KEVIN Sheedy was blunt.
“Don’t miss him,” the Essendon legend instructed list chiefs last off-season.
Sheedy no longer works in the club’s football department, but when James Stewart floated on the trade market he weighed in.
After all, Sheedy was at Greater Western Sydney when Stewart was drafted and it was Sheedy who handed the athletic forward a 2013 debut — in his farewell game as coach.
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“I always told him I was going to pick him,” four-time premiership coach Sheedy said this week.
“I’d be disappointed if he doesn’t play 200 games. His rate of improvement is as good as any player at (Essendon) since he debuted.”
Stewart, unwanted by Collingwood as a father-son and then largely unused at the Giants, cemented in pecking order below Jeremy Cameron, Jon Patton and Rory Lobb.
James Stewart celebrates his first goal for the Bombers. Picture: Wayne Ludbey
Stewart, 23, was naturally gifted and showed plenty of glimpses. In game No. 4 Stewart slotted his first AFL goal from 55m on the boundary, and then had three running majors by halftime.
But his four seasons at GWS netted one, three, 13 and one matches.
He arrived at Essendon as a fashionista, bringing some “Sydney flavour” to a bland locker room dominated by trackies and hoodies.
“I don’t mind rolling into the club in a few different kits. It looks pretty good, to be honest,” Stewart said.
After 15 consecutive games, Stewart is now dressing up Essendon’s forward line.
Without Stewart from Rounds 1-7 the Bombers were ranked No. 12 in attack. Since he was selected, they have shot to No. 2 as offence became the club’s one-wood.
On Saturday he will start alongside Joe Daniher in Cale Hooker’s absence.
Stewart had a taste of that in Round 23, when Hooker was an “extremely” late withdrawal.
“I had to have a think about playing closer to goal and taller at times,” Stewart said.
James Stewart (right) with Kevin Sheedy after being drafted by the Giants.
“Not chasing the footy as much and trying to give the boys some representation, especially when Joey goes into the ruck.”
Isolating himself deeper, Stewart slotted a career-best four goals that day.
Rewind 12 months and Stewart, who played junior footy as a midfielder before a growth spurt, was dreaming of premiership glory.
The lanky kid from Sandringham Dragons burst into the Giants’ Round 1 side after a super summer and then wasn’t sighted again.
“But I was preparing myself every week for twos as if I was playing ones,” Stewart said.
“I was emergency a fair few times and was telling myself that, whether through injury or a guy has a couple of poor weeks, I could easily play a role and stay in that team.
“I just knew I had to bash the door down. That’s the belief I held, right up until they played that prelim.”
Essendon recruiter Adrian Dodoro rated Stewart’s NEAFL form “first-class”. He booted 48.22 from 18 games, culminating in a flag.
But the door to an AFL final failed to open. This year at an injury-ravaged GWS, things might be different.
“Last year compared to this year is a polar opposite in terms of the health of that list,” Stewart said. “While it didn’t eventuate, I was pretty proud of the way I was able to maintain that mindset.”
Stewart’s attitude would thrill Sheedy.
“When he understands how good he can be, he’ll be a fantastic player for this club,” Sheedy said.
That was the message Tommy Hafey delivered to Sheedy in the late 1960s and he says it rings true for Stewart.
Stewart spent his draft year in 2012 believing he was a “solid chance” to join the Pies, where his father Craig played 150 games, including two Grand Finals.
Then, exhausted after draft camp, he was called to a meeting at Etihad Stadium.
“The deadline (to nominate father-sons) was 2pm on the last day of draft camp, and I was told about an hour before that by the Pies that they wouldn’t,” Stewart said.
James Stewart in action for the Bombers. Picture: Getty Images
“I was pretty rocked by it. Fortunately, I had my Year 12 exams, and I took my studies really seriously and managed to use that as a distraction.”
His dad wasn’t so forgiving. Years later he accused the Magpies of a “lack of respect” — not by passing up his son, but for dropping the draft bomb two weeks before his school finale.
The Giants had long liked Stewart.
“Looking back now I guess they weren’t joking, but they did say, ‘Look mate, we’ll definitely be taking you if the Pies don’t’,” Stewart said. “I sort of laughed that off.”
It was a quiet draft night in the Stewart household, where he is back living now, and also a short wait.
GWS pounced at No. 27, the club’s sixth and final selection.
“It was just an unbelievable experience and a great foundation for me,” Stewart said.
“But to come and be a part of the next chapter here (Essendon) was something really special, and I’m loving it.”