Friendship, family, and football – Inside the journey of AFL Draft prospect Angus Baker
ANGUS BAKER is preparing for one of the biggest days of his life as the 2019 AFL Draft approaches later this month.
Surrounded by the people closest to him, Angus will watch the draft from his Dad’s home in Sydney in the hope of an AFL team calling his name.
While draft day can be unsettling, he will have a rare sense of calm because instead of focusing on anxiousness, he is relying on the three pillars that have gotten him this far, friendship, family, and football.
A KID WITH A DREAM
Born and raised in Sydney, Angus’ father, an avid AFL supporter signed him up to play Auskick at the age of six, and after his very first kick of the synthetic football, his dream of playing in the AFL was born.
At the age of 12, he joined the QBE Sydney Swans Academy program, an elite football environment that focuses on individual player development, centred on the development of aspiring AFL talent and their ability to contribute in a team environment.
“Sydney’s Academy program prepared me a lot; I feel like I got a steppingstone over a lot of other players,” Baker said.
“There were a lot of elite players in the squad, you’re going against them every day, as hard as you can, and competing.
“Your preparation for senior football can’t get better than that.”
Having progressed through the Academy ranks Angus’ dream of playing AFL football for his boyhood club edged closer to a reality, making his NEAFL debut for Sydney’s reserve squad, at the age of 17, enabling Angus the opportunity to prove himself against senior listed talent.
It was in the NEAFL competition where he really began to shine, named in the Allies squad, establishing himself as a genuine draft prospect.
As the then 18-year-old began to build momentum in his journey to the draft he suffered a fractured ankle, ruling the draft hopeful out for the remaining season fixtures, derailing any ambition of being drafted.
“Suffering the fractured ankle really disrupted my momentum, I wasn’t the most confident player back then but when I was selected in the Allies squad it was the first time in my career that I almost felt like I had a future in the (AFL) system,” he said.
“Being told I was going to miss the rest of the season and miss out on the draft it almost felt that I’d wasted my time in Sydney’s program, and failed to use the opportunity they’d given me since I was a young kid.”
On the verge of defeat his pain soon turned to joy when Chris Smith, the head of Sydney’s Academy program invited him to remain in the system for a further season as an overage player, a significant step towards being drafted and giving him a second chance to prove he belongs on an AFL list.
Having impressed during the off-season Angus was then invited to play in Sydney’s opening pre-season fixture, an intra-club match at Moore Park, an opportunity to showcase his talent against the club’s senior listed talent.
However, it was at this moment Angus’ childhood dream of playing in the AFL was shattered.
In the first quarter he attempted to tackle Sydney midfielder Josh Kennedy, but the weight of his body buckled his knee tearing his ACL, subsequently ruling him out for the season and the draft for the second consecutive year.
“I think I almost knew as soon as I went to ground, but in the back of my mind I was saying to myself, it’s nothing, it’s nothing, I guess it was almost a sense of denial.
“The next day I had a meeting with the doctor, and he told me that I’d torn my ACL.
“I remember just bursting into tears, just uncontrollable sobbing really.
“I’d had such a good pre-season and I had the mentality that it was my year, so hearing that my lifelong dream was essentially over really broke me, it put a pretty big strain on my relationship with football.”
LIFE WITHOUT FOOTBALL
Without football, without ambition, without hope, he decided to take an indefinite hiatus from football.
“After the injury I decided that the best move for me was to take a break, I’d been playing football at a high standard for so long that I think for my body and for me mentally I just needed to take a step away from the game.”
A player on the verge of draft selection, Angus’ decision to take a year off was meet with debate and dissatisfaction but asked if he regretted the decision, he says it was the best decision he’d ever made.
“I look back at that decision as the greatest call I’ve ever made, it’s no doubt been the biggest influence for me as a person and a footballer.”
Outside football Angus had a variety of talents and interests and although football was his passion he discovered throughout the course of his hiatus that football didn’t define him.
“I think during that period I was able to appreciate life outside of football and I grew so much as a person.”
“I think the greatest part about the break was that I was no longer Angus Baker the footballer, I was Angus Baker the friend, family member and person.”
A newfound passion for life he returned to the Sydney Swans to finish his rehabilitation, but with the end of the year edging closer and no longer eligible to play in the Academy program a decision needed to be made on the what would be the next stage of his footballing career.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE GAME AGAIN
Having not played a competitive game of football for over a year he was tasked with making yet another life-changing decision, where he would be playing in 2018.
