Isaac Heeney and the art of the speccy

The Sherrin leaves the boot of Cameron Pedersen - a drop punt that is earmarked for Melbourne teammate Jesse Hogan, who has found some space in the forward pocket.

It's the fourth quarter of a tense and torrid Round 21 affair in 2018. The Swans are leading 85-65, but it's clear the Dees are on the ascendancy. The Bloods are down two players from their interchange; their energy is sapped after repelling wave after wave of Melbourne inside-50 domination.

In desperation, John Longmire deploys Isaac Heeney into the backline.

Pederson's delivery hovers along a loopy arc and it's enough for Heeney. He sprints from his position, a good 10 metres from Hogan, and launches himself forward, springing off his left leg, right knee up, a moment that evokes' Up there, Cazaly'.

Heeney looks as though he is about to take figurative flight.

He explodes skywards, like he will shake down the thunder from the sky. His right shin sits atop the left shoulder of Hogan, propelling him further upwards. There is a susurration of anticipation from the MCG crowd, as they sense something incredible is about to happen, almost willing it. The Swans' young star hangs for a photogenic moment, before extending his arms outwards, taking a spectacular grab.

Heeney has ostensibly vaulted over a human to take the AFL's Mark of the Year 2018.

"Heeney has taken the mark of the decade!" screams Tim Lane into the 3AW microphone.

"To be honest, if you look," Heeney says matter-of-factly in a sit-down with ESPN, as he points at the screen, "I'm going for a spoil."

True enough, as we watch the replay, frame-by-frame, his right hand has initially curled into a fist as he climbs the back of Hogan.

According to the young Swan, he was never meant to be matched up on Hogan - instead, he was supposed to be a spare defender. In a moment of crisis, with the Demons threatening to close the gap further, he was given short notice (a "legit two minutes") that he would be thrown back as a loose. During the stretch, he was communicating with the deepest defender, often Dane Rampe, who directed the makeshift backman on correct positioning. Yet the most indelible moment of the game was borne from confusion.

"Dane [Rampe] had run off his man [Hogan] and left me with their most dangerous forward," Heeney says with a chuckle. "So I'm like, 'what am I doing here?'

"I decide no matter what, just spoil. So, I went up with a fist, and then the last second, it was just timing really. Got that right, and just a bit of instinct kicked in."

That aerial instinct was first honed during battles with his brother, Beau, as they grappled and wrestled, trying to take backyard speccies against one another at their family home in Stockrington, 24 kilometres west of Newcastle.

"Oh yeah, it was a competition at first," Heeney says with an easy laugh. "He [Beau] was always stronger than me, so he would always throw me out of the way. I had to find a way to avoid him, and that was to stand off him and leap at the footy."

Those childhood days still greatly influence Heeney. Growing up in a property of about 50 acres with 40 cattle, some dogs and chickens, he's still passionate about his open spaces, often eschewing the urban lifestyle for the expanse of the ocean atop his surfboard. Or he'll escape on one of his spear fishing expeditions with fellow onballers Luke Parker and Zak Jones in the offseason. He's a self-proclaimed animal lover who prefers a David Attenborough wildlife documentary over the PlayStation any day.

He counts Parker and Jarrad McVeigh as huge influences - McVeigh with his stolid, veteran leadership, and Parker with his take-no-prisoners approach ("the way he goes about things, he never complains, he gets things done.")

Lance Franklin took him under his wing in his formative years at the Swans, sharing trade secrets such as leading patterns and inspiring confidence within him. Heeney absorbed everything - he's known as a relentless worker.

"My parents have been massive for me in terms of support, in terms of the mind-set I have for football, and work ethic," he says. "That definitely comes from them."

"Testament to his parents, Adam and Rochelle," says Chris Smith, head of the Swans Academy, who first stumbled across Heeney a decade ago. "I think that's where he gets a lot of his values from - they're really good people, and quite humble."

