AT HALF-TIME of Carlton's semi-final thriller against Melbourne last September, the crowd got to its feet and took a breather. Some went for food, some grabbed a drink. Others turned around and noticed Harley Reid. With a hoody draped over his shoulders and wearing a t-shirt and shorts, Reid was as casual as they come sitting on level two of the MCG's Olympic Stand having driven up for the Friday night clash with a mate.
But he didn't slip into the crowd. As he made his way to the exit, the yet-to-be-drafted, yet-to-debut 18-year-old was stopped for six photos with fans. For each, he was warm and friendly, happy to jump in a snap with kids and a couple of adults, too. In the middle of one of the biggest and best games of the season, it was Reid who they had their eyes on.
"I looked around and I saw Gill McLachlan and Sam Pang and The Front Bar lads and I was like 'I'd be the last bloke here who people would want a photo with'," Reid says. "I was probably underdressed for where I was sitting, I had no clue. It's obviously cool to get people to ask for photos like that, but it was a weird one that night."
Reid has gotten used to the selfie requests. He's also gotten used to the weirdness. It's been part of a crazy year where he has been one of footy's biggest names despite not even being on an AFL list.
In fact, the expected No.1 pick at the upcoming AFL Draft has been so omnipresent that he's become singularly known by his first name – Harley, the two-time under-18 All-Australian, swashbuckling midfielder, dangerous one-on-one forward, headband-wearing fend-off machine, country kid who already has a boots sponsorship with Puma, whose highlights make him a TikTok sensation and who has nearly 40,000 followers on Instagram despite not being picked up yet.
Reid has become the face of the next generation of draftees; his talents interlocked with a rising interest in the AFL draft, a growing knowledge of the trade period and a higher expectation of the teenagers once they hit the big time. Read all about it, alright.
BEING Harley Reid has always revolved around football. As a three-year-old he had already shown to his family he was a good kick, slamming the ball down onto his right foot. He would follow his father, Mark, down to training at Tongala, the Goulburn Valley dairy-farming town nearly three hours out of Melbourne.
Harley would be there every Tuesday and Thursday night and again on Saturdays for the game, watching his dad play. Mark played 401 games with the Blues, retiring in 2013 after a long career. He's been described as 'super talented but laconic', with his regular flying for marks seeing him feature on The Footy Show segment 'Almost Football Legends'. He was invited to play with the Murray Bushrangers but didn't go, instead debuting for Tongala at 16. His sister, Harley's aunty, is the games record holder for the netball team.
The family genes are strong. Harley's great grandfather was invited to train with Fitzroy, but went off to the army instead. His grandfather on his dad's side, Stuart, and grand uncle Darryl were also country stars for Tongala. Mark's mum is Albanian and her brother, Barry, was a prominent player. Harley's mum, Vanessa, was also a gun netballer and his sisters – Hollie and Jasmin – play A-grade netball. His uncle, Steve, who has played a hands-on role in Harley's life and also made the Murray Bushrangers squad before a back injury struck, said his nephew was a nice mix of their traits.
"Harley's the perfect genetic blend of our family. He's got the athleticism of Mark, which is the Reid side. When Harley is doing that athletic, bouncing, run and carry – that's all the Reids. But then when you see Harley in the goalsquare one-on-one and hard to beat, that's uncle Barry. That's all the power," Steve says.
"Then Vanessa – you did not want to cross her on a netball court. She was super competitive, just had to win, which is that other side of him. Mark was not like that at all. You blend all that together and mix it with a bit of exposure and we see him now."
The Reid family got glimpses of Harley's talents early. He was 10 when he played his first under-12s game at Tongala. He was named best on ground and then the under-14s were short for players in the next game so asked Reid if he wanted to play up.
Vanessa had concerns about her son playing against the boys four years older than Harley. But he went out and kicked six goals and gathered his second best afield of the day.
As an under-14, he kicked nearly 130 goals in a season, with the feat making the metropolitan news. The town of Tongala started to notice Reid's talents but knew his bloodlines, too. The family played football, tennis, netball, volleyball, indoor cricket, squash and everything in between.
"There's a Reid or a Nexhip (the other side of the family) in pretty much every team ever. They call it 'Reidsville'," Steve says with a laugh. "It's a typical country town with a massive sporting heart and community."
