Luke McDonald is interviewed by Callum Twomey in 'Cal's Q&A'. Picture: AFL Media

LUKE McDonald enters the next phase of North Melbourne as its new co-captain alongside Jy Simpkin. But it wasn't always heading that way for the lifelong Kangaroo.

In the first of's weekly Cal's Q&A, McDonald tells Cal Twomey about the turning point of his career ahead of his first game as skipper against West Coast on Saturday. 

You've had a big summer – gotten married and made co-captain of the club you have supported your whole life. Let's start with the captaincy. What type of skipper do you want to be at North?

I just want to be authentic. I don't want to change who I am because I feel like my personality has gotten me into the role. I want to be a players' captain – very approachable and do absolutely anything for anyone. I've always tried to drive the standards and make sure we're as tight as we can be. We've had some tough years but we've been able to stay really close throughout that.

So after the leadership votes had come in, yourself and Jy Simpkin went for a walk at the beach to talk through being co-captains. How was that?

We went to South Melbourne beach. We'd had the vote and Jy and I were clear at the top and we discussed whether we thought co-captaincy would work. Even the last couple of years being co-vice captains we've done a lot of work together and do feel that we complement each other really well. There was never going to be any jealousy, there's no ego there. At the end of the day if Jy had won the vote convincingly I would have been happy for him and I would've thought the same thing the other way but the reality was we were so close at the top that it was the only way it could be.

Jy Simpkin (left) and Luke McDonald pose during North Melbourne's official team photo day at Arden Street on February 17, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

What would people have thought walking past you two at the beach that night overhearing that conversation?

There weren't too many looks! I don't think too many people recognise us. I think that's what happens when you've been at the bottom the last couple of years so we'll be looking to change that.

How are you two similar and different?

One of Jy's greatest assets is he's just a relentless trainer. He lives and breathes it. He's always looking for that edge. I think my greatest strength is my connection and uniting the boys and trying to get us all together. 'Clarko' (coach Alastair Clarkson) said to us 'Just because those are your strengths, it doesn't mean that's all you do. If anything you have to tip into the other one and be more well-rounded'. It's taken a number of years of building my strengths because three or four years ago if you'd asked me if I thought I'd be captain of the club, I wasn't even in the leadership group so I've come along way.


What changed? Your trajectory has been interesting in a way that you came into North with a bang, played 23 games in your debut season including three finals. Two years later you were left out of some finals games. Then in 2020 you won the best and fairest and signed a five-year deal the following year. 

I've got no doubt the making of me was when I broke my ankle in 2019. I was six years in, the previous couple of years I'd just missed out on being voted into the leadership group. I was the next person every year. I was an average role player and it was a good time of reflection because I thought 'Jeez, I haven't really gotten what I wanted out of my career' as a high draft pick. I sought a lot of feedback on where I was at and Rhyce Shaw came in at that time and he was awesome for me. I sharpened up a lot of areas in my life. Even going into the COVID bubble was good for me because it was just footy and I started really believing I could get to where I wanted. When you start playing well the leadership starts to come too. You feel like you have more standing and people want to find you more, but I've got no doubt that breaking my ankle was a big turning point. What do I want to make of my career? I was out of contract the next year and it could have gone anywhere.

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A decade ago we made a documentary following you, Jack Billings and Ben Lennon through your draft year. You were captain of Vic Metro that season and said at the time you wanted to be a captain again in the future. How much did captaining North Melbourne stay on your radar?

When I first got to the club I was aspiring to be in the leadership group, early days I probably aspired to be in it too much instead of just letting my actions do the talking. I learnt so much in that time and you just have to be yourself, it's too hard being anyone else. It was always a dream to be captain and the longer I've gone into my career, it's stayed a goal but really you just want your teammates to want you to be captain. At the end of the day they're the guys who matter.


North has been in your blood. You were the highest ever father-son pick (before Nick Daicos and Sam Darcy came along). Have you ever felt any pressure attached to that?

Not at all. I was at the club since I was about 15 so there was always that level of expectation, but the highest expectations on me were from me. I wasn't happy with what I was achieving. When I didn't get picked for a couple of finals that was pretty tough. The North supporters have that romantic connection which maybe has a level of expectation as well.

