Young gun Harley Reid enters the AFL fishbowl and feasts on the hype

<span>West Coast’s Harley Reid celebrates his goal in the Rd 6 victory over the Fremantle Dockers at Optus Stadium.</span><span>Photograph: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images</span>
West Coast’s Harley Reid celebrates his goal in the Rd 6 victory over the Fremantle Dockers at Optus Stadium.Photograph: Will Russell/AFL Photos/Getty Images

The 58th Western Derby was supposed to be a cakewalk. The Dockers had won the previous five encounters. They won the last one by 101 points. If not for a couple of late lapses in South Australia, they could have gone into the clash undefeated.

But they were woeful. At one point, they were goalless and seven goals down and commentator Matthew Pavlich sighed “this is concerning for Fremantle.” Pav is no colour man but every time he opens his mouth, it’s a reminder that the club hasn’t looked like kicking a decent score since he retired.

When Jye Amiss was kneed in the head and carted off, the Dockers’ scoring options dried up even more. They have been excellent at times this year. But they can’t score. And if they’re incapable of conjuring up more than ten goals against this West Coast backline, they can’t be considered a serious team.

For three or four years, the Eagles have suffered every football indignity imaginable - the injuries, the thrashings, the list management busts, the teammates introducing themselves an hour before kick-off, the hyperventilation about the coach’s holiday plans, the comparisons with Fitzroy, the calls for priority picks.

The Gather Round game against Sydney provided flickers of hope. The Richmond win was not entirely unexpected given the Tigers’ injury list. But the Derby was something else altogether. The fear for every Eagles supporter was that they hadn’t yet hit rock bottom, that the rebuild hadn’t even properly started. How on earth could it get lower than the SCG abomination last year? Or all the other 100-plus losses?

But they’re a different team when Elliot Yeo is fit and his groins are functional. And they’re a different team with Harley Reid. You may have heard of him. If not, a cursory glance at the last hundred editions of The West Australian should fill you in.

At one point, he was pictured in Eagles-branded chef whites with the tagline “Superstar teen sensation reveals sandwich based lunchtime ritual.” Other highlights included “Harley Judd”, “Harley Put a Foot Wrong,” Harley-Lugah!”, and “The Prince of Perth”. On the morning of his debut, and I’m not making this up, sponsor Puma booked the entire back page, which was blacked out and simply read “Good luck Mate”. One can imagine Robert Walls muttering “the kid would want to get a kick.”

There’s no concerns there. Reid was barely sighted for the first 20 minutes, but from that point on was dominant in the air, on the ground, in a tangle and on the spread. At one point, on his hands and knees, he seized a dead ball, stood up like a surf lifesaver in a flag race, skated away from two seasoned midfielders, took a nonchalant bounce and drove the Eagles into attack.

Reid turned 19 earlier in the week. Kids that age tend to be eased into senior footy off a half back flank. They often defer to older teammates and opponents. Several other high picks have played sulky, resentful football. But Reid sauntered into the club, the city and the competition like it was all a breeze.

Prior to the draft, he was pestered for autographs at airports. He was asked who he’d like to be selected by in an ideal world. Collingwood, he said, for their culture, their coach and their crowds. And Geelong, because he barracked for them. But when you’re that good, you usually go to the worst team. As always, there were cautionary tales. Nic Naitanui, who presented him with his jumper, was in a moon boot, and knew all about hype, the Perth bubble and footy’s cruel twists.

Indeed, being the top pick can be a poisoned chalice. From the moment he was drafted, Tom Boyd hated football and all its associated bullshit. Jon Patton had three knee reconstructions, left Hawthorn in shady circumstances and is now selling real estate on the Gold Coast. Paddy McCartin suffered concussion after concussion, had to re-train his neural pathways and recently retired.

Some players - Dermott Brereton, John Coleman and Chris Judd spring to mind - swung into league football on a chandelier. Mick Malthouse, coaching against first gamer Judd, knew he’d seen something special. “They’ve unearthed another one haven’t they?” he said. “Jesus...”

Well Mick, they’ve got another one. In fairness, Harley wasn’t that hard to unearth. After six months of the most puerile speculation, it took a dozen grave-looking men in blue polo tops, huddled like they were in a Situation Room, to settle on him as number one pick. It’s taken half a dozen games to frank that call.

Adam Simpson urged restraint on Saturday. The kid will have rough patches, he said. But to watch a sixth gamer surfing the crest of a pack, fending off All Australian midfielders with Wing Chun moves and putting a two-time Brownlow medallist on his backside is to see the rarest of high draft picks – the sort of kid who can enter the fishbowl, who is an off-the-peg senior footballer and who feeds off, and lives up to, the hype.