Jacob Surjan was one of the best lockdown defenders in the AFL during the late 2000s, and is now the senior coach of North Adelaide.
The Western Australian reflects on his time growing up, a heart to hear with Mark Williams which saved his career and the 19th man saga at North Adelaide.
Jack Hudson: What was life like growing up in Western Australia?
Jacob Surjan: It was a great place to live, just outside of Fremantle in a place called Coogee.
It was a humble upbringing really; mum and dad were Yugoslavian immigrants who came across on a boat in the 1960s to try and get away a war-torn country back then.
They’re humble market gardeners with carrots, potatoes all that sort of stuff, so for me it always felt like I was a country kid growing up in the metro zone.
Mum and dad were hard-working parents who have a big emphasis on family values.
It was a really great place to live with three brothers, grandparents who were right next door and my aunty and uncle on the other side.
It was unreal to be honest, it was pretty exciting but pretty daunting when I got to move out for the first time as a 17, 18-year-old to move to a new state.
But that’s what you have to do when you want to chase your dream, and fortunately enough I was able to do that.
JH: What do you remember about your junior footy?
JS: I only started playing footy when I was 13, and it was basically just to continue on friendships with guys from primary school, we were moving onto high school – I was going to CBC in Fremantle and they were going to Hamilton Senior High.
I had no idea about footy coming from a Yugoslavian family background and dad played soccer in WA, and we did little athletics as kids and didn’t have much interest in footy.
But for some reason when I got out on the park it seemed natural, and it sort of just progressed from there.
I won the best and fairest in my first year and we had an undefeated premiership team, under 14 was the same except we lost the grand final.
Then I progressed up the ranks at South Fremantle and fortunate enough to get drafted to Port along my journey.
It was never really my thing, I was into basketball and athletics and it was just a thing to hang around with mates after school.
JH: You were a national athletics champion, weren’t you?
JS: Yeah, I won a national championship in long jump in either under 16s or 17s.
At that age I had to decide I couldn’t train footy and then athletics in the one week, it was getting too much, especially as a 15-year-old and no licence.
At under 16s I said that was enough with athletics and once I made the state teams with footy I thought it’s more my passion and my love and I’d have a crack with that.
The way I played and the way I went about my footy had a lot to do with my athletics background with speed, power and even the endurance side, so I’m very grateful for the lessons and the education that athletics gave me to transfer into footy.
JH: You made your WAFL debut at 17 years of age, what was it like?
JS: It was an interest night actually, it was South Fremantle versus East Fremantle which is like Norwood versus Port in South Australia, probably worse.
Just for the fact that both South and East Fremantle were the one club, which was the Fremantle Football Club, but then had a divide and split, and there’s just been hatred ever since.
It was a remarkable night I played on Phil Read, who was on West Coast’s list at the time and was coming back from a knee reconstruction.
I was a 17-year-old kid who thought he could play football and I definitely got a football education that night, he was a superb athlete with speed and endurance.
I remember the one thing I had on him though, I kicked the first goal of the game and the president had me for first goal (of the game) and he won some money, which was good.
There were 15,000 people at Fremantle Oval, that’s how big they are, I’m not sure how big the crowds are now.
It was a Friday night game, it’s still one of the highlights of my career, it was a dream come true.
I remember the guys at South Fremantle asking for my bank details and I was like ‘what for?’ and they said, ‘you’ve got to get paid, you played league football.’
I was like, I get paid to do this? It was remarkable.
I was very fortunate, I owe a lot to South Fremantle, I’m still a massive supporter, I still follow them online and talk to the guys.
JH: You won a colts flag there and won best on ground one year – what was that like?
JS: We won back-to-back colts’ flags there in 2002 and 2003, and our 2003 team was unbelievable.
We had Matt Moody and some other blokes who got drafted into the AFL like Paul Duffield and another guy.
We had four or five blokes from one team that got drafted and some rookies, which was a pretty amazing team.
Two out of the three guys in my bridal party played in that colts team, and they’re still very close mates to this day, which is what it’s all about.
They’re still some of my most cherished moments winning those back-to-back flags.
JH: In the 2003 AFL Draft, you were touted to go in the top 30 but didn’t get selected. Were you disappointed at the time?
JS: Yeah, I was very disappointed at the time.
The lessons that you learn, and I try to tell some of the guys now that recruiters will say things like ‘if we have this pick at this time we’re probably going to look at you, and we’d go for you.’
