Charlie Dean won 2021's Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal as the best young player in the VFL. (Photo: Williamstown FC)

After a practice match towelling up at the hands of Melbourne's Ben Brown, the VFL's recently crowned best young player Charlie Dean made it a point to never lose another defensive match-up.

In August 2019, 20-year-old Charlie Dean kicked his 21st and final goal for the Sandringham Dragons.

The young 194cm key position forward was seemingly flying under the radar of list managers and talent scouts. Even after 17 goals in 10 games, averaging 12 disposals and four marks, Dean was still tipped as a late, late slider at best.

He sat and watched anxiously on draft night, as did hundreds of other young men across the country. As the 65th and final name was read out, the dream was over.

Dean admitted to Draft Central after the 2019 state combine that though he started the season well early, “he didn’t have the championships he wanted”.

Two years later, a global pandemic, and a breakout VFL season later, and life couldn’t be any more different for the 2021 Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medallist.

The prestigious medal is awarded to the man judged as the best young player in the VFL competition. Dean could be next in line to earn an AFL call-up, with the last 14 winners all earning positions on top level lists.

This includes recent Melbourne Demons premiership players that you may have heard of: Michael Hibberd (2010), and Bayley Fritsch (2017).

A practice match towelling up from fellow premiership player Ben Brown was one that gave Dean the fire he needed throughout the year. “Reviewing the match pretty hard”, he barely lost a direct match-up across the remainder of season 2021.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Dean is quick to acknowledge the expectation that comes from earning the accolade.

“Obviously with the past 14 winners going onto AFL… to win it was pretty special,” Dean said.

“I found out half a week before, and had to do the Zoom call and the speech about accepting it. I knew a little bit beforehand, but that came as a shock when that happened.

“I kind of knew I might be in the running, but there’s a lot of really good young players in the VFL.”

27 players were nominated for the award, with Dean firming as the out and out favourite ahead of Frankston’s Mitch Cox and Coburg’s Jack Maibaum.

Cox developed into one of the best young goalkickers in the league, scoring 15.13 across his 11 matches while averaging 21 disposals.

He put on some truly ridiculous performances across the year, with a 28 disposal and five goal game against the Northern Bullants, as well as a 30 disposal and four goal game against Port Melbourne.

Cox in his five-goal game against Port Melbourne. (Photo: AFL)

After being delisted from the Sydney Swans at the end of 2020, Maibaum came into this season with a point to prove.

He became a pillar of consistency at centre half back for the Lions, growing into an intercepting role across the season which saw him average 14 disposals and six and a half marks. Maibaum was ultimately rewarded with selection in the backline of the VFL Team of the Year.

Playing for the Gulls reminds me of junior footyit’s a really fun environment and it gets the best out of you.

Dean on his time with Williamstown.

Missing out on playing any football in 2020 like most in Victoria, Dean hopes that his improvement earmarks his best traits to recruiters and puts him ahead of his fellow youngsters.

“I’d like to think it shows a bit of resilience, and the ability to stay fit and keep your eyes on the prize during that big lockdown last year,” he said.

“Then also this year, that’s where we leant on each other as teammates through those breaks. Got together and trained together one-on-one when we had the restrictions. Stuff like that was really good, it just kept us connected.

“Last year in terms of myself, it was pretty good to reflect on my under 18s year, and absorb that disappointment of not getting drafted and sort of let it burn.”

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Teammate and captain Adam Marcon had previously won the award in 2015. Joining his name in the Williamstown history books only added to the prestige.

“The honour of it was purely from the names that have come from it before, [including] someone I really respect in Adam Marcon,” Dean said.

“I’m a Richmond supporter so I remember when Ads played for the Tiges. Even though he’s probably not the biggest name from an AFL sense, to have people like him who have dominated the VFL to have previously won it, it was pretty special once that sunk in.

“Ads reached out and sent me a message after. He sent me a message and said ‘congrats on the year you’ve had, it’s just the start of your journey.’ Couldn’t be prouder to get a message like that from someone you respect so much.”

Defender to forward

Across his time at Williamstown, Dean made the switch from being a full time key forward to a defensive pillar at the other end.

He spent the majority of his junior career learning his craft as a forward. This eventuated in that strong year with the Dragons, but ultimately wouldn’t earn him that deeply desired AFL list spot.

A connection with an old coach led him to the point he’s at today.

“In my decision on coming to Willy, a big part of it was my previous relationship with [former coach] Andy Collins,” Dean said.

“I spent a lot of time in junior footy with him, and he had it planned out that I would make the switch to the backline. He thought my ability to read the ball and cover the ground was really important for that, and also using my skills by footy coming out of defence.

“I did that in my first pre-season in Willy, and was sort of behind in picking up defensive traits. Not playing footy might have helped me that year, because maybe I might have created some bad habits.

“Under Plappy [coach Justin Plapp] this year, he’s gone on and thought I had real potential as a backman. He’s taught me a lot of things about reading the ball, knowing when to go and when to not, [as did] Jeff Andrews the backs coach.”

Williamstown coach Justin Plapp. (Photo: AFL)

That practice match against Casey and Brown was his biggest embarrassment of the season, Dean laughs. He explains that the premiership forward’s explosiveness and pace doesn’t translate to the television screen at home.

It’s a point of pride for his 2021. His biggest challenges in opponents came on the track at Downer Oval.

“Probably one of the proudest things I have in this year is that I didn’t have any bags kicked on me or anything, and I played against some pretty good players,” Dean explained.

“I think the person that got the best of me was Nick Rodda or Joel Ottavi at training.

“I think on game day, we played as a six and were helping each other out a lot in the air. I probably didn’t have that experience of having my pants pulled down, which was good.

“[Playing on Brown] was a really good learning experience a week out of Round 1. I reviewed that pretty hard.”

Having felt the disappointment of draft night once before, Dean is prepared to face whatever November 24 may bring. Dejection, euphoria, or anything in between, being picked to any club in the league would be just another “stepping stone”, he explains.

Dean has already signed with Williamstown for 2022, re-committing in the pre-season to the club that he already loves like a second home.

Should he fail to get drafted again this season, he already has fresh goals in mind for what he and the Gulls can achieve.

“I was really keen to play finals this year and hopefully chase a flag, and that’s something I was pretty disappointed in missing out on,” Dean said of the cancelled finals series, in which Williamstown was set to play its 15th straight VFL finals.

“I’m pretty confident on saying if I do miss out on the draft that next year we’ll be back up the top and be playing finals footy.

“Hopefully things fall my way come draft time. If it does happen, I think that the really important thing I’m focusing on is that my main goal isn’t to get drafted, it’s just a stepping stone to my main goal which is playing really good senior footy at AFL level.

“I know a lot of players go in the system and there’s the high of getting drafted, and then they’re out pretty quick. It matters more what I do with that and what I do from there, and whether I can make a career out of it, because that’s my goal.

“Playing for the Gulls reminds me of junior footy in the sense that I love playing and I love training, it’s a really fun environment and it gets the best out of you. People work hard, and most of it revolves the people there and their success.

“There’s no better place to put your hand up to be drafted than Williamstown in the VFL.”

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