
The Age, April 8 2020