The Demons: Steven and Billy Stretch – Part 2

Steven and Billy, when Billy was at Glenelg

It was always my dream. I made the under eighteen state team and was selected in the AIS team during my draft year. That’s when I thought this could be a reality. Then you get a few interviews from AFL clubs. I started talking to Melbourne. That’s when we thought this could actually happen. It’s not a hundred percent. I’ve got to have a really good year.


Billy Stretch in 2017, talking about his dream to play for Melbourne


Born in Melbourne on 8 September, 1996, Billy can recall going to a few games – clad in a Melbourne jumper – prior to leaving Victoria. In 2002, the Stretch’s moved to Henley Beach, a seaside suburb in Adelaide. When Melbourne played Adelaide at Football Park, Steven took Billy with him. After the game, they’d go to the rooms.


Mingling with the players, Billy got autographs and his hair ruffled. ‘Jimmy Stynes, I got to meet him,’ Billy said. ‘I was pretty fortunate when I was young. I had such a passion for the Demons, just loved going to watch them play.’


When Billy was five, Steven took him to the Henley Sharks Football Club to play for the under eights. Steven and Des O’Dwyer coached the team. O’Dwyer had played eight games for Melbourne, and 143 with Norwood, Woodville and Woodville-West Torrens in the SANFL. O’Dwyer always said Billy was one of the most resilient, determined and talented kids he had coached.


Billy quickly developed his competitive instincts. ‘From a young age, I’ve always wanted to win,’ he explained. ‘I wanted to be the best player.’


He was selected as Melbourne’s junior mascot for a game in Adelaide, and ran onto Football Park with the players, through the banner. ‘Rodney Grinter was the runner,’ Billy said. ‘He took me under his wing and got me out on the field and took me off.’


That was Billy’s first taste of senior football.


At home, Billy spent countless hours kicking the footy with Steven in the backyard, or kicking a soft footy in the lounge room. Always knowing his father had played at the highest level, and wanting to do the same.


‘All these childhood memories, I’ll hold very close,’ Billy said. ‘I always had that motivation to play AFL footy from a young age. Mum and Dad helped me understand what it would take to make it at the highest level.’


Steven didn’t push Billy to play football, and often reminded him that junior football was about learning life values through teamwork, accepting defeat and improving. The main lesson was to have fun.


Billy said his dad rarely talked about his career, unless prompted. Rather than discuss the exhilaration of victory or the shattering defeats, Steven offered a more grounded perspective. ‘The relationships he’d formed over the years,’ Billy recalled. ‘About the times at the Junction Oval (with Melbourne).’


Steven explained to Billy how football changed from a part-time job, where the players worked during the day and trained at night, to fulltime professionalism. The first class facilities, a fulltime job and a wage far beyond what footballers earned in the eighties and nineties.


A history lesson, and encouraging his son to work hard. ‘Living under the same roof with someone that played AFL certainly makes a difference,’ Billy said.


As a teenager, Billy watched old Melbourne games and highlights of his father. He was aware of his father’s skills from backyard footy. ‘I could tell from the footage, even just kicking with him from a young age, he was very balanced,’ Billy said of his father. ‘I could certainly tell he was very athletic, moved across the ground with ease and had that penetrating kick.’


Steven displayed his awards and memorabilia in a glass cabinet in the upstairs living room. The cabinet is home to footy cards, the Bluey Truscott award and the Melbourne Footy Club Sword. Mementoes of other players, cups and badges. ‘I don’t think he does much with it anymore,’ Billy said. ‘It just sort of sits there. It’s always cool to look at, I was always pretty intrigued.’


The South Australian jumper Steven wore in a famous victory over Victoria hangs in a frame on the wall. Beside the jumper is a photo of the South Australian team. Steven kept a few Melbourne jumpers in a drawer.


Billy can’t recall pulling them on when he was a kid. He wanted his own.


Being coached by Dad


Billy in action for Glenelg



Like his father, Billy also played tennis. Steven recalls his son having talent. ‘Probably a bit better than me,’ he said. ‘He was competing in tennis tournaments, and also doing athletics. But he loved his footy.’


Billy enjoyed playing under his father, but he got on with all his junior coaches. From a young age, he wanted to learn, and craved success. The best way to learn was listening and doing what the coaches wanted. ‘I wasn’t there to have a good time,’ he said. ‘I wanted to win and do well.’


Steven coached Billy at the Henley Sharks and Immanuel College. ‘He was a very good coach,’ Billy said. ‘Very easy to understand and got his messages across.’


Steven recalls Billy being easy to coach, and never arguing. ‘Because I had been there, he was hanging off every word I said,’ Steve said. ‘He did what I told him to do. When you’re coaching young kids you have to keep it really simple and focus on one or two different areas rather than complicate things.’


