Callum Wilkie’s journey from full-time accountant in Adelaide to rookie defender-turned-leader at St Kilda has, in his words, “got a bloody good run”.
He wouldn’t mind if the noise around it settled down a touch, even with his unbeaten 74 consecutive games since debut and sustained run of form showing no signs of slowing down.
But add ‘stand-in skipper’ to Wilkie’s still-expanding tale after just three-and-a-half seasons, and it’s the equivalent of pouring gasoline over an already lit flame.
The 26-year-old will captain St Kilda in the absence of Jack Steele this Saturday against Brisbane, becoming the third stand-in skipper in as many matches as part of the Saints’ shared leadership agreement.
Co-vice-captains Dougal Howard and Tim Membrey took up the mantle in Rounds 10 and 11 respectively, each banking wins to propel the Saints to 8-3 before the bye.
“I guess I have reflected on that side of things a little bit, but I try not to think too much about it,” Wilkie told saints.com.au on his staggering rise from unassuming SANFL defender to fill-in skipper for St Kilda.
“The next challenge for me is to try and lead as well as Steeley in the leadership group to get the team up on the weekend.”
Wilkie’s 75th senior match in a few days’ time will be the fewest number of games for a Saints player to first take up the role in the AFL era after the late Danny Frawley (63).
The key back has spent two seasons as part of St Kilda's leadership group, but won’t be reinventing the wheel when he takes the reins at the Gabba.
“Dougal and Timmy didn’t change themselves in terms of what they did in previous weeks (when Steeley was captain), so at the moment it’s just about coming up with a good speech!” Wilkie said.
“I’ve been wrapping my brain around what to say, but other than that it’s just normal. I won’t be going out of my way to do anything special.
“It doesn’t change too much. I try and go into each week – whether Jack is captain or not – aiming to get the best out of the boys and how I can help support and lead them.”
Despite captaining a handful of footy teams prior to his SANFL career, leadership in an official capacity was never part of Wilkie’s repertoire during his “ratbag” days at North Adelaide.
Juggling full-time work while running out for the Roosters meant some things had to be put to the side; growing his leadership in an official sense among them.
“I wasn’t invested into it as I am now,” Wilkie said.
“I was never really a leader at North Adelaide. I was always a bit of a… well, not a ratbag, but because I wasn’t so focussed on footy and was focussed on my career in accounting, I was always late for training and mucking around.
“Once I got older and started playing SANFL, I knew putting all my eggs in the footy basket wasn’t really going to help my career aspirations in accounting. I had to give up something, which was to pursue a leadership role, to have the best of both worlds.
“I feel the real-world experiences helped me in terms of being out of your comfort zone. That’s helped turn me into a leader at St Kilda, but being able to play some consistent footy also gives you the confidence to speak up and drive the standards too.”
Steele is expected to return from his shoulder injury in a few weeks after resuming running sessions this week, potentially putting a second captaincy appearance from Wilkie in doubt.
Howard will take charge for next week’s Spud’s Game fixture, before Membrey goes around again against his former side, Sydney, for Pride Game. By then, the Saints are hopeful their dual All-Australian will be leading the Saints out into battle against Carlton in Round 16.
“I’d push Steeley out to another three weeks!” Wilkie chuckled.
“Timmy and Doug will probably get one more and I’ll miss out, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ll be stoked to get Jack back as soon as possible and he can take the reins then.
“Steeley will be captain for a long time – hopefully the whole time I’m at the football club – so I can’t imagine there’ll be too many opportunities, but I’m keen to get the experience this week.”
Accountant, rookie, leader, stand-in captain. You can say it as many times as you want, but it doesn’t change how outstanding Callum Wilkie’s journey has been to date.