JORDAN Croft was there in 2016. That famous day the Western Bulldogs ended a 62-year premiership drought at the MCG. And seven days earlier when Luke Beveridge's side secured a passage to the Grand Final in memorable circumstances in western Sydney. They are two of his favourite memories.
The 18-year-old wasn't born when his dad, Matthew Croft, played the last of his 186 games in red, white and blue in 2004, but has grown up with royal Western Bulldogs blood pumping through his veins.
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Croft has enjoyed the rare opportunity to peek behind the curtains through his father's involvement on the board as football director between 2016 and 2019 and his own inclusion in the father-son program at the Whitten Oval.
The Maribyrnong College student was named at centre half-forward in the Coates Talent League Team of the Year on Wednesday night after a strong season for the Calder Cannons and for Vic Metro in the under-18 national championships mid-year.
Now it is getting close to decision time. Croft and his manager, Tom Petroro from TLA Worldwide, will meet with Western Bulldogs list manager Sam Power in the coming fortnight before making a decision whether to nominate as a father-son selection.
Father-son picks have featured at the Hollywood end of the past two drafts. Last year, Brisbane secured Will Ashcroft with pick No.2 after Greater Western Sydney opted to select Aaron Cadman rather than make the Lions match the bid. Collingwood secured Nick Daicos at pick No.4 in the 2021 AFL Draft, two picks after the Dogs landed Sam Darcy by matching a bid from the Giants.
The Bulldogs have reaped the rewards of ancestry more than any other club with three father-son recruits currently on the list – Tom Liberatore, Darcy and Rhylee West – following the recent departures of Mitch Wallis, Zaine Cordy and Lachie Hunter. Croft is expected to be the next young gun to follow in his old man's footsteps.
"I've barracked for the Bulldogs for so long, so I am aware of the father-son history. It's been a privilege to watch all those players come through. Other clubs don't have that many father-sons. It would be a privilege to be a part of that group," Croft told AFL.com.au this week.
"There is still quite a while to go before the draft. I haven't had a good talk with the Western Bulldogs just yet. There is more time to come with the Combine and stuff like that. I've had a few meetings with other clubs. I'm definitely open to other clubs. Wherever I am able to play footy is where I'll play."
While Croft is yet to signal his intentions – he has until the end of October to nominate – the club is preparing to match a bid in the teens for Croft and is in contention to trade away its two first-round picks – No.10 and Brisbane's first pick – to get ahead of the bid and secure pick No.4 from Gold Coast, which is looking to accumulate draft capital to allocate to four Academy prospects, including All-Australian spearhead Jed Walter.
Croft has been a member of the Dogs' father-son program since he was 12, most recently under the watch of football operations and talent pathways manager Dave Newton, who also oversees the club's Next Generation Academy. But unlike almost all of the draftees in this year's pool, Croft has benefited from living with someone who has lived his dream, someone who played with Tony Liberatore, Luke Darcy and Scott West.
"Having a dad that played AFL has been a good resource in terms of telling me of how to improve, what I've done well, what I've done wrong, those things after each game. It has been really good for my development as a player," Croft said.
"Not everyone gets that access to someone who played AFL. After games I get that insight into how I can keep improving. I think that's how he has been so influential on my footy, just having someone I can talk to about the challenges of footy. He has been a really good resource."
Croft spent a week at the start of the year training with the Western Bulldogs, learning off the likes of Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Aaron Naughton with the forwards, observing Marcus Bontempelli lay the foundations in the heat of summer before he became a five-time All-Australian.
"That was an insight into what footy is going to be like, hopefully, if I get drafted. It was a really good experience to work on the things I didn't have or improve the things I do have," he said.
"It was good to have a look at the best players up close, like 'Bont', and how they go about their training. That was the thing that stood out the most. Their training mannerisms and how professional they were stood out. They get the job done when it is time to get to work. Marcus Bontempelli was great with us, just getting around us and making us feel welcome."
Croft grew up in a sporty family. His twin brother Mitch is a member of the AIS volleyball program. Jordan spent a large chunk of his junior career playing down back but has blossomed into a key forward across the past 18 months.
He kicked five goals against the Northern Territory early in the Coates Talent League season, slotted three against South Australia during the championships and was involved in an enthralling encounter with first-round prospect Connor O'Sullivan from the Murray Bushrangers that cemented his draft status in the eyes of recruiters.
"This year has been the biggest learning experience I've had with footy," he said. "I've developed the most as a player, not just on the field but off it as well, focusing on diet, gym, recovery and things like that. This year has definitely been the biggest learning experience for me and just balancing school and sport. That's been pretty big.
"I feel like I've improved a lot more as a player compared to last year. I've learned the role a bit more. Played backline in juniors but this year and last year forward, so just learning the craft of the position and I think I've developed a lot this year."
Standing at 200cm but weighing in at 82kg, Croft will need to add some size to his frame if he is going to step in and play at AFL level next year.
With Rory Lobb playing alongside Naughton and Ugle-Hagan – plus Darcy fighting for a spot at either end – the teenager who played a couple of senior games for Maribyrnong Park in the Essendon District Football League may need to bide his time at Footscray if he heads to the kennel.
"There is definitely a lot of work to do over the off-season. I need to put on a little bit of size and get used to the speed of the next level as well. They will be the big things I need to work on. But I definitely think I can play AFL footy next year," he said.
The last time a Croft was running around for the Western Bulldogs, he finished with five goals. If the stars align, there will be another father-son recruit wearing the red, white and blue in 2024, playing alongside the players he grew up supporting from the stands.