SO CLOSE yet so far.
That was the story of Coburg’s season as the Lions finished 16th with a 3-7 record – but for four more goals could have risen as high as sixth.
Losses to Collingwood (four points), North Melbourne (three), Northern Bullants (one) and Williamstown (four) still sting, but the Lions can take the positives of having recorded their highest win tally since 2016 to climb out of the bottom four for the first time since they last made the VFL finals in 2008.
As coach Andrew Sturgess pointed out, Coburg increased its average score from 67 to 77 and improved its defence from 95 points conceded to 81 – representing a percentage lift from 70.04 to 95.08.
That represents their best percentage since 2010 and was the second-best improvement in the competition behind Frankston, which increased from 57 to 103.
While Sturgess admitted disappointment at the four heartbreaking defeats, he said it was a far cry from the regular feelings of “embarrassment” of recent seasons.
"We went in after the (Williamstown) game and the boys were shattered – and they care so much. I said to them 'well done on continuing to put yourself in the contest and be willing to feel this disappointment, it means you’re a chance to win and when you’re in those games'," Sturgess said.
"The previous years we’ve left a lot of games feeling embarrassed as a football club. We’ve had a lot of drubbings from the good teams like Richmond, Casey, Box Hill, and you leave with embarrassment – now we’re leaving with disappointment and I’d much rather be disappointed and in the contest than embarrassed and a mile off."
There is, in fact, so much to like about Coburg as a plan to target recruits from successful clubs takes shape to complement a solid core group.
"The strides forward we have made give us real optimism - (if we get) more games into guys we’ve brought in to blend in with the guys we’ve had for a long time like Sam Lowson, Marcus Lentini, Peter McEvoy, Luke Bunker, Jesse Corigliano, Ryan Exon - that we’re not too far off," Sturgess said.
"We've tried to be really strategic with our recruiting and go for guys who have been in successful programs – it’s no secret we’ve gone for guys out of Box Hill and Richmond because over the past 10 years they’ve had a lot of success as clubs both at AFL and VFL level.
"To bring in guys like Nathan Mullenger-McHugh, Nathan Boucher and Nelson Lane from Box Hill and from Richmond Jake Ballard, Tommy Silvestro, Charlie Thompson, Luke Nelson and Corey Ellis via Gold Coast has raised the bar … both on field and off field.
"We knew what we were getting out of those guys from a playing perspective, but the way they’ve shown their character and personality and bought into the club and what we’re about, and help the development of our other players has been sensational.
"To pick one of them for a standout year would probably be Charlie Thompson – we knew what we were getting as a person and a player to a certain extent but he has blown us away in both categories, he’s really elevated himself to hopefully get an opportunity at AFL level, and that’s what we want for all our players.
"The other one is Jack Maibaum, who has had an outstanding season coming off Sydney’s AFL list for four years … to come back and prove he is a level above was really good.
"I'm really pleased with where we’re going and the trajectory that we’re on and hopefully we get a good crack at this next year."
That buy in produced some amazing highs for Coburg, none bigger than its maiden trip to Queensland in round three when it stunned a Brisbane Lions team on the rebound after breaking its 21-match winning streak the week before.
Sturgess' men also landed their first win over Port Melbourne since 2015, breaking a seven-match losing streak against the Borough at an average of 52 points, while their return to Piranha Park for the first time in 599 days resulted in a runaway win over Carlton in front of a rare (in 2021) large crowd.
It all shows the club is on the right track of chasing incremental gains (the achieved aim this season was one or two more goals per game in attack and one or two less in defence) rather than seeking the quick fix.
"Brisbane are doing great things from an AFL perspective, they’re one of the best clubs in the country at the moment, so to go up there on their turf, it (the weekend of travel) happens pretty quickly, so for our guys to be able to perform through all that and execute in pretty trying conditions … was a really proud day for us," Sturgess said.
"In terms of what we need to do to elevate ourselves to the next level, we’ve put ourselves in positions to be in the contest every week, we’re not getting blown away, we’re not going in without the hope or belief that we can actually win games.
"We just need to continue with that method of ‘how do we find another one or two goals per game and how do we limit the opposition by another one or two per game?’. It’s that marginal improvement we’re after rather than that golden nugget we’re seeking to get us into the finals."
As for the list, Sturgess said almost everybody had either signed or verbally committed for next year, and they also looked forward to the return of ruckmen Adam Swierzbiolek (broken ankle) and Kyle Galloway (broken cheekbone and eye socket), as well as Ben Reddick (ACL).
"Losing your No.1 ruckman 40 minutes into a season doesn’t help you, and then we lost our second ruckman in round four," he said.
"It put a bit of a strain on our structure and it meant Nathan Mullenger-McHugh, who we recruited as the key position forward we’ve been crying out for years for, had to shoulder the load as our No.1 ruckman.
"Aaron Clarke is a young key forward who is going to be a great player as well, but just needs a few more games as that third tall forward but was often our key target as a 19-year-old and did a great job even though his results don’t necessarily reflect that.
"Nath did a great job and we were No.2 for contested possessions and No.4 for clearances this year, which shows our midfield without a ruckman were still able to produce some really good results, so if (Swierzbiolek) can give us better use we’re going to be even better there as well.
"Our list is generally quite young – we’ve got Josh D’Intinosante, Ryan Sturgess, Tom McKenzie is still only 20, Jackson Davies is 19, Ben Jepson, so there is a plethora of young talent coming through and we were able to complement that with some experience, so I feel we’re in a really good spot to launch into what we hope is a full season next year."
3-7 win-loss, 16th
What went right: Announced themselves with a stunning win over the Brisbane Lions in Queensland and were competitive in almost every game, including breaking a 13-year drought against Port Melbourne at North Port Oval. Getting the clubrooms and oval refurbished, christened with a convincing win over Carlton, also sets them up for the future.
What went wrong: The Lions took huge steps forward this year, but being unable to get over the line in a close game, with four losses by a combined 12 points, crippled their finals chances. That can be fixed. Losing No.1 ruckman Adam Swierzbiolek in round one and his back-up Kyle Galloway in round four also removed an ace from the pack.
Best and fairest prediction: This is wide open, with key defender Jack Maibaum right in the mix and midfielders Charlie Thompson and Marcus Lentini expected to get plenty of votes. Forwards Sam Lowson and Peter McEvoy could also poll well.
Best young players: Lentini and Thompson again are at the top of this list and right in the hunt for the Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal. Ben Jepson impressed in defence and Aaron Clarke looks to have a big future up forward.
Coach status: Andrew Sturgess has been reappointed for a third season in charge and is just hoping to be able to coach a full season. “I’m stoked and grateful for the faith Coburg has shown in me, it has been pretty trying for everyone the past couple of years and our general manager Seb Spagnuolo has done a brilliant job keeping everyone connected,” he said. “For the club to have that faith in me to be the one to lead us forward feels good and we’re obviously on the right trajectory.”
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