By Russell Bennett
It’s been more than 16 years since Michael Firrito played his second senior game for his beloved Brookers, and he’s finally about to add to that tally.
Before going on to ultimately play well over 250 senior games at AFL level for North Melbourne, the man affectionately known as ‘Spud’ started his footy journey in his home town of Gembrook.
He made his senior debut for Gembrook Cockatoo in its premiership-winning 2000 season. It was the first and only time he would run out alongside his older brother Carl (a former senior skipper at the Brookers) in the same team.
“I was as nervous for that game as I was for my debut for North Melbourne!” Firrito, now 33, recalled back at the Gembrook rooms on Sunday afternoon, once again donning that famous Brooker green after committing to play the 2018 season in Division 2 of the AFL Yarra Ranges’ senior competition.
His second and only other senior game for the Brookers came the following year in 2001, when he wore the same number as current club president Damian Kee.
But next year, Firrito will be back – back to add to that senior games tally at the Brookers, back to where it all started just a stone’s throw from his family property.
Firrito currently lives in Berwick with his wife Bonnie and their two sons, Lenny (4) and Max (1). Although he works in the city, he wanted to finish his playing career back at Gembrook – surrounded by familiar faces.
“I spent last season playing with Strathmore (in the Essendon and District Football League’s Premier tier) with a couple of my mates (and former North Melbourne team mates) Hamish McIntosh and Nathan Grima but in the back of my mind I always thought it’d be nice to come back to where it all started,” Firrito said.
“I’m back home now and it’s pretty exciting.”
Firrito is equal ninth on North Melbourne’s all-time senior games played list – tied with David Dench on 275. He also took over Glenn Archer’s famed number 11 guernsey upon the Shinboner of the Century’s retirement after 311 games, showing the sort of esteem Firrito was held in at Arden Street.
But now his footy career has come full-circle, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve had a few messages from old team mates and boys I played with when I was a little fella and there’s a bit of talk of them coming back as well,” he said.
“It’s a bit of excitement, really, because I still love the game.
“I wish I was still 22 and could feel good every week but, unfortunately, the body always starts to give up on you at some stage. It’s not too bad, but I’m not in my early 20s anymore either.”
Firrito played all of his junior footy with the Brookers before embarking on his journey to the AFL through the Eastern Ranges in the TAC Cup and Box Hill in the VFL. He was forced to go the long way, but that in itself should serve as motivation for other local players in the hills.
“It’s really exciting to come back,” he said.
“Obviously the club battled a little bit last season but, hopefully, we can have some success and have plenty of fun along the way.
“Mum and dad are only a stone’s throw away. You can see the goal posts from our house so it’s nice and close and it was great when I was a kid.
“I guess the footy club has changed a lot since then. I’ve been away for 16 years so there are still a few familiar faces around, but lots of new ones too and I’m looking forward to meeting them.”
Firrito’s nephews are quickly rising through the Brookers’ ranks, and he’s thrilled to get the chance to watch their development up close from next season.
“This footy club was great to me as a junior so, hopefully, I can help out,” he said.
“I’ve learnt a lot over the years – I’ve been around footy clubs my whole life – so if I can help out in any way I’m more than happy to.”
Firrito never won a premiership in his first stint at the Brookers, although he came mighty close. Even as a nine-year-old his ruthless competitive nature had become one of his calling cards, as he explained.
“In the under-10s we played in a grand final and that was my first year of footy,” he said.
“We won our first final so the next week we had the week off and as a nine-year-old I made sure I had my parents out of bed. That game was in Wesburn and I made them drive me there to watch them, just to do a bit of scouting of the opposition! I was pretty full-on about my footy.”
It would be a dream for Firrito if the Brookers could be in the mix for a Division 2 premiership next year, but he – and the rest of the club for that matter – knows the hard work ahead if they’re to get there.
After winning the second division flag in 2016, the senior side went winless in 2017, forcing its relegation back out of Division 1.
But Firrito’s commitment to 2018 has already had a massive positive impact on the club.
Senior coach and club legend Matt O’Neil said it could well be the biggest moment in the club’s history.
“It’s just massive,” he said.
“It’s the biggest thing for the club in just about its whole history to have a kid who’s gone from the juniors – from the under-10s – all the way through, off to Eastern in the TAC Cup and then finally getting to the big league the hard way – similar to Shippy (Andrew Shipp) in that respect.
“He probably doesn’t even realise just yet what hype this will bring to the club, itself.
“It’s actually come at a perfect time with the under-16s and under-14s starting to push through. That next 10-year window will be on the back of this.”