Turf toe, pneumonia, quadriceps strain: The ‘other’ McKay’s long road

Ben McKay has finally locked in a regular spot in North’s 22. Picture: AFL Photos

JOSH Walker’s recruitment last year was effectively North Melbourne acknowledging that Ben McKay and co. weren’t ready to replace Scott Thompson.

McKay was drafted way back in 2015, with the No.21 pick – 11 spots after Carlton selected his twin brother, Harry – yet by the end of his third season he’d played just one senior match.

Then, after busting through to play the first three games of last year, the 22-year-old wasn’t sighted again for the rest of the season.

With Thompson retiring, McKay’s opening was suddenly there, but instead the Kangaroos signed delisted free agent Walker and pushed him back down the order.

Walker started this season in North’s side and has remained in, but McKay’s chance finally arrived in round seven, when Cam Zurhaar’s sore calf saw him come in as a late inclusion against Richmond.

The 201cm defender hasn’t been out of the team since.

“I didn’t panic,” McKay told AFL.com.au this week of his long stint out of the team.

“I played the first three games of last year and I learned a lot about what it takes to perform at AFL level.

“Then I got dropped and got injured and I was sick also last year, so I certainly had a lot of time to think about how I can improve and be a consistent AFL player.”

Across a five-week period last season, McKay suffered through turf toe, pneumonia, then a quadriceps strain.

It was a hammer blow to his early momentum of playing consecutive senior matches for the first time and he couldn’t break back in, even with Majak Daw sidelined.

However, while it looked like McKay – who had the security of a contract through the 2021 season – was treading water, he was working really hard with development coach Gavin Brown.

But what did he really think of Walker’s signing?

“When ‘Turbo’ (Thompson) left, it was a good opportunity for a lot of our key defenders, like me and Sam Durdin, to potentially fill that void,” McKay said.

“The club did its due diligence and got some experience in with ‘Walks’, but I saw it as not really a problem for me and that I just needed to worry about me.

“In the past, I’ve probably worried about things out of my control, but this time it was, ‘That’s all right, I can just worry about me and if I train and play well, I can earn my spot’ – and I think that’s what I did.”

McKay’s climbed so far in coach Rhyce Shaw’s thinking that he now takes the opposition’s best tall forward each week.

He kept Tiger Tom Lynch goalless in his return game – Lynch’s one goal was on someone else – and he’s since played on the likes of Tom Hawkins, Charlie Dixon, Ben King, Eric Hipwood and Sam Weideman.

McKay’s match-ups in 2020

 MinutesDisposals ConcededGoals Conceded
R7 v Tom Lynch (Rich)8630
R9 v Tom Lynch (Adel)48140
R10 v Tom Hawkins4962
R11 v Sam Weideman75102
R12 v Eric Hipwood8371
R13 v Mason Cox5541
R14 v Ben King7571
R16 v Charlie Dixon8292

Dixon got hold of him in one early contest last Saturday night to kick a goal from point-blank range, but by game’s end had added just one more.

“He’s starting to take some big scalps now,” Shaw said.

“I think with any young guy, especially the big guys, they might take a little longer and Benny needed to find out what it’s all about and he went to work.

“He was really diligent over the pre-season and over the COVID break and invested in his game and … he’s really growing with confidence and I’m just really pleased for him.”

Shaw laughed as he recalled the moment he told McKay he had the job on Dixon, saying he’d “never seen a bloke more excited”.

That’s because McKay feels ready now, after all the effort he’s put in behind the scenes.

He knows he still has more to prove, but he’s starting to feel like he belongs at the elite level. However, there is still the matter of facing his sibling, Harry, in an AFL game.

The twin brothers are known for their humorous Twitter banter and have played on each other once in a VFL match, but doing so on the AFL stage would be a whole new experience.

“It’s been a long time coming and it would be a special day for the family,” McKay said.

“Mum and dad will be more nervous than anyone, but hopefully it happens next year and we get a good win and I play all right.”