Paul Ahern sends the ball long. Photo: Nathan McNeill (Nathan William Media).
Article written by Daniel Kelly for northernbullantsfc.com.au
The creation story of Paul Ahern’s people, the Gunaikurnai, who are the traditional owners of what is now Gippsland, follows that a pelican descended from the nearby mountains with his canoe seeking new lands and opportunity.
His name was Borun and he was the first of his nation to view the forest, inlets, rivers and ocean in the area.
At Sale, as we know it today, Borun crossed a river and continued his journey to Tarra Warrackel, modernly known as Port Albert. Borun had taken to carrying his canoe upon his head throughout his searching and had occasionally heard a tapping sound.
Try as he might, Borun could not identify the source of the knocking.
Eventually, Borun reached very deep water at a local inlet and lowered his canoe into the water to traverse it. To his surprise, he found a female musk duck, named Tuk.
Borun and Tuk became inseparable and stayed in the lands of present-day Gippsland for evermore, and from them all Gunaikurnai people flow, including Paul’s maternal grandmother.
Whilst Paul’s childhood was in Oak Park, not too far from Preston City Oval, his connection to country is still strong despite the 400 odd kilometres between him and his mother’s home town of Orbost, in Gunaikurnai land.
And it is Paul’s mother who ensured that her sons appreciated their distinct heritage.
“She was always really passionate,” the elite Bullants midfielder remembers.
“She was getting us to learn culture from a young age. We always used to go to the marches on NAIDOC week. I’ve been doing that since I was four or five years old.
A top draft pick in 2014 with plenty of great footy still to come.
— Northern Bullants FC (@NBullantsFC) February 19, 2021
“Learning the history of Aboriginal people and understanding the meaning of it,” Ahern continued “and getting together with family, and being proud about it.”
Even from a young age, football gave Ahern a valuable conduit to connect with other Indigenous kids and build friendships, drawing affinity from their shared – positive and negative – experiences.
“I always felt a really strong connection, through footy and school, with other Indigenous kids,” Ahern said.
“I don’t know what it is, but I always felt a bit closer to those people. It’s a bit hard to explain, but you kind of just naturally drift to them more than you would with non-Indigenous boys.”
This continued through to Paul’s time with North Melbourne in the AFL between 2016 and 2020.
“Some of my closest mates from North Melbourne are the Indigenous boys like Jy Simpkin, Jed Anderson and Tarryn Thomas.”
Being a childhood Richmond fan, Ahern’s idol was – unsurprisingly – Matthew Richardson, but he had a great appreciation for Andrew Krakouer as well.
“He was really talented and did some special things.”
Ahern’s age makes him a perfect candidate to observe the growth of the AFL’s Indigenous Round, from the early incarnations of Dreamtime at the ‘G in 2005, through to the dedicated round involving all teams in 2007, to its naming after the great Sir Doug Nicholls and now with its expansion to cover two rounds each season.
“It’s been amazing,” Ahern said, with a clear rise of excitement in his voice.
“I think the thing I am most proud to see is the recognition that Aboriginal people are getting now. I reckon, as I was growing up, I felt like that they weren’t promoted as much.”
“Now, you can definitely see how passionate the AFL is about Sir Doug Nicholls Round.
“It’s amazing how they get all the past players to host shows leading up to the round – that’s good to see as well.”
Thankfully, and belatedly, Ahern doesn’t hear offensive comments relating to his heritage on the field anymore.
But there is still work to be done to stamp out racism, even if the battleground has changed.
“That’s on social media, people commenting on things and being racist. I think if the AFL could get around the players to support stamping out every kind of racism that they see, that would go a long way, and I think the players would feel a lot more supported as well.
“It’s always those Instagram, Facebook kind of comments that you see a bit,’ he continued. ‘I know it is hard to stamp it out when it’s robots doing it, and they don’t have their real name, but I think if they keep calling it out, it would go a long way.”
Ahern feels that there is an opportunity to be more inclusive, not just on the field, but also within the infrastructure of football clubs, such as within the coach and assistant coach fraternity.
“I think there might only be a handful, I know there is Xavier Clarke who is at Richmond. But there is definitely not too many and it would be amazing to see some more Indigenous coaches for sure, and just staff members around the club as well.”
Ahern’s connection to the Indigenous round will always be secure given his AFL debut in 2018 during Sir Doug Nicholls Round. He didn’t disappoint with 29 disposals in a winning effort.
“That was an unreal experience,’ he said. ‘It was a proud moment with the family. There was a big build up.”
It was a debut long in the making for Ahern, a high draft pick by the Giants in 2014, whose injuries hampered his abilities to break through before he made the move to Arden Street in 2016.
With strong possession numbers for the Roos when he was given the opportunity, Ahern’s pursuit of new pastures outside of the AFL has as much to do with injuries and, just as importantly, the timing of them.
In 2020, the Shinboners were in the mood for a rebuild and midfield depth was a relative strength when Ahern suffered succumbed to a hamstring injury.
Timing though, for the Bullants, couldn’t have been better, with their rebirth part of the attraction for Ahern’s move.
“I always wanted to play VFL once I was out of the AFL system.” Ahern said.
“I think going back to Preston,” (and he consistently refers to the Bullants as Preston throughout, showing an endearment towards the team as he knew it as a boy) “really stood out – the rebirth of the Bullants.
“I had a meeting with Josh Fraser and had a really good chat with him, and he’s just awesome,’ he continued.
“So, I think the attraction of having a standalone club back in Preston again, which is close to home for me, and then Frase sealed the deal.”
Ahern looks to drive the Bullants into attack during their clash with Werribee. Photo: Nathan McNeill (Nathan William Media).
The transition from full time footballer to the VFL has meant that Ahern is working as a carpenter when he’s not training or playing. He does admit that adjustment has taken some getting used to.
“Being on your feet all day, you really notice you’ve got heavy legs at training. Especially in pre-season, when you have bigger sessions.
“During the season is more about recovery, so that is short and sharp, but pre-season is definitely tough.”
But Ahern also acknowledges that the pursuit of success in AFL system leaves little else in one’s life, and he is thankful for the balance which the still highly competitive, but less all consuming, VFL brings.
“I enjoy footy a bit more now, having some of that stress taken away from me.
“I just feel like I enjoy weekends again. Especially Saturday games, where you can have a quiet beer here and there afterwards.
‘You get that extra break between training sessions and games. On the nights off, I can relax a little and not think about training the next day. That’s been really good for me.”
Ahern also has an opportunity to round himself out as a role model within the Bullants too, as part of the leadership group.
“I’ve never really been a leader before, so I really want to develop that side of me, come out of my shell a bit more, and develop the skills I haven’t had before. The boys reckon I am a little bit quiet, so I reckon I could talk a bit more and develop that side of me. That will help me go a long way in life, I think.”
Leader or not, Ahern’s experiences at the highest level of the game was always going to be of interest to his teammates in the changing rooms.
“Because we’re such a young group, there’s boys there who are trying to push their case to one day to get on an AFL list, so they try to pick my brains a bit and I am more than happy to try and help.”
Ahern’s perspectives on finding equilibrium in his life meant that, when he was not selected in this year’s AFL mid-season draft, it was not a moment which he felt defined him as it may have been in younger days.
“I wasn’t disheartened or anything like that. I am really enjoying having a bit more balance in my life at the moment. I didn’t get caught up in it too much.”
Like Borun’s search for new lands, Ahern’s journey to the Bullants has had mountains and rivers to cross.
The Bullants will hope that, like his ancestor, Ahern has found his opportunity knocking and that it results in an enduring relationship.