Proud and courageous: Leigh Broxham calls time on his career

Much like the seagulls, Leigh Broxham is part of the furniture at AAMI Park, something he remarks has been oft-said to him since he came to his decision to step away. Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Leigh Broxham had to force himself to contain a smile. It was the 86th minute of Melbourne Victory's clash with Brisbane Roar and the home fans had just noticed he was being substituted into the game. AAMI Park quickly broke into song, serenading the veteran as he made his way onto the park for just his third appearance of the season. Little did they know how special a moment it was for Broxham, who subsequently helped his side see out the game to secure a 0-0 draw, as the day prior, the Victory legend had told his teammates that this season was to be his last.

Nobody has played more A-League Men games than Broxham's 384 but, at the start of 2024, he began to realise his time was coming to an end -- not with a sudden epiphany but a gradual one. He wasn't playing much and the motivation to keep grinding day after day wasn't coming as easily as it once had. He talked to family and friends and while some such as friend and former teammate Carl Valeri tried to convince him to stick around -- "He was like 'Just keep going, you're fine!' And I was like; 'I was there when you finished, I remember how you spoke at the time!'" -- it felt like the right time and he felt he was ready.

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"[The ovation] reminds you of ... not the privilege -- I've earned everything that I've got along the way -- but how lucky I have been to play the great stadium in front of great fans every week," the 36-year-old told ESPN. "[Retirement] all becomes a bit more real when I'm saying it out loud to people outside the house.

"But it's beautiful. I've given over half my life to the club. 36 now and I started at 16. I've lived and breathed the club. It's nice with friends and family around as well that could hear that. How could you not love it?"

With Victory hosting the Western Sydney Wanderers in the final round of the season and now guaranteed to host an elimination final after Saturday's draw with the Roar, Victory fans will get a few more chances to say goodbye to Broxham -- this time knowing he's pulling on the shirt for the final few times. It will be emotional and, inevitably, feel a little unreal, for a Victory without Broxham almost feels wrong, like the natural order has been displaced. He's part of the furniture at AAMI Park, something he remarks has been oft-said to him since he came to his decision to step away -- but he had 58 league appearances for the club even before the stadium was opened.

In an age where player transfers and contract talks have spawned a cottage industry that, at times, can feel like it's bigger than the game itself, Broxham has become that rarest of modern footballers: a one-club legend. He's spent 18 years with a chevron emblazoned across his chest, making 459 appearances across league, cup, and continent. Only three players, per stats doyen Andy Howe, have more for one club in Australian football history: Sergio Melta (479) and Alex Tobin (468) at Adelaide City and Paul Trimboli (464) at South Melbourne.

Few would argue that Broxham is amongst the best players in A-League history but his is a career that nonetheless should mark him out as a great of the competition all the same; telling the story of the A-League can maybe happen without the former Knox City and VIS graduate, but it would be incomplete. He's been there for too many massive moments.

His is a different kind of greatness, a standing measured not just in the bountiful trophies he's been part of but in indefatigability, sacrifice, and adaptability. Elevated by durability, longevity, and devotion to his club through good times and the bad. Lifted by the respect that this has earned him amongst his peers and the love it has engendered among supporters. Indeed, there has been a literal generation of Victory fans who have been born and become adults in the time he's been at the club. The cliche goes that while Broxham doesn't begin the season in the plans of the various coaches that have come and gone, he'll inevitably end the season in them.

"There's probably been various moments in my career where people might have thought I was finished," he smiled. "When Ange [Postecoglou] came to the club was I was 24, people thought I was finished at that point also. But I earned everything that year as well [Broxham started 13 games that season, getting his first taste of a centre-back role he would often fill in future seasons].

"Different coaches come in, I'm never in the first XI plans, which is the truth every year. But I end up doing a job most years. It's being me and doing what I do. There's no malice from my end, I just get on with it. That's how I was when I was young. I dealt with everything in a calm way and just kept working, kept working and that paid dividends.

"Now with the attributes that I have I've been able to play the league to 36. I think I've squeezed the towel dry as far as I can. I've been lucky with major injuries as well that I've been able to make myself available most weeks too. I wouldn't say lucky, I would say it's dedication and doing the right things."

Broxham's was a professional career that nominally commenced in 2006, when he was signed as an injury replacement player at Victory but, really, had begun a year prior when he was employed as a team assistant and kitman as he trained, unpaid, with the squad. A highly rated junior, he was coming back from breaking bones in both his feet during that stretch but that didn't stop Kevin Muscat from kicking him in training -- not because the noted hardman didn't like the teenager but, instead, because he did.

"Kevin does kick him around a bit at training but that's because he likes him and thinks he has a future and wants to show him how tough and hard you have to be to succeed in this game," coach Ernie Merrick, who gave Broxham his opportunity, said at the time.

But even Muscat, who would go on to coach Broxham between 2013 and 2019, probably couldn't have envisioned the future that lay in store. Beyond his games record, "Broxy" has four A-League Men championships, three A-League Men premierships, and two Australia Cups. He has the second-most Grand Final appearances in league history, the equal-fourth most finals appearances, and two Victory Medals as the club's best and fairest. There were just seven goals but one of those represents not only what he thinks was the highlight of his career but is probably also the apogee for many a Victory fan: his 90th-minute strike to seal a 3-0 Grand Final win over Sydney FC in the 2015 decider, in front of an AAMI Park packed to the rafters.

"The team felt invincible," he said. "That was the moment. I don't score many. That year we won the league, I played every minute of every game almost. Scored two or three or four goals that year and it felt measured.

"Sometimes when we're not winning or even doing okay, we're finishing third or fourth, [I'm asking] am I good enough to be a leader in a team that expects to be winning each week? That year when I was in my prime-ish and we won the league I sort of felt that I was measured that I could be a successful player in the league."

Broxham has a few ideas about what's next. He enjoys coaching kids and sees the potential in that. He's also built up quite a base of contacts over the years. But first, he needs a break, "to rest a little bit." More importantly, he can now spend more time with his wife Samantha and their triplets Mila, Billie, and Sonny.

"They're so supportive," Broxham said. "It's a selfish profession. When you need to sleep or when you need to down tools, they've got to pick up the rest. With travel, you don't drive an hour to a game you fly away for three days. Having triplets isn't easy, so my wife holding down the fort and the immediate family around has enabled me to be able to have the career I've had.

"[The triplets are] at a fun age. I want to be a dad that is around. That's that's a big part of [retirement] as well.

"To get the timing right so that I'm around more often than not for them."

Ultimately, Victory has had many players pull on the shirt, with a select few making an impact in which they have come to represent something more -- avatars of a certain aspect of the club or, at the very least, how it wishes to be. The fire of Muscat, the unmerciful pursuit of goals and success of Besart Berisha, and so on.

But when it comes to devotion, loyalty, and determination -- to the soul -- there are few more representative than Broxham.