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Atley on 2018

A top-five best and fairest finish as a second-year defender, a belated graduation to the midfield last season and now he's a forward.

Welcome to Shaun Atley's AFL career.

The quietly spoken boy from Corryong, near the New South Wales border, via Bendigo is preparing for his eighth season – and impending free agency – after 154 games for the blue-collar Kangaroos.

Atley arrived at North Melbourne as the No.17 pick in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft after developing a lofty reputation with TAC Cup club Murray Bushrangers and Vic Country.

He is blessed with pace and neat skills (he had the third-best kick rating at Arden St in 2017), but all these years later remains a somewhat maligned figure.

That was all meant to change last year, when Atley, who has played at least 22 games in each of the past six seasons, finally made the switch from rebounding defender to the wing.

It didn't quite go to plan, and his year encapsulated his career as the Roos tried him in various roles in an attempt to maximise his obvious attributes.

"It was a bit frustrating," Atley told

"I started the year in the midfield then ended up going back for a bit and then up forward.

"But I'm really excited to be able to do the full pre-season as a forward and look forward to playing this season as a forward as well."

Atley stayed as a high half-forward after moving there in round 16 last year, and by season's end had recorded his third top-10 placing in North's Syd Barker Medal.

Champion Data rated him elite for disposals and score assists in his eight-game span in attack, although his four goals in the same period put him in the 'poor' category.

Atley, whose brother Joe plays for Port Adelaide, still ended the year with a personal-best 11 goals, after never kicking more than four in his previous six campaigns.

An off-season spent training exclusively as a forward should bring about even better results, according to the 25-year-old.

"I probably just have a greater understanding on how to play as a forward," Atley said.

"It's high work-rate and it's get up the ground and help the defence, then get back.

"Having that second half of the year last year to actually play up forward in games, then focus on it in (pre-season) training, has been good."

Andrew Carson is uniquely placed to comment on Atley's football journey.

The man known as 'AJ' oversaw his development as the Bushrangers' talent manager and still has a close view as the Kangas' VFL football manager after being part of the recruiting team.

Carson remembers Atley and his sister, Jacquie, living parts of weeks in a Wodonga rental – an hour-and-a-half from their parents – so they could dedicate themselves to their VCE studies.

It also spared them those long, cramped school bus rides.

"He was always a really driven sort of kid and wanted to get the best out of himself," Carson told

"Even at a young age, you saw that professionalism … and being able to see him nearly daily in this role, you still see similar traits with that.

"I think he's probably entering a period of his career where he can really set up and go again to another level, so I really hope that happens for him."

Atley admitted his contract status was "obviously in the back of your mind", but was most focused on proving North's doubters wrong.

"Internally, we're really excited," he said of the Kangaroos' prospects.

"We've had some good new players come in and over the pre-season we've seen the improvement of some of the guys, like Jy (Simpkin) and Majak (Daw) even.

"There's plenty to look forward to."

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs