After four years and 18 games with GWS, James Stewart returned home to Melbourne in the off-season via a trade with Essendon. The 23-year-old key forward played his first game for the Bombers on Saturday night, and sat down with Aflplayers.com.au to discuss his journey to Tullamarine.
How have you enjoyed the last seven or eight months being back in Melbourne and being with Essendon?
After spending four years in Sydney and moving away as an 18-year-old, it’s quite nice to be back home. I’m from Melbourne originally and having my family based here has meant that I’ve really enjoyed being back. I did really enjoy living in Sydney and enjoyed the lifestyle and felt immersed in the footy club and my life up there, but moving down has brought some normality back into my life. Having that balance of family and friends here to catch up with on a regular basis has been really good. Obviously, it was a huge move to come back down to a big club in Melbourne, but it’s been a worthwhile one.
When you were going through that draft period, were you prepared for a move interstate? I know there had been Collingwood father-son rumours building…
Yeah, I had slightly unique circumstances leading into the draft with the potential father-son situation. That didn’t eventuate which helped me to wrap my head around what may lie ahead and I was confident that I would land at an AFL club. I guess I didn’t think too hard into moving interstate, I was more just keen for the opportunity, no matter where it was. In the end, that opportunity was in Sydney and GWS ended up taking four or five Melbourne boys and a lot of those boys I knew and had played with at under 16 onwards. It was comforting to have a few familiar faces, and the move was really good for me. I look back now and I think it was such an exciting time and a great city to move to. To be part of the fabric of a new, and yet to be established footy club was something that I’m proud of. It has been a terrific start to my career and some of the people I’ve met along the way have been fantastic.
The move to the Bombers was more about opportunity rather than any desire to leave the Giants… Is that a fair statement?
Definitely. It came down to where I could play regular senior footy. Although I was confident that I could break in and I was good enough to play in the Giants’ best team, I found myself on the outer for the majority of 2016 and they were having a super year. I still held on to the fact that I may be able to force my way in with good form in the NEAFL. That didn’t eventuate and it probably in a way helped me focus on playing footy. I was always optimistic that an opportunity could come about due to an injury or my own form. I felt like I continued to progress in 2016 and kept improving and that resulted in a NEAFL premiership. I was then able to sit down and digest what had happened over the course of 2016 and really assess my options.
How did the trade period pan out? Was Essendon a destination that looked obvious for a while, or was it all finalised quite late in the piece?
It was quite a quick sequence of events. The trade period lasts two weeks and I don’t think I really decided until the last day or two. My manager was doing a lot of work behind the scenes right through the year and keeping me informed with what was going on, but I didn’t want to know too much. I was still confident that I could turn things around with the Giants after 2016. When it came to the trade period, it was about assessing where I could fit in and find an environment where I could develop at the rate I wanted to and become the player I want to be.
Plenty of familiar faces have left the Giants over the last few years and come to Melbourne. It really shows the quality of players they’ve drafted given how many are squeezed out and forced to seek new opportunities…
They’ve had and still have a lot of young, talented and driven kids that are up there. Our NEAFL side last year was super strong and that was proven when we won the premiership. There were a lot of young players I was playing with in the reserves that could fit into a lot of AFL sides across the competition. Even though I spent a lot of time in the seconds, the Giants were great for my development and the people there and mates I made is something I really treasure. It was a weird one because I was really settled in Sydney. I became really entrenched in the city, even though on-field I wasn’t getting the results that I desired. It was a tough decision but looking back I feel it was the right one.
Moving forward to Saturday night… when were you told you’d be debuting for the club?
It’s been a funny start to the season for me in the first few rounds. I’ve been really close to playing and it’s been a little bit frustrating. The club have brought in Cale Hooker to play up forward which is what they’ve chosen to do and I was really confident that I could fit into the mix up there and add another dimension to the forward six. Fortunately, last week and off the back of a tough loss against Fremantle, they decided to select me and I was able to repay the faith. It was still a little bit of a surprise to be picked, even though I was confident my opportunity was quite close. I still needed to remain focused and continue to do the right things. To get the news late Wednesday that I’d be playing on the Saturday night in James Kelly’s 300th game and in the country round for the club, I knew it was a big occasion and I was looking forward to it. To have my family and friends there made it even more special.