That's because they have seen the photo of you at Dallas Brooks Hall back in 2007 as a kid doing your bit to save the club from relocation.

That photo has done the rounds. It is pretty cool looking back at that photo though because it does show how much the club is a part of my life. To now be co-captain of the club is crazy to think when I was that little kid at Dallas Brooks Hall trying to keep us from going to Gold Coast.

Donald McDonald with son Luke after North Melbourne's match against the Western Bulldogs in round two, 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

Alastair Clarkson is your fifth coach in five years, including Leigh Adams as interim last season. What was your first thought when the club was chasing him?

I was like a bit of a fan with that. It was between us and the Giants and then the Bombers came in and I was like 'Oh he can't go to the Bombers over us, that'd just be heartbreaking'. Then we obviously got him and it was so exciting, because you know what he's done. I'm 28, I'm not getting any younger but I can still improve so much and learn so much off him.

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You've instilled some ways to get tighter as a group. Tell me about the Saturday morning training sessions over summer.

On Saturday mornings we've been doing hill sprints at Fawkner Park and then we go to the Sandbar Café and get into the water as well. It's always good to get outside the club and spend some time together. Clarko's had everyone down at his farm a couple of times as well which has been great to build those connections. The closer you are, the more you end up doing on the field for each other.

Alastair Clarkson looks on during a North Melbourne training session on January 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

What does a good year look like for North Melbourne this season?

Improvement. You just want to see a strong, consistent brand of footy. That's something that we're keen to do. I'm not looking to put a number on how many wins we want to achieve this year but I think we'll know in ourselves how we're going. It will be good to have Ben Cunnington back, it'll be good to have Will Phillips back. If we can get some games into Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw it will be a really exciting year for us.

So put yourself in the shoes of a Kangas fan. If not No.11, which number would you put on your North jumper? Who excites you when you're out there?
That's a tough one. It's hard to go past No.3 (Harry Sheezel) seeing a few of the goals he's kicked through this pre-season. You would've seen him in his draft year but his ability as well to go behind the ball and use his foot skills has been exciting. But also No.6 (George Wardlaw) is going to be a good player for a long time as well. We've been holding him back because he's such a power athlete but when he gets out there and puts on the blue and white stripes he's going to be someone you want to play with.


What about No.29? Will Phillips has ridden a tough introduction to his AFL career. What can be add this year?

We spoke before about when things happen in your life and there's that fork in the road and his response to missing last year through illness was unbelievable. He was in at the club every day in the off-season. Speaking about Jy and how driven he is, I'd say 'Will Phil' is probably the second-most driven kid on the list. He just wants to get better. I reckon he'll take some big steps this year.

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Tarryn Thomas has been back at the club. What has your role been with him during this time as a new captain?

Just to support him. He's working through a lot at the moment but he's got his program that is put in place by the leaders at the club and we're just here to support him. That is the thing when we speak about connection – you have to be there for your teammates because life's full of ups and downs.

Jy Simpkin and Tarryn Thomas arrive at North Melbourne on February 27, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

I remember you saying before you got drafted that you were eyeing off 156 games because it was one more than your dad Donald played. You did that late last year. Did he shout you dinner?  

It is funny. All I ever wanted to do was play one game but then once you do that, you want 100 to get your name on the locker. But the No.25 has always been looking at me with Donald McDonald's 155 games there so to get to 156 games was a good moment. We always do laugh about it – I say surely I can sit at the head of the table but now he says I have to catch him in how many goals he's kicked. He's kicked about 165 goals and I'm about 150 off that so I don't know if I'll be catching that. Mum and Dad have been massive for me. All you ever want to do is make your parents proud and I want to keep building the McDonald legacy at North Melbourne. He told me this year he was going to stop coaching Old Scotch so he could watch me play more but then about a month later he took the job at Old Trinity. My family are big footy nuffies, except for my wife, who comes from New South Wales. 

You married Brooklyn over summer. Has she become a footy convert?

I've got her whole family into it. Her grandma passed away late last year but she was probably my No.1 fan. She'd go on the club Facebook page and if people were bagging me she'd respond to them, so she was very loyal. It was very funny. The whole family is into the footy now.