Sometime last season Jeremy Finlayson was invited to dinner at Leon Cameron’s house, along with Zac Williams and Bobby Hill. Sitting around the dinner table, they got to talking about when and how the three players had ended up at the GIANTS. Hill had been drafted the earliest, at pick 22, but he and plenty of other people thought he would have gone a bit earlier. Williams had made his way via the rookie list, back in 2013. And Finlayson had been the second-last name called out in the 2014 national draft, added to the list as a GIANTS Academy player after every club had chosen not to bid for him.
“I remember sitting there with Leon and we were talking about Zac, how he was a rookie and how no-one really wanted him. We were talking about that and then Leon started saying how people had doubted all three of us at times and it kind of made me think that I wanted to prove them wrong. Every time I went out there last year that was on my mind a bit, to prove to the people who didn’t think I was good enough that I was,” said Finlayson.
“It happened with the draft but even at the end of 2018. It came up that I might have to look at being traded and deep down I never wanted to go anywhere. I was the last one left here from my draft year, but even when I was thinking about going, no other club wanted me. It made me think, let’s have a crack and let’s see what I can do. And everything from there just seemed to fall into place. I never really wanted to go and I’m glad that I didn’t go.”
There were other things that helped Finlayson put together his biggest and best year, last year. The first was doing a full pre-season, for the first time ever. He had no niggles, no little setbacks and he started the season feeling fit, strong and confident. Then there was the day Cameron came to him and told him that he was thinking about moving him to the forward line.
Finlayson has had lots to get used to during his time with the GIANTS. He had moved to Sydney from Culcairn at 16, to do years 11 and 12 at a school in Blacktown; the population of his small hometown was around 1,000 and there were 1200 kids at his new school. Things didn’t work out with the host family he was staying with, but he felt too nervous to tell anyone about it for a long time in case he had to move back home and his shot at playing in the AFL was done. “When I did talk up, I got so much help and things got better,” he said. “I wished I’d done it sooner, but I was worried that the dream might be over.”
From there, Finlayson was overlooked for almost all of the draft. Then he had to work for four years to get picked in the senior team. Then he got picked, injured his knee in the first half of his first game and was ruled out for six weeks. “I was so excited and just had this feeling of rising up,” he said. “I had walked into the ground feeling so happy, then before I knew it, I did my knee and it all came crashing down.”
The other thing Finlayson had to adapt to in his first few years was playing in defence, a position he had never played as a junior but one he was happy to learn if it were to help him get into the team one day. Even if it meant some very tough lessons, along the way.
“I remember Leon telling me he’d always wanted a left footer in the backline, so I was very happy to try it. I was draft pick 84 so I said, just tell me what to do and I did it,” he said. “I had Mark McVeigh teaching me, and Phil Davis showing me some things, but I’d never done it before so everything I was learning I was learning for the first time in my life, from scratch.
“It was hard but now I look at it as, I learnt to defend and now playing forward I can use that. It’s kind of a win-win situation. There were some hard days because no-one’s going to like Buddy Franklin kicking goals on them, but I just learnt things off him and other players and I’ve tried to take the best things that key forwards do and use them in our forward line.”
Finlayson also started trusting his instincts down there, and playing along Jeremy Cameron, Toby Greene and Harry Himmelberg enjoyed the chance he got to watch them up close, see how they did things and help them out. His mother and sister bought him magnets and other little trinkets with the word ‘believe’ written on them, and when he spoke to them before matches, they reminded him that’s what he should do. He made up his mind to go into games looking to enjoy himself, and while there were some ups and downs did his best to come back to that, with a bit of help.
“We have a psychologist here, Darren (Everett), and he’s been huge for me. He’ll come meet me for a coffee anytime I like and if I gave him a call now, he’d talk to me, but he’d talk about a lot of other things and then bring it around to footy at the end,” he said. “He’s been huge not just for me but for a lot of the boys and he’s taught me how to take negative things, some of the negative stuff you hear, and block it out. He’s just helped me work out how to put things in place.”
Finlayson’s insistence on enjoying himself means that when he looks back on how last season ended, he prefers to think about the three weeks that preceded grand final day: his own performance and that of the team. He’s missing football at the moment because he’s just had another really good pre-season, because the whole team felt so motivated and fit, and because he would like another chance to help the players who have been there from the start get a chance at a premiership.
“We got a look at what it would be like and that’s what I think about, Jez and Toby and the boys who have been there since day one. It would be good to play finals again and get back up there to hopefully see the smile on those boys’ faces again. I want to do my best to help them get back there because I really liked seeing how happy they were to be there,” he said.
“As a kid I remember thinking how good the grand final would be, and the grand final parade and all that stuff. I was sitting in the back of the ute before it started, and my family followed me the whole way down. To see how happy they were, and my friends, was just a reminder you have to enjoy footy and that’s why I’m in it, to make them happy and to be happy that I get to play footy, to have experiences like that and to come back to training and see how motivated everyone and how excited the boys were to get another crack at it.
“The good thing for me is there’s competition all the time. There’s always someone who wants your spot, that’s how it feels and so you always want to go to another level and get a lot better because you know someone’s always coming and there’s no guarantee that the spot is mine. I’ve never thought that I’m going to get picked to play every week, I always think it could go away. I feel like I have to fight for my spot all the time, so I’m happy to do anything, any time.”