Three-time premiership-winning Blues champion Mark Maclure has a simple message for Harry McKay critics: “They’ve got no idea.”
McKay is set to return from a knee injury this week to a red-hot Carlton side that’s won an AFL-best eight games in a row to surge into premiership contention.
Prior to the 25-year old’s knee setback against Port Adelaide in Round 18 that required surgery – and was originally expected to sideline him for up to eight weeks – McKay struggled to hit his straps and play at his best alongside Charlie Curnow, who’s on track for a second-straight Coleman Medal after emerging as the premier forward in the competition.
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It’s led to criticism that McKay and Curnow can’t co-exist at their optimum in the same forward line and even prompted calls that the Blues function better without the former.
Some have even suggested Carlton should entertain putting McKay on the trade table at season’s end for the betterment of the team despite the Coleman medallist being contracted until 2030, having last year signed a monster seven-year extension.
However speaking to foxfooty.com.au, Maclure scoffed at suggestions the Blues were a better side without McKay.
“They’ve got no idea … that is absolute bulls**t,” the former Carlton skipper said of such criticism.
“I’m not one in that camp, I’m one that wants to keep him. He’ll grow.
“Why would they want to get rid of McKay? Because Charlie kicks more goals?
“I think McKay is a long-term prospect for Carlton and will stay there. He’s a young man who’s just started playing really, I think he’s a great player and can get better. He will stay.
“Everyone has got something to say about someone, but without any knowledge at all.”
Of course, McKay is just two years removed from his 58-goal Coleman Medal season – a season Curnow played just four games due to injury.
And so Curnow last year reaching superstar heights and becoming the focal point of the Blues’ attack created a lethal combination with McKay and made the Carlton forward line arguably the most dangerous in the competition.
In fact, only any combination of Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron and Tyson Stengle kicked more goals than the Curnow-McKay duo in 2022 (109).
Most clubs are crying out for just one one star key forward, so for the Blues to have two – aged 25 (McKay) and 26 (Curnow) – makes for a potent twin tower pairing and potentially the most valuable long-term.
But whether it was because the Blues weren’t moving the ball as well or the forward line was just generally struggling – or a combination of both – the stats suggest Voss’ attack wasn’t as effective earlier this season with McKay, who’s averaged his lowest goals per game since 2020.
Acknowledging he’s been below his best and entertaining a trade however are two separate conversations really, and the former is hard to ignore.
In stats provided by Champion Data, the Blues in games with McKay averaged 79.4 points and had a 21 per cent goalkicking rate per inside 50, while without McKay (including the Round 18 clash with Port Adelaide when he played only 16 minutes), they’ve averaged 97.6 points and a 26 per cent goalkicking rate per inside 50.
The likes of Matt Owies, Jack Martin and Jesse Motlop have looked more likely in recent weeks and are flourishing in a more mobile forward setup, whereas earlier this year, the Blues were too reliant on Curnow to kick a winning score.
Therefore, how the Blues reintegrate McKay will be crucial, with St Kilda legend Leigh Montagna urging urging Voss to be careful he doesn’t mess with a winning formula and even saying McKay shouldn’t be an automatic selection.
For Maclure, McKay should be played as more of a traditional centre-half forward further up the ground.
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“I think McKay should play high instead of playing deep in the forward and take an opponent away from that area where they don’t feel comfortable,” he said.
Despite how quickly McKay can get back to his best form or not, it’s the centre of the ground they can consistently hang their hat on, even with injuries to the likes of Adam Cerra, Sam Walsh and Matt Kennedy in recent weeks.
In stats supplied by Champion Data, the Blues since Round 14 have ranked first in points from clearances, groundball differential and clearance differential second in contested possession differential.
The Blues are also first in points for during that period in a scary proposition for the rest of the competition if McKay can start to fire with the rest of the forward group.
It continues a remarkable turnaround after Carlton lost six games in a row earlier this season to sit as low as 15th at one stage as pressure came on Voss and other senior figures at Ikon Park.
But taking the huge scalps of top four sides Port Adelaide, Collingwood and Melbourne in recent weeks as part of the Blues’ eight-game winning streak has seen the club rise to fifth on the ladder and be on the cusp of ending a 10-year finals drought.
In fact, the Blues can mathematically still make the top four, though they’d need to win their two remaining games over Gold Coast and GWS and for Melbourne to bomb out against both Hawthorn and Sydney.
It makes you wonder where this side could be sitting had things clicked earlier in the piece.
No matter, Maclure said he’s “really proud” of how far his former club has come and the way its responded to adversity, highlighting the team’s improved ball movement, centre bounce dominance and connection on field for the key reasons for its improvement.
The 243-gamer gave full credit to Voss for leading that revival and getting all his troops to buy into team ethos “no matter if you’re getting paid $1 million a year or $200,000,” exemplified by how the likes of Paddy Dow, Lachlan Fogarty and Zac Fisher have come in to plug injury holes in recent weeks.
“I can’t speak any more highly of ‘Vossy’ about how he’s actually changed this side and how it’s worked,” Maclure added.
“You look at the last two or three years, it’s been a disaster and a nightmare for this footy club. The last 20 years have been really poor, this is about as good as it’s been since before that.
“’Vossy’ has done a brilliant job and he’s giving assistance to a bunch of guys who were crying out for it.
“They just got a bit lost, that does happen. They’ve been sometimes poorly coached and were average in selection in picking the wrong players.”
Asked how far Carlton can go in 2023, Maclure said: “I’m not certain how long they’ll last but I tell you what, if you’re a Carlton supporter, you’d have some pride.
“Two or three months ago fans were walking out of the stands before the game was finished, it’s a big turnaround.”
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