An emphasis on developing NGA prospects has been key for Essendon’s VFL program this pre-season.
Through their connection with the Calder Cannons, the Bombers’ VFL side has been boosted by an influx of young talent in recent times, with Matthew Foley among them.
Foley, who first joined the club’s James Hird Academy in 2019, worked his way into the Bombers’ outfit last season after two years in the Coates League, managing four VFL appearances in 2023.
Foley had already benefitted from a month of pre-season training with the AFL squad ahead of the 2022 season, but another block of training over this pre-season has provided even more confidence ahead of the upcoming VFL campaign.
“(Training with the AFL squad) gave me a good experience at a young age and an exposure to what it’s like to be an elite athlete, especially for those who don’t get those opportunities straight from the NAB League. I learnt so much more around specific areas of the game,” Foley said.
“I’ve been able to join a lot more of the match simulations and game drills this time around, being younger, we had to manage our sessions more (two years ago), but we’ve had more of a crack at it now.
“It holds us in good stead to know we’ve trained with top-level players, I’ve learnt just how switched on you need to be at training and the importance of looking to improve in every single session. You need to give yourself that confidence heading into gameday and hopefully we can bring that back into our VFL sessions.”
The focus on NGA opportunities has seen talented future draft prospects in Isaac Kako, Jayden Nguyen and Noah Caracella (son of VFL Senior Coach and former Bomber, Blake) also join the AFL squad’s training schedule in the past fortnight.
Foley has been excited by the opportunity for more Cannons prospects to enter the mix at the NEC Hangar, with the club providing avenues for individual development as well as the chance to bolster its ranks at both AFL and VFL level.
“I’ve played with a fair few of these boys since a young age so it’s been unreal to reconnect with them at this level and be able to work and grow through it together,” Foley said.
“It’s great that these pathways are working well in having these kids make the most of their opportunities by training with our AFL programs and getting VFL experience.”
Building off his first taste of VFL action from the 2023 season, Foley is looking to incorporate his experience into a more frequent run of games this season.
After his three games as a 23rd man, Foley accumulated 16 disposals in unrestricted game time against Coburg in the final round last season, giving him a solid platform to work off heading into the new year.
“(The three games as a 23rd man) was obviously really beneficial in getting a chance to take on high-quality opponents, but getting a full run at that final game of the season in the starting 22 gave me the most confidence heading into this year,” Foley said.
“Having the understanding of what a full game at VFL level looks like has been really important in setting up my pre-season and knowing what it’ll take to consistently play games.”
The Bombers’ VFL program is raring to attack 2024 under a new coaching structure, with Blake Caracella taking over the Senior Coaching reigns and former AFL players Jackson Hately, Xavier O’Neill and Jack Peris signing on to play.
For Foley, the side’s experienced acquisitions have bought into a positive mindset that will benefit the club in the long-term.
“Coming from an AFL list, you never got the sense that (Hately and O’Neill) felt like they were above anyone at all, they’ve brought a great deal of leadership but with the same energy you’d expect from a local player coming in,” Foley said.
“The key thing is that our younger players are all really keen to learn. One of Blake’s big things as a coach is to learn and take something new away from every session and that works in really nicely with our new assistants and a fresh playing group.
“It can be a challenge for some AFL-affiliated clubs to build that connection with the VFL program, which is why it’s so important that both teams buy in to the way each other wants to play. We’ve been building that over the course of this pre-season with a ‘one club’ mentality and that’ll keep growing when it comes to game time.”