A lot of teams had said that to me in the top 30 and for whatever reason it fell through and it wasn’t my opportunity.
I went to work that morning and was very disappointed I didn’t get picked up, but about two minutes after the draft had finished (West Coast coach) John Worsfold called me and said, ‘I can’t believe this has happened, we want you to come out and train to get on the rookie list.’
That emotion of not being drafted went away pretty quickly.
Then the Monday morning I got to rock up to training with Daniel Kerr, Ben Cousins, Chris Judd, Dean Cox and all the guys there.
I was a West Coast supporter so to train with them and watch them train for the short amount of time, I was very lucky and grateful for the opportunity.
JH: You were then picked up by Port in the pre-season draft, did you have much contact with them up to that point?
JS: It was the 2003 pre-season draft, I spoke to Alan Stewart the day before the rookie draft, he asked me how I’m going, how am I enjoying the lifestyle and how I’m training.
I was pretty honest with him, I said this is what I want to do, and we had a really good chat.
He said to me if I’m around at their first pick in the rookie draft they’ll take me, and I was honest with him and said I’d committed to West Coast in the draft and their pick was earlier.
Not knowing Port had some pre-season picks in the draft, I was pretty lucky to get picked up with Josh Mahoney and the rest is history.
JH: You made your debut against Essendon in round one of 2004, what do you remember about it?
JS: We belted them, and it was amazing to go from not being on a list in November, finally getting on one in late December to March, April and making your AFL debut.
It was just a whirlwind.
I think I earned the guys’ respect with the way I went about my football and the way I trained, I was playing forward at the time.
So, the way I was putting on pressure in the forward 50 and going at the opposition.
I’d like to think I had a spunk and that’s why ‘Choco’ drafted me, it was a whirlwind.
To debut with Michael Pettigrew who came across from WA as well was just a dream come true, and to win in the manner we did against such a big club at the time in Essendon was unreal.
It’s something I still look back now and go wonder if that really happened.
Not too guys who get drafted into the system, especially at Port Adelaide, aside from Steven Salopek as a first-year player.
But fortunately, enough for me and ‘Petters’, we got to make our debut together.
JH: You played five of the first seven games, what was it like?
JS: I played the first two and then got dropped for a couple then played another three then did my knee which put me out for the rest of the year.
It’s the sort of year that could’ve been a good one had I stayed in all year, I could’ve been a premiership player, but Josh Mahoney came in along with Brett Ebert and some other guys and do a great job.
I was just lucky enough to play and be involved in the premiership experience.
Grand final day 2004 along with my wedding and my kids being born is one of the greatest days in my life.
JH: You said you barracked for West Coast and you played against them in round two – what was it like?
JS: It was very weird especially when you’d been training with them.
Glen Jakovich, the West Coast champion, he’s a relative of my family, so I got to train with him in the pre-season.
But my goal one day was to try and play against him, to have that happen in round two was a big thing to tick off the bucket list.
I was pretty rapt to do that, so we saw him win the premierships with the Eagles in 1992 and 1994 as kids, and he was still playing by the time.
It’s something that he and I still have a laugh about now, even if it was for just 19 minutes as rotations weren’t massive back then.
I was pretty lucky.
JH: You had a rough year in 2005 and switched SANFL clubs from Central District to Port Adelaide Magpies, what do you remember about it?
JS: I had a rough year and that was probably more based on me, my footy and being a bit homesick – making all the excuses as a 19-year-old when he leaves home.
I left Central District as they were playing me out of position of where Port wanted me to play so I moved over to the Maggies and I started to get some good continuity in my football.
That led to a pretty poor year on my part.
I remember ‘Choco’ ripping me to shreds with how I was preparing and told me to go home to Perth and think about if I wanted to be here or not.
I remember sitting down with dad in that off-season and going through all the positives and negatives, and it was pretty simple to show the positives outweighed the negatives.
I had an honest conversation with dad and felt I had the best pre-season I’d ever had.
I started off in the Maggies and broke into the AFL team and then played the next 17 or 18 games straight.
JH: You were a Rising Star nomination in 2006, how did that feel?
JS: That was with the transition from forward line into the backline, I cemented my spot in that backline.
I was working under Dean Bailey and he was putting a lot of time and effort into me.
I could admit I wasn’t the best kick going around but I had the heart and the tenacity to play on anyone and beat them, I had that competitive side.
That pre-season was about executing kicks from the position I was in, and I felt that was a massive education for me to help improve myself and I felt like it did.