As Billy entered his teenage years, and other coaches took control, Steven would watch without getting involved. When Billy was playing under 16s, Steven stopped coaching. ‘He was probably getting a little bit sick of hearing my voice,’ he said. ‘It was time I stepped aside and let someone else guide him.’


When Billy played, Steven would offer a quiet word of encouragement during the breaks between quarters, then retreat beyond the fence. ‘We still spoke about footy after a game,’ Billy said. ‘I would want to know what he thought. It wasn’t him pushing me or giving advice. I was seeking it. I always knew I’d get a very honest opinion from Dad.’


Billy played juniors at the Henley Sharks until the under sixteens, and won a few premierships. The talent was obvious. ‘I think he won six best and fairest awards at Henley,’ Steven said. ‘And won an association medal.’


In 2009, Billy went to Glenelg to play in their development squad.


The progression


Billy was balanced on the field, like his dad.


Unlike a lot of children from famous football parents, Billy can’t recall receiving any abuse from opponents or people beyond the fence. No accusations of surname bias in selection, or snide remarks about shaming the family name. No expectation, based on his surname when he ran onto the field.


‘Never had any issues,’ Billy said. ‘I am lucky in that regard.’


Billy alternated between the wing, half back and the midfield. He had speed and was agile, able to make quick decisions under pressure. He worked hard at training, and was fitter than most of his peers. Simply, he stood out.

At 16, when the South Australian under 18s team was about to be announced, Billy waited in excited hope, and found disappointment. ‘He didn’t make the state squad,’ Steven said.


The next week, Billy kicked six or seven goals from the wing and had about thirty touches. Brenton Phillips, who was coaching South Australia’s under 18s, put a call to the Stretch household. Billy got on the phone. ‘You better come out to training,’ Phillips said.


Billy, as an underage selection, played one game in the carnival, and was named as an emergency a few times. Steven felt if Billy could improve, and play in the under 18s as a 17 year old, he might be a chance of getting drafted.


With his son determined to make it, Steven helped him balance his study and football. ‘Billy made the Australian Institute of Sport Team to tour Europe,’ Steven said. ‘That was obviously the foundation of what he had to do, and it was the preparation for becoming an AFL player.’


When Billy went to Europe, the AFL clubs sent recruiters to watch the players. Steven and Billy got to know the recruiters. Following the tour, Steven recalls casual conversations with recruiters. ‘There was Fremantle, West Coast, Adelaide Crows, Port Adelaide, Melbourne, Hawthorn and Collingwood,’ he said.


Preliminary discussions. With a full season of football ahead of Billy, the feedback from the recruiters was simple. Have a good year. ‘I never thought it was a hundred percent,’ Billy said. ‘I always kept working right to the line, and didn’t assume anything.’


As part of the AIS program, Billy spent a week with Melbourne in 2013. Billeted with Jack Viney, he went to training, did all the sessions, attended the meetings and spent hours in the gym. ‘That’s when I thought this could be a reality,’ Billy said. ‘I was really striving to make the AFL.’


During the season, Melbourne’s recruiter, Jason Taylor, was watching closely.


After playing in the National Championships, Billy returned to Glenelg. He admitted his form was patchy, getting ten or fifteen possessions a game. But there was a valid reason. ‘I was a bit hesitant being a young boy in a senior side with men,’ he said. ‘I was only seventeen at the time. Just getting comfortable trying to find my way.’


With three games remaining in the season, Taylor organised a sit-down, and challenged Billy to improve. ‘There are no guarantees,’ Taylor said. ‘We want to see more from you. We haven’t seen anything special.’


The sit-down was wakeup call. Billy left the meeting knowing he wasn’t playing his natural game. ‘I thought I’ve got to step it up here,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to play with confidence and have a real crack. I’ve got nothing to lose.’


The last three rounds of the season, Billy took risks on the field. The change wasn’t physical, just a change in attitude. ‘I wanted to do what’s best for the team, be a selfless player,’ he said. ‘That stands out as a moment for me where I turned the corner.’


At the end of the season, Taylor confirmed Melbourne would nominate Billy as a father-son selection.


The draft – and relocating.


Billy at the AFL draft combine.


In 2014, father-son selections were made in October, almost two months before the national draft. Melbourne nominated Billy. It took the pressure off, but with Melbourne wanting to take Billy in the second or third round, other clubs could pounce.


The night before the national draft, Jason Taylor rang Steven, then spoke to Billy. ‘We’re a little bit worried about St Kilda,’ Taylor said. ‘If they take you, we’ll do a second round pick. We’re going to grab you straight away, so you can sleep easy. You’re going to be a Melbourne player tomorrow.’


On 27 November, draft day, it was the Adelaide Crows, not St Kilda, who called Billy. ‘We’re going to nominate you,’ an official told him. ‘We don’t expect to get you. If things don’t turn out at Melbourne, you’ll be quite welcome to come to the Crows.’


