The arrival at Werribee of two of the AFL’s foremost football minds in recent times helped spark Tom Gribble’s barnstorming 2019 J.J. Liston Trophy-winning season.
The prolific on-baller claimed the Hard Yakka / Totally Workwear VFL’s highest individual honour at Monday’s VFL Best & Fairest Night by a margin of eight votes, polling in 13 of his 18 home-and-away games for a final tally of 25.
* CLICK HERE for more details on the 2019 J.J. Liston Trophy count and full voting.
After receiving just four votes during a 2018 campaign that still ended with VFL Team of the Year selection, 24-year-old Gribble clearly changed his game enough this year for umpires to pay extra attention to his impact on results for the fifth-placed Tigers.
Enter new Werribee senior coach Mark ‘Choco’ Williams and the club’s star midfield recruit Michael Barlow.
Williams – Port Adelaide’s 2004 AFL premiership coach – and Barlow – a 141-game player at Fremantle and Gold Coast – have helped drive Gribble to another level with his football in 2019.
But this new era at Avalon Airport Oval didn’t start exactly as he would have liked.
When Williams presented a potential Round 1 team to his playing group six weeks out from the season commencing, 92-gamer Gribble wasn’t in it.
“It stung me, because I did think I had a reasonable year last year and I’m six years into my time at Werribee,” Gribble said following his Liston Trophy triumph. “I was down in the dumps for a week and I was pretty pissed off, but it certainly sparked me.
“I was probably cruising through pre-season. I was just battling a bit with the change of coach and I’d just started full-time work, so those challenges were coming into my mindset.
“It didn’t knock my confidence; it was just about proving to him (Williams) that I was invested – that’s all he wanted from me.
“We had a mid-year review and he said: ‘Since that (potential) Round 1 team, you’ve responded tremendously and you’re playing great footy,’ and I think I’ve continued to get better throughout the year.”
A night to remember 🖤 💛
Prolific Werribee midfielder Tom Gribble blitzed the field to claim the coveted J. J. Liston Trophy, capping off a special night for the club at the 2019 VFL Best & Fairest.
— Werribee FC (@WerribeeFC) September 10, 2019
Gribble jointly led the VFL for total disposals during the 2019 home-and-away season, averaging 30 touches per game as well as 15 contested possessions, seven clearances, five tackles and five inside-50s.
The ball-winning ability of the Geelong Falcons product isn’t dissimilar to that of Barlow, who returned to the Tigers this season after being drafted from the club in 2009.
“(Barlow’s influence has been) massive,” Gribble said. “Not only with his (midfield) craft and knowledge, but also it helps that the (opposition’s) focus does go to Mick a lot of the time.
“He’s just a massive ball-winner and can do it inside (the contest) and out. We’ve developed a nice combination in there.”
Gribble said the combined influence of Williams, Barlow and other key figures at Werribee had elevated him from “a good player to a really good player”.
“I think I’ve just got a good mix of when to kick and when to handball (now), Gribble said. “I think I’ve over-handballed in the past and I probably didn’t trust my skills enough back then.
“‘Choco’ has a real focus on kicking and (assistant coach) Nick Daffy as well, just challenging my decision-making with my kicking – instead of looking for the short perfect ones, maybe just kicking it longer to contests sometimes. That’s probably the real area I’ve improved in.
“I think if you kick the ball more, you probably get noticed a bit more.”
Gribble hasn’t missed a match for the Tigers across the last three seasons, having overcome serious ankle issues that caused him to miss the entirety of 2015 and all while managing type 1 diabetes that can cause difficulties across the course of a game.
Such durability reinforces his own belief that he could follow the path of last year’s joint Liston Trophy winner Michael Gibbons onto an AFL list, but fresh off Werribee’s heartbreaking semi-final loss to Essendon, Gribble’s focus isn’t shifting from team success.
“Getting drafted doesn’t enter my mind at all,” he said. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to, and nor do I think I shouldn’t be.
“I think I go out weekly and match it with AFL players and beat AFL players. I’m still young and I’ve been durable apart from the year that I missed, so I’m ready to go – and getting into a full-time environment, I think I’d keep improving.
“I have the belief that I could get there, but unfortunately you can only do what you can control and that’s what I focus on. I’m carving out a reasonable VFL career and that’s OK with me.”
Listen to Tom speak on the VFL Hour from Tuesday night on SEN: