An eagerness to improve is what’s driving Eltham senior men’s recruit Jesse Donaldson and his side as the club look to not only return to the MC Labour Division 2 grand final, but go one step further and claim their first senior men’s flag in 21 years.

Donaldson was announced as a playing-assistant coach at the Panthers in December last year, heading to Eltham Central Park following a stellar 11-year and 153-game career with Montmorency.

His accolades during his time at the Magpies include a Division 1 MVP and five Division 1 men’s Team of the Year appearances. He was also a club captain for six years and led the NFNL senior representative side for four consecutive years, playing six games for the league in total.

But at the end of last year, Donaldson’s interest in the coaching side of footy began to rise and thanks to the help of friend and Panthers forward Matthew Byron, the 31-year-old soon called Eltham Central Park home in the hopes making a difference to the side.

“I wanted to start moving into a bit of a coaching role whilst still playing as well, so I had a bit of a think about things,” he said.

“I think Matty obviously let a few people know I was interested in doing that. They (then) spoke to me and thought that I’d be a good fit.

“If I can help them go to that next level or reach that next step, whatever that may be for each one of them, that’s the aim.”

Eltham boasted one of the youngest squads in the competition last year, with many young stars such as Daniel Horsfield, Finnbar Maley and Daniel Owen leading the club’s charge to the grand final last year.

It was one of the most important reasons for Donaldson’s switch, highlighting the multiple opportunities that came from developing an eager bunch of young players.

“Their level of fitness is really high. They’re keen to absorb as much from others as they can, all of them have already reached out to me to ask and work on different things,” he said.

“They’ve been reasonably strong in previous years in Division 2 and last year (they) just came up that one step short. Hopefully we can take that next step adding in what we have and just working hard on those fundamentals.

“They’re just really keen to improve.”

Donaldson managed to play 15 games for the Magpies last year despite a cheekbone injury ruling the midfielder out from Round’s 2 to 7.

But the 2014 Division 1 men’s MVP is in good spirits playing wise ahead of the opening round in just over a month’s time, adding that being surrounded by the side’s talented youth is pushing him to match their fitness levels.

“I was coming into training at Eltham feeling pretty good and then the fitness levels with some of the guys down there are really strong, so it’s driven me to lift a little bit,” he said.

“I’m feeling alright, I’m 31 so I’m well aware of where I’m at, but I feel pretty fit and healthy. Hopefully I can string a few together here and there, maintain the body, get out on the park and play some good footy.”

Donaldson is sure to receive some quality service from the ruck this season with the Panthers also recruiting Tom Goodwin from Corowa-Rutherglen.

Goodwin has had a storied VFL career which included two seasons with Box Hill in 2013 and 2014 before spending four years with Coburg where he won the Lions’ best and fairest in 2016 and was named captain between 2017 and 2018. He also spent a year with Port Melbourne in 2019.

Already a close friend of the former Magpies captain, Donaldson was pumped to be playing alongside him in 2023, adding that his experience in the ruck will help the side gain an important edge on other teams.

“Once the deal finally did get done, I was very excited. We get on very well already, we’ve had a few chats here and there and I’ll be able to get some wealth and knowledge from him as well, which is exciting,” he said.

After making two grand finals in the last three seasons, Eltham will again be expected to contend for this year’s premiership.

While there’s the desire to not only help the club break its senior men’s premiership drought but also win his first senior flag, Donaldson is keeping a level head about the upcoming season.

“The aim for every team, especially at the start of the year, is to win the flag, but there’s a lot of boxes to tick along the way,”

“I’d love to get there, I haven’t won a premiership myself at senior level. I’d love one and I know all of Eltham would, but there’s (still) a bit of water to go under the bridge before we can start talking about that stuff.”

The Panthers’ first step to returning to the grand final will be a Good Friday clash with Panton Hill at Eltham Central Park.