After speaking with clubs from the VFL, SANFL and the NEAFL he approached the Sydney Swans for advice on what would be the appropriate next step, still harbouring the ambition to play at the highest level.
“I spoke with clubs from Victoria, South Australia and the NEAFL and needed help with the next step so I went back to Chris Smith at Sydney and he recommended the Canberra Demons program.
“Canberra flew me down that next weekend and gave me a tour of the facilities, and I was able to meet few of the key personnel around the club, which was great.
“I’d been in Canberra about an hour and almost signed on the spot, it’s a great club with great people and it’s a genuine pathway into the AFL.”
Not long after Angus made the call to relocate to Canberra, signing a two-year contact.
He made his Canberra debut in Round 1, and after only three games in the nation’s capital earnt himself a NEAFL Rising Star nomination, awarded to the most promising young talent in the NEAFL competition.
From there he didn’t look back, playing every game throughout the season, guiding the club to their first ever preliminary final.
“Signing with Canberra rejuvenated my love for football, it made me hungry for not only individual but team success, something I’d never really considered being in the Academy program.
“Canberra had never made the finals before so to fall one game short of a Grand Final was a really special achievement, especially for a group as young as we were.
“That elimination final against Sydney University would no doubt be the highlight of my career so far, to see the older players crying and so emotional really reiterated how much this club meant to people, so to be part of that was something I’ll never forget.”
As a remarkable NEAFL season closed he claimed Canberra’s Rising Star award, and with plans to travel abroad during the off-season he received the phone call that he had long dreamt of.
FROM SYDNEY TO CANBERRA AND BACK
Following his breakout 2018 campaign he received a call from Sydney Swans Recruitment Manager, Kinnear Beatson, who invited him to train with the senior side ahead of the AFL draft.
“Honestly the phone call caught me completely off guard, I didn’t think I’d had the greatest year coming back from the ACL, so I was a little surprised.
“Kinnear called and said they were interested in me and wanted me to train with the group before the draft, how can you say no to that.”
Following a fortnight of extensive training with the senior squad he was informed the club wouldn’t be selecting him in the draft, another blow to the 20-year-olds aspirations of playing AFL football.
“I would describe being told I wasn’t going to be drafted as frustrating, I truly believed that it was my time, that it was finally my chance to get that opportunity on an AFL list.
“I trained harder than I’d ever trained before, I finished the two weeks and felt like I couldn’t have done anything else to prove myself.”
Having missed out on draft selection again, Angus took another break from football, travelling to his native Sweden where his mother had recently relocated.
“Heading to Sweden was the perfect escape, football doesn’t exist over there, so it was easy to get my mind off everything.
“The support network I have over there was really something I needed.”
DEALING WITH REJECTION AND A NEW PERSPECTIVE
“Being told you’re not good enough, year after year certainly is draining but being so close only made me hungrier, I knew that they hadn’t seen the best of me yet.”
Returning to Canberra with a new profound passion for football and eager to improve on his spectacular 2018 season that’s exactly what Angus did in 2019.
He was among the NEAFL’s leaders all season for his match-winning ability, highlighted with being ranked first in the competition for Champion Data ranking points and second for disposals. He was named among Canberra’s best 14 times from 17 games, averaging 30 disposals, seven marks and five rebound 50s playing off half-back.
In August he become the second consecutive Canberra player to claim the NEAFL’s Rising Star Award, also winning Canberra’s Best & Fairest Award.
His superb 2019 form resulted in an invitation to the AFL Draft Combine last month, where he had another opportunity to demonstrate his natural athleticism and prove he is ready for his chance in the AFL system.
A DREAM THAT’LL NEVER DIE
Similar to many other AFL Draft prospects, Angus will find out his final destination in late November.
The process hasn’t been easy, but his family and friends will be right there with him like they have been his entire journey.
“When the draft comes, I’m just hoping my name gets called.”
“I’m just taking it day by day, it’s an exciting time.”
If his name isn’t called, he reiterated his dream of playing in the AFL isn’t over.
“For me I love the game too much to say the dream will never be there, I’m at point in my life where I’m comfortable and happy just playing that game that’s already given me so much.”