An AFL dream five VFL seasons in the making was achieved on Sunday afternoon when Euroa’s Will Hayes finally broke through for his Western Bulldogs’ debut.
The 23-year-old, smooth-moving midfielder — whose story of hard work, resilience and never-give-up attitude has captured the hearts of football fans across the country — looked like a seasoned veteran as he took to an AFL field for the first time.
It was a tough day for the Dogs, beaten by Carlton to the tune of 44 points, but Hayes looked the goods throughout, racking up the pill the exact same way he had done at VFL level with 21 disposals.
If ever there was a moment to pinch yourself, Hayes said it was standing in the middle of Etihad Stadium and hearing the opening siren blare out for the first time.
‘‘It was just another game in the grand scheme of thing, just with a lot more people in the crowd,’’ he said.
‘‘It was a surreal feeling to get out there to the wing for the first bounce, standing next to (Carlton star) Marc Murphy. I just sort of took a big breath in, tried to digest it all and get on with my footy.’’
With proud parents watching on — not to mention about 50 mates sitting up in level three — Hayes took to his latest footballing challenge with his trademark class, work-rate and running ability standing out.
‘‘It was very quick, but it didn’t feel too different (to VFL), under the roof at Etihad it’s pretty easy to read the cues, you’re not affected by the weather or anything like that,’’ Hayes said.
‘‘(The coaches) were happy with my work-rate and effort off the ball on the wing, but as a group we were pretty flat, it was very much not the desired outcome.’’
Earlier in the weekend, a video published by the Bulldogs of coach Luke Beveridge announcing Hayes and Lachie Young would debut did the rounds, the Euroa lad looking as shocked as it gets as his teammates mobbed him.
‘‘I had no idea it was coming, it was the end of training on Tuesday, or maybe it was Thursday — it was all just such a blur,’’ he said.
‘‘It felt unbelievable when the coach told me, it’s crazy mixed feelings, excited, anxious and proud with a real adrenaline kick. It took a while to sink in, so I’m glad they told me plenty of time before the game.’’
Hayes’ famous father — legendary horse trainer David — has made him one of the higher-profile rookies in recent times, but it is the marathon journey that has made the story so attractive.
‘‘It’s a bit crazy, but I guess it’s what happens when you keep persisting for so long,’’ Hayes said.
‘‘It’s taken me six years to get my debut, the story of resilience, I suppose people enjoy that. I feel lucky people have taken an interest in my journey, but I don’t see myself as any different to any other footballer.’’
And the journey to the big league, Hayes said, would not have been possible without Euroa.
‘‘Euroa means a hell of a lot to me — the football club and the entire community,’’ he said.
‘‘I started playing there in under-16s, and played my first game of senior football there. Euroa prepared me really well for the VFL, GVL football is such a high standard.
‘‘The club has been so supportive of myself and (twin brother) JD pursuing opportunities in the VFL with dreams of playing AFL. I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of the entire community.’’