OVENS AND MURRAY | North Albury trio exploring options in VFL, NEAFL

North Albury coach Jason Akermanis says the departure of three of the club’s best players is proof the junior program is working.

Best and fairest winner Dom Brew, pacy forward Ben Fulford and O&M representative Shaun Mannagh are all targeting the VFL next year.

The Hoppers finished second-bottom and given they’ve already lost leading goalkicker Ricky Whitehead to Wodonga and reliable defender Simon Mitchelhill, it would appear, from an outsider’s viewpoint, the club will again struggle.

But the eternally-optimistic Akermanis won’t change after blooding 23 players last season.

“We’re a destination for some boys, and a pathway for others,” he said.

“I encourage all players to test themselves at the highest level possible.”

Akermanis’s outlook is extremely unselfish, given his coaching tenure will be decided next year.

Some mentors could target a number of star recruits to boost their chances of immediate success, but the AFL Hall of Famer refuses to be swayed from his youth policy.

“You would assume, looking at North Albury’s wins and losses, we would struggle, but we’ve got some great kids coming through and they will have a great opportunity here as we continue to develop our culture,” he said.

And it was the influence of the players which contributed to North’s.decision to re-appoint Akermanis for a fifth year.

“I wouldn’t be able to play at the level I’m looking at next year if it wasn’t for ‘Aker’,” Fulford said.

“You can’t help but learn from a Brownlow medallist and three-time AFL premiership winner.”

“‘Aker’ has been the biggest supporters of the young guys,” Mannagh said.

“His professionalism is great and he speaks to us with a level of respect.

“He’s so honest and tell it as it is.

“Outside the club some might not like him, but those people don’t see how good he is within the club.”

The teenager hasn’t signed with a VFL club yet, but is speaking with Werribee, Richmond and Coburg.

“Obviously the VFL is a better standard and there’s more coaches on every line to help develop players,” Mannagh said.

“I hope it will help me take my football to the next level.”

Fulford also hasn’t signed with a club for next year, but he’s also looking at the VFL, or possibly Canberra’s NEAFL outfit.

The 22-year-old travelled more than 12,000 kilometres from Canbera last season.

“It was hard to leave North Albury, massively hard,” he said.

“I debuted for the club as a 16 or 17-year-old, but I just want to play at a higher standard to test myself.”

The Hoppers started last season superbly, winning four of their first six matches, but only one of their last 12 games.