Melbourne Demons forward Alex Neal-Bullen says the return of his teammate Clayton Oliver has lifted spirits around the club. The Demons star recently took a massive step forward in his preparations for the upcoming AFL season, joining the rest of his squad a fortnight ago for pre-season training.
The troubled Melbourne midfielder was granted extended leave in December to deal with personal issues after a 2023 season punctuated by several off-field issues. But since rejoining the squad he has impressed his teammates, giving them a timely pre-season boost.
"It's fantastic to see 'Clayts' back at the footy club - he integrated into some main drills today," Neal-Bullen said. "He's moving really well, so it's positive for Clarrie, for the football club and we're really excited to have him back in. We're always there to support him as well."
Neal-Bullen says the team is focused and ready to go in 2024 after back-to-back straight sets finals exits. "It's a feeling you never forget. It's something that continues to drive this group, especially when you don't have the success in a finals series," he said.
"(But) I continually remind myself, and the leaders within this club, that the footy club is in a great spot. Although we're not happy with how we ended last year, we know we're building to something."
The Demons are set for a hitout against the Tigers on Sunday as they gear up for their season opener against the Sydney Swans on March 7. "Probably for my time at the footy club, it's something we've really trained from the start of our pre-season, so when your games start you don't find it's a massive jump in intensity," Neal-Bullen said. "That, for us, we believe holds us in good stead to really start the season well this Sunday."
Clayton Oliver endured a tumultuous 2023
There had been growing concerns about whether Oliver would even return to the Demons as his future at the club came under a massive cloud. The 26-year-old has battled injuries and medical issues in the last 12 months, and questions have also been raised about his off-field behaviour and professionalism. But after a successful return to pre-season training things are looking up for the embattled star.
It comes after Melbourne ultimately decided against putting their star midfielder on the trade table. Oliver was issued a stern warning by Demons coach Simon Goodwin and club CEO Gary Pert about his standards. Amid his ongoing personal issues, Oliver spent some time living with Demons captain Max Gawn and his wife Jessica, weeks before she gave birth to the couple's second child.
Oliver was admitted to hospital in October in what was labelled a "medical episode". He was also pulled over by police on November 16 and charged with driving on a suspended licence. Oliver has been unable to drive on medical grounds since he was hospitalised following that seizure on October 12, which he partially attributed to side effects from his ADHD medication. He is due to face court on February 6.
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