ALL the talk has been about how the Northern Bullants rebuilt a club from nothing after the end of their alignment with Carlton, but what is easily forgotten is that the Blues also had to start again.
While Carlton did have the advantage of the AFL senior list to draw most of their players from, the Blues had to put together a 30-man VFL squad from scratch – and like the Bullants, they did an admirable job after not having to do so for 20 years.
The fact they went on to win four of their nine games and push top two teams Footscray and Southport is a source of pride for coach Daniel O’Keefe.
"This time last year we were sitting in a hub and we didn’t have a VFL team with the Northern Blues any more and we hadn’t established the Carlton team," he said.
"We were absolutely nothing, just some words on paper, so to come forward 12 months has been quite extraordinary – it’s actually quite rare at this high a level that we, and myself included, had the opportunity to build a team or a club within a club from scratch.
"One, that was a challenge and it took a lot of grunt and a lot of good people putting in the time and effort to be able to get to where we got to, and two, it was really rewarding that we could see it all the way through to – I’m not even talking win-loss, just how we established a new club so to speak and we’ve made some fantastic connections off the back of that and helped put Carlton Blues VFL back on the map.
"It has been 20 years and it’s exciting to move forward and progress into year two off the back of building a foundation in the first 12 months."
While most of the clubs to miss the top eight rued slow starts to the season, Carlton hit the ground running with a 2-2 record in its first four games, thumping the Brisbane Lions (with a 12-goal first quarter) and Essendon, and pushing Southport and Footscray to the limit.
But with their first bye in round five came AFL injuries and a loss of momentum which led to an inconsistent second half of the season. While they had impressive wins over Port Melbourne and Sandringham, they were thumped by Box Hill and lost convincingly to fellow northern suburbs teams in the Bullants and Coburg.
O'Keefe said the two latter defeats hurt as their former partner made a statement and then the Lions lifted for their return to Piranha Park.
"No doubt those losses were hard to swallow, but I think we learned a lot from those two teams," he said.
"I'll call out the Bullants, that was the hardest, but we took some learnings from the way they played and the way they held themselves against us. They had a point to prove – I fully understand that – and they played with passion, but there’s no doubt as a coaching group and a playing group we will grow from that in the future if we haven’t already."
O'Keefe said the best part of the season for him was how his new group gelled to put together a successful season.
"I know it can sound quite cliched, but when you start with a playing list of 30 and none of those 30 really knew each other at the start, it's a unique circumstance … the connection between them has been unbelievable," he said.
"They hang out a lot and have become really good mates, not just with the other players but the staff as well.
"I would have called 100 players in September-October last year just to recruit a summer training list and we ended up taking 29 into the season – it was hard yards, but that's why it was so rewarding to get to this stage."
That list included several former AFL players led by ex-Magpie and Crow Ben Crocker, who was a revelation in the forward line, plus James Parsons (Geelong), Ryley Stoddart and Cody Hirst (Sydney), Toby Wooller (Brisbane Lions) and Tom North (Fremantle), while they also gained excellent service out of ex-Williamstown youngsters Stefan Radovanovic and Cooper Stephens.
"We gave him (Crocker) opportunities to play some AFL match simulations when we needed top-ups in January and February because he didn’t have a local club to train with and he caused havoc, kicking three, four or five goals in 40 minutes," O'Keefe said.
"His form was extremely consistent throughout the year (29.19 in nine games), but he was at his best when he was working up the ground and putting pressure on, and the way he played and brought energy to the group was phenomenal – he is probably the one who stands out in terms of performance, character and energy.
"I coached Cooper Stephens – he was a premiership captain for me in 2017 (at Geelong Falcons) so we had a connection that goes way back and he flourished as a player this year off the half-back line.
"Being under the tutelage of Kade Simpson as a defensive coach helped him and he was really consistent the whole year. He was often in the best half dozen and he has some really exciting development left in him.
"Stefan is the same – he played oversize and undersize and had some really big jobs, particularly in the first four or five games he was outstanding and actually took hold of a few games and dominated."
That growth was fast-tracked by the quality of some of the Carlton AFL-listed players who had stints at VFL level throughout the year, which helped make up for the stop-start nature of the competition.
"COVID has thrown up a lot of spanners to so many footballers and clubs – in particular the players I really feel for deeply are the ones with aspirations to be drafted, whether that is for the first time or those that have come off a list vying to get back on where they somewhat belong," O'Keefe said.
"We had seven scrimmage matches (on top of the nine VFL games and five practice matches) which the VFL players weren't part of, so it was a funny year to sit back and reflect upon, but ideally in the future if COVID is around next year, which it probably is, we find a way to be able to get more consistent footy in.
"I don't have the answers for that, but just to give the VFL-listed players an opportunity to just be able to play footy.
"There have been a couple of years of speedhumps for those players and if our program can help any of them, it is going to make our program a real success.
"We were able to take one player in the mid-season draft (Alex Mirkov) that came off our VFL list, and we really hope to do more of that in the future.
"Eddie Betts played VFL practice matches with us, Marc Murphy played a VFL game this year – our VFL-listed players got the opportunity to play with a couple of greats of the game – there’s no doubt that VFL players remember those games and those experiences forever."
4-5 win-loss, 12th
What went right: Building a list from scratch and winning four games was a solid achievement, with the 12-goal first quarter against Brisbane Lions being the undoubted highlight. Ben Crocker was a revelation after arriving from Adelaide and the emergence of ex-Seagulls Cooper Stephens and Stefan Radovanovic is also a tick.
What went wrong: It may have changed the course of both clubs’ seasons if they didn’t give up a five-goal lead to lose to Southport in round one, while the convincing losses to Northern Bullants and Coburg in consecutive games mid-season meant both their neighbours took bragging rights out of the season and cost them any chance of making the eight.
Best and fairest prediction: Crocker is the favourite after an excellent first season at Ikon Park that could even earn him a third chance at AFL football, while James Parsons provided great leadership after losing his spot at Geelong. Youngster Radovanovic should also be prominent.
Best young players: Radovanovic obviously tops this list alongside Stephens as both revelled in opportunity. Alex Mirkov has played less than 10 games of footy and is already on the senior list. Ben Caluzzi and Ed Delany also showed promising signs throughout the season.
Coach status: Dan O'Keefe is contracted for a second season in 2022, but must wait until the new AFL coach is appointed to see what plans and roles could change. He wants to continue the job, however. "It's something we've built from nothing and I'd like to see that through – and there's some really high hopes about where we can get to," he said.
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