After being born in New Zealand and migrating to Australia as a 12-year-old it's hard to fathom Daniel McAlister would go on to play football at the elite level. The talented sportsman was drafted by Essendon while milking cows on a dairy farm in Tasmania. McAlister would go on to play six matches with the Bombers before having stints at Wodonga Raiders, Albury and Osborne. The Osborne premiership coach caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: You were born in New Zealand and are of Maori descent. You must be proud to be one of a handful of Maori Australians to play VFL/AFL?
DANIEL McALISTER: Absolutely. I probably didn't realise it at the time but I'm proud to be able to represent my culture in a sport that is foreign to my country. Obviously in New Zealand rugby union is the predominant sport followed by rugby league. My family and relatives used to watch AFL on pay TV whenever they could after I got drafted to Essendon.
BG: You grew up playing rugby league and rugby union in New Zealand before you emigrated to Tasmania with your family when you were 12?
DM: We emigrated in 1990 and it's fair to say that I didn't know much about Australian Rules back then.
BG: You first got involved in Australian Rules as a boundary umpire?
DM: My parents wouldn't let me play because the under-16s was the youngest junior competition in Tasmania and they didn't want me to get hurt. I still wanted to be involved in the local football club and the only thing my parents would let me do was be a boundary umpire. It wasn't unusual for me to do two or three matches on a Saturday and I think I used to get paid $20 from memory which I thought was unreal at the time.
BG: When did you start playing football?
DM: It wasn't until I turned 15 that my parents let me pull on a guernsey and have a run around.
BG: You must have been a natural to pick-up the skills considering your age?
DM: When I was umpiring, my parents used to let me train but not play so I picked-up a lot of the skills at footy training. I lived next to the local football oval and nearly every day I would be down there practising.
BG: Were there any skills in particular that you found hardest to learn?
DM: It did take me a while to learn how to kick because in rugby you kick around a corner more. Learning to hold and kick the ball like they do in Australian Rules did take a fair bit to get used to. Handball was also foreign to me because I had become accustomed to flicking out a pass.
BG: I've obviously watched you play a lot of football and you are very adept at kicking on both sides of your body?
DM: I had a bit of a dodgy right knee when I was growing up and for a year or two when I was having a kick I always used to kick on my left foot. I think that was one of the skills that helped me get drafted because recruiters find that appealing.
BG: You were obviously a quick learner and a talented junior who played state football for Tasmania and TAC Cup for Tassie Mariners?
DM: I just loved sport as a kid and was passionate about most sports. I made the state softball team one year and we went away to Adelaide. There was the Tasmania Institute of Sport pathways where I was playing rugby league in the men's competition with my father and some other relatives. The main reason I chose to play Tassie Mariners was because I had some school mates playing in the side and I wanted to play with them.
BG: You obviously made a good impression with the Mariners and were taken by Essendon with pick 5 in the 1996 AFL draft. Were you surprised at the time to go so high?
DM: I was because I wasn't totally invested in getting drafted. I had moved to Hobart to play with the Mariners but I was satisfied with that and was proud of that achievement.
BG: You had started a dairy apprenticeship at the time and thought that was your future career?
DM: I was two years into my apprenticeship and had a great boss. I was keen to stay in the industry and didn't really dream that I would be drafted.
BG: Did you tune into the draft that year?
DM: I was on the farm milking cows and my boss came up to me and said 'congratulations Daniel, you have been drafted by Essendon.' That was how I found out.
BG: So you were shocked to get drafted?
DM: It was a life changing experience. I very quickly became the talk of the town but I was filled with anxiety about the change. I thought I was destined to be a dairy farmer and then all of a sudden I'm off to Melbourne where I knew nobody which was a scary experience for me.
BG: You did adapt to your new surroundings and made your AFL debut with two rounds remaining in 1997 a day after your 19th birthday?