IT WAS no surprise then that Harley Reid's ability took no time to catch attention where it mattered. He made the Victorian under-12s and under-15s side, before showing his talents at under-16s level with Vic Country.
Last year, as a bottom-ager for the Bendigo Pioneers, he starred: wearing long sleeves, he was dynamic through the midfield. For Vic Country's under-18 side, he won his team a game in defence with several crucial marks and nearly won another as a goalkicker.
It was in the middle of 2022 that he was crowned the likely No.1 pick in 2023. He hasn't relinquished that title since, even if it's still not something he's used to. When he sees it, he feels like he's reading about another player, hearing about a character rather than himself.
"It didn't really feel like it was me last year, who they were talking about," he says. "I looked back a couple of years and I always used to see everything was about Nick Daicos and Will Ashcroft and would be like, 'Oh mate, one day I wish that was me'. But when it is, it doesn't feel like it's real, it doesn't feel like it's me.
"It was intimidating coming into the season and it was hard to find a bit of continuity switching between six different teams. It was an honour to do that, but it was tough to get that consistency and I didn't play as many games as I'd have liked this year."
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That didn't curtail the attention, though. With every game and highlights reel on Instagram and TikTok, Reid's fame grew.
He first started getting asked for photos and autographs after a Bendigo game in April. Then it exploded – although the signature needs some work.
"I'm still writing with crayon, I haven't got my pen licence yet so I don't know if I legally should be doing it. I've got a signature down pat, I think it needs a bit of work though. I've signed a choccy milk, I signed a Croc shoe once. There's been some weird things that have come up," he says.
"After that Bendigo game I got a selfie across the fence and signed that pill and that's when the photos started to fire up. It's been flat out and pretty humbling."
After injuring his knee late in the season for the Pioneers, Reid went and got changed and walked back around the ground to rejoin his teammates on the bench. It took him a full quarter, stopping for around a dozen autographs and nearly as many chats. When Bendigo's season finished, he was mobbed at Mars Stadium by kids wanting a snap with him.
Steve, who has three kids, was also waiting to get a pic of his nephew with his cousins.
"I had to jump the queue with my boys before we took off," he says.
During the mid-year under-18 carnival when Vic Country travelled to Perth to face Western Australia, Reid was informed that there would be local media waiting for him at the baggage carousel.
"After a four-hour flight I was pretty dazed, I wasn't looking in good nick. There were cameras everywhere and the attention was on me. It was a moment in my footy career where it kind of hit me," he says.
Reid was best on ground in that game, kicking two goals from 26 disposals in a blistering display that certified him as the best prospect in the pool. Afterwards, he gave a pair of his boots to a fan who had made a sign asking for them, something that soon became a norm in his appearances.
"I gave away a couple of pairs. It's tough because you're like, 'Ohhh I don't know', but it's lucky I didn't pay for them. I wouldn't be giving away $300 boots if I did," he says.
"I've been super grateful and privileged to be with Puma this year. I love brand new boots. I just chuck them straight on."
Everywhere he went there were expectations this year.
Before he started training at Essendon in the pre-season, Bombers players had watched his highlights on YouTube to see what all the fuss was about. When he dominated a quarter of an intraclub game a week later, they knew it was real. When he played for Carlton's VFL side, Blues fans went to watch him, not their own AFL-listed players.
He has kept in touch with 2020 No.1 pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan about dealing with the pressures of being a top pick. When he walked past Melbourne superstar Christian Petracca and the Demons at an airport, Petracca messaged him later to apologise for not catching up. The previous message in their Instagram chat had been Reid sending him a photo of the pair when Petracca presented him his Victorian under-12s jumper.
"That'll look great when you win a Brownlow when you're older," Petracca said. "Yeah, when you're presenting it to me," Reid shot back.
Sometimes Reid laughs at the memes with his face on it or the photo edits of him in different clubs' jumpers that circulate online. Scouts smile at the unprecedented 'Harley effect' that has turbocharged interest in the '23 crop. But for the most part, Reid is able to separate his life with the online discussion that has given rise to his young celebrity, which his uncle says is due to a few factors.
"It's a function of a couple of things. His personality type really gives him that protective edge about not worrying about the future, not worrying about what's happening outside. He says, 'Oh I haven't given that much thought yet' and people probably dismiss that as just a straight bat answer. But I can hand on heart tell you that's him," Steve says.
"He's literally only worrying about what he's doing today and a few days ahead, which has protected him a lot with the outside noise of what's going on.
