Known for his high-flying escapades, awe-inspiring overhead marks and a natural ability find the ball, Toby McLean’s pathway to what will likely eventuate into becoming an AFL player next month has been extraordinary, especially because he almost didn’t make it.
His story to stardom ahead of this year’s draft is unique.
The Narre Warren teenager hadn’t been part of the TAC Cup system at all during his football career. He was advised to give it ago and try out for the Dandenong Southern Stingrays – his zone club – in a bid to take his football to a new level in 2014.
However, in a story that has largely gone untold, McLean was cut from Dandenong’s initial 60-man squad during the summer pre-season trials.
He went back to Narre Warren where Greg Doyle, who had previously coached Oakleigh in the TAC Cup, urged McLean to contact the Chargers’ talent manager Mark Smart about trialling at the Chargers.
If it weren’t for a call from Doyle to Smart in January, the story could’ve been a starkly different one.
“I guess I just thought I’ll train hard and see what happens, I just wanted to play a game to start with,” McLean said.
“It’s a bit unbelievable, everything that’s happened since. I wasn’t even on a TAC Cup list last year.”
If it weren’t for the phone call, McLean would be taking speckies and kicking goals back at Narre Warren, with nobody in the footy world knowing of his existence.
“I wanted to find out if I was good enough to play TAC Cup and the Chargers let me find out,” McLean said.
His development was rapid. The quietly spoken forward-cum-midfielder went about his business in his usual no fuss manner over summer, steadily improving his fitness and impressed during intra-club hitouts and practice matches before the season proper.
Starting out as an opportunist small forward, McLean forced his way into the Chargers’ all-conquering midfield, with his knack for finding the ball seeing him average 30 disposals from the midfield since his positional change mid-year.
From there, McLean quickly stamped himself as the barometer of the Chargers, as an agile yet prolific ball-winner who made a habit of flying for big marks and kicking team-inspiring goals.
He took a mountain of a hanger against the Northern Knights midway through the year that would put his idol – Collingwood’s Jamie Elliott – to shame.
“I took it and was just thinking ‘when am I coming down? I’ve been up here forever’,” McLean said.
From then on, McLean made a weekly habit of sitting on people’s heads and kicking freakish goals.
However, McLean saved his best for late in the season, particularly his qualifying final against Geelong at Visy Park.
McLean’s accrued two goals in the final term, including the match winner just seconds out from the siren: it recorded a famous come-from-behind victory and is a moment he’ll savour forever.
“I just saw it off the pack, grabbed it and threw it onto my boot and it just went through,” McLean said modestly, despite the goal being as difficult as it was important.
On Morrish Medal night a week later, McLean found himself among elite company.
Believing he was there to support a few teammates and enjoy a nice feed, McLean almost came away with the 2014 Morrish Meadal, ultimately coming runner up to Gippsland’s Alex Carr.
It was a standing which saw him finish ahead of star midfielders such as Christian Petracca and Touk Miller.
Only weeks later, McLean’s dream became a reality when the Chargers won through to the grand final at Etihad Stadium, after toppling Sandringham.
From not knowing a single person in January to taking home a premiership medal and best-on-ground honours against the Chargers against favourites Calder Cannons, McLean was frank about his experience.
“It’s crazy,” McLean said whilst he completed the lap of honour.
“At the start of the year, I didn’t know anyone. Now I’ve won a flag, and I don’t think I was even deserving on best on ground, I just had a good second quarter.”
His influence amongst his teammates isn’t understated, with Chargers skipper Darcy Moore speaking glowingly of McLean in the post-match.
“He’s unbelievable, he’s such a barometer for us and he gives you everything. Playing up forward with him is exciting: you never know what’s he’s going to do next.” Moore said.
“He’s got a great story, a lot of these boys do, but he’s also one of the first picked each week.”
His 21-disposal, nine mark, two-goal effort was significant, firing and dominating when the game was there to be won early in the contest, displayed by his 13 disposals in the second quarter alone.
Appropriately elevated to the National Combine which came to a close at Etihad Stadium today, McLean’s story from initially being not good enough in January is about to come full circle when he is drafted to an AFL club next month.
With so much achieved in such a small period of time, McLean is a picture of resilience and determination, but it’s still a remarkable story that’s barely begun.