In the last couple of years, we have seen some substantial turnover to our list. There has been a clear move to invest in the draft once more, establishing a new generation of Magpies who will have the opportunity – much like the heroes before them – to develop and flourish together. Along with our investment in youth via the draft, we have also been active during the trade and free agency period, the success of which remains debatable at this point in time.
It is often the new faces who are spoken about at length during the preseason, and the first call when supporters speculate on where the missing piece might be found, or who is going to have the biggest impact. This year we’ll be looking at the likes of Jesse White and Taylor Adams in particular, whilst holding high hopes that some of our most recent draftees will leave even the most optimistic of us pleasantly surprised.
The fixation on new arrivals and draftees is only natural in a sport driven by hope as much as anything else, but when I can’t help but feel that it is the players who are already well entrenched at the club – those whose lockers couldn’t be packed in an instant – that hold the key to our fortunes.
Back in 2010, the arrival of Jolly and Ball had a monumental impact on our team, but it was as much the emergence of Ben Reid as an All-Australian quality key defender; Chris Dawes as a hard working, big bodied one-two punch to complement Travis Cloke; Sidebottom, Blair and Beams all playing vital roles in only their second year; Macaffer finding his feet as a defensive forward and Leigh Brown being reinvented; Dale Thomas finding consistency to become an ever-present, two-way running game breaker; and of course, excellent – if not career best – seasons from several established players.
The rest is history, precious history, but as we near the beginning of the real stuff in 2014 I thought it might be wise to run through a few names who haven’t just arrived, who either have room for improvement or might make us that much better in a new role.
Given recent discussion here on the blog, I’ve decided that Steele Sidebottom would be a logical starting point.
I was often critical of Steele in 2013, feeling that his effectiveness was below par regardless of how productive his numbers looked on paper. He did play some very good games – there was a reason he finished third in the Copeland – but there were several games where he struggled to impact meaningfully, along with numerous occasions where he let himself down by foot.
That said, he still finished the season averaging 24 disposals, whilst also kicking 19 goals. Steele was also used behind the ball for periods in 2013, as we looked to find a smart footballer who could read the incoming ball before constructing play going the other way. Although I felt he applied himself well to this new and more defensive role, I personally prefer Sidebottom operating from a forward flank.
Sidebottom isn’t the most eye catching player, but there is plenty of substance to his game. Often when we discuss other players who have some flashy tendencies or unrefined weapons, we talk about them rounding out their game and finding consistency. It has to be said that this is something that we’ve never had to worry about with Steele, as from very early on he has worked hard to be a solid contributor at senior level.
Because they were taken in the same draft, Sidebottom’s development will often be compared with Beams. I don’t see Sidebottom becoming the primary midfielder that Beams has blossomed into, but I can see him becoming a very good part of our midfield rotation, and an exceptional half-forward. The departure of Andrew Krakouer and Alan Didak has left Sidebottom as one of our smarter small/medium forwards, not to mention a rarity in terms of regularly getting to the right spot at the right time.
If Sidebottom can bob up as a multiple goal kicker more often than not, even if it means gathering 5 less touches a game, I feel we’ll come out ahead. His engine allows him to get up and down the ground more than most, which should provide him with opportunities within 50 along with the chance to accumulate the ball when linking up through the middle.
Midfield depth is critical these days and Sidebottom provides that, but what we also need are more avenues to goal — something that Rusty can hopefully bring to the table once more.
In a similar vein, I’m also including Alex Fasolo amongst the discussion here. Originally I was intent on giving Fasolo some breathing space as he returned from a long layoff and whilst this still applies to a degree, if he finds himself in the senior team then I want to see him remaining involved for longer periods. Fasolo can provide us with another strong option through the middle, whilst also capable of causing headaches when operating in the forward line.
Jamie Elliott is another who I have big expectations for this year. I initially considered the talk of Elliott running through the middle as fanciful, but after watching him operate against the Cats there is definitely some merit in adding him to the rotations. The kid works hard both ways and he appeared a little fitter and capable of getting to more contests against Geelong, which should serve him well as he enters his third season at the club.
I expect Elliott to spend most of his minutes forward, but if he can have a more meaningful impact on the game further up the ground – whether running through the middle or pushing up to the contest – then he’ll be well and truly on the right track. He’s no stranger to a highlights reel, but I think most Magpie fans will be scrutinising what he does on the deck than in the stratosphere.
Elliott going to another level could be huge for our side.
We need to mix things up in the forward line and become potent once more, an objective that will be achieved a lot easier if we’re getting solid – not to mention dangerous – form out of Sidebottom, Fasolo, Elliott and any others who run through the forward line, be they Blair, Kennedy or Goldsack. We need something to offset our big men, as we became way too predictable last year.
