Selected with Pick 10 in the 2015 AFL Draft, Harry McKay walked through the doors at Ikon Park with all the potential in the world.
Now preparing for his 100th AFL outing, and with a Coleman Medal to his name, it is safe to say that the 25-year-old has well and truly lived up to that potential.
Playing his junior footy in Warragul, and later at the Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup, McKay’s talent was always on full display. Standing at 200 centimetres, with an enormous presence and a competitive streak to match, McKay had all the tools to make it at AFL level.
It is no mistake that the key forward ended up making it at senior level, and it is even less of a mistake that he has been one of the league’s most prominent key forwards for several years now.
Serving as the head coach of the Gippsland Power during McKay’s TAC Cup journey, Leigh Brown, a Collingwood premiership player who played 246 AFL games himself, was able to witness and play a key part in the development of the Carlton star.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Brown recalled the night that he first took notice of McKay, along with his brother Ben, and made it his mission to bring them into his side.
“It was a wet wintery night. I popped down to a Warragul Under-18 training session and I was fortunate enough to take the session and help out. [With] my role as the Gippsland Power coach I did that often,” Brown explained.
“I don’t think I’d jumped back in the car before I started dialling my phone to the talent manager Peter Francis saying ‘why are these two tall kids not in our program and why do we not know about them’.”
Brown was extremely complimentary of the way McKay played his footy as a youngster and the desire that he had to continually improve his game.
“Harry was really driven, athletic, [and] a really natural footballer,” he said.
“He really fit into our program and our squad. He had a really big year for someone who had just come in and it was his first year in the system.
“When you’re 200 centimetres and as athletic as Harry is, it’s easy to say he’s going to make an impact at the next level. He’s also very driven in terms of his work rate, he wanted to get better, he asked questions, [and] he wanted to look at vision.
“He learnt a lot very quickly because he wanted to. He wanted to improve, he wanted to be the best, and he enjoyed the challenges that presented throughout the year.”
It is clear that in the 2015 National Draft, the Blues had identified a need for key-position players as they entered the thick of their rebuild. Selecting key-defender Jacob Weitering with the first pick of the draft, they then turned their heads to selecting a tall forward, Harry McKay was their man.
Brown was well aware of the demand for his star key forward at the time and knew that his qualities would be of interest to many teams in the first round of the draft.
“I think at that stage, everyone was talking about Harry,” he said.
“There were always constant conversations about [him], what it would look like for AFL clubs, and what they liked.
“Being tall, athletic, [having] really good hands, moving really well, and impacting games at a high level, it [was] a really good proposition for any AFL club.”
While he didn’t feature for most of his first two seasons at Carlton with a back injury hampering him in 2016, the club and its fans knew that they had their hands on a player that was going to make an impact.
McKay made his debut in Round 18, 2017 against the Brisbane Lions. He finished that game with 11 disposals and six marks and topped it off with his first AFL goal.
After that initial outing, he never looked back.
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After showing great progression over several seasons and cementing his position in the Carlton forward line, 2021 was the year that McKay truly announced himself to the competition as one of the very best key forwards.
McKay finished the year with 58 goals, starring as the focal point of an improving Blues forward line, and secured his first Coleman Medal at just 23 years old.
Brown spoke in-depth about how seamlessly Harry integrated his best traits into his AFL career, and the pride he felt seeing one of his star players claim such a prestigious honour.
“You have moments where you’re extremely proud of just playing a small part in some of these guys’ careers,” he explained.
“He was doing at AFL level what he was doing at Under-18 level, and to see those traits transfer from their junior career you know they’re starting to feel comfortable.
“To see him win a Coleman Medal is a fantastic achievement and we sit back and we’re really proud of all our boys.
“A lot of the Gippsland guys have done some great things but obviously [for] Harry to win a Coleman so early in his career and have an impact like he has it’s a fantastic effort for him.”
While goal-kicking prowess has always been the key part of McKay’s game, the work that he does around the ground has become just as crucial.
McKay’s teammate Sam Docherty praised the key forward for the attributes that he brings to a game for the Blues, and his importance to the structure of the side.
“Harry is an incredible part of what we do at the footy club. He provides us with a great presence down forward,” Docherty said.
“He is probably one of the more athletically gifted guys we’ve got at the football club in terms of his speed, his endurance, add that to his height, he’s a bit of a handful for defenders.
“His ability to draw the ball in [and] provide a contest which allows the pressure inside 50, and his consistency to be able to do that is really important to us as a group.”
While we all know what McKay is capable of when he’s at his best, the forward hasn’t been as damaging as Carlton fans would have hoped for in 2023.
McKay has shown great resilience over the last couple of months despite the heavy scrutiny he has faced and seems to be working his way towards recapturing the superb goal-kicking form we have seen in previous years.
This is something that Docherty touched on, highlighting the hard work McKay is putting in to fight his way back into form, and the importance of backing him in.
“The thing we see with Harry is he is incredibly diligent with his work during the week, and he definitely leaves no stone unturned in terms of his preparation, his work habits, and his craft,” he said.
“The work behind the scenes is why you probably see all of us get around him so much.
“To watch a teammate go through some struggles and really work hard on what he needs to and to start to get some results on the back end of that has been really good.”
Brown threw his full support behind his former pupil, assuring that McKay’s best qualities will help him overcome those issues that have affected his game in the first half of the season.
“He’s a competitor, he wants to be the best and that’s always been the case. Those traits in AFL players see them become the best at what they do and excel, so I’ve got no doubt that he’ll turn that around,” he said.
“In saying that, he’s getting the ball, he’s having shots on goal. He’s doing 85- 90 per cent of it right, it’s just that little bit of finishing.
“I would have just told him to keep backing himself. I’m sure that he’ll turn it around, he’ll be celebrating a milestone this week and that’ll be great for him.
“Hopefully that’s the game that can turn it around not only for him but for the team and get their season rolling again.”
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