I felt like I came a long way and the percentages I kicked at the year before that just improved massively.
JH: You were a gutsy sort of player – how does that mentality develop?
JS: I guess that was just me, whenever people think about me now and the way I played they say that, they say, ‘you were courageous, you were a tough little prick’ and stuff like that.
That’s the reputation I had and that’s the reputation I like to have, and people to remember me by.
But it just came down to the willingness to win and compete and if I had an opponent I just wanted to beat him.
I guess that’s what footy is, and if you can do that better than the next bloke, then you’re going to get the opportunity week in, week out and I think that was my strength of the team back then.
JH: 2007 was a pretty good year up until that grand final, what do you remember about that year and that day?
JS: That year was unbelievable, we had a mixture of some old veterans and some middle guys and some really young exciting talent.
It was a great year, you sort of moved into the pressing and the zoning game in 2007, we were just a bunch of kids that wanted to go out and play footy and hang out together.
It was a fantastic year and then grand final day, it was a really disappointing day not just for the team but the supporters.
The way I see it was we were a team before a time with some older guys, and Geelong were a team who were ready to go.
You look at that team now, they have 8-12 hall of famers at any stage of their lifetime.
They were a phenomenal team, when I talk to people about it, I say ‘I have no regrets about it, and yeah we lost a game of football, but I got to play in front of 100,000 people, have you?’
No-one can say that, there were 44 guys, 22 from Port Adelaide that got that opportunity and I’m very grateful for that space.
JH: 2008 and 2009 was a bit of an up and down time for Port, what do you remember about it?
JS: 2008 was a frustrating year, we were in and out of the finals, it was a bit more of a development year, we brought some more kids in to trial.
In 2009 was my most consistent year, that and 2007, I felt like I was one of the premier small backmen in the competition, I was rarely beaten by any small forwards at that time.
It was the best year I finished in the best and fairest too, which was about third or fourth.
In the crunching of the numbers it probably shows that was my best year, and I felt I had something to prove to people and did.
JH: 2010 you were made vice-captain; how did that feel?
JS: Yeah, ‘Choco’ made me vice-captain for the year, and he left halfway through the year.
It was a frustrating year for me, we’d hired a new weights coach and it was all about getting big and strong like Geelong, and unfortunately for me I had a bit of cartilage removed out of my knee and it wasn’t getting right, and I was playing at about 87kg, and it was too heavy, I was putting too much stress through my knee.
I played up to my 100th game and then I was out for the rest of the year.
I remember I wanted to put off the operation because it was Choco’s last game, but I was booked in and the docs wouldn’t let me.
JH: What was the transition like from Choco to Matty?
I really liked Matty and I like him as a person but when you’ve been in the same system for such a long-time, I was probably a bit disappointed.
I think Matty did a great job after taking over from Choco, but I was always a little disappointed in the club for not exploring other options.
In saying that, I had a really poor attitude that pre-season.
I didn’t do any training because I couldn’t train, and I rocked up in pretty poor form.
It was probably one of the regrets I have not coming back in better shape and as a leader, as a vice-captain and saying let’s get in behind Matty.
I felt for Matty a bit as he didn’t have the support as coach that an AFL coach should have.
Once Keith (Thomas) came in, he started putting in the list management and a few other coaches came in.
Unfortunately for him it probably wasn’t the right time and we probably needed a coach had some experience in running a young list and, unfortunately for Matty, he’s a ripper and a great Port man, a lot of the playing group takes a bit of the onus on where we were at that stage.
I was one of those guys who came back with a really poor attitude and thought the club’s done wrong and we should’ve gone outside and looked for fresh ideas, but that’s the decision the club made, and they have to live with and I have to live with.
JH: Your playing days at Port came to an end in 2012, did you look elsewhere?
JS: I spoke to a few clubs, but it was all chat I guess.
I was coming off a bad knee operation, I felt like my time was up and the last two years under Matty probably drained me of footy and I didn’t pursue the AFL stuff as much as I probably could’ve, I was pretty content to call it then and do something different.
Luckily enough for me I go the opportunity to stay in Adelaide and work at the footy club as the talent manager and also play for the Magpies.
But once my job commitments away from footy stepped up I just gave up on playing footy, and I was content with that and thought there’s more to life than kicking a pig skin on grass.
JH: What made you want to coach?
JS: I had always put things into plan, some football administration at the end.
Coaching came along, I wanted to help the younger guys like the Dean Baileys and the Mark Williams’, the guys who helped me when I was coming through.
