by Tim Michell

Leader Local Footy

FALLING to the second tier of the Northern Football League for the first time in 16 years stung Eltham badly.

Two years after contesting a Division 1 preliminary final, the Panthers were left to pick up the pieces after finishing behind Whittlesea and Hurstbridge on percentage last season.

The club’s response has been telling, winning 13 consecutive matches to establish itself as the flag favourite in Division 2.

“We only had five wins for the whole year last year, so a winning culture is good,” coach Paul King said.

“It really hurt us last year when we got relegated, so we are trying to make amends.”

In an ominous sign for its flag rivals, Eltham has seldom fielded a full-strength team this year.

Prime movers Bradyn Taglieri, Anton Woods, Tim Currie, Michael Still and Josh Merkel have each missed at least two games, while blue-chip midfielder Gavan Connelly is yet to feature.

“That doesn’t necessarily (mean) just because these blokes are going to come back, we are going to win,” King said.

“It’s been good for the club to blood some young blokes and we are still winning.”

King said his side was driven to secure a double chance, which the Panthers could clinch as soon as this weekend.

“In finals they can be funny games,” he said.

“There have been a lot of sides that have gone through undefeated and then on the last day, they trip up.”

Lower Plenty looms as Eltham’s opponent in a major semi-final, sitting clear in second with five games remaining.

Only eight points separated the teams when they clashed in Round 12.

“(Last) weekend they were probably a bit stronger around the footy than we were,” King said.

“We are going to really have to work on our stoppage work with our midfielders.”

King said he would be mindful of managing players during the run home to ensure the Panthers were primed for finals.

Eltham had a bye on Saturday and will face Thomastown at Eltham Central Park in Round 14.