Given Billy was an Adelaide boy, he wasn’t surprised to hear Adelaide call his name out in the second round. To counter Adelaide’s bid, Melbourne officials selected Billy at pick 42, their third round selection.


Overcome by relief, Billy recalled the path to the AFL, those hours in the backyard with Steven. Learning the game as a kid, being selected for the TAC Cup and representing South Australia. The sit-down with Taylor was prominent in his thoughts. ‘He knew I was capable of more,’ Billy said. ‘I needed to hear that.’


Steven didn’t care which club drafted Billy, but Melbourne was the obvious choice. ‘We wanted him to play there because of our involvement and our history,’ Steven said. ‘He wanted an opportunity that not too many other kids get. For us it was about getting picked up in the draft.’


Before Billy shifted to Melbourne, Steven, as he’d always done, offered simple advice. Listen and learn. ‘You don’t have one coach and one runner and one medico,’ he said. ‘You’ve got all these different line coaches and experienced people around you. Feed off what they say because you can’t replace experience.’


Not wanting to delay the move, Steven packed Billy up and crossed the border. Billy took a bedroom with a host family in Brighton. Jimmy Toumpas, drafted by Melbourne in 2013, was in another room. Billy knew Toumpas from South Australia.


‘We formed a really good relationship and that helped the transition,’ Billy said. ‘Just having someone else who was in the system and knew what was required.’


Alex Neal-Bullen, another South Australian recruited by Melbourne in the 2014 draft, moved in with the host family in December. Billy and Neal-Bullen had been good mates since their junior days. ‘That was awesome,’ Billy said. ‘It was the three of us boys living there, which was great fun.’


Paul Roos, who answered the AFL’s call for help, was coaching Melbourne. Billy formed a good relationship with Roos. ‘He brought some pretty knowledgeable and good people to the footy club,’ Billy said. ‘Got the right people involved.’


Although Melbourne had struggled for years, Billy could sense the desire among the playing group to improve, and wanted to be a part of it. That meant a fulltime commitment, at the club every day, working hard on the track and listening and learning. ‘I was loving it as soon as I went into the system,’ he said. ‘I was thinking how good is this? You’re getting paid to do what you love, what you grew up aspiring to do.’


After five rounds in the reserves, Roos arranged a meeting. Billy entered the office without much expectation. As Billy sat, Roos smiled. ‘You’ll be making your debut,’ he said. ‘A well-deserved opportunity.’


After thanking his coach, Billy called his parents, excitedly passing on the news. ‘That was a really special moment,’ he recalled.


On 9 May, 2015, Billy made his debut at the MCG against Sydney. He was 18. On his back, he wore number 15. He stood 180cm tall and weighed 77kg. His family was in the crowd, along with many friends who had supported Billy throughout his journey.


Sydney coasted to a 38-point win. As Billy sat in the rooms, dejected, he recalled snippets of the game. He had seven possessions but played his first AFL game on the hallowed turf of the MCG, and didn’t look out of place.


He also joined an elite club by kicking a goal with his first AFL kick. ‘It was awesome to get out there and have a taste of it,’ he said. ‘It was just an amazing week.’


Billy had entered the 2015 season hoping to jag a couple of games towards the end of the season, and ended up playing 11 matches, mostly off half-back or the wing and kicking two goals. ‘It came a lot earlier than expected which was awesome,’ he said. ‘I think I had a pretty good first year.’


Roos coached a high-pressure, team defence game with a one-on-one matchups. In 2016, Billy did what Roos wanted, and played sixteen games. In round eight against the Western Bulldogs, he gathered 25 possessions. Against Brisbane in round nine, he had the ball 31 times.


Handball became a feature of his game. He had 16 handballs and two kicks against Collingwood in round 12, and 15 handballs and seven kicks against West Coast and Hawthorn later in the year.


‘I think that’s the way the game is changing,’ Billy said. ‘It’s a high-pressure game. ‘As a mid-fielder, you’re around the footy and there isn’t much space. It’s where it starts, in the guts, contested footy.’


Steven was thrilled with Billy’s development. ‘Watching him play the first two years, we couldn’t have expected any more from him,’ he said. ‘He probably over-achieved what our expectations were.’


At the end of the season, Roos honoured the succession plan and quit. Simon Goodwin, the coach-in-waiting, took over. Goodwin had already formed close relationships with the players. Billy found the handover seamless. ‘He works extremely hard,’ Billy said of Goodwin. ‘He wants the best for his players.’


Goodwin wanted Melbourne to sharpen up their offence and score more. Encouraging the players to back themselves, on the inside and outside, he told them they were capable of something special. ‘He drives really high standards for the playing group, the coaches and the whole footy club,’ Billy said. ‘He certainly pushes everyone.’


