Wodonga plays its first Ovens and Murray final since 2009 on Sunday and young Bulldogs star Josh Mathey sat down with STEVE TERVET to reflect on how he, and the club, have progressed to reach this point.
STEVE TERVET: How much have you enjoyed this season?
JOSH MATHEY: It's been a great season. Winning games of footy is a lot more fun than losing and our group this year is definitely the closest group I've been part of. We're so tight-knit off the field and because we're a young group, we hang out outside of footy circles as well so this year's been fun on and off the field.
ST: How has that bond been created?
JM: Jordan Taylor is a big part of that. He's really big on connections off the field and I think it's natural as well, being a young group, hanging out in the same circles. It's natural but it's also been pushed by the leaders and Jordan. I think it makes a huge difference knowing how your team-mates react in different situations. You can see different team-mates, when they're doing it tough and when they're going well, how they react and how you can help them. It makes a massive difference, especially in close games. Being predictable to each other is very important.
ST: It's been a long time since a senior Wodonga footballer had a final to look forward to, so what's the feeling going into this weekend?
JM: Pure excitement and optimism. There are players at the club who have played finals as a senior footballer elsewhere but not in the maroon and white. Seeing how excited our supporters are, the people that have stuck around through the hard times, is pretty exciting.
ST: What does it mean to be able to deliver that?
JM: It's super special being part of the playing group which is the first to play finals in such a long time and deliver it to the people that have been waiting for so long. You can see that when you speak to them after the game, how grateful they are.
ST: What are your earliest memories of being around the club?
JM: I grew up here. When I was a real young fella, I played all of my junior footy here and Dad was elsewhere for a few years, coaching, so I do have very young memories at other football clubs but Wodonga was always a very welcoming place and somewhere that has felt like home since I can remember. There's a few stories that I would always go around as a real young fella and steal the chips off the senior players. I always wanted to hop in the ice bath with Dad after the game. From a very young age, all I wanted to do was to play senior footy for Wodonga and be one of the big boys.
ST: What do you remember about your senior debut?
JM: It was round one in 2021, Jordan's first year as coach, away to Corowa. In the two years prior to COVID, I was close to playing seniors, I'd been emergency eight weeks in a row and I was just a bottom-age thirds player then. I never got the opportunity under Zac Fulford but, looking back now, I'm grateful that I didn't because I feel when I was able to debut under Jordan in 2021, I was really ready as a 17-year-old to make an impact and not just play and go in and out of the side. I was ready to step into the side and really make my mark. In the pre-season, it wasn't always that way. With a new coach, you're trying to prove yourself to him and I think Jordan saw me as a just a forward-pocket sort of player and that's where I was trying to hone my craft in the pre-season. But the practice games rolled around, I got a chance in the midfield and I took it. Jordan saw something in me in there and ended up debuting me and I started in the middle, which was exciting.
ST: You won the league Rising Star and took out the club best-and-fairest that year so you really hit the ground running...
JM: Yes, I think that's something which held me in good stead. As soon as I stepped into the senior side, I was confident in myself and I felt that I could make an impact. I think that's really important as a young player, being able to back yourself in and think you can match it with the best players. That's something I did well, believing in myself and believing I could match it with whoever I was lining up against.
ST: You no longer have that element of surprise so how do you handle the time which opposition sides put into you these days?
JM: After my first season of seniors, it was a bit of a surprise for everyone, and going into my second season, all through the pre-season I was really focusing on and thinking about the fact other teams would potentially give me a bit more attention and it was something I've been used to through junior footy. It's something that comes with playing good footy but it was always going to be to a different level with men. It was something I thought about and talking to players that have experienced it, learning from players that have had to deal with it and also talking to your team-mates and getting them to help you as much as possible. In my second year, when I did start to get a little bit of attention, the other players with me in the midfield really helped me out and they were really important for maybe taking away a little bit from their game to help me.
ST: Does it ever get frustrating or do you find it easy to keep your cool?
JM: It does, at times, but I'm pretty lucky this year having Angus Baker in there with me so he gets a lot more attention than I do, which is good, it takes the attention away from me. A lot of the time I'm trying to help him out. It does get frustrating but I try to look at it as more of a compliment. They obviously think you're dangerous enough as a player to put time and attention into you so I try to let my footy do the talking.
ST: Do you relish the responsibility as a match-winner?
JM: I do. I think that's important, to have those players you can trust no matter what and I think it's something that's earnt. Once you have earnt that, it's something you should cherish and is really special.
ST: How highly do you rate Angus Baker?
JM: He's definitely the best player I've ever played with. He does everything to such a high standard and we saw that, the first year we had him at Wodonga. He played in the backline and he'd take 10-12 intercept marks a game, throw him in the middle and he has 30-odd touches, throw him forward and he'll kick five. He's just so hard to match up on and he's so unselfish as well. I find playing with him in the midfield, he's worrying about how I'm going and getting me in the game just as much as himself.
ST: Yarrawonga, Albury, Wangaratta and Rovers are used to playing finals; how do the Bulldogs ensure they don't get overawed by the occasion after so long out of the top five?
JM: It's something that's unknown going into a finals series as a team that hasn't played finals for a long time. As everyone knows, Jordan's very process-driven and that's what will be able to keep us calm in the big moments, sticking to the process we've done all year. The good thing about making the finals is you know you're one of the best five sides and you've made the finals for a reason. It's because you've played good footy and you've had a good process throughout the year. Being process-driven and having our players that have played finals elsewhere step up and help everyone that hasn't in those moments, I think that's important.
ST: Is there some extra motivation to do it for Jordan?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. With Jordan going next year, we want to send him out on a high and Wodonga is a club which has a lot of motivation from our supporters who haven't seen it for however long. To send Jordan out on a high, blokes in the team like Dan Wortmann that have been here for 100-plus games and haven't played finals yet, doing it for blokes like that, we've got enough motivation I reckon.
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