Mutaz El Nour drives the Bullants into attack during the club’s one-point win over Coburg. Photo: Nathan McNeill (Nathan William Media).

Written by: Daniel Kelly (@Ukurrie).

It’s a bleak lockdown evening in Melbourne and Mutaz El Nour has been out bricklaying all day.

You’d forgive him for wanting a quiet night to take a break, even if it is unwanted, from thinking about football whilst the VFL is on another Covid-19 enforced break.

But the 19 year old is all smiles, in his Bullants jumper, and giving the impression there is nothing he’d rather be doing than telling his story.

And it’s a story which starts in rural Sudan, with Mutaz aged four, and a decision by his parents to leave his country of birth for Australia.

“With all the wars which were happening between South Sudan and North Sudan, they just wanted us kids to have a better life,” he said.

The El Nour’s had family in Canada but they eventually settled in Sunshine in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

After a few years, Mutaz’s passion for football was born, even if it was wrapped within the age old cloak of sibling rivalry directed towards his older brother.

“I used to copy him in everything, ” El Nour says with a grin. “So, I was like ‘I want to try and play football too’.”

“I played up until Under-10s, but I didn’t really like it so I gave up for two years, but then started up again when my mates started to play a few years later.”

Mutaz’s club football journey began with Deer Park and he would later go on to represent the St Albans, Hillside and Caroline Springs football clubs, seeking out the best opportunities to chase his dream.

Today, Bullants supporters know El Nour as a 192cm (six foot, four inches) tall, athletic, intercept marking backman. But if you have in your imagination a young, lanky, El Nour performing a similar role in junior football, you’d be wrong.

“As a kid growing up I was in the midfield. I actually hit a growth spurt in the last two or three years” he said, which helps explain his unique, but effective, marking style today.

Not for the first time in our discussion, El Nour shows a level of pragmatic self-awareness which, acknowledged regularly throughout his young career, allowed him to find other avenues to achieving his dreams instead of being embittered by rejection.

“I did enjoy the midfield but as you grow up you see that there are so many better midfielders, and then I found the backline as my preferred position and where I play my best footy.”

One of his earliest footballing heroes was West Coast Eagles ruckman Nic Naitanui, whose ability to win the ruck contest and double as a rover at ground level is a considerable threat.

“I actually used to go for West Coast, because I looked up to Nic Nat,” he said.

“At about 17, I moved on to the wing, then across half back, and then in my 18s year, that is when I played in the ruck, and played like an extra midfielder in the ruck.”

“I struggled up against the bigger bodies, but around the ground I loved it because I was far quicker than most ruckmen.”

El Nour’s initial infatuation with Naitanui eventually moved to someone with a more relatable story.

“I also really looked up to Majak Daw, so I ended up going for North,” he said.

“Daw is someone I continue to look up since I was young – seeing the way he goes about football and being the first Sudanese born AFL footballer.”

“Obviously, seeing what Majak has gone through and how he has come back – it’s unbelievable.”

The rise of Daw came at an important time for El Nour as it coincided with the Sudanese community being debated critically in the media.

“As a Sudanese Australian living in Melbourne it was very difficult – especially during those times,” El Nour said.

“Obviously a portion of Sudanese teenagers weren’t making a good name for us. In saying that, the media certainly didn’t help with our background getting shown on social media almost daily.”

“At times, I really did have to almost act differently and watch what I would say or do or else it’ll take another hit on my Sudanese culture and community.”

“Simple things like going to the shops – I’d be getting followed by security guards like I was going to steal something and I was getting treated differently.”

“Hopefully we do see more Sudanese in the AFL and following in the footsteps of players such as Daw, Aliir Aliir, Mabior Chol, Changkuoth Jiath and Buku Khamis.”

Thankfully, El Nour has not been subjected to the amount of racial abuse on the field that was common in previous eras, although it’s clear society still has work to do if Mutaz feels lucky to have only been subjected to infrequent comments.

“I’ve actually had it pretty good, I haven’t much,” he said. “But I reckon the AFL are on top of it.”

Despite making the developmental Western Jets Under 16 squad, El Nour wasn’t selected in the next stage of representative squad and he admits that it dented his passion for the game.

“Getting cut from that squad made me wonder whether it is worth it,” he said.

“I didn’t really care that much (about football), I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play football as a proper job or anything like that.”

“But then, seeing all my mates going through all those programs, playing outside of school, made me very hungry to get to their level.”

Showing that no doors are ever fully closed, El Nour is now back in the Western Jets Under-18 squad, as an overage player, meaning he can represent them during a bye in the VFL or should he lose form for the Bullants.

Through the high standards at the Western Jets, which led on to a year at the Western Bulldogs Next Generation Academy, El Nour started to add the tools which turn raw talent into consistent elite output.

“We used to do clinics and little camps during the school holidays (at the Next Generation Academy),” he said. “They would monitor us, get to know our habits – like the gym, checking on our diet. Even just little things like being on time,” he said.

“I enjoyed it so much, seeing what it takes to get to the next level.”

The experience of the Next Generation Academy only solidified an existing relationship with Buku Khamis whom El Nour has known since he was 13. El Nour has remained firm friends with Khamis who made his Bulldogs debut this season.

