Ben McKay during Essendon's Official Team Photo Day at the Hangar, February 13, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

BEN McKay had been ready for the new teammates, new gameplan and new surrounds of changing clubs at the end of last season. But as the Essendon recruit prepared for his first game in Bombers colours last month in a practice game against St Kilda at Moorabbin, there were some adjustments he hadn't set himself for.

Things were in different spots, the pre-game structure was fresh and, after eight years and 71 games at North Melbourne, he felt a little out of sync.

"There was a full-on barista in the changerooms, which me and 'Goldy' (Todd Goldstein) were having a bit of a laugh about. It took some getting used to," McKay told

McKay on Saturday will play his first home and away season game for the Bombers against Hawthorn after a high-profile free agency move, where he'll stand alongside new teammate Zach Reid in a defensive partnership the club has banked on for the long-term. But McKay's signature was hard-won for the Bombers, who jostled with Hawthorn, Sydney and Port Adelaide as the interested parties in McKay through last season.

After starting to meet clubs late in the season, McKay would leave every catch-up and jot down notes on what would work and what wouldn't at that particular club. McKay and his partner Taylah would discuss the pros and cons, and met with North, too, to hear its plan.

Ben McKay in action during match simulation between St Kilda and Essendon at RSEA Park, February 23, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"I did that process with every single club, North included. I met with North and heard their pitch as well, so I wasn't picking and choosing what I wrote down. It was very consistent with every club including North so I wouldn't change anything," he said.

"If I had my time again I wouldn't change how I went about it because it was a big decision and I didn't want to take it lightly. I respected the whole situation and it is a big deal, you're changing clubs.

"I grew up at North and spent so much of my early days as an adult there, so it was a big decision, but I was really proud of myself in how I was able to work through that process and not leave any stone unturned. It's the biggest decision of my life so far."


Meeting rivals during the season felt unnatural, but McKay said it had to begin if he was to make an informed decision.

"My manager said 'If we are going down this path then we need to start the process', and I was very hesitant to do that. As a player I just wanted to play and give it my best. I honestly didn't know until the season was finished," he said.

"I was even hesitant starting the process through the year, but I can understand how and why I needed to. As a respectful person and wanting to give my best to the team at North I was very aware of that, so it probably wasn't until late in the season that I a) had to make the decision if I wanted to leave, and then b) where I was going to go. There were two phases that were as hard as each other."

Ben McKay after the Round 24 match between North Melbourne and Gold Coast, his last as a Kangaroo, at Blundstone Arena on August 26, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

After taking his time in making a call, McKay sided with the Bombers over the Hawks, with both putting forward lucrative, long-term deals. McKay had gotten to know defender Jordan Ridley and half-back Andrew McGrath during off-season speed training sessions and said the group of players he met with before he had made his call were crucial to the Bombers’ decision.

"I had a meeting with a few of the players before it went down and how they carried themselves and how I could see myself fitting in – how they are as people is very similar to me. They want to get the best out of themselves, so that really sold it I reckon," he said.

His first four years at North coming under coach Brad Scott, who wooed him to the Bombers, was also a significant factor.

"Brad's a tremendous operator, one of the best I've had with the way he captures a room and how he's so detailed and process-driven. He brings that to life and it's the best I've seen any coach do. I've really enjoyed working under Brad again," McKay said.

Brad Scott addresses his players in the Community Series game between Geelong and Essendon at GMHBA Stadium, March 1, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

After arriving at Essendon with a minor knee injury, the 26-year-old has trained fully since the start of January and spent most of that time with the same bracket of defenders, with Bombers coaches conscious of getting their backline chemistry greater.

Ridley will miss the clash with the Hawks this week with his pre-season quad injury, but McKay and Reid will take on Hawthorn pair Mitch Lewis and Mabior Chol. McKay hopes it is the start of a long partnership with Reid, who has endured three injury-hit seasons to start his AFL career.

"He's been really respectful in asking questions and I've asked questions of him. We're very young as a couple, I suppose you'd call it, but the upside is massive and I can't wait to play a lot of footy with 'Reidy'," he said. "He's a massive talent and I think we can complement each other very well."

McKay's big free agency deal has been front-ended, making him one of the best paid players in the game for 2024 as Essendon makes use of its salary cap space to get a large chunk of his deal paid early. It is smart business for both parties, but a high-profile move to the Bombers will bring more pressure and expectation, which McKay has already felt at his new club in his initial months at Tullamarine.

Tom Hawkins and Ben McKay during the AAMI Community Series game between Essendon and Geelong at GMHBA Stadium on March 1, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"It doesn't really faze me too much. I can understand it completely how people are talking about it, as an athlete and professional you want to hold up your end of the bargain. I'm aware of that and want to give my all to this club and repay the faith and vice versa," he said.

"I'm excited for the challenge of the next 12 months and six or seven years will bring. As a competitor you want to give yourself the best chance to perform and I've always done that."

The plan includes competing against twin brother Harry this year for the first time at AFL level. Form, injuries and even suspension have meant the Carlton key forward and now Essendon key back have never been on opposing sides in the top flight – but McKay is adamant this year will be the one. Essendon faces the Blues in the King's Birthday eve game in round 13.

Twins Ben and Harry McKay during the NAB AFL Draft at the Adelaide Convention Centre on November 24, 2015. Picture: AFL Media

"We've joked about how it's gotten to this point. The one that got me the most was 2022. I'd never been suspended in any sport ever and I got one week, I got Rhys Stanley high. There wasn't much in it and the club didn't challenge it. That was the one where I was like 'What's happening?! Why is the universe against us here?'," McKay said.

"We've both probably matured the last couple of years, we do the podcast together, so we've been able to have a laugh about it now. Hopefully it does happen, we're both competitors, we like to play against good opposition which I feel like we both are, so that in itself is a good challenge. Hopefully it happens this year.

"I'm not sure if mum and dad would want it to happen. It's just too crazy now to be serious. It's gotten to a stage where you can't not have a laugh at it."