‘What are you doing mate, you're setting me up!'
Max Holmes suddenly breaks into a big hearty laugh. He’s one of those people who when he laughs, his whole face lights up, and everyone in the room laughs along with him.
The 21-year-old keeps a relatively low profile in the AFL world but he’s also that rare character who through no fault of his own has found himself in the odd story that lights up social media and radio talk-back alike across the football world for 24 hours.
First, it was the unfortunately timed hamstring injury of the 2022 preliminary final that led him to miss the 2022 premiership decider and then there was the time teammate Patrick Dangerfield suggested the young speedster had ‘Judd-like traits’, referring of course to two-time Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd.
The young midfielder’s face lit up when reminded about it.
“At the time, I had people sending me the link, and I was like, oh... are you kidding me Pat?’, he laughed.
“But he was really positive with it and said, I back you in, and I want to see you go well.
“So yeah, it is a confidence booster when someone like that says such positive things about you, but yeah, it’s a bit of an outrageous call, probably.”
Holmes, now entering his fourth season in the system and coming off his best year yet, posting career highs in disposals, tackles, clearances, and inside 50s, while being rated elite for contested possesions, clearances, and pressure by Champion Data.
Holmes, in more ways than one, is a player in a hurry.
His track and field background has been talked about at length, but what Dangerfield said was right; Holmes does have that rare combination of endurance and speed, but the speed is something you have to see in person to appreciate it. Not unlike the skipper himself where TV doesn’t do his power justice, so it goes with Holmes, from the stands, it's electric to watch.
The Cats traded a first round pick to secure him back in 2020, which in hindsight looks like a shrewd move, but even more so when you re-read what was being said about him in the lead up to the draft.
Holmes’ draft profile framed him as a ‘rookie-type prospect’ and a ‘project player’.
“It's a weird one because to be fair, I hadn’t played much footy’, he said.
“I think I had a bit of confidence that I could come in and play... [But] I don't think I expected it either, I was more hoping, first year, to go as well as I can and second year, really crack into it. So, it was probably a fair assumption at that stage, no one had really heard of me so, yeah, things have changed a bit, I guess.”
Changed they have, and as the Cats looked to rebound from a season in which they missed finals for the first time since 2015, in a team still loaded with talent and experience, the young Holmes could emerge as a key cog in a Geelong resurgence.
But to be clear, it hasn’t been a straightforward trajectory, there have been setbacks, but he says he has been eager to learn from each.
Holmes ended up playing 12 games total in his first season, including an early debut against the old enemy, Hawthorn on Easter Monday, but he got a jolt at the end of the home and away season when, despite playing what he thought was his best game, was left out of the team for the first week of finals.
“At that stage I'd played my best game yet, I'd played like eight games, and I'd played my best game yet and I'd been dropped because Mitch Duncan was coming back from injury which was completely fair,” he recalled.
“But it keeps you grounded and then especially going forward into 2022 we had so many people in the VFL side going so well that it was keeping everyone on their toes and really demanding that the blokes playing in the team were going well.
“So those setbacks are positive, and hopefully it serves me well going forward.”
An offseason working on his kicking and contest work, among other things, has Holmes excitedly looking ahead to season 2024, but as to exactly where he lines up he says it's too early to know for sure, but he hopes to eventually be able to impact games from the midfield consistently.
“I think I can definitely start to insert myself into the midfield more and I think at this rate I'm quite comfortable on the wing and I feel pretty confident in my abilities on the wing," he said.
“So at this stage it's just really nailing down that inside role and working on it every week and hopefully some stage I can start to become a staple in the midfield for the team but at this stage, we'll see what happens.”
But one thing is very clear: he just can’t wait to pull on the Hoops and get out there and play.
“It’s exciting each week doing more and more match sim and getting more and more into it so it'll be nice to get into our first praccy game, so that'll be fun.
“But yeah, can't wait to get stuck into it and get the season going. It's been a long time.”