Taking his learnings from the Jets and Bulldogs, El Nour then made his way to the Collingwood VFL list before Covid-19 curtailed the second tier competition in 2020 and he was only able to make one pre-season appearance.

He wasn’t retained on the Magpies’ list but El Nour took the opportunity to learn from the experience and asked for advice in how to pursue his VFL future. It was recommended he consider a standalone club for a more stable environment.

“You’ll get much more games at a standalone club, than an AFL affiliated one,” El Nour was advised by the coaching staff at Collingwood, and he immediately understood the benefits.

“You could be playing your best footy (at an AFL affiliated club) but an AFL player comes back from injury and your spot is gone.” El Nour said.

Mutaz’s coach at Caroline Springs, former Fremantle and Collingwood AFL player Brodie Holland, backed up those sentiments. Holland then used his Collingwood connection with Bullants coach Josh Fraser and suggested El Nour attend pre-season training in the summer of late 2020.

“He helped me get a pre-season there but the rest was up to me,” El Nour said.

El Nour, with his athleticism, skill and enthusiasm made an impression even though he had joined the pre-season group late.

Encouraging words from Fraser drove Mutaz on and he doubled his efforts to catch up with the established group and eventually his persistence paid off.

On the Thursday night before the round six encounter with Werribee, El Nour was preparing for training with his local side, Caroline Springs, when his phone rang.

“I went down to local training (at Caroline Springs) and received a call from Josh Fraser and (backline coach) Paul Dunn and they said ‘You’re in this week'”. The big smile is back as Mutaz remembers the moment.

“Perfect. I’ll take it!” he said his response was, as if there was any doubt.

“I was very excited. At the time I was not nervous at all because I thought I was ready, and just really happy because of what has gone on over the past few years – like getting cut from the Western Jets – to finally get my debut,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have thought I would be playing VFL footy three years ago.”

El Nour carried the self-belief, walking on air, through to game day morning, and to the ground, until the weight of the moment finally hit him.

“The nerves kicked in big time. The game was on Kayo and there was a pretty big crowd – I don’t think I have played in front of a crowd that big before.”

His Bullants teammates soon rallied around and made him feel at home.

“All the boys just came up to me saying ‘It’s your first game, just back yourself, you deserve to be at this level'”.

Mutaz couldn’t have predicted how busy he would be in the Bullants backline that day as the team were behind 67 to seven at quarter time.

“I was a bit down on myself. The first few contests I thought were fine, but as I kept going during that quarter I felt I was losing some contests.”

Backline coach Paul Dunn was supportive during the break though and encouraged El Nour and his teammates to continue working.

On that day, the Bullants would not recover, but that was not down to El Nour, although he did face a nervous wait the following week to know if he would be selected again or not.

“I just thought if I get another game it is meant to be, if I don’t, then it is not meant to be,” as he stuck to his routine at training.

His position was never in doubt though, and after a few more solid performances – particularly the famous victory over Carlton – El Nour realised he belonged at VFL level.

“I took ownership and said I want to play on (Carlton forward) Benny Crocker, and I thought I did my job that day,” he said.

Indeed, El Nour held Crocker to two goals from six possessions and with less than half the marks the Carlton forward averages on a weekly basis, whilst Mutaz rebounded himself with eight possessions himself on the way to a historic win.

Whilst impressively agile and physical at the ground level, El Nour’s trademark is intercept marking, and it is something which the coaching staff want him to embrace.

“I reckon I play my best footy up in the air,” he said.

“In my first few games, I was always unsure whether I should go for it or punch it, but then the boys told me to back myself. I took one mark, and then another, and that’s when the confidence really kicks in. Now I just go for everything I can.”

El Nour has become a permanent fixture on the final line of defence alongside Doug Lawrence and Ben Silvagni.

As a triumvirate, they possess physicality, technique and athleticism which builds a great platform for the Bullants to build from. That they have been able to a relationship despite El Nour joining 4 games into the season is a credit to them all.

Silvagni and Lawrence, help by talking El Nour through games.

“Especially Doug, he’s the main one,” El Nour says a little in jest with a smile, but mostly in grudging appreciation.

Being a regular within the second tier football competition in Australia is something which brings El Nour great pride, but it counts for little within his family group where he is still seen as the middle child amongst six other siblings.

“My parents aren’t real big on footy,” El Nour says with a chuckle.

“So they don’t know much about what this (the VFL) level is at the moment.”

But that hasn’t been a sign of a lack of support.

“They’ve said if this is what you want to do, then 100 per cent go for it. So, they are really supportive on that side.”

El Nour harbours hopes of making the step up to the AFL in the coming years. He has youth, and a raw ability which has caught the attention of at least one team and they have encouraged him to continue to hone his game.

The energy and x-factor he brings to the backline is something that is not only effective, but also brings fans to the Preston City Oval to watch.

Like his parents, El Nour has repeatedly shown an awareness of his surroundings, his role in them, and how to identify his opportunities when doors seemingly close in front of him.

With that kind of resilience, it would be brave to judge where El Nour’s potential ceiling lies as his story, so far, has not been linear or predictable.

And you get the impression that is just the way Mutaz likes it.