Toby McLean couldn’t ask for much more after winning an AFL premiership just 19 games into his career, but in 2017, he was rewarded with the added responsibility of more time in a strong Bulldogs midfield.
It hasn’t all come easy for the emerging Bulldog, who lost his father at age 12, and faced an interrupted junior career, being cut from the Dandenong Stingrays.
At age 17, McLean’s AFL dream could’ve been over.
Following on from his time with the Stingrays, McLean was advised to train at Oakleigh in the pre-season.
“It was quite a surprise to everyone [at Oakleigh] because I came out of nowhere and it was the kick up the backside that got me going,” McLean told AFLplayers.com.au.
“I rocked up to Oakleigh with a Stingrays singlet, and it wasn’t long before the coach swapped singlets with me. I got his Oakleigh singlet and he chucked on my Stingrays one,” he joked.
But after the awkward first training session, he quickly became an important member of the TAC Cup winning side and was named best on ground in their grand final win.
The 2014 Oakleigh premiership team featured a host of future AFL stars including Jordan De Goey, Darcy Moore and McLean’s good friend, Jack Sinclair.
McLean’s AFL career too has been full of interruptions, missing a number of games in each of his first two seasons.
“My first two years I had some big injuries — I had 10 weeks off for both of them. In my first season I had a shoulder problem, and a foot in my second.”
“To be injury-free this year has been quite positive and to play the most games I ever have — I couldn’t be happier at the moment.”
He was dropped after Round 1 this season, but says that experience was the springboard for his form in 2017.
The consensus was that he needed to lift his intensity for the contest, and to run as hard defensively as he did in attack.
“I wasn’t playing the best that I could and even though the coaching staff told me, I already knew. I could see it. I went down to the VFL and got back to where I should have been and was lucky enough to get back into the side again.”
Spending time in the VFL allowed him to build on the midfield work he began early this year.
“During the pre-season we were playing little games and the coaches said to me that I was going to play more midfield minutes this pre-season and into the season.”
“I did spend a bit of time in the midfield in under 18s, so it’s not like I hadn’t played there before.”
McLean’s form has been rewarded with selection in the AFL Players’ Association’s 22Under22 squad.
More than game experience, the 21-year-old stole as much knowledge from Dale Morris while they lived together for a large part of 2016.
Morris’ experience not only on the field, but off it, proved invaluable.
“It might sound like a surprise because we’re not similar players, but he has helped me with off-field things like diet and how to be a professional.”
The young Bulldog had been building form all season, but showed his true potential as a shining light in what was a poor night for the Bulldogs in Round 16 against Adelaide, collecting 32 possessions.
While his new role has been important in 2017, McLean will always be grateful for the 2016 premiership experience.
“A lot of people play till they’re 30 or even older and they don’t get to experience it. I’m aware of that and I know how lucky I have been so far. I don’t take it for granted.
“I was fortunate to get picked in the semi-final against Hawthorn because the boys played really well the week before against West Coast. It was definitely three weeks where I needed to pinch myself because I couldn’t believe what was happening.
“Even when that final siren went, I had to ask myself whether it actually happened. I was fortunate as a second-year player to win a Grand Final.”