AFL: Zac Bailey pays tribute to injured former teammate Dan McStay

He’s now the enemy, but former Brisbane star Daniel McStay’s absence from Collingwood’s side in Saturday’s AFL grand final has saddened his former Lions teammates, particularly his close friend Zac Bailey.

McStay, who left Brisbane at the end of last season to join the Magpies, was ruled out of the MCG decider after suffering a knee injury in Collingwood’s one-point preliminary final win over the GWS Giants.

Bailey admitted seeing McStay’s anguish had him worried about similar heartbreak less than 24 hours later when the Lions booked their grand final berth with victory over Carlton at the Gabba.

“I’m not going to lie, it does sit in the back your head, but you’ve got to put your body on the line and hope that it holds up,” the 24-year-old attacking weapon said.

“We were lucky. We’ve got a relatively healthy list going into the final.”

However, such fortune deserted McStay, who spent nine years at the Lions before returning home to Victoria to play under former Brisbane star Craig McRae at Collingwood.

“I really feel for him,” Bailey said.

“He’s such a great player. Everyone dreams of this moment, so to go down with an injury and miss playing in the grand final would be devastating for him.”

Bailey doubted that he would be in the Lions’ grand final team if not for McStay’s influence and guidance.

Hailing from Darwin and being drafted by the Lions in 2017 from South Australian club Norwood, Bailey was a shy teenager who knew hardly anybody when he first arrived in Brisbane.

“Dan was really good for me. I was pretty close with him,” Bailey said.

“I lived with him for four years. He took me in, and he really helped me.

“He was mature and probably a leader at our club. He showed me the ropes really, so he was massive for me.

“I haven’t spoken to him yet about not being able to play this weekend, but it’s really disappointing for him.

“He’d be really upset. I’m devastated for him.”

However, Bailey will put those feelings of grief aside come Saturday as fulfils his lifelong ambition of playing in an AFL decider.

“Just to be playing AFL footy was my dream, but now that I’m playing in the grand final, it’s unbelievable to be thinking that I’m going to be playing in one, and I’m just super excited to get out there,” he said.

Having had a breakthrough season last year as he floated between Brisbane’s midfield and forward lines, Bailey rated his 2023 form as “OK”.

“I can definitely improve on what I’ve done this year. I’m capable of producing more,” he said.

“Once you get to that fourth or fifth year of playing in the AFL, you have been in the system for a while, and you’ve developed skills, you’ve matured with your strength and your size, and that allows you to have more impact on games.

“Last year I was able to take that step. This year, it was a pretty similar year to what I did last year, but I’d like to hopefully in the next couple of years take another step and really improve my game as well.”

The evolution of Bailey’s career has fitted in with an overall club journey under coach Chris Fagan.

Having collected the wooden spoon in Fagan’s first season in charge in 2017, the Lions have evolved, reaching three preliminary finals in the past four years and taking the next step this season by qualifying for their first grand final since 2004.

“We’ve all stuck together as a group for the last five or six years, and we’ve been able to build chemistry and build a really strong side,” Bailey said.

“There hasn’t been one single thing that’s helped us. It’s just been our growth over the last four or five years and the people that we’ve brought in, like (the now retired) Luke Hodge from Hawthorn, who was able to guide our young team.

“Now we’ve got a lot of young leaders coming through, and that’s helped the side get to where we are now.”

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