It seems Josh Kelly was born to play in the AFL.
Currently in his fifth year of football after being selected by GWS with the second pick of the 2013 draft, Kelly has been one of the vital cogs of the Giant’s vaunted ‘Ferrari midfield’.
A durable player, Kelly will line up for his 100th game in Saturday’s elimination final against Sydney, having played 99 out of a possible 115 matches.
However, the makings of his milestone match won’t come as a surprise to those who have nurtured and tracked his development since his underage footballing days.
Already having earned All-Australian honours in 2013 after a stellar National Championships campaign for Vic Metro, Kelly would immediately stamp his claim as a future star by collecting a rising star nomination in just his second game of at the elite level.
While in his fourth year of football, Kelly replicated his junior feats, earning his first AFL All-Australian honour in 2017.
And while his achievements have made him a star of the AFL and thrust the 23-year-old into the spotlight, most would be hard-pressed to find Kelly basking in his glory.
His former Brighton Grammar football coach, Robert Shaw, told AFLPlayers.com.au that the GWS midfielder’s quiet persona can be traced back to his time as a reserved school student.
“He was very talented academically, but what stood out was that he was very quiet, very hard to get a word out of, which wasn’t a shyness, it was just a humbleness,” Shaw said.
“He’s always been pretty embarrassed about his natural ability. He was great with his peer groups, especially those who had lesser ability, and he didn’t put himself above them.”
A popular member of the Brighton Grammar fraternity, Kelly went about balancing state, TAC Cup, AIS Academy and school football with a minimum of fuss.
Shaw remembers how most onlookers noted from a very early age that Kelly seemed destined to find his way to the elite level.
Among all the plaudits for his classy ball use and impeccable decision making though, Shaw says Kelly’s slight build was the only thing which people feared may hinder his ability in an AFL environment.
“We always knew he would play AFL throughout year seven and eight, he was elite,” Shaw said.
“The only question mark was whether he would be physically capability at the AFL level. Josh isn’t a big, robust body at that level but he’s filled out strongly enough to move from the wing to the midfield.”
Another person who similarly agrees with Shaw’s sentiments is Kelly’s former TAC Cup coach, Jeremy Barnard.
After coaching Kelly at the Sandringham Dragons, Barnard told AFLPlayers.com.au that he knew once his star prodigy was exposed to an elite environment, the weight gain would inevitably come.
“I always thought it wouldn’t be an issue,” Barnard said.
“I knew that over his time in the AFL system, he’d put some meat on the bones and he’ll be asked to play in the middle and that’s what happened.
“If you’ve got a Rolls Royce, you don’t chuck it onto the freeway, you put it on the open road.”
In his top age year, Kelly was a part of the 2013 Sandringham squad that provided four of that year’s top 30 draft picks. With so many talented individuals vying to be drafted in the one team, Barnard says Kelly’s elite skills and running ability clearly put him ahead of his peers.
“He’s always been exceptionally balanced and exceptionally skilful,” Barnard said.
“He reminded me a lot of Dean Kemp, very balanced, hard to push over, sound decision maker and elite runner.
“We were very lucky that year we had Christian Salem, Zach Merrett and Nathan Freeman, so he came through with those boys. But he’s always showed us he was a step ahead of those guys.”
Heading into his third successive finals campaign, Kelly will once again be an important part of the Giants’ quest for the club’s first premiership.
And if some think the Giants star has already reached his full potential, Barnard says Kelly has the ability to lift his game to another level.
“He’s got a fair bit of improvement left in him,” Barnard said.
“He’d be working hard with his coaches to keep improving his game. I always thought he was going to be a good player, but he bypassed my expectations that’s for sure.
“Any good judges would put him into the top five players in the league.”