By Sam Watson
WHEN Phillip Island’s senior football side organised a practice match with Wonthaggi Power last month, coach Beau Vernon knew he had to bring a player with a bit of x-factor into the side.
And he quickly realised that player, was die-hard Bulldogs fan and former junior player, Jess Gislingham.
Jess first started his footballing career at Phillip Island 15-years-ago at AusKick, and he didn’t miss another minute of action all the way through junior football.
He was able to win a premiership with the Bulldogs in the under 14s under Andy Walton, and his junior career culminated with another grand final win in the under 18s in 2019, where he was coached by Brad Thompson.
In those 15 years, Jess has become a beloved member of the Phillip Island Football Netball Club, always offering a helping hand when he’s not on the field and greeting everyone with a big smile.
His willingness to help the club out is something that was clearly passed down from his late grandfather Jim ‘Gizza’ Gislingham, who spent over 30 years manning the top gate at the Cowes Recreation Reserve on game days.
The life member passed away in October last year, and the Bulldogs commemorated him by giving Jess and his dad Shayne, Jim’s son, the opportunity to unfurl the 2019 premiership flag in round one this year.
Shayne is also a long-time servant of the club, having played senior football in the 90s.
And Jess’ mum Carol, spends every Saturday at the footy next to Shayne, taking hundreds of photos to upload to her Facebook page, Phillip Island Football Club Images.
She probably never would’ve imagined she’d spend one of those Saturday’s taking photos of her son making his senior debut for the Bulldogs.
But that became a reality when Jess received a phone call from Beau Vernon on the Friday afternoon before the game against Wonthaggi.
At first, Jess couldn’t believe he was asked to make his debut, let alone by one of his sporting heroes, but he quickly told Vernon he was ready to go.
Earlier in the day, when Vernon rang Shayne to see what he thought Jess would think of a debut, Shayne told Vernon his son would be “champing at the bit” to pull on the red, white, and blue.
And Shayne’s testament rang true when he arrived home from work later that day, to hear Jess blasting Holy Grail by Hunters and Collectors over the speakers.
“He was jumping out of his skin,” Shayne said.
“I was sh***ing myself, it was pretty unbelievable to think he’d be playing.”
But Shayne eventually realised Jess would go just fine with the big boys.
“He’s been playing footy for a long time and he’s very highly skilled, and I’m not just saying that because I’m his dad.
“To have a good team, you obviously need good players, but you also need people with passion and Jess has definitely got that.”
As the famous lyrics of Holy Grail blasted around the living room, Jess hugged Shayne and told him, “I want to kick a goal for you and the family Dad,” to which Shayne replied, “No worries mate, I hope you do.”
On the Friday night, Shayne became aware he’d get the chance to present Jess with the number 31 jumper before the game.
Every Phillip Island youngster making their senior debut wears the number 31, which is in honour of club legend Keith ‘Whale’ DeLooze, who was one of Shayne’s best friends.
The thought of presenting his son with a jumper commemorating his great mate obviously made Shayne emotional, prompting Carol to tell him that he “can’t be like this on Saturday”.
And when Vernon did give him the jumper on Saturday, Shayne said he had to keep his address short and sweet to avoid the waterworks.
“We had been waiting to see him play senior footy for a long time, and it was a very nice gesture,” Shayne said.
When he ran out on the field at Wonthaggi, it was clear to all the players that Jess was determined to play the game of his life.
And when the Bulldogs beat the Power out of the middle and sent the ball long into the forward line, there was only one man who was going to get on the end of it.
Jess gathered the ball brilliantly and launched a right foot drop punt straight over the goal umpires head, keeping true to the words he had told his dad the night before.
After the ball sailed through, there wasn’t a single Bulldogs player who missed the opportunity to congratulate Jess, and some Power players also gave him a pat on the back.
Jess was able to get his hands on the ball a few more times in the hotly contested match, but Shayne said it probably took him a while to get over his first goal.
When the final siren sounded and the team walked off the field, it would’ve been impossible to wipe the smile off Jess’ face and the same went for his parents.
Shayne was extremely grateful for the role Vernon played in not only organising Jess’ debut but for all the support he’s given him since he came back to the club in 2018.
“He knows Jess down pat and knows how he ticks,” Shayne said.
“He’s the senior coach, so he’s got his own problems and got his own family, so him making the time to organise it all is pretty amazing.”
And he also thanked the entire club for everything they’d done for his family in their long journey together.
“We’re very grateful, the club’s got a lot of good people down there and this is what it’s about,” Shayne said.
“It was great to see my son play to the best of his ability, and give passion and support, and obviously the club’s picked up on that and it means so much.
“It was a special moment, that we’ll all cherish forever.
“Carol and I were so proud and Mum and Dad would’ve been proud as well.
“It’s been a special ride.”
Jess turned 20 last Saturday, the same day the West Gippsland grand final was scheduled to be played, where Phillip Island likely would’ve been playing off for their third premiership in a row.
Shayne said he and Carol had offered to hold a birthday party for Jess earlier in the year, but Jess said he was more than happy to have it at the club and join in celebrations with the players.
“Hopefully we would’ve won it, all he wanted for his birthday was the premiership cup and the flag,” Shayne said.
But Phillip Island aren’t the only Bulldogs close to his heart, Jess is a mad Western Bulldogs supporter and their performance against Port Adelaide would’ve been just what Jess was after on his 20th birthday.
And if they can beat Melbourne this Saturday, it’ll cap off a pretty good year in footy for Jess.