This week’s 150-game milestone man Willie Wheeler has played in the Hard Yakka / Totally Workwear VFL for much longer than he expected to when he first came to Melbourne from country Victoria.
The 26-year-old Williamstown midfielder arrived at Coburg in 2011 after missing out on being drafted from the Murray Bushrangers the previous year. He played 33 senior VFL games and won a best-and-fairest award in 2012 with the Lions – then aligned with Richmond’s AFL team – before crossing to Point Gellibrand in 2013.
Wheeler has since played 116 matches for the Seagulls, winning a premiership medal in 2015, the club’s best-and-fairest award in 2016 and VFL Team of the Year selection in 2016-17.
150th VFL match coming up for Williamstown’s Willie Wheeler, one of the league’s most courageous and consistent midfielders. Won the Towners’ best and fairest in 2016, played in their premiership in 2015, represented the VFL, is a Willy life member. We could go on. He’s a star.
— Paul Amy (@PaulAmy375) June 10, 2019
Renowned for his uncompromising attack on the ball and opposition, the Williamstown life member said his time in the VFL had “at times felt like a long career and then a short career in another sense”.
“I definitely had that goal of trying to be drafted (in 2011) and thought… I could drive that hour down to (Coburg) training (from Avenel, north of Melbourne) and sort of see where it went from there,” Wheeler said on Tuesday’s SEN VFL Show. “I was going to give it a crack for four or five years.
“(Early on) I had a bit of a thought that I might head over to WA or head back to the country. I’m a pretty sort of country guy, but as soon as I came down I enjoyed playing the high standard of footy that the VFL brings and the challenge you get week to week.
“The draft goal didn’t happen, but I just learnt that there’s a lot of good fellas who have the same challenges of going to work and having a crack against great opposition (on the weekend). That’s been a lot of fun.”
VFL midfielder Willie Wheeler was a special guest on SEN last night.
Hear him speak from the 16-minute mark about his football journey on route to his 150th VFL match this weekend.
— Williamstown FC (@WilliamstownFC) June 12, 2019
Wheeler pointed to the Seagulls’ 2015 flag triumph as the on-field highlight of his VFL career but said the connections he’d made with those involved in the competition meant the most to him.
When he was considering returning home or moving interstate, it was the club community that made Williamstown “a pretty hard spot to leave”.
“(The premiership) was a great thing to achieve, but really (the highlight is) just the people that you meet through the club,” Wheeler said.
“You have to have decent qualities to hang around (a VFL club) I think, because there’s a lot of local (club) attention (and you can be offered) money or less training loads. You do meet quality people and that’s probably the highlight – being able to come out the back of it (career) with a lot of quality mateships.”
After battling with persistent osteitis pubis during the 2018 season, a “fighting fit” Wheeler has played all nine matches for the fourth-placed Seagulls in 2019. He’s averaging 21 disposals as well as team-highs of 12 contested possessions, seven tackles, seven clearances and five inside-50s per game.
Perhaps appropriately, he’ll bring up his milestone in a clash with traditional nemesis and current top-two team Port Melbourne at Adcon Stadium on Sunday – a match to be broadcast live on Channel 7 from 2pm, with both teams wearing special heritage guernseys for the latest instalment of their storied rivalry.
JOHNSON-CALLAHAN CUP –
L-R in image: Port legends Greg Dermott, Jason Love & Frank Johnson Jnr, Murray Newton (Port of Melbourne), @WilliamstownFC legends Saade Ghazi & Kim Kershaw helping launch this Sunday's blockbuster.#BornAndBred pic.twitter.com/QoWRkJqXjs
— Port Melbourne FC (@PortMelbourneFC) June 13, 2019
Along with the likes of midfield teammates and fellow Murray Bushrangers graduates Nick Mellington and Sam Martyn, the self-proclaimed “country guy” is looking forward to the tough type of game style he’s likely to encounter against the Borough.
“(Clashes with Port Melbourne) have been a lot of fun over the years,” Wheeler said. “No matter how we’re going or what sort of form we’re in, there’s always a fair bit on the plate when you’re playing Port.
“They’re a good bunch of guys, but on the field you like to hate them. It’s always a challenge and I look forward to playing them at Port (Adcon Stadium) as well – it sort of makes for a scrappy contest, which we enjoy.”