Photo: Madeleine Green.
After an interrupted year, the final round of the VFL home and away season was cancelled due to lockdown, meaning North Melbourne’s campaign was ended earlier than expected, or hoped.
Enduring a difficult start to the season, North turned its form around in the final five games of the year, becoming one of the form teams of the competition and setting itself up for a late and unexpected push towards finals.
Highlights of the season came in the form of victories over old rivals Essendon for the first win of the year, and a hard-fought win over an experienced, finals contending Werribee side.
With AFL-listed players Tristan Xerri, Charlie Lazzaro and Eddie Ford starring alongside the likes of Flynn Appleby, Kade Answerth and Harry Jones, the exciting, attacking style of David Noble’s AFL side translated well to reserve level.
North Media sat down with VFL coach Leigh Adams to discuss the season gone by.
We started the season with a few pretty big losses, but we really turned it around to win four of our last five games. What do you think enabled such a drastic change in form from the first half to the second half of the year?
There were probably a couple of things. We had a pretty extensive AFL injury list at the start of the year so we weren’t able to get many AFL-listed boys on the park which made it tough, and we ended up playing a lot of NAB League kids because we didn’t have the depth in our VFL program, plus we had blokes in Tassie who we couldn’t get over. That hurt us a bit, but we also had such a late start to pre-season. We didn’t know who the senior coach was going to be, so when it came to organising a list, everything was a little bit rushed for us. By the time we got stuck into pre-season we were well into 2021, and it takes time for the boys to get to know each other, understand the game plan and gel. That didn’t really come into effect until the second half of the year. If you combine those two things together, we always knew the second half of the year was going to be better, but we probably surprised ourselves with how much better it was. Four (wins) out of the last five was a great effort, and the only loss in there was to the Bulldogs who didn’t lose a game all season, and we probably had an opportunity to win that game as well. It was a pleasing second half of the year.
Our VFL list was quite young, including that three-man leadership group of Flynn Appleby, Louis Cunningham and Kade Answerth. How impressed were you with their ability to lead the team not just through the tough early stages of the year, but also on-field through some pretty tight wins?
I think that’s probably the best thing about not just our leadership group, but our whole group. Even when we were going poorly at the start of the year it was still pretty positive. We were still finding bits in games we were doing well and finding areas to grow and get better. Those boys were really good at staying really calm and composed, and just pushing out the same message. As the year went on we were able to get some better results and see that messaging come to the fore and help us grind out some wins. Those guys were really good, and our VFL-listed guys were really good at standing up in the big moments. A couple of those wins early against Essendon and Coburg, and even the win against Werribee, they could have gone either way, but our boys hung on really well and kept their heads well in those tight wins.
A few of the development guys really stepped up as the season went on. Hamish Dick was kicking goals, Hamish Murphy was locking down players like Wylie Buzza, and Mark Baker performed well wherever he was played on the ground. Do you think the three of them really progressed well enough through the season to earn themselves even bigger roles next year?
The great thing about the two Hamish’s is they’re both young enough to be eligible for the development list again. We’ll wait and see what our list looks like for next year, but the improvement in them over the season was huge. Hamish Murphy at the start of the year, we probably didn’t expect him to play a heap of footy if we had a fully fit list, it was probably going to be more of a development year for him just to learn the game a bit more. From his first couple of games compared to later in the year, when he was playing on some fully-fledged AFL standard players and doing a really good job, was huge. We look at him next year and basically pencil in that we’ve got a bloke who we know can play full-back for us for a full year if we need him to. That was probably the silver lining of our poor start to the year, we got games into these development players that might not have played as much if we had a full list of AFL players. We’ve got full confidence in those boys to play big roles for us going forward.
Will Phillips, Eddie Ford, Charlie Comben and Phoenix Spicer earned their senior debuts after putting in the hard yards in the VFL. How important is it for young guys like that to get a grip on senior footy at reserve level before making that jump up?