The Stretch family in 2016 – Charlotte, Leona, Billy and Steven


Billy started the 2017 season in great form. Of his 26 possessions against St Kilda, 20 were handballs. The next week against Carlton, it was 14 handballs from 22 possessions. In Round 3, 17 of his 26 possessions were handballs. ‘I started the year quite well,’ he said. ‘And then faded off. I had a few inconsistencies throughout the year.’


Goodwin dropped him after Round 5.


Steven felt those five games were the best football Billy had played. ‘To have him dropped after the Richmond game was a bit of a surprise,’ he said.


In the Round 5 Football Record before the Anzac Day game against Richmond, Billy was featured. Billy Stretch is the fourth safest ball user of the top 250 disposal winners in the AFL the story said.


In 2017, Melbourne desperately needed safe hands, yet one of their best ball users was playing for Casey. He’d been sent back to work on a couple of issues.


A few days after Billy had been dropped, Todd Viney, Melbourne’s General Manager of Player Development, called Steven. ‘We want to get Billy signed up for another couple of years,’ Viney said.


‘Toddy, your timing is not great mate,’ Steven said. ‘He’s just been dropped. Let’s give it a few weeks. Let’s get Bill settled, let’s get him playing good footy again. Let’s get him positive again, let’s get him back in the side.’


‘Take as much time as you like,’ Viney said. ‘We’ll get it sorted.’


Goodwin didn’t select Billy until Round 14. After three consecutive games, Billy went back to the reserves, working hard to remove the deficiencies that kept him out of the side. He came back in for the final game of the year, and played nine senior games for the season.


Billy and his proud mum


‘It was obviously frustrating and disappointing not to play many AFL games,’ he admitted. ‘I learnt a lot across the last couple of years, handling adversity, the disappointment of not getting selected and dealing with that.’


Billy was still having a major impact on other players, displaying the required professionalism to be the best. It wasn’t a surprise when Billy was added to the junior leadership group. Another player had just completed his second year with the Demons, Clayton Oliver, and he was told he needed to work harder and get fitter to be an elite player. Oliver listened, and won the 2017 best and fairest.


At the end of the season, Billy’s contract was extended for two years. ‘That gave me a lot of reassurance and confidence in my ability,’ he said. ‘I knew I was capable of playing at a high level and playing well.’


Goodwin’s instructions were to shadow Billy for the 2018 preseason. Billy hit the track hard. Before the Christmas break, he felt fit and strong. ‘I feel like I’ve got plenty more to give,’ he said. ‘I’m excited with what’s coming and what I can hopefully produce.’


The football community


Everywhere Billy played, he was immersed in the football community, whether that was at Henley Sharks, Glenelg or Melbourne.. Making life-long connections. ‘It’s all about community, friendships and relationships you make across the journey,’ he said. ‘You live and breathe it with those people.’


When Billy was out of the side, he’d talk football with his father. Steven shared his son’s frustration and disappointment. His advice was simple – play your natural game. Work really hard, keep turning up and give a consistent effort. ‘He didn’t put too much pressure on me at all,’ Billy said. ‘He was there for support and help along the way.’


Billy’s family and friends knew he was desperate to perform, to improve week to week, season to season. Every game, he wanted to leave his best football on the field, and head to the change rooms knowing he’d given everything.


Steven believes Roos was a great coach, and a great mentor to Billy. ‘It was detrimental having Roos depart as coach when Billy was hitting his straps,’ Steven said. ‘Roos had taught Billy so much, especially about playing to his strengths, believing in his ability and backing himself in.’


Goodwin seemed to prefer higher profile players. Steven believes that despite consistently good performances for Casey, Billy was overlooked many times. ‘If you asked those higher profile players what they thought of Billy, there was nothing but admiration for his resilience and high standards he drove,’ Steven said.


The club had references painted on every player’s locker. On Billy’s locker it read We love your resilience and team first approach.


As the 2019 played out, one of Melbourne’s senior assistant coaches had a word of encouragement with Billy. ‘You’re definitely an AFL player,’ he said. ’Just not at this club.’


At the end of the season, after 47 games, Billy was delisted. Jade Sheedy from the Woodville-West Torrens Eagles made contact, but Billy went back to Glenelg.


The disappointment of being delisted can’t erase the memories of Billy’s inherited love for Melbourne, being in the change rooms as a kid, staring raptly at his idols and watching the coaches wandering about. Wanting to play for Melbourne, where his dad played.


Billy did it.


Billy’s first coaches – Steven and Des O’Dwyer before Billy’s first game


You can read Part 1 Here


More from Matt Watson Here


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


To return to the  home page click HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.


Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE





About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. David Lambert says

    Great story and it seems such a shame that didn’t play more. Bloody coaches!!²

Leave a Comment