NICK Larkey has come a long way since he brought his spray cans and a ladder into North Melbourne and painted a Kangaroo inside the gym ahead of the 2019 season.
Back then, the key forward had two forgettable games on the board and a 'Frosty' Miller Medal in his sock drawer. Now Larkey enters 2022 as one of the best young spearheads in the AFL.
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While Carlton forward Harry McKay established himself as the next big thing by claiming his first Coleman Medal last year, it's easy to forget just how good Larkey was in 2021, especially for a side that finished last with only four wins.
Only 11 players kicked more goals than the 23-year-old during the home and away season.
Larkey slotted 42.15 from 22 appearances during a breakout season, which included a career-best seven goals on Blues star Jacob Weitering in round 19, finishing with more majors than Josh Kennedy, Aaron Naughton, Tom Lynch and Jeremy Cameron.
Larkey has now kicked 82 goals from his first 51 games and is averaging a remarkable three goals to every behind across his first five seasons in the big time.
Before Larkey produced that breakout season, the Trinity College boy was forced to complete an old school football apprenticeship in the VFL.
After breaking through for those two games late in 2017, Larkey couldn't crack into Brad Scott's best 22 the following season, despite winning the goalkicking award in the VFL.
But since landing that third opportunity in 2019 – after the talented artist was commissioned to paint the mural – Larkey has risen from well down the depth chart at Arden Street to becoming the No.1 key forward for David Noble's side.
"Looking back, it really set me up for that third year when I broke in halfway through the year and has helped my career more than I realised. I'm not going to lie, it was pretty hard at the time, but looking back it has set me up," Larkey told AFL.com.au at Arden Street.
"I remember having a good year my first year and then got a chance and just muffed that - I had two stinker games.
"I had two more years (on my deal) after my first year so after those games, I thought I'd go back to the VFL and work my arse off in the VFL. I just didn't set any expectations for myself.
"That year in the VFL made me realise I had definitely earned another shot. There were times in the VFL year where I thought I should be playing because I didn't play at all and I had a really good year that year.
"I was eager to get a shot, I couldn't believe I couldn't get a shot. It has worked out now."
Plenty has changed at North Melbourne in the past 18 months. The club has undergone a significant list transition. Larkey has transformed into not just one of the more important players at the Kangaroos, but one of the more experienced players at the club despite only entering his sixth season.
"It's a different feel. The list is so young at the moment. With the demographic of the list, I'm actually one of the older lads there, which is weird to think about. There is more of a responsibility in that sense," he said.
"Body wise, I feel I'm finally holding a strength and weight that is probably required as a key forward, so I feel stronger and a bit more responsibility than I did this time last year because I was just coming into that No.1 key forward role last year and now I feel more like I can embrace it more. I know a bit more about what's required."
After a season that made the competition sit up and take notice, the No.73 pick from the 2016 NAB AFL Draft knows things will change this year.
He is ready for an increased level of time and effort – both during the week and in the two hours of the week that matter most – that opposition analysts, coaches and players will put into restricting his influence.
"I am certainly preparing for that," he said.
"'Nobes' has prepared us for that as well. If we play good footy as a team and the ball is coming in nice and if there are multiple options, then it doesn't have to come through me all the time. But I am prepared for that (more focus from opposition sides) and expecting it as well."
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The arrival of opportunity-starved forward-ruck Callum Coleman-Jones during the Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period should assist Larkey and help improve North Melbourne's attack this season.
North Melbourne secured the 22-year-old in a deal that saw the Kangaroos send a future second-round pick, pick No.40 and Robbie Tarrant to Richmond in exchange for the 22-year-old, picks No.42, 47 and a future fourth-round pick last October, after Coleman-Jones opted for a fresh start following nine appearances in four seasons at Punt Road.
"'CJ's' been really good," Larkey said.
"He's really aggressive and intense at training; he's a big boy, so he throws his weight around, which is good. Not only does it make him better, it makes all the boys around him better. He has been really impressive so far."
While Coleman-Jones generated headlines during the trade period, Jason Horne-Francis has been one of the most covered draft prospects the game has ever seen.
North Melbourne wasn't tempted by massive offers from Richmond and Adelaide to part with pick No.1 ahead of the NAB AFL Draft, swiftly securing the services of Horne-Francis in November.
The 18-year-old from South Adelaide has made an early impression at the Kangaroos and Larkey believes he is on track to start his long-awaited AFL career when North Melbourne faces Hawthorn at the MCG in round one.
"He had a couple of weeks before the Christmas break and he already looks like a really good player," he said.
"He is really hard, clean and has obviously played SANFL for a couple of years, which you can tell in training just the way his body shape is. Hopefully he slots in round one because he looks like he can have an immediate impact."