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Riley shines on dark Knight

Katrina Gill  July 15, 2015 12:00 PM

Riley Knight reflects on AFL debut Young Crow Riley Knight will always remember Phil Walsh's last words to him
The last words ‘Walshy’ said to me … those words will stick with me my whole career and well past that.

Young Crow Riley Knight will remember Phil Walsh’s last words to him forever.

‘Congratulations, you’re playing your first game.’

One of Walsh’s final acts as Senior Coach was telling the 20-year-old he was going to realise his childhood dream, and make his debut in Adelaide’s Round 14 clash with Geelong.

Within 24 hours, Walsh was gone and the game was cancelled.

Knight’s unbridled excitement was replaced by a sense of shock and overwhelming sadness. Instead of receiving text messages congratulating him on his debut, his family and friends got in touch to offer their condolences and check on his wellbeing.

As Sunday rolled around, Knight wasn’t at Adelaide Oval preparing for his first game as he should’ve been. Instead, he and his teammates watched (some in person and others on social media) as 20,000 football fans flocked to the venue to mourn Walsh’s sudden and tragic death.

“It was a tough week. With everything that happened, it was definitely a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” Knight said.

“The last words ‘Walshy’ said to me … those words will stick with me my whole career and well past that.”

Knight’s AFL debut came a week later in Adelaide’s emotion-charged match against West Coast.

It was a tough stage for any player, let alone a young man playing his first game, but there was no talk at the selection table about postponing Knight’s debut any further.

The half-forward from Clare had earned his spot and Walsh, who loved his gut running, speed and neat skills, would’ve wanted him to be rewarded.

“It was an emotional week leading into my first game, but I’m just very happy I was able to get a second chance and head over to Perth with the boys,” Knight said.

“I experienced a lot of emotions on the night, but I really enjoyed it. I was really excited to get out there and play some footy at the highest level. It’s what you work for … so to get out there and finally make it was something special.

“At the same time, we had a bit more to play for. The boys can hold their heads high. Everyone played to the best of their abilities, did their bit and made Walshy really proud, so I couldn’t have asked for anything more for a debut.”

Knight rewarded Walsh and the coaching team’s faith.

The composed second-year, who finished runner-up in Adelaide’s SANFL best and fairest in his first season, got better as the game wore on.

He finished with two goals from 13 disposals, and operated at an impressive 92.3 per cent efficiency. Knight also laid three tackles and took five marks against a tough first-up opponent in Eagles captain and fellow South Australian Shannon Hurn.

“I struggled at the start. It was so fast out there!” he said.

“Once you get over the fact that you’re out there and playing against all the people that you grew up watching on TV, you settle in.

“It was good to get a few touches later in the game and work my way into it.”

Knight’s first goal came late in the third quarter as the Crows surged and clawed the margin back to 28 points.

The former Woodville-West Torrens junior got on the end of a quick handball from Matt Wright and put the ball through the big sticks from the goal square as he was tackled to the ground by West Coast star Mark LeCras.

“Wrighty was the one who landed on my ankle earlier in the year, so he sort of owed me one!” Knight said with a laugh.

“I was in the right spot and Wrighty was able to flick me a handball just in time.

“It was a nice first goal to get.”

Knight’s awkward landing in a tackle at training in February – just a few weeks before the NAB Challenge – resulted in damaged ankle ligaments, which required surgery. He missed three months of football, making his return in Adelaide’s SANFL match against the Port Magpies in Round Seven.

“Any type of injury is quite frustrating, but it’s part of footy so you learn to deal with it,” he said.

“After the season I had in my first year, I really wanted to go on and set myself up for a big second year. The ankle injury happened but it gave me a chance to work on other areas of my game and develop that. I was able to put on some size and really hone in on my skills.

“I think that’s put me in good stead since I’ve come back.”

Knight is poised to play in his first AFL Showdown on Sunday.

An Essendon supporter growing up, Knight said the game against Port would divide his family.

“My mum and two sisters are actually Port supporters, so I think they’ll be looking forward to it!” he said.

“If I was able to play, I’d be really excited and honoured to play in such a special game for both clubs. I’ll do everything right this week and give myself every chance to be picked again.”