26 DAYS TO GO | EFL Media will be previewing each club ahead of the 2018 season with the #InFocus2018 series, all thanks to Yarra Valley Water & Choose Tap.
By: Brett Beston
A spate of departures offset by some exciting new recruits has given Mitcham supporters cause for optimism heading into the new season.
2018 looms as a make or break year for the young Tigers side with three Division 2 teams to be relegated at season’s end under the competition restructure, but playing-coach Neil Winterton isn’t heaping any extra pressure on his young team.
“We haven’t really said that we want to finish here or there, but obviously with three teams going down we’ll be aiming to stay in Division 2 (Division 1 in 2019),” Winterton said.
“It’s such a tough competition and there’s not a lot between the teams so I think the three sides relegated from Division 2 will be stiff, probably more than any other division. So our aim is to stay in the division and if we can play finals then that would be great.”
The off-season has seen a number of experienced players move on ushering in something of a new era at Walker Park.
Among the departures have been the Petracca brothers Rob and Julian along with the likes of Jayden Hoegel, Mitch Keedle and Zak McCubbin, meaning recruitment has been more important than ever as the club embarks on a new direction.
Former captain Julian Petracca chaired off by brother Rob (left) last season. PICTURE: Mitcham Football Club Facebook page.
“We certainly didn’t push them (the departing players) out the door but we did have a clear direction and we were looking to recruit guys in a certain age bracket and hopefully put together a group of players who can stay together for five to seven years,” Winterton said.
“If you look across all the divisions, the teams that are successful are the ones that are able to stay together for a long period of time and ultimately the goal of every club is to get into Division 1, but there’s no point in doing that with a bunch of 30-year-olds and so we identified the 19 to 23 age bracket and to get those sort of guys in and help grow the club.
“We were more than happy for the older guys to stay around but they certainly had the desire to step up to Division 1, particularly the guys that have moved to North Ringwood and we wish them all the best.
“They’ve been great servants for the club and we’re certainly grateful for the contributions that they have made especially helping us break one of the longest premiership droughts at the time.”
That drought breaker came in 2015 with Mitcham claiming the Division 3 flag, its first in 24 years, creating optimism that further success would be forthcoming.
But back-to-back ninth-place finishes in the last two seasons have meant a bit of a reality check for the club.
“Look obviously there’s a step up from Division 3 to Division 2 and we probably didn’t handle that quite as well as we would have liked in our first season up (2016), and found that the pace was quicker which left us wanting a little bit,” Winterton said.
“Then last year we had a horror run with injuries, we had somewhere in the mid 20s on our injury list in the back half of the year.
“It was incredible; I never really experienced anything like it. But it allowed us to expose some guys to senior footy; probably a bit earlier than they were ready but hopefully that holds us in good stead for this year, they’ve had that grounding and hopefully can have a big impact for us this year.”
The Tigers will welcome a couple of experienced heads in Carson MacArtney, previously with East Ringwood and Dave McArdle (Montrose) both returning to the fold after taking last year off.
MacArtney, a ruck/key position player and McArdle, described by Winterton as “a half-back/wing type,” will add some much needed experience to complement the younger brigade which the coach says has plenty of talent.
“This year we have a really good under 19s,” Winterton said.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t field a side last year which hurt us, but this year but we’ve recruited a number of guys from Ferntree Gully and our under-17 side completed back-to-back premierships last year so they’ve now stepped up.
“So we should have a pretty good under-19 team and I expect quite of few of those guys to be sticking up their hands for senior selection.
“Probably the most exciting of our young players is Tom Burkitt who spent some time at Vermont. He’s only 19 or 20 a really good height, runs like the wind and he’s a halfback/wing type as well.
“Some of the guys we’ve picked up from Ferntree Gully like Matt Hill and Riley Nicholas and a couple with TAC Cup experience have had massive pre-seasons and have looked really impressive on the track along with the likes of Jessie Smyth and Jesse Uren who played senior footy last year at Ferntree Gully and are actually still eligible to play under-19s but we expect them to be playing a lot of senior footy.”
Mitcham kicked off its pre-season in mid-November.
“To be honest we didn’t really ease into it, we said to the playing group this is how pre-season is going to go, this is how much running we’ll be doing so don’t be shocked when it happens.
“It was the one thing we didn’t want to look back on and say that we weren’t fit enough. We’ve had between 30 and 40 at training every night and that’s just the senior group, the under-19s have been training by themselves.
“We realised last year we weren’t fit enough so there’s been a big emphasis on building fitness levels and the guys have really embraced that.
“So far so good in terms of the training side of things but now with the practice games and the season proper we’ll see where we are really at.
“We’ve been doing plenty of match simulation and ideally we would have liked three practice games but with just the two it means having an intra-club game on the Thursday before Good Friday.”
With a favourable draw that sees them avoid most of the big guns in the early weeks of the season and a revitalised list, the Tigers have a great chance to start their season well but aren’t putting any pressure on themselves in terms of goals for the year.
“It’s such a tough competition and there’s not a lot between the teams so our aim is to stay in the division and if we can play finals then that would be great,” Winterton said.
Mitcham will play Upper Ferntree Gully at Walker Park in its season opener on Saturday, April 7.