DM: I was named as an emergency on the Thursday night and we were playing Brisbane in Brisbane and I was planning what to do to celebrate my birthday after the boys had finished playing. I never thought I would get the call up.
BG: Did Kevin Sheedy tell you that you were in the side?
DM: I remember I was rooming with Mark Mercuri and we were catching the bus to the ground. I went to get on the bus and he said 'where's your footy bag? Gary Moorcroft is a late withdrawal and you are playing now.'
BG: No doubt a shock at the time?
DM: I went from thinking about my party after the match to playing. It was the best present I could have hoped for.
BG: What are your memories of your debut?
DM: I got a bit of game time and it was certainly an eye-opener stepping-up from the reserves to playing against Brisbane Lions who were just starting to emerge as the powerhouse of the competition.
BG: You play again the following week but then spend four years on the list without playing another senior match?
DM: Essendon were genuine flag contenders at the time and lost the 1999 preliminary final to Carlton before making amends the following year against Melbourne. I was competing for a spot in the side against the guys the ilk of Chris Heffernan, Justin Blumfield and Blake Caracella who all went on to have fantastic careers at Windy Hill and are premiership heroes.
BG: In 2001 you were delisted by the Bombers only to be re-drafted?
DM: I wanted to follow Bomber Thompson to Geelong. So the deal was Essendon had to delist me and if Geelong weren't able to secure me in the draft, Essendon would redraft me. It was getting late in the draft and Geelong missed out on a few of their earlier selections and decided against drafting me, so Essendon redrafted me with pick 64.
BG: You end up playing a further four AFL matches for a total of six before being delisted for a second time at the end of 2002?
DM: In my last season in 2002 I played three matches which was the same I had played in the previous five years. I finally got to string a few games together but I knew the writing was on the wall and my wife Jo and I had started making plans that we would move back to Albury if I got delisted which was the case.
BG: How do you look back on your time in the AFL?
DM: I was probably fortunate I was on the list for six-years considering the amount of matches I played.
BG: Do you feel you could have played more matches at another club considering the Bombers made the preliminary final in 1999 and the grand final the following two years?
DM: It would be easy to say yes but the facts are Essendon was a team that I wasn't good enough to get a game with at the time. It was frustrating because when I was playing well there seemed to be a full-list to choose from with no injuries. But when I was injured there would be spots up for grabs and I would miss out. But I still look back fondly at my time at Windy Hill.
BG: During your time at Essendon you married your wife, Jo, and Dean Rioli was your best man?
DM: We got married in 2001 and had the ceremony at St Patrick's Church in Albury. Dean was my best man and we got married on the Friday and spent the rest of the weekend celebrating.
BG: You had some high-profile teammates as guests including Michael Long, Che Cockatoo Collins, Blake Caracella, Paul Barnard and Dustin Fletcher?
DM: There was a young Jack Ziebell there as well, I think he was only 11 at the time. Jo and I are good friends with his parents who were also at the wedding.
BG: Once you were delisted, Wodonga Raiders and Albury were the frontrunners to recruit you?
DM: They were really the only two clubs I spoke to. My wife Jo had been involved with Albury growing up and Tom Doolan was playing for Wodonga Raiders and was the only real connection I had there.
BG: You sign with Wodonga Raiders, any particular reason?
DM: The Raiders were able to get me a building apprenticeship which I was keen to pursue as a career.
BG: You only spent one season at Birallee Park where you finish third in the best and fairest before crossing to Albury. What led to your decision?
DM: The short version is that the job wasn't what I had hoped for so I backflipped on my decision after a season and joined Albury.
BG: No doubt a controversial decision at the time?
DM: Obviously the Raiders weren't too happy with me and probably the biggest regret looking back is I wasn't as honest as I could have been. I sort of made my decision to join Albury and buried my head in the sand because I did feel guilty that I had let some good people down at Raiders. The biggest lesson I learnt was if you make a decision you man up and you own it.
