IT has been a tough couple of years for the Northern Knights in the TAC Cup. Yet despite only amassing seven wins in the past 24 months, coach Andrew Shakespeare has lead the development of some top-end talent, with five draftees last year and the possibility of another three or four this year.
Sitting down for a chat with ‘Shakes’ after a tough 47-point home loss at the hands of Gippsland, it is not hard to become engrossed in his coaching philosophy and just why talent keeps pouring out of the Knights’ system.
Boasting the likes of top-10 hopeful Ben Ainsworth, the Power outclassed Northern all day, but not all was lost.
When asked if he gave the players a spray after the match, Shakespeare said there was more to TAC Cup football than wins and losses.
“No, no,” he said. “They know, it’s more about letting them learn. They know.”
Shakespeare’s methods are carefully guided by the fine line between highlighting the importance of winning in junior competition, and the importance of player development. Above all, a “need to compete” drives the Knights philosophy.
“Regardless of game situation… we want to make sure we’re competing,” Shakespeare said. “The two can go hand-in-hand; development and success aren’t necessarily separated.”
“We really try and push success but we also try to push the little wins. “So, when we see players change their actions, develop a new skill, show that their kicking’s improved, their ability to think… the little wins along the way are things we can show them, ways they’re getting better.”
The little wins have come against the tide of many challenges the side has faced throughout the year – from an undersized squad, to the disruption of school footy. The gap in elite talent from last year to now is also a factor, with the side struggling to match-up without the class of Jade Gresham, Brayden Fiorini, Tyrone Leonardis, and Darcy MacPherson in 2015’s pool.
“In terms of top-end talent, we haven’t had as much so it’s been a challenging year in terms of getting players to play against what is the best underage competition in Australia,” Shakespeare said.
“We’ve constantly been challenged in terms of height, we haven’t had key-position players so we’ve played players undersized at both ends of the ground.”
A limited talent pool also affects the squad on match-day. With stars like Luke Bunker and Lachlan Murphy often tied-up in school footy duties with Ivanhoe Grammar, the team often lacked flexibility. Last quarter blow-outs have plagued the team all season as a result.
“It’s disappointing for the players that they’re not getting reward for effort,” Shakespeare said. “One of the things we’ve found this year is that when it does come down to that last quarter, we’ve found it really difficult to change our side.
“We’re very limited in how we can create a different structure on the field and I think eventually, the better sides get you when you’re putting the same thing out there.”
Results aside, Shakespeare has a very clear focus on getting the best out of his players, and seeing them flourish in higher systems is rewarding. From stars like Marcus Bontempelli, to rookie choices like Jayden Short and father/sons like Dylan Buckley, all kinds of talent has been nurtured and recognised with Shakespeare at the club.
“You have great pleasure in seeing that happen,” the Knights coach said. “I think when you look across the league, the Northern Knights have had a really proud history in contributing players at that level.
“If these boys have the passion and love of the game, that’s the real point of the TAC Cup – develop players and see them grow to be the best they can be.”
The Knights will round off their season against the Western Jets at Ikon Park, but Shakespeare says he will keep his eye on the action come finals, and obviously draft time.
“Over the next few weeks for me, I see this as an opportunity to continue to learn so hopefully I’ll get down and go into some of the coaching rooms with the other teams and watch what they do.”
To conclude, Shakespeare provided a his thoughts on a number of Knights players that could find AFL clubs at the end of the year:
Luke Bunker – “Luke has had a stellar year really in terms of his TAC Cup and his national input. He won the coach’s award, which is really prestigious… he continues to find ways to get better. We’re keen on him starting to work the outside and put scoreboard pressure on by kicking goals. I really think he could slip into an AFL system and provide long-term service because of his durability.”
Patrick Lipinski – “Clearly has some outstanding talents in his ball-winning ability and his ability to distribute the ball to space… he has really good hands, very good decision maker and he’ll be one I think to really continue to develop and play a role at AFL.”
Lachlan Murphy – “Rejected time and time again at the next level, but continues to shine. His football speaks for itself – if you want a player to give you effort, Lachie is just that one to continue to stand up.”
Matthew Signorello – “Matthew, again, had opportunity at the nationals but didn’t make the final team but didn’t want to let that stand in his way, came back here and has just played stellar football. He’s starting to mark the ball inside forward-50 and kick goals. We know he can win the football, unfortunately his season’s over with a shoulder injury but hopefully he’s done enough to get the opportunity at the next level.”
Mason Blakey – “Terrific player. Really creative, good hands, good kick, good decision maker. Played at nationals, came back to us as captain and has just continued to play really good football. I hear already he’s made an impact, kicked a goal in his first VFL game so he’s another one that given the opportunity, can play at that next level for sure.”