I always wanted to stay in footy, I love footy, I think it’s a great industry to work in, and it’s just something I wanted to pursue.
It was never I just want to be a coach, coach, coach, I wanted to get into administration and then put my toe in the water a little bit with the Magpies and found out it was something I really loved and wanted to do.
I still enjoy the administration side, but the coaching side is better, not only trying to influence games to try and win games of football, but to help guys improve their general game is something I look forward to.
JH: You moved across to North Adelaide in 2017 – how did it come about?
JS: I had a pretty frank discussion with Ken Hinkley and Chris Davies at Port, and we probably all felt my time was up there, I arrived there as an 18-year-old and left there in my early 30s, and probably needed to experience something different at that time.
I probably wanted to step up my coaching in some capacity there and there wasn’t anything available there, and fortunately Josh Carr rang me up and said he had this opportunity at the Roosters and if I was interested, and I said 100%.
We had a chat, had an interview and within a couple of days I had a fresh start at the Roosters.
It’s been brilliant, we’ve won the premiership in the league and the reserves, which is the first time in 28 years for the league, and I coached the reserves as a part of my job.
I don’t think the club in its 14 premierships it’s won has ever done that.
To come here in my first year and help Josh achieve what he wanted to achieve which was to win a premiership was just a great moment that we had together.
Because at the end of the day when you’re at an AFL club, you’re a part of a coaching group that’s 10, 11 or 12 blokes, where here it’s myself and Josh that are full-time running everything with a couple of assistant coaches who come and help out on training days and game days.
The onus is on me and him to get the job done, and to get that done in our first year, after we’d changed up a fair bit, was just a dream come true.
JH: Obviously there was a lot of scrutiny around the preliminary final last year, what was it like in build-up with the amount of outside noise?
JS: It was pretty full on to be honest.
Josh (Carr) was at the hearing and he’d be texting me every five, 10, 15 minutes saying, ‘I think we’re out’, and I was sitting at home and just going ‘oh my god, this can’t happen’.
It was really disappointing how it all went down on game day, it was obviously an accident that just happened.
For it to go down the process that it did especially with the rules in place was disappointing and nothing happened in that space.
To get the opportunity to play in the grand final, which we deserved, we were 47 points down, and to come back to win, you shouldn’t really lose from that position in a prelim final.
We came back, we won the game…fairly.
Which on grand final day showed, we played with the tenacity and a passion to prove everyone that we were the best team.
I felt we were best team all year as we were 9-2 and all teams have a bumpy period, but we felt like we were the best team.
The writing is on the wall a bit when you see five guys drafted out of our program, Connor Rozee has done what he’s done at Port Adelaide which has been fantastic, Cal Wilkie is one of the best drop off marks in the AFL.
Boyd Woodcock and Jordon Sweet are playing well with their clubs as well.
JH: Was it something that you used as motivation in the lead up to the day or as a pre-match speech?
JS: I don’t think so, once it all happened, Josh and I spoke to the guys on the Tuesday and we just said, who cares boys, we’ll deal with what we have to deal with next year, but right now, let’s go win a grand final and that’s the way it was.
JH: What do you remember the most about grand final day?
JS: Well it was interesting because the reserves are playing first, where I’m coaching.
So, there was nerves and excitement as a coach, but for me, that was probably the one day where it’s not about trying to develop our players, it’s trying to win.
Choco rang me up on the Wednesday and said to me ‘good luck and I hope you guys get up,’ and he goes ‘don’t underestimate how important it is for your team to win on Sunday.’
I asked him ‘why’s that Choco’ and he said, ‘the boys will notice it in the change rooms when they’re watching the game, it’ll make them feel good.’
I didn’t think of it too much, we have an ethos here that the reserves are more about development than about winning, but once we got to the big dance, it was all about winning, and it will put good feelings into the league boys.
I don’t know if it worked or not, but it obviously did.
It was a great day, being in the box for my game and winning, then holding that excitement for the next game, and then going through that.
We felt like we controlled the whole game except for a bit of the first quarter and the middle part of the second quarter.
We felt like after half-time it was our game.
One of the strengths in our team was our fitness, and we thought we were fitter than them and in that last quarter it came down to that and we got the chocolates.
Norwood had been a fantastic team all year and they’re a fantastic club and we had to be at our best to beat them.
They have the likes of Jace Bode, and a few guys who have won two or three flags, they’ve had that success under Nathan Bassett in 2012-14, and we were just fortunate enough our guys were hungry enough to win one.