A Pup no more, Shiels a front runner for top dog

Liam Shiels sits courtside at the Oakleigh Recreation Centre having just wrapped up his hosting duties for the fortnightly HawksTV web-show, ‘Ultimate Athlete’, in which his two close mates and premiership comrades, Luke Breust and Matt Suckling, have just faced off for basketball bragging rights.

At one end of the court, Jarryd Roughead exchanges three-pointers with ever-comical NBL legend, Andrew Gaze, showing him up too, as he lands eight of nine shots while Gaze manages only six.

At the other, Breust and Suckling typify their weightless enthusiasm as they challenge each other with between-the-legs lay-ups and ridiculously impossible shots from behind the back of this suburban back board (one of which Breust manages to sink through the net, to the disbelief of Suckling,).

And then there is possibly the greatest player of this modern Hawthorn dynasty, captain and dual Norm Smith medallist, Luke Hodge, sitting not too much further down the tiered timber seating, in an area normally reserved for weekend-warrior parents, as he readies his gear to leave having filled his cup of basketball fun.

It is more than likely that the selflessness, discipline and composure Shiels shows in taking time out of his fun filled surroundings to sit and talk all things shop, are the qualities which have him hailed as a frontrunner to be crowned Hawthorn’s next captain.

Hand picked to lead the side in the preseason opener against Collingwood in the absence of Hawthorn’s eldest statesmen, it was an experience Shiels relished.

“Yeah I loved it. I learnt a lot from it, it’s just a pity we couldn’t get the result,” he says, forced to fend off a rare Roughead miss that has rebounded his way.

Shiels has been dubbed a serious candidate to take the reigns full-time, both in and out of the inner-sanctum, once Hawks fans’ beloved warrior, Luke Hodge, calls time on his illustrious career.

Hawthorn’s General Manager of Football Operations, Chris Fagan, acknowledged Shiels’ expected leadership rise over the next year or two in the review of his 2014 season, and it doesn’t take long to realise why this nuggetty midfielder is so highly touted.

Uncompromising on the field, it is Shiels’ modesty and determination to maintain level-headedness off it that smacks ‘Captaincy Material’ right in this reporter’s face. Well, as much as such admirably docile qualities can ‘smack’ anything.

“All you really have to do is toss the coin and speak before the game and half time and all the other work is done during the week. I had some good feedback from it, but I’ve still got plenty to learn,” he says of his taste of the top role.

Plucked in the 2008 draft at pick 34, the Eastern Ranges product was the youngest player selected, qualifying by a mere two days. He arrived at the club a blonde-tipped, fluffy-haired seventeen year old, completing Year 12 at Aquinas College while managing 11 senior games in a debut season in which he was expected to play none.

Fondly known as ‘Pup’ (the nickname coach Alastair Clarkson whacked him with during his first few days at Hawthorn because of the then Michael Clarke-esque blonde tips) Shiels is eager to credit those who have helped guide him, especially in his early stages.

As he pays tribute to the recently retired Brad Sewell, his smile swells with pride and admiration. Sewell was a mentor to Shiels in his early years, and Shiels recalls Sewell’s emotion-filled farewell speech at last year’s best and fairest awards as “one of the better things you’ll listen to.”

Determined as he describes the premiership defence ahead, yet disciplined in reigning in expectations, Shiels knows that a third straight premiership is within the Hawks’ grasp.

More comfortable talking about the strengths and achievements of those around him rather than flattering himself, this keen fisherman can only laugh as he struggles to find a diplomatic response to the question of how he feels his teammates view Liam Shiels the player.

The stars align (in more ways than one), as an exiting Luke Hodge, his gear bag hanging over one shoulder, leans in to provide Shiels the lifeline.

“He’s hard working, he’s honest and he puts his head over the ball whenever he can. It’s all you want from your teammate.”

It’s a champion captain’s glowing approval of his possible successor. Liam Shiels will have big shoes to fill – so perhaps it’s a good thing that Hodge isn’t going anywhere, just yet.

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