Eltham senior men’s playing coach Tim Bongetti is ready for his side to surprise many ahead of their long-awaited return to the Melbourne Greyhounds Division 1 competition.

Last year saw the Panthers secure a top two finish for the third time in the last four completed MC Labour Division 2 seasons, but this time they were able to convert their success in the home and away campaign during the finals series, winning all three matches, including a 41-point triumph over Diamond Creek in the decider, to win their first senior men’s premiership since 2002.

Whilst there’s excitement about the club’s return to the top flight, Bongetti knows there will still be pressure to maintain the high level of football they’ve produced over the last 12 months, but believes the unknown tag they will come into the competition with can be his side’s advantage.

“It’s been seven years since we’ve been back up there, so there’s obviously an external pressure where you go oh, now we’re up there, we don’t want to go back down. But internally, I want to enjoy the experience and see what we can get out of 2024,” he said.

“There’s going to be games where we aren’t in control of the game more than the opposition, but we’ve been able to change the momentum of the game to get it back to a level playing field.

“One of the best things is that we are the unknown and a lot of coaches in the competition will have to be able to do their homework on us.”

Bongetti himself was a strong contributor for Eltham both on and off the field in his first year at the club. He played 14 senior matches and kicked 23 goals, which included three games where he kicked four majors or more.

In the coach’s box, he was able to help implement a game style with saw the Panthers rank third in total points for and second in least points against in 2023.

With the move to Division 1, we could see Bongetti play top flight football for the first time since 2014 and although the premiership coach didn’t rule out that possibility entirely, he highlighted the benefits that have come from being on both sides of the boundary line.

“I’ve got every intention to play the playing group ahead of myself,” he said.

“I’m a highly emotional footballer, I get invested in the game, sometimes the actions I can put out there might not be the right ones, but I play on emotion, that’s how I played the game.”

“There’s definitely pros and cons that come with it [playing & coaching], but for anyone that probably has been a backseat driver and say playing coaches don’t work, well maybe in 2023, I showed them that at times it does.”

But if it’s not Bongetti that will aim to create a presence inside forward 50 this year, others will have to step up in order to keep the goals flowing.

Two-time Division 2 Team of the Year forward Daniel Owen, who’s kicked 101 goals in his last two seasons with the Panthers, is departing the club to sign with Division 1 rivals Banyule.

Meanwhile Grand Final hero Finnbar Maley was drafted by North Melbourne as a rookie last November; and although 2023 club leading goalkicker Jason McCormick has signed on at Eltham Central Park, he is expected to spend most of the season with his new VFL club Northern Bullants.

Bongetti did highlight some players that were ready to fill the void, but added that he’s confident that plenty of players will have what it takes to keep Eltham’s forward line dangerous in Division 1.

“I really do believe that we have a list that is going to be underrated because we haven’t had the [Division 1] experience for seven years and I think we have some players on our own list that if they were at other Division 1 football clubs as a junior, they’d be playing Division 1 seniors,” he said.

“Some young blokes like Daniel James, Dave Evans, their excelling as full forwards. They’ll be able to give us a contest and bring it to the ground.”

With some premiership heroes stepping away this season, the Panthers have brought in some fresh faces in 2024, including Jaden Collins, James Marchbank and Liam McMahon.

While both Collins and Marchbank are expected to have an instant impact for the club in defence, Bongetti highlighted the significant work McMahon has already achieved during his return to his junior club.

“He’s taking his fitness to another level and he’s really enjoying his football at the moment… you can see that the hard work’s starting to come out because of that enjoyment side of it,” he said.

“We’ve got every intention that he plays 18 games for us this year and he has a good impact in Division 1, which I know is a personal goal for him. He wants to establish himself as a Division 1 footballer and put his own name on the map.”

Meanwhile the general build up ahead of the club’s first season in the top flight since 2017 has been based around ticking off the boxes according to Bongetti, adding that there’s still a focus on the bigger picture by continuing with a game plan based on control.

“I really expect the mentality of anyone that plays football to try and get the ultimate success,” he said.

“We got aspirations, but at the same time we’re breaking the season down into minor goals, literally goals that we can achieve along the way and if we can achieve our goals throughout the year and pick them off in four-week blocks, then we’re achieving our goals as a footy club.”

The first box to tick off for Bongetti’s men will be the opening match of the season against Greensborough, with both clubs resuming their traditional Good Friday clash.

Adding to the occasion will be the story behind the coaches of both sides as Bongetti and new Boro coach Matthew Hyde will face each other for the first time in the NFNL since they were co-captains in Greensborough’s 2014 Division 1 premiership triumph.

Bongetti couldn’t contain his excitement when asked about facing his old club again in just over a month’s time, saying it will be a great test for his side’s return to the top flight.

“When you say I was a young kid at Christmas time, I am that excited,” he said.

“I’ve had conversations with Matt throughout pre-season, we’re two young coaches trying to make a name for ourselves in the competition and were still good mates that are bouncing ideas off each other.

“So, it’ll be a really good contest just to see who can apply the pressure for longer and sustain their gameplan for longer in front of a big crowd.”