Over the past few years, many great players have been lost to the game through retirement – good things can’t last forever – despite that, today we see the competition entering into a new exciting phase at the dawn of a new decade with some of the most exhilarating potential the game has seen, just about ready to explode and carry our game to unbelievable levels of flair, excitement and popularity.

It is in the nature of the football supporter beast to ‘adopt’ players and claim them as the talent that you alone spotted. With the benefit of hindsight, we all enjoy looking back at those same predictions – the ones we got right (to brag) and the ones we got wrong (to facepalm).

The following list of players – irrepressible.

You’ll be hard pressed to find supporters of the relevant clubs being disappointed with the performances of these guys – all of whom I’m hoping to have varying degrees of massive influence, development and consistency.

The List

Adelaide – David McKay
Brisbane – Jack Redden
Carlton – Bryce Gibbs
Collingwood – Scott Pendlebury
Essendon – Courtenay Dempsey
Fremantle – Chris Mayne
Geelong – Nathan Djerrkura
Hawthorn – Xavier Ellis
Melbourne – Cale Morton
North Melbourne – Levi Greenwood
Port Adelaide – Mitch Banner
Richmond – Andrew Collins
Saint Kilda – David Armitage
Sydney – Keiran Jack
West Coast – Luke Shuey
Western Bulldogs – Ryan Griffen

Adelaide – David McKay

I half-adopted him as my Crow to watch last year, whilst he didn’t quite reach the highs I was hoping for, he definitely left enough signs for us to expect a further step up in 2010. Has the attacking mindset, frame, pace, flair and coming to the right kind of experience level to really blossom into a top midfielder.

Brisbane – Jack Redden

Love the way he finds and offloads the ball in heavy traffic, always seems to have a lot of time, I especially enjoy his attack on the man and ball, not afraid to take them on and for a youngster, already looks to assume responsibility. He plays like a Lion.

I expect to see him given even more opportunity this year, as well as more time in the midfield, making the most of learning all he can from the Simon Black twilight years and modeling his game on the champion – the silky reading of the play is already a natural part of his game, so now let’s see it honed.

The spotlight is on Daniel Rich – and rightfully so – but Redden has all the talent and tools at his disposal to eke out a similarly successful career. Watching with interest – playing 16+ games this year and showing at least steady KPI improvement on 2009 would equate to the Lions club grinning…

Carlton – Bryce Gibbs

Tipping that he’ll take his game up another level this year – in the consistency and damaging aspects especially.

Now that the Fevonator is gone, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be even more of an onus on the midfield to provide a decent amount of scoring. He’s been given time as well as a decent apprenticeship learning and improving different areas of his game and he possesses the potential to this year really turn it up another notch and make a leap into that next echelon of premier midfielder.

Of the rest, there’s all the obvious names – Walker, Kruezer, Warnock, Yarran etc – but one which isn’t and one who I think can become an important fixture in their Best 22 is Mark Austin. I’d have high hopes for if I were (thank god I’m not) a Blue.

And FYI – congrats on picking up Henderson. Will be at least a ‘good’ KPP for a decade.

Collingwood – Scott Pendlebury

Collingwood Magpies Intra-Club Match

There are two experienced, classy, been-there-done-that Pies newbies who’ll make Pendles’ life a hell of a lot easier to play those stand out games. And hey, he’s my pick for the Brownlow at the moment, so that’s gotta be an improvement, yeah?!

Jolly and Ball = Bang. A dominant ruckman + a (when fully fit – signs are good) gun in and under midfielder = more, easier stoppage wins.

The addition of these two alone (assuming none others improve) could almost see an almost radical change of permanent game plan from the Pies and the confidence to stick with it – that confidence to go toe to toe with the best through the middle, rather than backing away, hugging the boundary and creepy crawling their way forward. I daresay having Bucks, who is one of the smartest strategy men of the modern era despite his unfortunate affiliation, now on board the coaching panel will go some way to encourage Micky’s pig-headedness to lessen and listen to the chorus of a changing game and ensuring some of the more promising instances from the second-half of ’09 become the norm.

