It’s a photo that speaks a thousand words – Billy Stretch and Alex Neal-Bullen stand side-by-side with their thumbs up, smiling from ear to ear. Both fresh from belting out a rendition of ‘We’re from Tigerland’ after an emphatic victory with the Glenelg Football Club, having both been named among the Tigers’ best.
At last week’s AFL Players’ Association Induction camp, best friends Billy Stretch and Alex Neal-Bullen spoke with aflplayers.com.au about their road to being drafted to Melbourne together in November’s National Draft.
“It’s been a long journey. We’ve been playing together since Under-13s but we actually crossed paths earlier in under 10’s when we competed in little athletics against each other,” Stretch said.
“We were always running against each other, so it’s quite ironic that we crossed paths again at Glenelg, where we played our whole junior career together.”
But as the duo bowed out in the SANFL finals, it looked likely to be the final time the 18-year-olds would play alongside each other.
Up until then, it had been a tale of two mates – one a son of a Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott Medallist, who was certain to arrive at the Demons via the father-son rule, and the other a gifted midfielder with a competitive edge and a thirst for the physical side of the game.
It was beyond the pair’s wildest dreams that they would be playing together at AFL level, let alone for the same team.
“I always thought Billy would make it and that there was a slim chance I would be drafted to the AFL, but to be drafted alongside Billy is amazing,” Neal-Bullen said.
“there were times when we’d joke ‘imagine if we ended up at Melbourne together’ “- Billy Stretch
“I still can’t really believe it, there were times when we’d light-heartedly joke around and think imagine if we both ended up at Melbourne together,” Stretch said.
Neal-Bullen says he still gets goosebumps when recalling how draft night played out at home with his family.
“When Adelaide’s pick 35 came up, I thought that was where I was most likely to go. But they took ‘Wiggy’ (Harrison Wigg) and that’s when I realised I could be a chance to join Billy at Melbourne.”
“From what we all heard, Alex was going to go a lot earlier in the draft, and we didn’t realistically think he was any chance of slipping past Adelaide at pick 35,” Stretch said.
After an anxious few moments, the dream the pair had joked about became a reality. Neal-Bullen’s name was read out at pick 40.
Stretch’s parents, Steven and Leona, immediately made their way over to the Neal-Bullen household, red and blue scarves in tow, singing “it’s a grand old flag, it’s a highflying flag”.
For the parents, it was a culmination of years of support. Thousands of kilometres and hours’ worth of driving, airport pick-ups and drop-offs, late nights and early mornings all coming to a dream result for both families.
Stretch called his best mate moments after and admits they shared a few tears. Within a matter of minutes, Neal-Bullen had tweeted ‘Brothers reunited’.
The pair has adapted quickly to AFL life, and Stretch says both he and Neal-Bullen have been impressed by their new club and teammates.
“The bond between this group is a really strong one, and it’s all really promising. There is excitement among the group; we feel we are really ready to start climbing the ladder. The positivity between Roosy and the players is great.”
“we’re just trying to work through the pre-season and help each other out ” – alex neal-bullen
“The main message has been to pace ourselves and not to build too much expectation.While their first pre-season has been demanding, Stretch said he’s enjoyed the experience.
“At the moment it’s just about enjoying our footy, working hard, and earning the respect of the playing group and staff – the rest will follow.”
Stretch has moved in with fellow South Australian Jimmy Toumpas and has tried to follow his lead, both inside and away from the football club. Meanwhile, Neal-Bullen has moved in with a host family, but has shadowed Nathan Jones on the track and is working closely with Jack Viney in the gym.
The duo hopes to one day recreate the photo from their Glenelg days, smiling in the rooms together after a Melbourne win, but for now the focus is on development.
“I’m just excited by the opportunity to be part of it all,” Stretch said.
“We both want to try and play some really consistent football for Casey in the VFL first.”
Neal-Bullen shared his new teammate’s sentiment.
“Hopefully we can play some AFL games together in the future, but for now we’re just trying to work through the pre-season and help each other out when we can.”
Photo: Gordon Anderson