“Now is not the time to fast track things. The positive is that he is progressing every session.”
This tale is not about pre-empting what might happen, it’s about what has led Bennell to this point after he parted ways with Fremantle in July last year, having played two AFL games in four years at the Dockers, after 81 games with Gold Coast.
Most would have given up then.
The final tear was big, happening as he started to string games together for Peel Thunder, one of an estimated 25 calf strains that had stopped Bennell in his tracks each time his hopes of displaying what he could do on a football field rose.
But not Bennell, whose love for the game he can play like few others remained, nor his indefatigable manager Colin Young, who thought there had to be an answer to his client’s woes and made it his business to exhaust every medical avenue he could.
Young’s enquiries led him to sports physiotherapist Peter Stanton, a big-hearted healer who was at the Lions in their golden era before a short stint with the Cats led him to settle in Geelong where he continues his connection to Olympic athletes across the country.
Stanton thought it unusual that Bennell complained of heel soreness each time he suffered a calf injury, an indication that the nerves were being irritated. He knew the search for an answer had taken Bennell across the world but he wondered whether that numbness was a clue to something previously unidentified.
Scans from Perth radiologist Dr Eamon Koh showed an extra band running across the top of Bennell’s calf muscle, a rare feature that in other patients seemed to interrupt blood flow and cause calf problems.
Vision of Bennell’s calf tearing also revealed the nerve lengthening and stretching at the key moment.
Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ben Forster was consulted and a decision was made to remove both Bennell’s plantaris muscle, which runs from behind the knee down through his calf, and the band at the top of his calf muscle that was potentially affecting his nerve. The first operation was followed by another one six weeks later.
No promises were made that the issue had been fixed – and they still aren’t – but a different path has been set and Bennell, knowing that his former skipper Matthew Pavlich had successfully undergone a similar operation, was ready to walk and then eventually, everyone hoped, run down a new rehabilitation track.
Melbourne joined Sydney and Geelong in meeting with the former Sun and Docker, a talent so sublime that he had Metricon Stadium rocking like no other player at the Suns when he was at his best between 2013-2015.
He had twice earned three Brownlow votes against Melbourne and once against Geelong, the 2014 game when he audaciously bounced the ball with his left hand before he kicked his sixth goal from outside 50 in the dying minutes of the memorable match.
When the Demons asked his former Suns’ teammate Steven May whether they should recruit Bennell, list manager Tim Lamb was rewarded with daily texts from May asking him when he was going to sign Bennell.
With partner, Amy and young daughter, Carter, Bennell shone at a meeting with the coach Simon Goodwin, Lamb and Mahoney, telling the truth about his past and present and impressing not only Melbourne, but every club he met, with his fierce desire to return.
“We spoke to Harley about what he wanted to get out of his footy and he was really impressive. He wanted to get back because he had a genuine love for the game,” Mahoney said.
“[We knew] the resilience he had shown through a number of different challenges he had already had through his playing career and thought what a great story it would be if he was able to get back and play.
“All we asked Harley to do was listen to our experts and follow the program and if he did that we would fully support him.”
The first time Bennell met the Demons’ new conditioning coach Darren Burgess at Albert Park for a run he was as nervous as a two-year-old colt heading to the barriers.
But they connected and Bennell accepted Melbourne’s offer in November to train with them in the hope of joining the club during the supplementary selection period, relocating east to take the half chance.
Burgess was smart, adopting the slow and steady approach as his mantra with the on-baller and the whole club was on board with the call to give Bennell time.
“It was a really slow rehab that had to build the muscles around the calf and that was really important,” Mahoney said.
So was the support he received to help him and his family settle into Melbourne.
At the pre-season camp in Maroochydore, Goodwin told the group Bennell was being offered a contract because he was “winning in life, in turning things around and he has done everything we have asked him to do”. Goodwin said they were not concerned about the calf and they wanted him to be part of the club for a long time.
Bennell received an Easter isolation pack from Max Gawn and although the beers it contained still sit in the fridge, the connecting captain’s gesture was one part of a warm welcome from his new mates at Melbourne at every turn.
“Everyone is excited by the journey that he is on and the way he has showed a lot of interest in wanting to get to know all the other players, the coaches and the staff means it’s a genuine two-way relationship,” Mahoney says.
During the shutdown period as he followed Burgess’ program, Bennell realised how invested he was in the group with their WhatsApp and Instagram connections unlikely vehicles reinforcing the bond among teammates.
Bennell’s emphasis is now on doing his bit to help Melbourne create a winning culture rather than being concerned with his own progress. So the fingers remain crossed, while the calves stay loose and Bennell takes each training session as it comes.
On Saturday, he took another step on his journey when he joined in match practice at Casey Fields.
The No.2 pick in the 2010 national draft knows the Demons are in his corner whatever happens.
“He’s a really caring guy,” Mahoney said. “Sometimes you have an impression of someone before you meet them and I was pleasantly surprised. You can tell someone who is a genuine person and very caring and he has really been embraced by the playing group and the staff.”
Excitement is building but whatever happens from here the investment has been worthwhile because Bennell and Melbourne are having a crack.
“We are seeing all the benefits he can bring on the field to our club and it is really now about just getting more and more sessions under his belt,” Mahoney said.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.