During our interview, Heeney patiently walks me through the mental aspect -- his exact thought process -- when it comes to his high-flying exploits. There's the focus on the ball to identify the drop zone early, and the peripheral vision to lock in the potential human obstacles that can shift the calculus.

"The biggest thing is your timing," he says, earnestness kicking in as he discusses the craft of overhead marking - his craft. "Because a lot of the boys can take good marks, but you've got to get the timing right, reaching at your highest point. That changes when you're trying to jump on top of someone and then hold the hang."

Sounds simple enough.

"But a lot of it, to be honest, comes out of instinct," he says. "And that, to me, is just having confidence from practising it."

Just for practice, he submitted another Mark of the Year contender in Round 1 this year against the Western Bulldogs.

Heeney's love of the hanger and ability to conjure special moments perhaps personifies the joyous possibilities of his game. In turn, he has represented the vanguard of the emerging young Bloods to lead the regeneration of what was an aging Swans list. In recent years, Heeney has become an avatar for that hope.

Nick Blakey is an exhilarating talent. Callum Mills will be a 200-gamer. George Hewett is set to be the successor to Josh Kennedy. Ollie Florent, Will Hayward, Jordan Dawson, Tom McCartin, and Aliir Aliir headline a list of impressive emerging talent.

Yet no one represents the future - and in turn, the Swans' hopes for sustained excellence - as much as Heeney, the most bankable, sure-fire star-in-the-making. It's not necessarily high possession totals, explosive athleticism, or indomitable size; the magic of Heeney lies in the cleanliness and amalgam of core footy skills that work to create a complete player.

You can see it on your television screen with his astounding aerial supremacy for his size. The Swans' prized young buck also has the strength and tenacity to win his own ball -- hard and clean -- and he continues to increase his disposal efficiency and score involvements. Still, he's only getting better.

In person, he's all wide grin and boyish charm as he chips a miniature footy to himself. The room we are occupying -- internally referred to as the "coaches room" -- is the proverbial inner-sanctum, where John Longmire and his assistant coaches address the players pre-game, at half-time, and again at the end of the match.

It's adorned with a whiteboard and a screen that flashes relevant game vision. Stepped seating runs up to the back, lined with aging, grey felt. It doubles as the space where players will belt out a lusty rendition of Cheer, cheer the read and the white after a victory, and the echoes of raucous delirium still linger.

Or perhaps it's just the gleeful cries of Heeney's teammates as they're put through their paces outside. A wide, white table squatting at the front feels somewhat out of place.

Heeney is anything but out of place, as he marks his own chip kick, and celebrates by plonking onto the bench next to me with a smile. I've been told Heeney is a people person, and it shows.

He's garbed in his training top and shorts, broad shouldered and naturally fidgety. He's a bundle of energy as he shifts and motions whilst he explains the nuances of overhead marks and running patterns. All the while, the boyish grin never leaves, a perfect caricature of warmth. You get the sense that he's enjoying the moment. Frame by frame.

The mood noticeably shifts to one of intense focus, whenever it's real footy talk, like he's imparting lessons to a young Blood.

He's talking me through the principles of a good tackle now - something he's renowned for within AFL circles - and how it's about hitting with your chest and using your shoulder.

"You don't want to tackle with your arms," Heeney cautions, almost reprimanding me. "Otherwise you're nowhere near as strong, and they can easily shrug you off."

Stay low and drive?

He nods in approval. "Yep. Staying low."

Back to that Melbourne game last year, his mark may have been the capstone, but his overall performance in defence - the way he was able to diffuse threats time and time again, careening from one hot spot to another - was equally eye-catching.

"As long as there's enough pressure from the midfielders," he explains, "I'm going to fly across them and influence in the air. I was lucky a few of those stuck."

Heeney acknowledges Longmire has discussed swinging him to the backline in strategic bursts. "[But] only really in the last few minutes if we're under siege," he quickly adds. "If we're under siege, and we need a spare man back, it's been me a couple of times."

