PLAYING football for NEAFL side Southport this year was Tom Wilkinson's way of escaping the Melbourne bubble and still competing at a high level.
But if everything goes to plan on Friday, the 181cm forward could be booking a ticket back to Victoria to play at the highest standard possible.
Wilkinson, 22, is back on the AFL radar four years after obsessing over the possibility as a Sandringham Dragons midfielder in the TAC Cup.
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He was left shattered when he missed out – describing that disappointment as "catastrophic" – and suffered the same fate after returning and winning the Dragons' best and fairest award in 2015.
One of the knocks on Wilkinson then was his at-times untidy disposal, whereas fast forward to this past season and his 36 goals came at an impressive 65.5 per cent accuracy.
Sharks coach Steve Daniel's decision to send him to the goalsquare after his side's slow start against NT Thunder in round six sparked them into action and his young star's season.
Wilkinson was best on ground that day and went on to kick 33 of his goals in the final 14 games to make the NEAFL Team of the Year as Southport rolled to the premiership.
"There were a few areas of my game I just needed to polish up," he told AFL.com.au.
"I think now in the forward line, you've got one way to go – and that's straight to goal.
"There are less decisions to make and I know if I'm not kicking a goal, I'm giving it to someone else. It's more suited to me."
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Wilkinson rated elite among NEAFL general forwards for not only goals and accuracy, but also forward-50 tackles (1.5) and marks (1.6), score assists (1.6) and contested marks (0.7).
His 14.9 disposals, 7.4 contested possessions, 5.8 score involvements and 1.9 forward-50 groundball gets stacked up nicely as well.
Tom Wilkinson should be on an AFL list.— Matthew Lappin (@skinnylappin) November 11, 2018
Modern day medium size fwd from Southport Sharks, pressure, contest, elite athlete, character, ticks all the boxes.
Better player than 50 players I saw on AFL lists in my 10 yrs coaching.
Take a look recruiters#AFLDraft
Wilkinson clocked a 16.8 beep test in his draft year and uses his endurance to devastating effect, evidenced in two gut-busting efforts, in particular, against the Swans in round seven.
There was a 50m chase down after starting just outside the goalsquare, and another where he won the ball at half-back to drive the Sharks forward then pressured Aliir Aliir into a rushed behind at the other end.
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"He changed games off his own boot this year. He's not tall, but he's got a great leap and he's a deadly set shot," Southport football manager Jarrod Field told AFL.com.au.
"We've got a really big ground at Southport, so his ability to cover the ground and apply pressure was outstanding.
"His attack on the footy, ability to keep his feet, and his tank (aerobic ability) allow him to get to so many contests. He's ready to go – he just needs an opportunity."
Tom Wilkinson booted 36 goals at 65.5 per cent accuracy in the NEAFL this season. Picture: TJ Yelds/NEAFL
Wilkinson was tight-lipped about his conversations with AFL clubs, but it is understood North Melbourne, which could do with more small forward depth, is among the interested parties.
He is surrounded by ex-AFL footballers at the Sharks, including Michael Manteit, Andrew Boston, Josh Clayton, Ryan Davis and Brodie Murdoch, but it is Wilkinson drawing the most AFL attention.
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It's a far cry from a year ago, when Wilkinson was stuck in the VFL reserves playing for Williamstown behind Ben Cavarra and Lachie Schultz, two players who are regularly discussed as AFL prospects.
"I always needed a club or someone to believe in me," he said.
"Southport threw me straight in the deep end and I adapted pretty quickly and played some good footy.
"You hear the stories about (Brownlow medallist) Matt Priddis, who didn't get picked up until later in life, and it would be nice to get drafted via an alternate route."