Their inclusion = more freedom, more fluency, more space and time to allow Pendlebury to really showcase his skills and make those who think he’s overrated wake up to themselves. Sit back, relax and enjoy the vision – a Pendlebury in full flight is prettier than Dal Santo, as tough as Sewell and as good an extricator as Watson.

I sound like a Pies fan. My bad.

Essendon – ???

I’m really not sure – it could (hopefully) be any number of players (as I’m sure it is at other clubs)

I’m hopeful for Gumby. I expect Pears and Hurley to continue their rise. A strong summer from the likes of Prismall, Welsh and McVeigh can have them raring to go. I think Monfries will really benefit having Williams taking the pressure off and can this year find long-needed consistency in his game… etc etc. Hey, what can ya expect, I’m a Bombers fan.

But if I was asked to narrow it down and to pick only one Bomber player to follow this year, I’d go for Courtenay Dempsey.

Sure, it’s not one of the names that we seem to see mentioned here, there and everywhere by Bombers fans talking us up this year (that honour goes with Hurley/Gumby/Pears/Ryder/Prismall) – but Dempsey made huge strides last season, most importantly actually keeping fit(ish) mostly and got himself out on the park to play plenty of games and he was a solid (and underrated, especially his defensive efforts) contributor in the majority.

Given what should be a more settled midfield to support the defence in 2010, the opportunity for him to expand his game into the midfield and become more than just a defender-come-running back, another strong summer which will help him run the season out stronger….. it all bodes well – especially from greater recognition outside of Bomber circles.

Fingers crossed he stays sound – because if he does, he’ll become an automatic selection in-house and have people outside calling him GC’s number 1 target. Good luck with that.

Fremantle – Chris Mayne

“Has a bit of **** in ‘im” – famous last words from my Freo supporting mate before an unfortunately horrendous ’09 season for Mayne. It’s a statement which rings true for AFL’s Terwilliger – one who will develop into a bit of a forward-line aggressor for the Dockers, an almost throwback to the 90’s style mid-sized forward, which might be why I like him so much, he reminds me of a better time…

He has that touch of class and leads by example – with such a young and upcoming group of talented youngsters, not to mention what could possibly be some very good mates in the forward-line this year – if he can get fed the ball enough and stay fit enough, he’ll be making an impact.

Geelong – Nathan Djerrkura

Geelong. This is a hard one… After so long at the top it’s difficult to be confident in picking any of the younger brigade to really step up to that next level given more exposure.

The obvious one is of course Tom Hawkins, who last season I thought was beginning to deliver on some of the long-time hype and should continue to make leaps forward as a genuine AFL key forward.

The recent Matty Stokes saga has perhaps pushed me over the edge into this selected corner. I’m biased. He’s injury riddled. I’ve had a long soft spot for him, so it could be a lot out of hope. He’s talented, but seems to have lost a yard of pace lately, is he still capable of delivering?

A young Aboriginal player who got his first taste of senior action last year, who has now been in the system for a few years and in that time would have learnt a hell of a lot about his capabilities – both game and body wise. It just seems to be the right ingredients for an explosion.

He has the defensive pressure down pat. He’s not a wiry ‘excitement machine’ – he’s actually got a bit of presence about him for one of his size and I like the fact that he’s not your typical ‘young black fella goalsneak-come-midfielder’ – he’s had to do the hard yards, he knows he has to work hard both ways, he knows things just won’t come to him all the time and to put the hard yards in and throw his head over the ball (to his detriment at times, taking more notice of what’s around him needs to be an improvement made).

Admittedly, there will be some stiff competition for spots this year being a part of the premier team, duh! I just hope he gets an opportunity and when it comes that he grabs it with both hands and doesn’t let go – one feels that he could almost be nearing the end of his time (at the Cattery at least) as a footballer if he doesn’t make some in-roads this year.

Hawthorn – Xavier Ellis

Stay on the park and injury free stud, and the results will come.

With the unfortunate lingering doubts over Clint Young (who, if not for those, I’d have listed him in this post), and the recent blooding of younger players, it would not surprise to see Ellis gifted more opportunity to roam further up the ground away from defence this year – an improved, fitter, stronger Ellis streaking up and down the wings would have a number of Hawks fans stiffening.

Even if that’s not the case, his ability in the back half to provide the option and take them on, is something which the Hawks missed last year.

