Twelve months ago Steven May was a captain of the Gold Coast Suns. He was engaged to be married. He’d moved his family from Darwin to the Gold Coast and he was playing good football. Life was good.
Then things slowly unwound. The idea began to take root that maybe he needed to get out of the Gold Coast. He was starting to doubt they would ever contend in his lifetime as a player, and he felt he was plateauing.
The idea percolated that he should take the chance to move back to Melbourne.
First he called off the wedding, which was the hardest of the decisions, yet made the idea of getting out of Queensland and away from that relationship, easier.
Melbourne defender Steven May has had a roller-coaster year. Credit:Simon Schluter
The harder part was telling his family he was going.
May was raised by his mum, his dad having walked out when he was a toddler. He had been brought up outside Darwin on Larrakia land raised by his mum and grandparents. His mum’s mum had married Patrick May, an indigenous man, so while Steven’s dad, who was also indigenous, had no role in raising him, Steven was raised as an indigenous man by his step grandfather Patrick May. It’s Patrick’s surname he has taken.
When he started earning an income from football, May bought his mum and younger brothers and sisters a house in Darwin. It gave them stability but Darwin, he admitted, can be “a poisonous place”. His mum had entered a new relationship that had turned abusive and he felt he needed to get his family out.
“Her ex-partner is locked up at the moment which is good," May said. "They feel safe and are not really worried about someone rocking up at their house or anything like that, but he is still on trials so until he gets locked up for a long period of time, I don’t know if they are going to go back to Darwin. So it is more waiting and seeing what is going on with him."
His younger brother had also run into trouble in Darwin. He had been in and out of juvenile detention and May reasoned getting them all out of Darwin would be circuit-breaker for his brother. So he relocated them into a house on the Gold Coast, his brother got an apprenticeship, and they are all settled.
Then Steven May had to tell them he was off to Melbourne.
“My mum was more understanding. My brothers and sisters were like where are you going? Why? There are lots of things you do that are hard,” he said.
“I had to keep reiterating to my mum she is doing a really good job. I am like the father-figure so not being there is hard. They have still got their house in Darwin and I stressed to Mum 'it is always going to be there, if it doesn’t work out on the Gold Coast you have that place to go back to but give this a try'.’’
So he leftto join the Demons.
He had lived in Melbourne as a boarder through high school on a scholarship at Melbourne Grammar, and he thought he knew what Melbourne was like. He had lived it, but he had not lived it as an AFL footballer.
He arrived in Melbourne for training unfit. Not fat, but bigger than he should have been.
The day before pre-season training, he met coach Simon Goodwin and co-captain Jack Viney for breakfast. They spelt out what pre-season was going to be like. “I thought I was fit,” he said.
His skin folds were about 60, but Melbourne wanted them at 50. The Suns, too, had wanted them below 60, so he’d have been touch and go with what they asked of him. It wasn’t a battle of which club had higher fitness standards: the Suns had wanted him to carry enough weight to wrestle the big forwards; Melbourne wanted him leaner for a more mobile role.
The next day, with only a limited squad there, they ran a two-kilometre time-trial. He was last. The media were there – they are never at training on the Gold Coast and he seldom joined the two-kilometre time trials anyway, due to back issues – and his shape was duly reported on.
A fortnight later they ran another time trial with the whole group. This time he wasn’t last, but no one was there watching.
“I was bottom third but, let’s be honest, I am not a great runner. We all know that, but I thought I was OK. I knew I had a long way to go and that was part of the reason I chose to come – to push myself. Then I didn’t miss a session until the end of January.”
This is the moment the pre-season began to unravel. He pinged a hamstring while training in Maroochydore and missed a month. Then he got reported – again – in the JLT Cup, and was banned for a week. In his club debut against Geelong in round two, he ripped his groins and was out for 10 weeks.
“Suddenly everyone was bagging me for being unfit. I struggled with that, and the criticism that comes with it, because I never experienced that,” he said.
“The only way I could stick up for myself was get back on the park and play, because no one cares what you say, you have to do it. When I got told I was going to be out for 10 weeks, bang! It was a massive slap, and then I was getting bad media written about me and I am thinking ‘far out, what have I done? I should have stayed up home at Gold Coast’.
“I got thrown in the deep end, I suppose, in terms of finding out the hard way. People just said 'put your head down, work hard and get back to playing', because that is one thing you do know how to do. 'You don’t know how to run ''two-k'ers'' but you do know how to play footy'.
“I got my body right, I dropped about six kilos in that time, got my skin folds down. I am back at round 98, 99kgs now. I was about 102. I think now is a happy medium.”