You can hear the reluctance in his voice - he most certainly does not want to play down back too often - but he understands that team need trumps individual wants.

"Versatility is my biggest asset," he admits. "To be able to play anywhere."

Those diverse skillsets were identified early on.

Chris Smith first spotted Heeney 10 years ago at a football carnival in the North Coast. He had just started in talent identification with the Swans, and was also setting up the Academy at the time. Arriving at the carnival, he somewhat serendipitously bypassed the main field, instead choosing to bide his time at the back oval.

Settling onto the bench, he took in the game before him with no particular plan in mind. Yet something instantly stood out.

"I saw this saggy, little blonde hair," he recalls. The locks, of course, belonged to a 12-year old Heeney. In one particular sequence, young Heeney leapt, took a mark with arms outstretched, at the highest point, and landed cat-like, before bounding away from a jumble of startled junior competitors still processing what had happened. Seem familiar?

"I thought, 'geez, that was bloody exciting'," says Smith. Then within a minute, Heeney would lay a bone-crunching tackle on an opposition player.

"The kid was notably bigger," adds Smith. "And that's when I thought, 'my god, I've got this kid who not only has balance, and poise, and can mark above his head, but he's a real competitor, and he's aggressive.'"

Smith has witnessed -- and overseen -- Heeney's continued development over the years, and they've developed a strong bond thanks to Heeney's relentless drive, and Smith's trust in his young charge during their time together at the Academy. Smith would regularly dissuade the Novocastrian from making the four-hour round trip from home to training, trusting his star pupil would adhere to a program of skills and endurance training by himself. For Smith, it wasn't necessary for Heeney to exhaust himself with travel to every session - those four hours could be used for recovery and downtime, the balance that young athletes need. Heeney, however, craved work; Smith saw the bigger picture.

The message from Smith was simple: less is often more.

It was during an under-16s Academy series match against the Giants in which the lesson would hit home. Paul Roos had an idea: he wanted Heeney to tag the opposition's best player.

Heeney was baffled. He worried that he was no longer important to the success of the team.

"Now there's always a bit of a smell with being a tagger," explains Smith. "Is that just the bloke who can roll his sleeves up and has limited ability?"

The coaching staff knew Heeney was a competitor. They deployed Heeney on the opposition's best player, knowing he was always going to be buzzing around the action, lurching from one contest to another.

I asked Roos why he felt it was an important role for Heeney at the time.

Roos replied: "He was struggling at the time. And it [run-with role] was a very successful formula for our senior players: McVeigh, Jack, Crouch, Matthews."

Roos' message to Heeney was simple: "Beat your man."

"Not only did he beat that player," says Smith, "but it empowered him, and he then got really confident. That was a bit of a turning point in his development."

I ask Heeney what playing position is his ultimate destiny; he's upped his midfield time this year and he appears to have a growing comfort on the ball ("definitely. Growing comfort's a good way to put it," he says).

"I think ultimately, it's midfield and forward," he says. "Depending on the day, and depending whether we have some marking targets down forward, and goal kickers, I could probably spend a bit more time in the midfield. If not, a few more percent in the forward line."

"That ability to be in congestion, but then also that ability to go forward, and because he's very strong overhead, what do you do?" adds Smith. "You play a big, tall key position player on him? Then he's too nimble. You put a small player on him, then he's way too strong overhead and strong in body."

Heeney rattles off the names of his toughest opponents in the coalface -- Patrick Dangerfield and Nat Fyfe -- how the former is explosive and the ultimate midfielder, whilst the latter uses his size and power.

"They both hit hard, they both run all day," he says.

He mentions both players not necessarily because of the formidable challenge they pose, but as symbols of the areas he wants to develop as part of his ongoing evolution. "I think speed. Speed and power," says Heeney. "I think for me, that's the biggest one."'

