‘He’s got real swagger’: The rise of Harry McKay
Leigh Brown was so excited he made the phone call from his car.
As coach of TAC Cup side Gippsland Power, Brown had leapt back behind the wheel after finishing a guest appearance at Warragul under-18s training in 2014.
He had just spent the previous hour marvelling at the skill and stature of twin towers, Harry and Ben McKay.
"I called Pete Francis (Power talent manager) and said: 'Pete, where have these two been? How come we haven't had them in before?'" Brown recalled this week.
Francis said: "He'd seen these twins and he was absolutely raving about them and their forward craft and what they looked like.
"He said: 'If I've ever seen kids who are going to play AFL football it's these two McKay boys'."
The brothers had slipped through the recruiting net. Brown, a 246-game AFL swingman who won a premiership with Collingwood in 2010, did some digging and found the pair had only shot up in height a few months before.
"Their hands were just really clean. It was a wet or dewy night and just the way they handled the footy, I thought, 'Gee, you don't get too many blokes that tall who can handle the footy like that'," Brown said.
"I was pretty excited when I saw them running around. Every now and then you find a player or two at a local club and we made sure we invited them in pretty quick for next pre-season."
Harry took one game of the TAC Cup season the following year to leave AFL recruiters with the same Brown-like feeling.
He kicked four goals on debut against the Dandenong Stingrays and went on to play for Vic Country in its national carnival title win.
At 17, McKay's marking, agility and aerobic capacity - he ran a 14.1 beep test at the draft combine - saw Carlton swoop with pick 10 in the 2015 national draft.
At 21, McKay has taken the most contested marks in the AFL this year. His 22 contested grabs is the third-most after Round 5 since Champion Data started recording the stat in 1999, behind only Travis Cloke (25 in 2011) and Matthew Lloyd (25 in 1999) and level with Matthew Richardson (22 in 2001).
At the same age, McKay is averaging more contested marks per game than current stars Lance Franklin, Tom Hawkins, Joe Daniher, Josh Kennedy and Jeremy Cameron.
Last Sunday's stunning 20-possession, 11-mark, four-goal breakout game against the Western Bulldogs was the performance many saw coming.
"His biggest thing this year is he's done a full pre-season so it's allowed him to play and get better at training and not just perform on game day," Carlton assistant coach David Teague said.
"He couldn't physically do the work early on, which sometimes happens when you take a 200cm draft pick. They do take time and he got away with it for periods of games because of his athleticism, but he's trained really well."
McKay's 2016 debut season was ruined by a back stress fracture, a toe injury flared in 2017 and still lingered for much of last year.
It meant limited minutes on the training track. But all that changed last summer.
"This year, to go to where he's got to, is outstanding," Teague said.
"But he did it for a long duration of pre-season. If we had a best and fairest for the pre-season he would have been right up there."
One person who has been crucial in McKay's development is senior teammate Matthew Lobbe.
The pair started a post-training routine of playing schoolyard favourite, "Markers Up".
"After every single session they sit there and compete. They have a comp," Teague said.
"'Lobes is pretty crafty and he's taught Harry a lot."
They say McKay has never lacked confidence, but the on-field gains mean he is growing into the strut.
"He's got the real swagger," Brown said.
"Being around footy for a long time as a lot of us have, the really good players have got a bit of a strut and Harry certainly has that.
"At times it might come across as arrogant, but he's got real confidence in his ability and what he can do and we've seen snippets of that at AFL level.
"There's a line with it, I think, and when you go over it, it can be detrimental to your footy because your attitude isn't quite right. But his workrate to get his hands dirty was always really good."
At the Blues' Ikon Park, McKay is infectious company and he's either giving cheek or copping it.
"He's definitely got a confidence, but it's reasonably balanced," Teague said.
"It's that little bit of a swagger, but until you've done it continuously it's also this, 'I want to have this swagger, but I'm not sure I've got it yet' mentality."
Teague joked that many at the club breathed a sigh of relief when McKay's four-bounce goal-of-the-year contender sailed through for a behind against the Dogs.
"As much as you'd love him to kick it for him, there's a part of you that's glad he didn't because we'd hear about it for the rest of the year," Teague laughed.
"He was spewing and I think he was happy Eddie (Betts) kicked that one from the pocket because that might have overshadowed it anyway.
"It would have been really nice if he'd done it, but he has that capability, so don't be surprised if he does it again at some stage.
"Everyone at the club knows how hard he's worked on his game. It's a great story and a great sell to the players."