Back in the fold: May is reveling in his return to fitness. Credit:AAP
All the while Jesse Hogan (who the Demons traded out to make way for May) was playing well for Fremantle and Melbourne were losing. Living in Richmond there was nowhere to hide from football. Even buying a coffee, the manicured barristas would know him by sight and want to talk football.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt when I would see Hogan had kicked a few goals and Freo fans were up and about and Melbourne fans are disappointed because they have lost him, and I am not even playing.
“Going to games, walking out of the 'G when someone has kicked three or four or five goals and I am getting the blame for that. I was hoping we would win so I wouldn’t cop criticism. If we lost, my name would come up somewhere.”
Then came the pictures.
It was a Sunday afternoon and May had just been dumped from the seniors. He had started a new relationship with another woman from the Gold Coast and she had come to Melbourne for the weekend to see him … and dump him. So he was suddenly single with his now ex-girlfriend in his house, waiting to fly home hours later. He had to get out of the house, so he went to the pub.
I made a bad decision and maybe I should have called someone. At the time I probably wasn’t man enough to ring my mate and say 'I am struggling.'
A housemate later came to join him. Then someone snapped him with a pint in his hand. The story ran and the criticism followed – Melbourne’s big recruit, missing half the year with an injury after turning up unfit, is out on the piss while the team’s season goes to hell. It was not ideal.
He insists he only had a few beers. Whether it was one, five or15 is academic, because the image was the image. “I drove home that day, I wasn’t over the limit," he said. "I had had two or three beers in three hours. No big deal I thought.
"Then bang I got hit with being ‘unprofessional’, ‘doesn’t care, he isn’t invested in football’, ‘football is not a priority to him’. These are a lot comments from people about me. I literally had a few beers on a Sunday arvo when I hadn’t played for seven weeks and wasn’t playing for another three weeks. I thought it was a bit harsh but, again, that is the reality.
“I made a bad decision and maybe I should have called someone or stayed at home. At the time I probably wasn’t man enough to ring my mate and say 'I am struggling. I want to come around'. I thought I could cope by myself and went to the pub.
“I was sitting there thinking of all these decisions of the last six months and were they the right ones or the wrong ones, all the way back to calling off the wedding. I’m thinking 'should I have got married?', 'should I have stayed at the Gold Coast?' So it was a challenging few days or weeks.’’
He had not run foul of police or security, it was the middle of the afternoon not the middle of the night, and he was drinking but not drunk. Yet he was in trouble and not just with the media.
What happened next, May didn’t see coming. He was waiting for the comforting reassurance of an understanding coach. But Simon Goodwin had had enough of the coddling.
“He whacked me between the eyes and I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe at the time I was expecting an arm around the shoulder and he hit me with some truths,” May said.
“At the time I was defensive. I was like 'I don’t agree with you', and then as the next couple of days went by, I kept replaying everything he said over and over and I thought 'he was probably right, I haven’t been doing everything I possibly can to get back playing'.
"And so I went and spoke to him a couple of weeks later and I started looking for extra things I could do, I started mentoring (teammate) Harry Petty, doing extra sessions, going to games with Goody, scouting a team with (assistant coach) Troy Chaplin, trying to find ways I could help without playing.”
May is grateful that Goodwin not only challenged him but joined him. He didn't send him to the naughty corner to train alone. Goodwin was beside him at the gym for extra weights and bike sessions. He went to games of footy with him. If May wanted to do more, the coach would do it with him.
May won the coaches and players over. Within a game of being back in the team, he won the fans. May has a style of game, physical and aggressive that warms Demon hearts. During the Queen’s birthday match he shifted Mason Cox around … like a good player should shift a lanky American who is new to the game. Next minute, he was on a polar opposite in Jordy De Goey.
“My first game after all the shit that has happened, to run out in front of 85,000, I had a big smile on my face and the boys are looking at me laughing. I was saying to (Christian) Petracca 'how good is this?'
“When I said I was coming back, people were like ‘going back to Melbourne, good luck with that’ and I am like ‘oh I understand what it is going to be like’. Or they’d be (saying) 'good luck with the weather'!
“Well it’s been freezing and the media is intense and no one was lying to me.
“If I had my time again could I have turned up fitter? Could I have not had a drink when (I was) injured? Of course. Yes I would love to avoid all that, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
“This year has been a roller coaster, no doubt. A lot more lows than highs for me but the highs are bloody worth it already. Just to pay in a couple of wins in the five games I have played, that feeling getting the Gatorade shower walking out through MCC and Melbourne fans – it feels great.
“Hopefully I can get myself in the good books.’’