AT TIMES, a season back on the football field was a year which Sam Docherty could have thought was never coming.

As it turned out, it was the most unprecedented and unique of all.

After two years out of the game with a knee injury, Docherty’s sole focus all along was returning in the Navy Blue jumper and performing to the standard he set before his consecutive ACL injuries.

Yet come 2020, he was a co-captain of a football club which had just spent months together in hubs and hotels spread across three different states and territories.

It’s no surprise that Docherty admitted “it’s not quite what I had envisaged in my head”.


“With all the loopholes we had to jump through to get here and get the season done has been unbelievable. Playing four games in 14 days, I don’t think I ever thought we’d be doing that,” Docherty told Carlton Media.

“It’s been an up-and-down year as much on the field as it has been off the field. It’s thrown some challenges and I feel like we’ve handled them pretty well, but there’s a lot we want to improve on as a group.

“If you said to me at the start of the year that we were going in a hub for 12 weeks… I actually remember that being brought up and I thought ‘there’s no way in the world we’re doing that’. Funnily enough, we have: it’s been challenging but it has had its great moments.”

Season complications aside, it was a year with a clear football focus for Docherty, who had spent the last 24 months watching and coaching from the sidelines.

Come season’s end, he missed only the last game of the season, had officially captained his boyhood club and ranked in the top 20 in the competition for marks, metres gained, rebounds and intercepts.

At the start of the year, the co-captain said he absolutely “would’ve taken that with both hands”.

“Once you get back playing, there’s always another level and always something you want to improve on. You don’t usually take too much time to think about what could have been: you’re always striving to get better,” he said.

“It’s the mindset I had all year. Being finished now, I’ve had a bit of time to think and to realise I was able to get out and play some pretty good footy this year, and play 16 out of 17 games.

“It’s something I’m pretty proud of on the back of two pretty hard years.”

The game he’ll never forget

It was the night which made Docherty feel like he was starting all over.

And running out alongside good mate Patrick Cripps, the sheer relief and joy of the occasion got to Docherty moments before the match.

With confirmation coming just 24 hours prior that the season opener between Richmond and Carlton would be going ahead, Docherty was ready for his first game in nearly 1,000 days.


“I’m going to remember Round 1 for the rest of my life,” he said.

“I remember walking alongside ‘Crippa’ up the race and he just started laughing at me, because I had a grin from ear-to-ear.

“The enjoyment of being back playing is something you forget when you’re playing week-to-week. It happened to be the first game I captained for the Club, so it’s pretty special in a number of ways.”

It had been a long wait for game No.93 for Docherty, who of course had just produced an All-Australian season the last time he laced up the boots.

But this game wasn’t about the accolades: it was about stripping it right back and remember what it was like growing up playing for the Phillip Island Bulldogs.

“That game reminded me of being a little kid again, running out on a Saturday and kicking the dew off in the under-15s,” he said.

“It was the love of playing footy, the love of being back playing with teammates and the love of being part of a team.

“It’s something I’m going to remember forever.”

How about those knees?

The short games helped, the short breaks didn’t.

But at the end of the day, Docherty couldn’t have been happier or more confident in how his body emerged from the 2020 campaign.

In particular, he said his knee was the one thing which he didn’t think twice about this season.

“The body handled it really well: funnily enough, my knee was probably the best part of my body,” he said.


“Getting back to footy, the knocks, the bruises and the bumps that you have to play with each week start to mount up by the end of the year.

“The one thing that stayed strong through the whole year and the thing I didn’t have any issues with at all was my knee.”

There was plenty of discussion about how Docherty would return after those two seasons away from missing football, particularly given his time coaching on the sidelines.

It was a focus of the co-captain to emerge from his time as a better leader, and he feels as though he was exactly that on the ground.

“It was interesting: I was more relaxed this year than I was last year. Last year, I felt like I had to do more because I wasn’t playing,” he said.

“When you have the opportunity to go out there and perform on game day and have your performance back up what you’re trying to say, it does help.

“From my time off, I learnt a little bit of patience in the way I communicate things and not having to be the answer all of the time.”

The Doc’s verdict on 2021

“I can’t wait to see what our group is going to do.”

Carlton enjoyed their equal-most wins in Docherty’s time in Navy Blue from five less games, but it’s what’s coming next that’s the most exciting for the co-captain.

Docherty said that widespread improvement was the continued focus going forward, particularly given the signs shown by individuals this season.

He looked at the likes of Tom De Koning, Sam Walsh and Jacob Weitering as key signs of growth in a Carlton team which still pumped 148 games of experience into players aged 23-and-under.

“It takes time for guys to get their bodies in a position to play consistent AFL footy,” he said.

“We saw some spurt from ‘King’ this year, ‘Walshy’ has continued on from his first year, ‘Weiters’ has turned into one of the best tall defenders in the competition.

“It shows the excitement before we have a lot of guys who can still take that next step next year.”

Docherty also pointed to players who Carlton supporters - and the football world - didn’t seen in 2020 as key pillars going forward.

“We haven’t seen ‘Marchy’ or Charlie at all this year, and they get full pre-seasons to come back to next year which is extremely exciting,” he said.

“We’ve got Paddy Dow and Lochie O’Brien who we haven’t seen a hell of a lot of this year that have an opportunity to get another pre-season. Personally, knowing how valuable that is early in your career, it’s exciting.

“We’re now in the sweet spot where we’re ready to perform. As a leader, that’s exciting."