He’s almost the Hawthorn version of Dale Thomas though. Talked up over summer seemingly year after year, never quite delivering on the hype place on his head both by loyal fans and outsiders – and his broader reputation suffering for it, despite still playing his role and actually being a pretty important player.

Melbourne – Cale Morton

I’m actually expecting improvement from quite a few players from this mob this year – Grimes will keep going upwards, Maric and Strauss will be thereabouts, Chip Frawley showed some good signs without much support and could very well get a fit Garland back this year. The ‘loss’ of McLean (which is long term, a good thing for them) could be a blessing in disguise for the team and midfield balance as a whole. It might even see Nathan Jones get back to becoming the player we thought he could be.

But to pick one standout, it’s mighty hard to go past Cale Morton[/b].

It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge fan of him for a long while. He’s been in the system a few years now and is already approaching that magical 50-game mark – the way he has so easily slipped into an AFL team, albeit a mediocre one, has been impressive.

The second efforts are rapidly improving – to the point of them being amongst the best at the club imo – which for a player of his build is an encouraging sign. he’s not afraid to cop a beating and after a strong pre-season, it’ll translate into more confidence in his body in the contested situations and he won’t get pushed away as easily. Plus Lade has retired… the tackling and pressure on opponents is something I’ve noticed he’s successfully been working hard on as well.

He generally uses the ball very well, and his ability to naturally read the play, find himself in the right spots at the right time and seem to seemingly effortlessly create space is Hird-like (note: I am not saying he is a clone or the ‘next’ one, simply a feature of his game reminds me of a better time…).

He still needs to improve on his accountability and timing his zoning off though, as if the cards don’t fall his way he gets caught out – which to be fair, is something which being in a stronger team would mask for him, but being surrounded by crap generally means one’s failings are more easily highlighted.

Cale has proven already that he is capable of playing on different builds of players, that versatility in addition to his class and ball winning ability will make him a B&F in no time.

He played a few flashy games last season, winning a fair bit of his fair of ball on occasions, kicking goals, making highlight reels – but the highlight of my season for him was a game which seemed to go almost unnoticed through the media, and it was his effort against the Swans and his opponent Goodes in the second half of the year.

I think I’ve gushed enough for now, but I promise, I could go further. And to think, this rambling has managed to dislodge my almost sickening infatuation with Grimes – but hey, it’s no longer as fun now that everyone sees it. Hmmph.

North Melbourne – Levi Greenwood

Greenwood… Goldstein… Greenwood… Goldstein… Greenwood!

Everyone has already seen some of what Goldstein is capable of – his continued stepping up in 2010 won’t come as any kind of shock. So there we go, I’m going to blabber on about Sir Levi.

He’s a tank. He’s nuggety. He doesn’t seem to be the type of player who is after or will create headlines – but he’ll be one of the guys his teammates will list as the one they would trust most to be in the corner as they head into battle. He’s the grunt. He’ll be the guy laying the barely noticed bump which will give Ziebell that extra half a second to do something brilliant.

I know Brad Scott is seeming to want to almost distance himself away from the adoration and deifying of the ‘Shinboner Spirit’ which has carried on ad nauseam since the popularisation of the internet – but this guy embodies it.

Levi has already shown much promise taking on some gun midfielders in a battle of the wits – and he’s sat flush on their face and kept their usual impact down, in the process almost cementing his name in as their next premier tagger – whilst I’m not usually a huge fan of that type of player, he strikes me as one who can and will offer much more than simply keeping his opponent quiet.

Hard, contested, enforcing footy will be his calling card – and knowing what Brad Scott was like as a player, I can see Greenwood soon becoming one of his favourites.

Port Adelaide – Mitch Banner

I really didn’t know who to put here. My immediate thought was Robbie Gray – but it’s no fun thinking like everyone else. Travis Boak was good last year and should continue his steady climb to the top of the midfielders tree. …..as for the rest of the team, well, the few I rated before the start of last season disappointed me – the talent is there, but huge question marks remain on the application and deliverance of that potential.