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"The other thing is where we're from, we are sheltered a lot from the noise of the city. He's just Harley, a kid, he's our family who has been there for three generations or more so he can just get around and live a normal life. It's very different to the few times I've taken him to Melbourne and I'm like, 'Jesus, this is full on'. You get blown away. I think it would be a very different story if we lived in Melbourne.
"He's still got that loveable character about him. He's got a big community spirit too. You walk down the street with him or go to the footy with him and there'll be a 70-year-old lady and he'll walk up and give them a cuddle and a kiss. He treats everyone like they're family. That's why people look at his community spirit and he's always talking about 'Tonny'. The last six months he's matured so much."
Reid agrees that being out of the city has helped him handle being football's most hyped junior ever.
"I know what I'm stepping into when I come to Melbourne. But the balance between home and Melbourne is something I'm hugely grateful for," Reid said. "In Melbourne it's like 'Woah that's Harley Reid' and that side heats up. But when I'm at home it's a place I can be myself and everyone around me treats me like the normal Harley I am."
SOME things you might not know about Harley Reid: his favourite colour is pink; he is a Geelong supporter; he is a generous liker on Instagram; he is a part-time jiu jitsu practiser; he is a fussy eater (a recent run-in with his first oyster didn't go well). When he's driving up and back from Tongala, his music habits change between his favourite song Travellin' Soldier or a newer track called Prada.
"Sometimes I chuck on the new Gettable episode as well," he says.
His humour, cheek and quick wit have come through more and more in recent times. He was careful with the media he did throughout the season; just because everyone was talking about him, it didn't mean he was doing the talking, so he was selective along the way.
The jiu jitsu has been an activity he's done since the end of 2021 with Steve, who has a long experience in the sport. They go to the gym together in Echuca and it has continued to develop his core strength, which is already a big part of his game. The fend-offs that have come to mark his style – he breaks tackle after tackle, sometimes even searching for an opponent to shove away – have benefited from the in-the-ring jiu jitsu challenges.
However, the last time they wrestled went astray, with Harley taking a chunk of Steve's eye out by accident and seeing him rush to hospital while he took care of his little cousins. A black eye lasted a little longer, but the score stayed the same. "Harley one, Steve zero," Harley says.
In counting down the days until the draft, Reid has been busy.
At the Draft Combine, he met with a handful of clubs and left every interview laughing, smiling and chucking his arm around other prospects for a joke. He has spoken to his manager, Nick Gieschen at Connors Sports Management, about his next steps once he enters the system. In recent weeks he has been training hard with Steve – on Mondays doing an AFL running program, Tuesdays a mixed martial arts cardio session, pilates on Wednesdays, agility running and skills on Thursdays and Saturday more goalkicking and running.
He filled in as the Pioneers' under-15s side's runner once his season was done, and has been finishing his year 12 exams at St Joseph's College in Echuca. This week he has travelled to Darwin, where he'll link up with some friends at Palmerston and train there. Amid the madness of this year, school has been a sanctuary.
"A lot of values that I've had to have at school have helped my footy as well – having structure, being organised, having independence. I've been able to carry that over into footy. It's been huge and I didn't think I'd ever say it but study has put my mind off footy," he says.
Recruiters, meanwhile, have been studying ways to get Reid all year. He is the favourite to be West Coast's pick No.1 when names are called, but North Melbourne, Melbourne and Hawthorn have all launched bids to try and trade for the top selection to get Reid.
The interest in if a trade happens for the top pick is built on a number of factors unique to this year.
One, it shows Reid's appeal to clubs as a modern game-breaker in the same style as Dustin Martin, Jordan De Goey and Christian Petracca. Two, the Eagles' decision to trade pick two last year for multiple early selections has given clubs the hope they could do it again. Three, with West Australian talent Daniel Curtin ranked close to Reid, there has been a view the Eagles could shift back and take the local player, particularly if Reid had an issue with moving (he doesn't). Four, trade talks are now a year-long media discussion no longer confined to the off-season. Hope sells and Reid is hope for a number of supporter bases.
Only one will get him, though, and now he must wait like everyone else.
"To have this chance is huge so I want to take it," he says. "If I end up going pick one, for whoever it is, it would be amazing. It's huge. I've got no clue where I'll land or what happens.
"But I'm still trying to soak it up. I'm a live-in-the-moment type of guy."