BG: There were all sorts of rumours floating around at the time that you signed up for Albury because you got an offer you simply couldn't refuse?
DM: I heard the rumours and that I was given either a block of land, a pergola or a swimming pool or all three for signing, depending on who you listened to. But I can honestly say that I went to Albury for less than I was on at Raiders. I based my decision on what I thought was best for my family at the time.
BG: Were you one of the first Tigers that was employed by Colin Joss?
DM: I didn't work for Joss until I finished my apprenticeship in 2008 I think it was from memory. My decision to join Albury was based on a football decision, not a career decision.
BG: What was it like playing against Raiders for the first time?
DM: To say I was anxious would be a massive understatement. Not for my safety but it was the first time I had seen the Raiders' guys again and I had developed a strong bond with most of them the previous year. Blokes like Brendan Way and Nic Conway who I should have told to their faces about my decision to leave Birallee Park at the time but I chose not to.
BG: As controversial as the decision was to leave Birallee Park, you made the right choice after you spent seven seasons at the sportsground?
DM: When I first joined Albury it was coming off a wooden spoon and from 2004-08 the club really struggled for success. The highlight during that time would have been the development of the kids like Luke Packer and Luke Daly.
BG: No doubt the lowlight of your time at the sportsground would have been missing the 2009 flag after doing your knee late the previous season?
DM: I ruptured my ACL in the second last match of 2008 and I was certainly bitter at the time to miss the flag in 2009. I thought I was entitled to a game because I had been through the lean times and wanted to be part of the success. But looking back my form didn't warrant a game and Paul Spargo made the right decision.
BG: You struggled to recapture your form in 2009 after undergoing surgery for your knee?
DM: I was getting cortisone injections each week to deal with the pain, basically I could only run in a straight line and I couldn't jump so it was a struggle.
BG: You verbally agreed to coach Osborne in 2010 before backflipping on your decision?
DM: I told Gary O'Connell I would coach Osborne and then I went to tell Spargo about my decision. Spargo being Spargo convinced me that I had another year of O&M in me. I rate Spargo is the best motivator and speaker I've ever encountered and it's almost like he hypnotises you when you listen to him speak. I reckon he took 30 seconds to convince me to stay at the sportsground. It was a difficult phone call to make to tell Gary I was staying at Albury.
BG: In 2011 you signed as coach of Osborne. How many years did former president Gary O'Connell chase you for before you finally signed?
DM: I lived across the street from his daughter for six years before I signed with Osborne and he was on my case the whole time. Lets just say Gary is persistent and rarely takes no for an answer.
BG: One of your first recruits at Osborne was Dean Rioli?
DM: 'Deano' did sign but unfortunately he didn't play a match with his family commitments in Melbourne.
BG: Winning an elusive flag with Osborne in 2012 must rank as one of your career highlights?
DM: It's right up there, especially after the pain of missing out with Albury in 2009. There are no premiership reunions for me at Albury which is a hollow feeling. It was also the testimonial year for GT (O'Connell) that year and to have the ultimate success was a fitting tribute. We went into the match as underdogs after Henty beat us convincingly late in the season and again in the second semi-final.
BG: You were emotional after the final siren?
DM: I just remember crying tears of joy, it meant so much to finally win a flag.
BG: You coached Osborne for five years, did you ever get sick of the travel factor?
DM: Not one bit to be honest. I was working away at the time and I knew it was part of the job. Some Thursday nights we would finish team selection at 9pm and I would drive to West Wyalong which was two hours drive but it didn't worry me.
BG: Can you see yourself coaching again in the future?
DM: I would love to coach again at some point. Coaching has its challenges but it's something I thrive on. I wouldn't coach in the Hume league against Osborne because it wouldn't feel right. Certainly the TDFL appeals to me because it's a fantastic league with great players and supporters. In regards to O&M, I don't have too much interest and could only see myself being involved with Albury if an opportunity came about.
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