By: Samuel Zito
Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A gruelling pre-season campaign has Eltham confident it will be able to improve upon last year’s third-place finish.

After winning just three matches during Mario Bandera’s first season at the helm, the Panthers were the top flight’s biggest improvers last year – winning their first Division 1 final since 1977 and progressing to the preliminary final.

The Panthers were the only side to beat all other teams during the regular season and looked destined for a Grand Final berth when leading eventual premier Macleod by five goals in the preliminary final, before running out of steam.

But having flown under the radar during last year’s breakout season, the club is now prepared for the added scrutiny that will come its way this year.

Speaking to with less than a month remaining until his side’s Good Friday season-opener against Greensborough, Bandera said he was impressed by the commitment his players had shown over the summer training block.

“We’re not slipping under the radar anymore so we’ve got to be better at what we do well to go to the next level,” Bandera said.

“People might well talk about us as a top-four side now, which gives us that motivation to work that extra bit harder.

“The group as it stands right now is the fittest of any senior group that I’ve been involved with.

“Speaking to the assistant coaches and players, we’ve enjoyed having that bit of expectation (this pre-season).

“It was laid bare at the start of pre-season that it was going to be a gruelling campaign and to the boys’ credit, there has not been one complaint and everyone has responded really well.”

Eltham will head into the 2016 season without last year’s competition leading goal kicker James Kroussoratis, who has joined Shepparton Swans, while Daniel Coffield and Chris McCabe have been listed by VFL clubs Richmond and Northern Blues respectively.

The Panthers have offset the departure of Kroussoratis by adding Chris Brannan from Port Melbourne Colts, with Bandera hopeful his club would also find a greater spread of goal kickers this season.

“‘Rata’ (Kroussoratis) is obviously a good player and kicked 65 goals for us last year, but in the back end of the year we showed a key forward isn’t the be all and end all of our success. We can find goals from other areas and we had other guys stand up,” he said.

“People might say I’m just saying this because we’ve lost our full forward, but I find it a bit more exciting now to find a spread of goals.

“Chris Brannan will fill a role for us at centre half forward. The main thing for us to get out of the summer was to get a bona fide centre half forward, someone who could give us a target coming out of defence and give us a presence.

“We thought last year ‘Merks’ (Josh Merkel) did a great job, but in the end he is undersized for the position, so we can utilise him in other positions now.

“‘Willo’ (Matthew Williamson) will spend a bit more time forward so he’s got a challenge to take his game to the next level (and) there’s an onus on our midfield to kick more goals, whether they’re in the midfield or resting forward.”

In a welcome boost, three-time best and fairest Gavan Connelly will return after spending the best part of two seasons abroad and will slot into a midfield that already contains the likes of Braydn Taglieri, Anton Woods and Billy Glasgow.

The quartet could also be joined by VFL-listed players Andrew Tashevski-Beckwith and James El Moussalli, who have both nominated Eltham as their local club when not playing VFL football with Footscray and Essendon respectively.

Tashevski-Beckwith spent the past two years with TAC Cup side Sandringham Dragons and represented Vic Metro, while El Moussalli was considered unlucky to be overlooked in last year’s rookie draft.

Not surprisingly, Bandera was confident his midfield would hold its own against any team in the competition this year.

“I maintain that we had just about the best midfield in the comp last year and this year it will go to another level with Gav coming back,” he said.

“You look at the guys who aren’t in the midfield group and that will tell you how strong it is. Lewis Glasgow, Tommy Rogers and those kind of players are high quality and can’t get a gig in our midfield.

“You add to that a few VFL boys from Footscray and Essendon, who may or may not spend time with us, and you’ve got a strong mix. Any time there is a stoppage or dead ball situation, we’re going to back ourselves to win the footy.”

Eltham faces a somewhat indifferent start to the season, with its Good Friday fixture against Greensborough followed by a three-week break before travelling to Macleod in Round 2.

The Panthers have practice matches lined up against Strathmore, East Keilor and Sommerville before taking on the Boro on March 25. They will then play Doncaster in another practice match on April 2, before facing the reigning premier on April 16.

“As a coaching group, all our focus is on Round 1 against Greensborough, but by the same token we don’t want to take our eye off the defending premier three weeks later,” Bandera said.

“It is a tough start, but two years ago we’d be rolling into these games without expectation.

“Now both games, as tough as they’re going to be, we’re probably in them up to our back teeth.”