TRARALGON Football Club has enjoyed success with its first year senior coaches in recent times.
Tony Lane claimed the 2005 flag on coaching debut after an upset grand final victory over Maffra, before Josh Jennings won a premiership in his maiden year at the helm in 2011.
Now the mantle has been passed to Mark Collison.
After a season in the North East Australian Football League (Queensland) with Southport Sharks, the 25 year-old born and bred Maroon has returned to Traralgon, where he played his juniors until aged 19.
When Paul McCulloch stepped aside at the end of the season, Collison jumped at the chance to come home for his first coaching role.
“I’ve always wanted to coach, it’s always been a goal of mine down the track and when I thought I was kind of done as a state league footballer I thought (if) I was going to return to country footy I was going to do it as a coach,” Collison said.
“I felt like returning as just a player would, not bore me, but I was already doing that as it was in the state league system; I wanted to try coaching, put my foot in the water and definitely to come home – family and friends are all here.”
Forged by four years in the VFL with Frankston Dolphins and interstate experience in the Northern Territory, last season’s stint on the Gold Coast was a change of pace.
Collison missed 10 weeks at the back end of Southport’s campaign due to a facial fracture suffered in an NEAFL representative game against Tasmania, but the style of footy made its mark.
Describing it as “quick, clean and skilful” on larger grounds, in contrast to unrelenting contested footy in the VFL, Collison pledged those qualities would be hallmarks of Traralgon’s game next year.
His history as a solid VFL half-back will also come to fore in shoring up the defence, which conceded about 350 more points than the top three Gippsland League sides in 2014.
“We’re going to be lightning quick and really skilful,” he said.
“With the footy in hand we’re going to be good and clean, when we don’t have the footy we’re going to be very hard to score against with our defensive aspect.
“We’re going to really work on becoming a more defensive unit this year, being really hard to play against with our stoppage work and then hurting teams with the spread.”
Things have begun brightly for Collison’s reign.
Already pre-season training numbers are into the 40s most nights; rain, hail or shine just a month in.
There are plenty of familiar faces around the club – both those Collison played alongside and looked up to in a Maroons strip.
His offsiders – Mick Stockdale as assistant coach and captain Michael Geary – have made the induction easier still, and the core group of players has been retained. Best of all, everyone is buying in to Collison’s leadership.
“There’s a real excitement… You know you’re on the right track when you’ve got players messaging you after training (to say) they’re enjoying it, how much they’re really looking forward to the season,” he said.
“That’s been reassuring for myself to know that’s going on, I just think it’s a great place at the moment.”
While tight lipped about recruits, putting the number at “three to six”, Collison was more interested in the existing group he has inherited.
A blend of youth and experience, along with stars such as Tim Northe, has the new coach convinced a flag is not far off.
“We’re really rapt with this list we’ve got here; I think everything that’s here is all that we need.
“I’m really confident what is here is going to give this side a crack to win the flag this year; we’re here to win a flag, we’re not here to develop in terms of the future – which we are (still doing), you’re always doing that and mindful (of it) – but we’re here for the now, we’re ready to go.”
As for the challenge of a first up coaching start, Collison was brash in his assessment of the task at hand.
“I think everyone gets a bit confused – they think because it’s your first time you’re inexperienced but your experiences are only of what you’ve gained,” he said.
“In terms of challenges it’s more just learning to deal with the things off the field, the people and supporters, there’s a lot more responsibility.”
Collison said he was still getting to know everyone as a player, before familiarising himself with their lives off the field.
It will be an approach tempered with mutual respect.
“Coaching is not all about how we’re going on the football field, it’s about how blokes are going off the football field, how their lives are, just taking an interest… it’s just about giving them respect and treating them just as a mate,” he said.
There’s a fair wait before the opening bounce of the 2015 Gippsland League season, but if the vibe around the Maroons is anything to go by they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Traralgon’s pre-season training is held Mondays and Wednesdays from 6pm at Traralgon Recreation Reserve, all prospective players are welcome.
TRARALGON’S Football Operations manager Andrew Quenault recalls the club’s new coach as a “ratbag” in his junior years.
However, he is confident in the mature young man who will lead the Maroons in to battle next season.
“He’s grown up a lot. People change. He’s developed his football skills but he’s also got a very good football brain,” Quenault said.
“I’ve known Mark since he was a little little boy and had a lot to do with him through footy.”
Quenault said when Paul McCulloch stepped down, the club decided to pursue a playing coach, and Collison fit the bill.
“First up his enthusiasm, he’s pretty keen to do the job,” Quenault said.
“You don’t have to have coached before, you’ve got to start somewhere so why not start at your home club?”