That’s basically why we have a VFL program, so we can play these guys who are out of the team in the positions we need to, so they have the best opportunity to develop and play senior footy. That’s probably the most encouraging thing, we want all our guys to be playing senior footy, but that’s just not possible every week. We can make sure we get them as ready as possible at VFL level so when they do step up to AFL level, we can make that jump as small as possible. It is a huge jump in intensity and speed, but if we can play the same way as the senior side at VFL level, it helps make those roles as familiar as possible, so when they do make that jump up it can be as easy as possible for them, even though it is a really big jump. We’re really pleased with how we went in that regard this year.
Does having the likes of Tyler Roos and Harry Jones consistently performing well in the midfield allow those senior guys to come down and focus mainly on their own individual roles?
The best thing about a lot of our VFL-listed blokes is that they can all play in different positions, so yes, we might have someone like Harry Jones, Kade Answerth, someone like that, going really well through the midfield, but we also know if we need to get midfield minutes into someone like Charlie Lazzaro, they can flick out to a wing or into the forward line and still protect our young blokes a little bit. That’s probably been the most pleasing thing with our VFL-listed boys. They understand not only do we want to win as many games as possible, but we also need to develop our AFL-listed players. Their ability to play selfless roles to allow us to develop those boys has been really good.
Charlie Ham came in mid-season having experienced a little bit of VFL football. He looked quite promising at times in a North jumper. How impressed were you with his ability to come into a totally new environment and system and still perform at a good standard?
It would be a pretty tough thing, playing for one club for half a season and then switching to another system halfway through. He showed some signs down there that he can be a good player for us. He’s still got plenty of work to do to become an AFL footballer, but his ability to fit in with the group and play a role for us was pretty promising.
Nobody wanted the home and away season to end the way it did, but how proud are you of the improvement in the whole team over the course of the season, especially that final run of strong results?
I’m proud of the boys to be honest. The group stayed really positive the whole way through and just kept working. We eventually got the results we were looking for which was pretty pleasing for all of them. Hopefully they can take a lot of confidence out of that and we can get as many of the boys as possible to come back and play for us next season. We really want to springboard off of that late run of form and really give ourselves the best opportunity to win more games than we did this year.
If you can think of one standout moment of the season that really sticks in your mind, what would it be?
I was really impressed with our boys when we beat Werribee at home. Werribee had a very mature team and for us, we got a bit of an early lead, but they just kept coming at us and coming at us in that last five minutes. We were just able to keep hanging in there and play the way we wanted to, with a relatively young side on the field. That win really gave a bit of recognition to the hard work our boys had been putting in over the year, and it showed that work was starting to pay off. To hold off a good team in Werribee when they were coming at us strongly, and I think we were a couple down on the bench from about half time as well, so just our ability to hang in when the tide was against us, that was a proud moment.
Final Ladder Position: 15th
Round 6: NMFC def. ESSENDON 85-70
Best: Tristan Xerri - 36 disposals, 27 hitouts, 6 tackles; Will Phillips - 33 disposals, 8 tackles; Josh Clayton - 29 disposals, 3 goals, 11 tackles
Round 10: NMFC def. COBURG 77-74
Best: Will Phillips - 31 disposals, 7 tackles; Eddie Ford - 17 disposals, 2 goals; Tyler Roos - 42 disposals; Ben Speight - 4 goals
Round 11: NMFC def. Werribee 88-83
Best: Bailey Scott - 31 disposals, 1 goal; Tom Campbell - 19 disposals, 49 hitouts, 1 goal; Josh Clayton - 31 disposals, 1 goal; Kade Answerth - 20 disposals, 16 tackles
Round 12: FOOTSCRAY def. NMFC 67-56
Best: Tom Campbell - 26 disposals, 1 goal, 48 hitouts; Charlie Lazzaro - 29 disposals, 1 goal; Jared Polec - 30 disposals, 1 goal; Harry Jones - 34 disposals, 1 goal
Round 16: NMFC def. PORT MELBOURNE 77-60
Best: Charlie Comben - 2 goals, 4 tackles; Charlie Lazzaro - 26 disposals, 1 goal; Harry Jones - 31 disposals, 1 goal; Kade Answerth - 27 disposals, 9 tackles