An exciting year is in store for Panton Hill according to Redbacks senior men’s recruit Tom Keys as the club looks to challenge for a finals spot in the 2023 MC Labour Division 2 season.
Keys’ move to the Redbacks was announced in mid-December last year, after a distinguished 10-year and 148-game career with Lower Plenty.
His accolades at the Bears include a 2018 Division 2 premiership, four Team of the Year selections as well as a Division 2 men’s Best and Fairest in 2021. Keys also kicked 174 goals during his time at the club, including 40 majors in 19 games last year.
After almost deciding to hang up the boots at the conclusion of last year, Keys was convinced to return to the place he began his football journey, playing Auskick at A.E. Cracknell Reserve, after speaking with senior men’s coach Simon Amore.
“I got a couple of mates at Panton Hill getting in my ear, and they forced me to at least have a dinner with the coach and have a chat about potentially coming down,” he said.
“I thought the idea of going back down to where it all started was a good idea and it’s been pretty good so far.”
Keys is one of multiple recruits to make the switch to the Redbacks throughout the off-season, in what has been a strong recruiting coup for the club.
Panton Hill have included the likes Fitzroy Stars duo Riley Livingstone & Hotak Akram, Greensborough pair Josh Callaway and Jake Rowe as well as Bundoora reserves premiership player Brayden Callaway since the conclusion of the 2022 season.
While it may take time to build some chemistry between the playing group, the 27-year-old is excited to build relationships with his new teammates, especially on the field.
“It’s hard to get a gauge on people’s strengths and weaknesses on the training track so with practice matches around, it’ll be a good run through to see how everyone plays and what suits them best,” he said.
“It is exciting, we’ve done very well on the recruiting side this year by getting some talented players across the line, it should be an exciting year for us.”
Keys highlighted Josh Callaway’s arrival as one that will help compliment his personal game style.
“He’ll be handy for me at least, he sits on a wing, I’m not the greatest ball user so I’ll be looking to palm off some of the ball to him,” he said.
“He’s a good outside runner, a good user of the ball. I’ll try to hit him up and we’ll see how it goes.”
Two teammates who Keys will be used to in 2023 is Lower Plenty duo Tom Blake and Matt Duckworth, after both players lodged transfers to return to A.E. Cracknell Reserve following previous stints with the club.
This will be Duckworth’s second stint at A.E. Cracknell reserve after he kicked 22 goals in 15 games during his one season at the club in 2016. He also made 162 appearances for Lower Plenty.
Meanwhile the recently announced Blake will be a key contributor to the club both on and off-field.
Blake spent four years at Panton Hill between 2014 and 2017, making 65 senior appearances and kicking 55 goals.
He was a 2016 Division 2 men’s Team of the Year centre half forward while representing the club after kicking 15 goals in 16 games. He also claimed the Division 2 men’s Coaches MVP that same season.
The midfielder was glad to have both men alongside him this season and while Blake will miss most of the year with injury, Keys still highlighted the benefits of bringing the ruck to the club.
“I’m still in the process of learning everyone’s names, so I have those guys to fall back on, which is pretty handy, even though Tom is going to be out for most of the year,” he said.
“But in the future, it’s great to be having him around, we played pretty well together, and he always fed me the ball, so it’ll definitely be good to have him running around again.”
While Blake won’t be sighted on field for most of 2023, Keys was excited to work with young Redbacks ruck Nicholas Parks for the upcoming season. In what was a strong campaign for the 25-year-old, Parks was named in his sides best in nine of 18 games in 2022.
Keys praised the work Parks has put into his football over the last couple of years and is looking forward to having him as a teammate rather than an opponent this year.
“He’s a big boy and he’s pretty athletic. I love having a good ruckman in the team. I get a lot of my possessions directly from the tap in the ruck,” he said.
“He looks like he’s got a lot of potential, I played against him a couple of times in the last couple of years, and he can get up there, he’s not afraid of jumping at the ball and hitting it at its highest point. I’m hoping he feeds me the ball a fair bit.”
Following a promising second half to the 2022 season, The Redbacks will be striving for a Division 2 men’s finals spot for the first time since 2004.
And while their highly touted recruits will lead the charge, Keys didn’t discount the strength and unpredictability of Division 2, saying his side would take things week by week.
“I’ve been playing in it (Division 2) for the last couple of years and every team seems to be getting better and better, there’s not going to be any easy games,” he said.
“It really just comes down to how we perform on the day and if we can get a couple of wins early in the season it will really set us up.”