For Heeney, it's about developing any advantage he can get as part of his footy journey. He wants to extract every ounce of potential during his career. "I think there's an intensity with that, to get the best out of himself," Smith says.

"I want to be known as an elite footballer," Heeney says. "A versatile footballer. Preferably a midfielder who can kick goals; who can have a really good influence in the midfield, lead by example, be tough over the ball, whether the ball's on the ground or in the air, crashing packs. And being able to influence the scoreboard."

Still only 23 years old, and approaching his 100-game milestone, Heeney now finds himself in a peculiar position as a venerable veteran, as part of the leadership group.

He is tasked with driving the famed Bloods culture among the younger players within the reserve team, those yet to consistently break into the senior team. He cites McVeigh and Kieran Jack as leaders who have helped to shape his own leadership style.

The role is a matter of example-setting. "It's doing the little things. Never failing to live up to being a professional athlete."

Those little things include coming in earlier to do vision with the young players, or sitting in with them as they undergo coaching reviews to offer support and guidance.

"Hopefully driving others like that," he says, "and we can get out onto the track a little bit earlier doing some extras on our day off, or after a session. Those little things is sort of picking up the other fellas because we're such a young squad and driving them along as well."

Bloods culture is not an affectation; it is deeply rooted in pragmatism, a matter of consistently executing a vision and following through on an accepted standard of doing things.

"As soon as you come in, it's the professionalism," says Heeney of the culture. "The way the leaders show that professionalism on the park, there's no slip ups, nothing gets by them. It's 100 percent dedication to improving all the time."

Heeney hopes to develop his own leadership voice, and he understands the irony at play. He's been told time and time again throughout his developmental years to simplify things - from "less is more" in the Academy, to Longmire imploring the young Swan in his rookie season not to overthink the game.

Yet membership within the leadership group requires a certain level of introspection. "You're 24/7 thinking about the game and thinking of improving," says Heeney. "Why things didn't go right here, why things went right here."

Those lessons are then passed down to the younger members of the squad, much like Chris Smith used to pass lessons down to Heeney. It's about developing and maintaining habits; it's about playing through a contest and never giving up.

"That's 100 percent driven by the culture," agrees Heeney. "Even throughout preseason, it's never giving up and it's really pushing through adversity."

Speaking of adversity, the Swans are enduring a trying, and confounding, season to date. The losses have mounted -- a 2017ish surge is not happening -- which always brings rise to a tension between contending now within the fickle Sydney market, or just stumbling headlong into a reboot.

Heeney rebuffs the idea of the Swans ever going through a full rebuild. Perhaps no other club has perfected the art of straddling contention for the top 8 and reinvention on-the-fly.

"We will never use the word, 'rebuild'," he says. "We know we've got a young squad, but we've got some experienced players as well. It's just a matter of really doing the basics well and doing that Bloods culture and playing to our trademark."

There are signs the Swans are reinventing beyond the simple influx of new personnel. Their trusty game-plan of yesteryear, when they would routinely grind out games with congestion and absorbing repeat inside-50s, has been rejiggered to one that is more possession-based.

"Definitely, the stats show that," says Heeney. "It's just a slight change. It's [contested style] obviously there, if it's always going to be there, and if it's not there, you're not going to be contending for a win. There's been a slight change in terms of controlling the game a little bit more. Because it's pretty hard to, week-in, week-out, grind out games. It does take it out of you. That's also got to be there, but a little bit more controlling the game.

"I think it's just adapting to the way the game's going," adds Heeney. "If you're not changing, then you get left behind."

The Swans are certainly changing, and Heeney is at the very forefront. Finals might be gone for this year, but there's unbridled enthusiasm regarding next year and beyond.

"We've got such a young squad," he says, as a widening grin spreads, "that it's bloody exciting.

"Over the next two-to-three years, I believe we will be true contenders for the premiership. The synergy, as you can see, is building week-in, week-out."