A NONDESCRIPT pre-season game in a coastal South Australian town this past March was the source of much excitement among Western Bulldogs coaches.
It was the Bulldogs' final tune-up for the season and they lost to Port Adelaide but their 22-year-old ruckman capped an outstanding summer with a super on-field performance.
Against a premiership big man in Scott Lycett for large parts of the day, no less.
The Dog in question, Tim English, was one of those rare ruckmen drafted in the first round and even rarer in that he played in his first season and was his club's No.1 big man by his third.
Now, in his fourth campaign, he looks ready to take off.
Even still, there's been understandable growing pains – and not just because English shot up 20cm in his last three years as a teenager. He now stands 205cm.
Collingwood's dual All-Australian Brodie Grundy polled maximum Brownlow Medal votes in both clashes with English last year and they met again in round one this year.
Luke Beveridge and co. were so buoyed by the Lycett game they expected things to be vastly different in the return bout with Grundy. They were wrong. Grundy was best afield again.
However, their faith wasn't misplaced, with English – while still far from the finished product – beginning to illustrate in the past fortnight why he's held in such high regard.
"We're probably managing these situations better than what we did at the start of the year," Beveridge said after beating the Roos last week.
"Tim's starting to flourish in his own game, because he knows he's supported. But he's never ever been glass half-empty. He knows he can play and he's just weathered a bit of a storm.
"He's still going to have his challenges – he's got some coming up ahead – but his last few weeks have been significant."
English won 22 disposals in each of the past two games and has taken more intercept marks this year than all bar two players, reeling in more than three per week.
His towering mark inside 50 against North Melbourne last weekend, despite him missing his set shot, also caught the eye.
Notable in that outing was English arguably got the better of star ruckman Todd Goldstein, who, like Grundy before him, was best on ground the last time he faced his younger counterpart.
Only one of them received an AFL Coaches' Association vote. It was English, who credits his progress to heightened confidence and maturity, plus his coaches' belief.
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ENGLISH'S journey could've been so different if not for a little-known draft rule.
All Western Australian and South Australian prospects must be registered and have played at least one WAFL or SANFL match to be draft eligible.
There are injury exceptions, such as Port Adelaide's Mitch Georgiades last year, but he had played at SANFL level previously, so he was a known quantity.
Grundy's Magpies were one of two AFL clubs that discovered English in 2015, when he was playing school footy for Christ Church Grammar rather than in the WAFL Colts.
They tried to plug English in for one game at the end of that WAFL season – with designs on nabbing him in the rookie draft – but confusion around his primary address led to that falling through.
A year later, he was touted as a top-10 selection and landed at the Bulldogs at pick 19. In between, the interest in English steadily rose.
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His agent, Andrew McDougall, of Corporate Sports Australia, recalls watching him for the first time in a state trial match and being stunned as English dashed down the wing with multiple bounces.
"I remember thinking after that game, 'This kid could be anything'," McDougall told AFL.com.au.
"I was lucky to play with (Hall of Fame ruckman) Dean Cox for a few years at West Coast, and Tim's in that same mould as a dynamic ruckman who can get around the ground almost as an extra midfielder."
So impressive was English's past pre-season that his teammates started ribbing former ruckman-turned-Bulldogs senior assistant Steven King because of how often he gushed about him.
King's working closely with English this year and likes what he sees from the "quiet, reserved, humble and polite" young pup.
"He's got a steely competitiveness to him, and the pre-season he had prior to and post-Christmas was exceptional. He was pushing the midfielders with his running capacity," King said.
"You could probably see he was going to take the next step but then the first week came (against Grundy) and he got, not a reality check, but it was a bit of a setback."
Usually, they would have debriefed in the days afterwards but instead came the almighty sledgehammer of the season suspension and resultant standing down of most club staff.
English had to stew on the Grundy game for months.
WHEN AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan made his necessary decision to press pause on the season in late March, it caused a ripple effect across the industry.
Footballers across the country, including English's housemate and fellow West Australian Aaron Naughton, scattered to their home states in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
English remained in Victoria with his girlfriend and another teammate, Pat Lipinski, determined to emerge a stronger, better footballer – and part of that involved buying a gym set-up for the household.
He's piled on more than 10kg in his four seasons at the Kennel and now tips the scales in the triple-digits.
It's part of English's plan to eventually give the Bulldogs' star-studded midfield a steady supply of hitouts to advantage. This is one of the areas, he says, that requires most personal growth.
"I'm building my strength to be able to hold my position in a contest; to give myself a chance to use that extra length I might have on some of my opponents," English told AFL.com.au.
"If I get pushed too far off the ball that completely nullifies any extra length I might have.
"I'm trying to find that hard balance between getting strength in the gym and being able to bring that onto the field while maintaining a running capacity."
That's the "steely competitiveness" King speaks of.
English was guarded when quizzed on what it was like to be on the wrong end of repeat thrashings from the likes of Grundy, Goldstein and Gawn as a developing ruckman.
After a brief pause, he quipped: "You've always got another game."
That's the glass half-full attitude that Beveridge speaks of.
At the same time, English didn't shy away from his struggles. He wasn't afraid to admit he's turned to family and his coaches, such as King, during some of his darker times.
"It's a difficult one in the ruck, coming through and developing in the AFL system," English said.
"It can smash your confidence, and I've had different times where I've been lower on confidence.
"But I'm here to play AFL footy, and that's been my childhood dream all along. If it wasn't a challenge, it wouldn't be as enjoyable when things are going a little bit better."
FACING THE BEST
Tim English on…
Max Gawn: "I've played Max only once but his size is really challenging to come against, because normally – although I may not use it to my advantage at the moment – I can use my length but he's one that matches me in that area but also has the body to push blokes off the ball. The technical aspect of his ruckwork is elite, then you've got his contested marking and defensive, intercept play behind the ball. He's one you have to pay a lot of attention to."
Todd Goldstein: "He's so quick at making the next decision after the contest and being able to put himself in a position to win the football and get involved on offence or be able to run defensively after a contests. In order to combat that, you need to switch on and not lose focus for a second."
Brodie Grundy: "He's able to push guys who are heavier than him around in ruck contests. That's evident through his hitout numbers, then immediately after the contest he's following up and has got that quick decision-making; to be able to impact at ground level and apply pressure on defence, then on offence he's able to get forward and get involved in handball chains or get back down the line for a longer kick."
Nic Naitanui: "He's a freak the way he's able to jump at the ball and push blokes off the ball as well, so I definitely put Nic Nat up there. He's shown this year he's able to match it with anyone, so it's good to have him back out there playing. It's unfortunate the injuries he's had, because without them you would've seen to a greater extent the way he's able to apply his craft."