Brent Macaffer is another who could have a profound impact on our team, particularly if his form from the first NAB Challenge game is any indication. During the off-season I mentioned that balancing the negating side of his new run-with role with solid attack was the next step for Caff and without wanting to speak too soon, last Wednesday was a step in the right direction.
Caff has proven he can shut down some seriously good midfielder, but he can also drift forward and cause some problems with his solid one-on-one ability. He’s a good height and strong bodied, so if he can continue to negate an opponent and find a fair bit of the ball himself – using it constructively when he does – then he’ll make our midfield even more complete.
If someone like Macaffer can become a regular ball winner – particularly one who blankets a quality opponent – the burden will be eased on the likes of Pendlebury, Swan and Beams, enabling them to get more dangerous and giving the opposition a lot more to think about.
Now that Ben Reid has obtained swingman status, this coming season shapes as a big one for Lachlan Keeffe. Keeffe has improved with every year and was extremely impressive last year in particular, given he was returning from a season ending injury. Keeffe got off to a bit of a rocky start in the NAB Challenge, much as he did two seasons back, but really held his own down back against some quality opposition during the season proper last year.
If Keeffe cements himself further, forming a solid duo with Nate Brown down back, then Buckley will be provided with some tactical freedom as to how he uses Reid. Whether Reid is thrown forward to stretch the opposition, or used in a more offensive role down back with his intercepting marking and brilliant field kicking, being able to fill our defensive posts without having to use a key position calibre key position player is a massive luxury.
Keeffe is well and truly on the right track to becoming a quality key defender with neat skills when in possession, but I would like to see him place importance on his marking as his development continues. At 204cm and a conscientious user of the ball, if Keeffe can stand tall and start clunking a few to relieve the pressure then he’ll take a huge step.
There’s something demoralising about a key defender marking the ball with any kind of regularity: it is what makes the likes of Harry Taylor and Brian Lake so important to their respective teams. Ben Reid is already proficient at this, being one of the best in the caper back in 2011, but with a little more confidence Keeffe may also become the sort of brick wall that sends the ball back with interest.
A hugely important player for us heading forward, although I’m not fretting too much about our key defensive stocks heading into this year given the level of confidence that Frost inspires in me.
It is still early days and big men take time, however I would like to see Witts use his size to advantage more often, whilst also showing a little more touch with his tap work in 2014. More than anything else, it would be good to see him hold his own over four quarters against some reasonable opposition. Grundy has quickly established himself as our first choice ruckman, but for the sake of not running him into the ground we need to be able to rotate him out whilst remaining competitive in the ruck.
We have Hudson as an insurance policy, but it would be more beneficial if we could provide a rest for Grundy whilst also continuing to develop our other option — who prior to the unexpected arrival of Grundy was the man that we were pinning our hopes on.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to Dane Swan.
There really isn’t anything more for Swan to achieve as an AFL footballer, since I suspect Swan wouldn’t view the Norm Smith or any other individual accolade as the means to filling any void in his life. The laconic and seemingly perpetually content knockabout lad appears to be entering a new phase of his career, one in which he may find himself benefitting from a little more freedom than in previous years.
Pendlebury and Beams are the two players who are likely to attract the hardest tags, whilst the arrival of Taylor Adams adds not only depth but further contested edge to our midfield. The ultra professional Luke Ball looks to be in good condition and with Josh Thomas also putting his hand up last year, we can afford to have Swan causing havoc forward of centre or simply by getting off the chain through the middle.
We are adding some pace to our list with each passing year, but Swan remains our most notable burst midfielder at the moment. The likes of Pendles, Ball, Beams and Adams don’t have the quickest first 10 metres, but by way of some mysterious waddling gait Swan remains one of the most deceptively quick players in the game.
For mine, Swan’s best season was in 2010 and this was largely because outside of being a consistent accumulator and an extremely strong one-on-one player, Swan was routinely damaging the opposition on the scoreboard. Opposition coaches don’t mind letting Swan rack up touches if he’s just linking up through the middle, but if he can start breaking the play open once more from stoppages or through powerful overlap running, then said coaches will be left with a lot more to worry about.
With a reasonable run with injury, we should be able to find enough midfield options during any given game to enable us to manage Swan’s workloads optimally once more — allowing him to play the burst game that made him so devastating a couple of seasons back. He is still an elite talent, but if Swan can start motoring and monstering the opposition once more, we’ll start shaking things up again.
There’s plenty to like about our current playlist in regards to established quality and youthful potential, but if we can get a variety of players who occupy what could be referred to as the mid-tier to take another step or perform an even more meaningful role, then this alone might provide the catalyst for us to regain our competitive edge once more.
More often than not, answers come from within rather than without.