Given you’ve played at the level before, I assume you weren’t completely nervous but feeling a little strange to be running out with a new team and with a different theme song?
It was a different experience. For what the Essendon boys have played in front of in the past, it wasn’t an enormous crowd but it was a great environment to play in front of 50,000 at the MCG on a Saturday night. I have played at the MCG in the past, but never on a Saturday night. I’ve really settled in with the group at Essendon. There’s a great feeling at the place and I’ve made some strong relationships already. I just wanted to go out and show what I could do and prove that I could play at that level. To come away with the win was fantastic.
How about that start! You must have been delighted to finish off a few goals early on…
It was quite good. I must admit, I was really blowing in the first 10 minutes and I was pretty anxious because I wanted to get my hands on the footy early after starting on the ground. The ball was moving really quickly and the pressure and intensity was really high, so I felt lucky to be able to get on the end of a few goals. I had to pinch myself a little bit.
Talk me through your role with the team, because it’s a pretty dynamic forward line with plenty of versatility with the likes of Joe Daniher, yourself, Cale Hooker, Orazio Fantasia and Josh Green etc. there’s plenty of options there…
Woosh and Hayden Skipworth have been preaching for us to play the Essendon brand that we’ve been building over the pre-season. For me coming into the team it was all about keeping it simple which is how I like to play. I play instinct-based footy which helps me to best showcase my attributes like my skills and athletic ability. We pride ourselves on our pressure and being a young forward line helps that. A lot of us haven’t played much footy together but I thought we gelled pretty quickly.
You spoke about the relationships you’ve started to form, is there a specific player or group of players that have taken you under their wing?
I’m next to Michael Hurley’s locker and we get along really well. He’s a terrific guy and I’ve loved getting to know him. Aside from that, the forward group are really close and we get together quite often and have formed a close group that I guess you could say is a team within a team. That’s been something that has helped to fast-track our development. Coming from the Giants, I treasured the close-knit relationship of the group up there. A lot of the guys were from Melbourne predominantly or interstate and we all came together and lived together and got to know the city and acclimatise ourselves to the landscape up there. To come to Essendon and feel a similar environment amongst the players and in the forward line in particular will hold us in great stead going forward.
Looking at yourself, what are the specific things for you to work on to help you cement your spot?
There’s a lot of things. I’m still quite young so I’m working all the time. I haven’t had too many full pre-seasons so having a big one with Essendon this year has helped me. I need to play a bit more on instinct and play to my strengths which I mentioned are my skills and my speed. Over the last few years I have been able to improve the deficiencies in my game, and it’s now about being able to bring out the strengths. At times I did that over the weekend and I look forward to doing more of it.
For Essendon fans who are still getting to know you, what are you like off the field? What are you into?
I love hanging out with my friends and family. I’m fairly laid back also. When I’m at the footy club I like to do everything to a tee, but outside of footy I like to chill out and enjoy life. I enjoy traveling and seeing movies. I have my girlfriend down from Sydney so I spend a lot of time with family and being back in Melbourne has given me another dimension back in my life that I have missed in the last couple of years. It’s been special to have that network of support around me.
Tell me about your interview on Saturday night after the game? Did you cop any stick from the boys after calling Luke Darcy ‘Moons?’
Yeah, there has been a little bit of banter after that. I’ve tried to claim that I did it deliberately as a bit of an ice-breaker. Honestly, it was a blue and it has probably created a nice blooper for me. Fortunately, Matthew Richardson and Luke Darcy were able to have a laugh about it and keep it humorous. It was a funny sequence of events and I don’t know what was going through my mind at that point!
Thanks for taking the time to have a chat and good luck for the season!