A handful of footballers fulfilled lifelong dreams of becoming AFL-listed players at the 2023 draft.
But the reality for hundreds of hopefuls from across the country means they had their hearts broken.
With limited spaces available and fierce competition, the spotlight fades fast post-draft on many of the young men who come close but ultimately miss out.
The idea that not one of the 18 AFL clubs picked you up can be crushing, but some are doing everything they can to keep the dream alive.
Lonely nights on the road
One of the many footballers who was not selected is Jackson Savage, who grew up in the outback town of Broken Hill.
The smooth-moving left-footer spent “30 to 40” nights on the road alone in hotel rooms in 2023.
The GWS Giants academy product came up against some of the country’s best young prospects while travelling to Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and the Gold Coast throughout the year.
But a poor performance playing for NSW/ACT against South Australia left him on the outer with recruiters.
Despite the draft disappointment, the softly spoken 18-year-old took a lot of positives from the year.
“It’s been very good … I think you learn a lot of things along the way,” he says.
“I’m very lucky … not many people can say they’ve played in most of Australia.”
Jackson Savage’s dream continues after signing with SANFL side North Adelaide for the 2024 season.(ABC Broken Hill: Bill Ormonde)
Since November’s draft, Savage has moved to Adelaide and has begun pre-season training with his new SANFL club.
The step-up in intensity has been an eye-opener, regularly running more than 12 kilometres a session and playing alongside savvy veterans with seasoned bodies.
“I wasn’t much on recovery and then after these four weeks I’m quite big on it, ice baths and stretching and all that kind of stuff,” he says.
He’s hoping a change of scenery will help him become a more consistent player.
“It just motivates you to play a bit better … [I’m] just trying to be as consistent as I can all year round,” he says.
“You see people maybe lifting heavier weight where you want to be so you push yourself a little bit harder.”
While the 18-year-old has deviated from a “traditional” path — his unconventional route is following in the footsteps of another Broken Hill footballer who went on to play for the Melbourne Demons in the AFL.
Mitch Clisby playing in the 2018 SANFL grand final.(Supplied North Adelaide: Deb Curtis)
Growing up playing for the same club as Savage, Mitch Clisby was overlooked at 18, moved to North Adelaide, was picked up in the rookie draft in 2012, and at the age of 23 made his debut for the Dees the next year.
“He’s obviously a talented kid … I’ve obviously shared my journey with him … so I kind of hope that motivates him to stay involved and keep pursuing the dream of playing at the highest level,” Clisby says.
Now North Adelaide’s talent manager, Clisby knows the challenge of stepping up from under-18s to senior football.
He’s confident the kid from west Broken Hill has a chance to be drafted if he continues improving, which is where Savage’s focus lies — on sharpening his skills day by day.
“[I’m] trying to play consistent footy, just trying to be as consistent as I can all year round,” he said.
A strong pre-season and 2024 season could see him in the sights of AFL recruiters.
It’s something mentor and western manager at the GWS Giants Academy, Anthony Tidball, believes is possible.
“He’d probably like me to say he’s a smooth-moving left-footer,” Tidball jokes.
“To be honest Jackson’s ceiling is still so high. When he came in last year, he was very much a see-ball-get-ball, do-his-job type of player.
“Then over the year he’s been given way more responsibility by [GWS Academy] head coach Tadhg Kennelly to do a lot more … he took the kick-outs and started to run the backline.”
Anthony Tidball has spent several years working with Savage at the GWS Giants Academy.(ABC Broken Hill: Bill Ormonde)
The isolation of Broken Hill is challenging with academy players regularly travelling more than 1,000 kilometres to Sydney for games throughout the season.
While fatigue is a factor, Tidball believes it benefits players like Savage who remains part of the GWS under-19s squad in 2024.
“They’ve travelled so much from the age of 12 that being away from home for a week or two or three … is not something overbearing,” he says.
“Our kids are pretty resilient when it comes to travelling and it’s almost like a blessing.”
He believes clubs look favourably on recruits who have spent plenty of time away from home.
Former Adelaide Crows captain Taylor Walker (left) and GWS Giants defender Isaac Cumming both grew up playing footy in Broken Hill.(Facebook: GWS Giants)
With a gruelling pre-season ahead of him, a full slate of GWS academy games, and two years of an apprenticeship to complete 2023 is firmly in the rear-view mirror for Jackson Savage.
He along with Anthony Tidball and Mitch Clisby know that if a week is a long time in football … 11 months may just be enough for the 18-year-old to find his way onto an AFL list.
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Source: AFL NEWS ABC