Which brings me to Banner. It’s surprising he plays for Port, considering he seems to have one thing in spades that a lot of their younger midfielders in recent times have none of – courage to put his body on the line. He’s not a downhill skier. He won’t work just one way. Rather than being simply outstanding in one area, I think he’ll turn out to be one of these midfielders who is average to above-average in a lot of areas, which means consistency – something Port are desperate for.

Sure, 2010 probably makes it a little premature to really having him headlining a ‘most improved’ for the club, but if they can get a dozen or so games plus into him – they’ll be heading into the 2011 season grinning.

Give it a year or few and a new look midfield boasting Hartlett, Boak, Banner and Pearce looks alright to me, each one compliments the last and they all offer something a little different.

Richmond – Andrew Collins

Injury free and raring to go after bursting on to the scene (albeit a little underrated) – it is a period of transition for the Tigers. Foley, Cousins, Deledio and Jackson will be popular mainstays in the midfield – but you can bet your bottom dollar that Collins will be part of that midfield rotation.

He strikes me more as a player who’ll be a gradual improver rather than making it seem like one day he wakes up, gets out of bed and goes “Bang! Now I’ll announce myself as a star” – good by foot (a premium skill at this club), puts his head over the ball, runs both ways, doesn’t panic and gets the ball out even when he looks in trouble

A goal-kicking, linking, midfielder – at the least, an honest toiler who’ll be around for most of the next decade. I don’t think he has that ‘x-factor’ or ‘star quality’ or whatever the hell it is that the likes of Cotchin/Martin/Deledio/Cousins have – but he’s the type of midfielder that every successful team needs to be that solid, consistent performer.

All I want to see from him this year is injury free, playing 22 games and even if it’s only just a 1% improvement on what we saw last year – it gives him and Har-Har-Hardwick something to build on.

St Kilda – David Armitage

No surprises. Out Ball. In Armitage. Simplicity at it’s finest. It’s not like for like, but Armitage will prove to be a more than adequate replacement having jumped up the full time pecking order another spot.

Would LOVE to see McEvoy cement his spot in the side this year as well. It’s only a matter of time…

Sydney – Kieran Jack

A bit of an obvious one here, but Jack is approaching that age and experience level (just about 50 games now) that should see him able to take that next step up, if good enough – which he seems to definitely be so.

It’s easy to suggest that the likes of Kirk and Bolton are/will slowly start to wind down – but with that will come an increased responsibility on Jack’s shoulders through the middle. The addition of McGlynn to the list/team could see Jack released to play more free/head-to-head roles as well.

…I almost, Almost made this about Daniel Currie. I could end up kicking myself that I didn’t.

West Coast – Luke Shuey

A call of “Swift! Swift! Swift! echoes around forum and fantasy land – it’ll be upstaged by Shuey come years end.

2009 ruined by injury/tragedy, as far as footballing ability goes, is the Eagles most promising midfielder – which is saying something considering the likes of Masten, Ebert, Swift etc.

Top reader of the play, excellent disposal, extremely strong (already) in the contest, will do anything to get the ball moving positively for the team, one tough mofo, obviously has already displayed early leadership potential and you know he’ll give 110% everytime – with or without the ball in his hands.

He’s young, confident and sounds as if he’s already found his feet at the club. He doesn’t ask for respect, he silently demands it – and it comes.

Has it all to prove at this level – but I was a big fan of him in the U18’s, I was extremely excited about him last year, that excitement remains and sounds like he’s lost none of that ability – if only he is now a little further behind the rest of the crop as far as experience at the highest level goes.

Will be right up there when the whips are cracking in the Rising Star.

Western Bulldogs – Ryan Griffen

I’m going to get sucked in again. Besides, it’s more fun than joining in the chorus of Cooooon-dawg and Higgo4Brownlow.

Anyway, back to Griffen – we know what he’s done, we know what he’s capable of – I haven’t physically seen it, but it sounds like he’s having his best summer yet and is hitting the ground running in peak fitness, for once.

His annoying ability to drift in and out of games, to be the Doggies downhill skier, has had a lot to do with a lack of ‘elite’ AFL midfielder standard fitness. He’s rectified this. We know he can run… and run… and run… and cut teams up – being able to do that full-time, and still able to go the other way, without it being detrimental to his disposal = Happy Dayze = Elite, whatever that means…

Written by Matt Kirley