Why Lachie Neale relocated 4,000km to escape the 'AFL bubble'

There was a time when Lachie Neale wanted to be in the AFL spotlight - an elite player with a public profile to match.

It was 2016 and the then 23-year-old was coming out of contract at Fremantle, a club which had been struggling ever since its maiden Grand Final appearance, and loss, in 2013. Neale was one of their brightest stars that year and had attracted interest from football clubs around the country, but nevertheless opted to sign a two-year contract extension to stay "inside the bubble" that is football in Perth.

Fast forward 24 months and the three-time Ross Glendinning Medal winner, now 25, was again faced with a decision on his future. However, this time he would look for a move out of Western Australia and to Queensland's sunny capital on a five-year deal.

"A couple of years ago when I was out of contract, and a little bit younger, I thought it would be quite nice to stay in the bubble of the AFL," Neale tells ESPN. "But now I think it's exciting to get away. I suppose Brisbane is more of a rugby city and to get out of the bubble and be Lachie Neale the person outside of football is really exciting. That was a major reason for me to come across and join the Lions."

It wasn't the only factor in Neale deciding to pack up his things. The ball-magnet admits his outlook on football and where he wanted to be all changed after a simple conversation with Lions coach Chris Fagan and the club's general manager of football David Noble.

"Speaking with Chris and David, it seemed like they were in a real rush to go places and improve as quickly as they could," said Neale. "They also made me feel like I was really wanted and needed in order to help this group push up the ladder. That was important.

"[Brisbane] has a really young list and I thought that I could add a little bit of experience and knowledge to help them rise up the ladder and improve as quickly as possible."

When news broke late this year that Neale was searching for a new home, manager Tim Lawrence's phone was ringing off the hook. Neale, who grew up and played his junior football outside of Adelaide, confirmed there definitely was interest coming from his home state.

There was enormous speculation in 2016 that Neale may look for a return home, but it never eventuated. Nor did it in 2018 as he opted to continue his career at the Lions.

"I'm not sure if one or both [of the South Australian clubs] approached my manager, but he asked me if I would be interested in that," said Neale. "But, to be honest, [a move to Adelaide] wasn't really a strong consideration for me. I don't have any family in Adelaide, all of them live in the country about three and a half hours out. I didn't really take those clubs into consideration.

"We have seen in recent years that teams can rise up pretty quickly and hopefully that is us in 2019. We want to improve as much as we can and be playing finals. I wouldn't have come to Brisbane if I didn't think they were closer to success [than Fremantle]. I want success, I'm a pretty competitive person and I think Brisbane can."

In late November Neale packed a single suitcase containing the bare essentials and boarded a plane for Brisbane. He has spent the following weeks training with the playing group and working with his new coaches. He joked he was "sweating it up a lot more in humid Brisbane," but that has nothing on what he has found to be the greatest challenge in completing what geographically is the longest club switch in the AFL.

"I had Andrew Brayshaw living with me in Perth all this year. With him being a first year player and new to the system, [my wife] Jules and I both sort of took a parenthood role and I've become really close with him," Neale tells ESPN. "To be honest, when deciding whether to stay or to go, Jules and I both spoke about Andy and said it would be tough to leave him behind. But he's a pretty mature kid and he'll be fine."

The Lions may have won only five games in each of the past two seasons but under the guidance of head coach Fagan, they have quickly become one of the most watchable and exciting young teams in the competition.

With Neale set to bolster an already talented midfield group it could be sooner rather than later they return to September action.