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Paul Ahern, delayed debuts, and North Melbourne’s list strategy

Paul Ahern’s first eight AFL games have been remarkable considering the circumstances.

Drafted in 2014 at pick seven, all of 2015 in the NEAFL, two knee reconstructions in 2016, all of 2017 dedicated to rehab, and then a VFL apprenticeship in 2018.

It meant Ahern made his debut at 21 years of age during his fourth year in the system. Spending that much time in an AFL environment allowed the midfielder to settle into the top level much easier than he would have if he was thrown into the fire as an 18-year-old at the Giants.

While Ahern’s case was by necessity rather than being a late developer, it – combined with Luke Davies-Uniacke’s year – provided the trigger for me to ponder how it speaks to a larger list management and development theory which has been North’s M.O. in recent years.

The usual external expectation after a youngster arrives at the club is for him to be selected at one of the earliest possible opportunities. It’ll then be followed by as many games as possible, as soon as possible.

It’s not the North Melbourne way of doing things. Let’s dive into recent debutants and see what it tells us about list development at Arden Street.

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19 players have made their AFL debut for North Melbourne since the beginning of 2015, with 18 still on the list at time of writing.

Just five of them have played more than 10 games – Trent Dumont (56), Ryan Clarke (36), Jy Simpkin (31), Ed Vickers-Willis (14) and Declan Mountford (12).

Of those five, it was only Simpkin who was entrusted with immediate games. Consider the following:

Yet for three of these four remaining players, we can see the logic behind the long apprenticeships, or probation period if you like.

Dumont has been a near-permanent fixture in the best 22 since his ninth game. Clarke’s last 29 games have come from just 35 chances. And Ed Vickers-Willis would have been $1.10 odds to play all 22 games this year if he stayed fit.

By giving these players a longer period to establish themselves in an AFL environment, they’re able to find their feet without feeling the responsibility to contribute immediately. We have to remember the majority of draftees come to a club at 18 years old and suddenly have hundreds of thousands of eyes tracking their career.

Then after an initial taste at the top, they’re able to head back to VFL football, fine tune the areas they need to and then ideally come back to stay.

Perhaps the theory is if players are consistently exposed to AFL football after some time in the system, their bodies are more attuned to the demands expected of it, and therefore less likely to break down.

Of course, you can only do this if you have an experienced core able to hold their places. This allows the newer players time to figure out their strengths, areas to improve and what can make them quality AFL players. North has been lucky enough to have it over the last few years, which has enabled this plan to be implemented.

This method can skew opinions on the list from the outside, understandably so in some respects. If you’re conducting a surface level analysis of a list and see someone who’s been on it for multiple years without playing much, the initial reaction will naturally trend towards the negative. ‘What’s wrong with him to not be playing?’ ‘He can’t be much good if he’s not playing after this long.’ And so on.

But aside from perception, can it genuinely hurt a list build in the long term by going down the road of a slow burn for youngsters instead of playing them earlier?

Here is the list of players who departed over the last four seasons, omitting those who were either short-term selections to begin with, or traded/left via free agency:

Some of those delistings have been forced due to injury; pour one out for Adams and Harper, who both should still be in the side today. Plus a thought for Curran, who is a quality person but his body never co-operated with him.

Overall though, has North not spotted a player on its list who has gone on to prove them horribly wrong elsewhere? Could earlier games in a career’s infancy – at the expense of others – have changed its entire course? It doesn’t appear there have been any major mistakes.

(Note: This is about list management and not drafting, which is a whole other discussion.)

For this unique list management strategy to be deemed a success, much will rest on the remaining 13 players who have made their debut since 2015, but are currently sitting on less than 10 games.

Many of them will be relied on as we head into the next decade. Ahern and Davies-Uniacke in the midfield rotation combined with Braydon Preuss, Nick Larkey and Ben McKay through the spine appear to be the top priorities. The fate of several more are uncertain, with Mitch Hibberd, Dan Nielson and Josh Williams all out of contract this year.

It’s a fascinating position for North to be in, simply because there are so many moving parts. By the end of this year’s trade period, there could be a push for top four in 2019 based on whether the club can bring in a couple of quality names. Or it could be back to relying on these younger players to continue to improve and keep North around the mark.

The fun part about the unknown is it breeds plenty of different opinions. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

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