By Nick Creely
Youth will be high on the agenda for Pakenham as it prepares for the top-flight of AFL Outer East football.
After its 2019 Division 1 grand final appearance, the Lions – now up to the Premier Division this season – understand just how hotly contested 2021 will be.
From a strong contingent of south-east clubs, and sides up in the hills that are expected to improve rapidly, the Premier Division will make for some fascinating viewing.
The Lions, while hoping to make a splash in Premier, will inject plenty of youth and talented up-and-coming footballers into the senior side this season.
There could be short term pain, but it’s exciting times for the club, according to Lions coach Ash Green.
“We’re probably in the situation where there’s a heap of young kids coming through the Under 19s that we really want to focus on this year,” he told the Gazette.
“The salary cap has dropped as well – we’re not going out there to find a gun centre half-forward on a certain amount, we just don’t have the space – so we’re really happy to back in the kids we’ve got.
“(And) we’re really happy (with our leaders) – we’ve got Chris Cardona, Jake Barclay, Jimmy Harrison, those sorts of guys, but again we’ll be backing in our younger guys.
“We’ll definitely be inexperienced, but in the second division (in 2019) we were able to hold our own, and I’m quietly confident that with the list we’ve got that we’ll be very competitive in Premier Division as well.”
Green said that there has certainly been challenges off the back of Covid and the ripple effect it has had on community.
He anticipates that his group, alongside all of the clubs, will take some time to adjust to the game again.
“Off the back of Covid last year, and not playing any football, people are excited about playing, but it’s different,” he said.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty – two years ago, we went into the first division and didn’t know some of the clubs and the players, so you probably get more of an understanding when you’re out playing in round one or two.”
Like many coaches in the Premier Division, Green expects it’ll be an incredibly even competition, and believes that the experience of 2019 will hold the club in good stead.
“Two years ago, the first division was quite competitive too – if you look at the grand finals, all three of the ones Pakenham were in were all within a goal, so it was a good atmosphere,” he said.
“I think it will be a fairly competitive season, and a close one that’s for sure.”
The Lions have been fairly quiet in the off-season, but have added some talent to its list, with Ngong Arou from Surrey Park – who won the Eastern Under 19s league best and fairest in 2019 – joining the club, while Cam and Matt de Bruin are both locked and loaded to return.
But after the loss of its 2019 leading goal kicker Darcy Hope, Green nominated big man Levi Munns as a player expected to be a major factor, and has put the onus on his players to spread the load in the goal kicking department this season instead of relying on one or two players up forward.
“Two years ago, we did it similarly – we don’t concentrate on just one full-forward, we can throw Liam Tyrrell, Joe Baker-Thomas down there, and if we go small Chris Cardona, Jimmy Harrison, those sorts of guys,” he said.
“We don’t have that firepower full-forward that can sit in the goal square, someone like a Holty (Marc Holt), so we’ll rely on a spread of goals, and that’s something we’re focusing on in the last couple of months of training.”
The Lions will take on Upwey Tecoma in round two to kick off its season after a bye in round one, with Green fully aware that the Tigers have improved and will provide a stern challenge.
“We expect a red-hot Upwey Tecoma in our first game – we’re under no illusions we’re going to be in a tough competition week in, week out,” he said.
“We know what to expect from the likes of Narre, Doveton, Beacy, Cranbourne, but the sides up in the hills, there’s an unknown for us, and for them too.
“They wouldn’t know a lot about us and our list, but we’ll go in and give it our best crack, and the best side will win.”