MAY 15 next year is a date Murray Stephenson already has circled on the calendar.
While for many it is just another Saturday in football season, for Stephenson it means a fraction more than that. It's round five of the Riverina League season when Wagga Tigers host Coolamon at Robertson Oval.
In his first interview since returning home as new Wagga Tigers coach, Stephenson could hardly been more impressive as he spoke with excitement about entering the next phase of his career at a new club.
Stephenson, a Coolamon junior and premiership player, insisted returning to the region and joining one of the Hoppers' biggest rivals was no big deal for him.
But two quickfire answers about the draw provided a little glimpse behind the articulate and carefully considered responses he provided for the remainder.
Have you seen the draw yet?
"Yep," Stephenson replied quickly.
When is it?
"Round five," He answered with a grin.
Stephenson knew exactly what 'it' meant but then quickly returned to coach speak.
"It'll be good. They've got a strong list. I think we've got a strong list. It will probably just be a good contest. It will be a good test for us."
Stephenson's signing at Wagga Tigers as the club's new coach sent shockwaves through the Riverina League for a number of reasons.
It came as somewhat of a surprise firstly, given Tigers had been led to back-to-back premierships by Troy Maiden.
But then secondly, Stephenson had been Coolamon through and through, starring for the Hoppers before his move to Adelaide seven years ago.
But Stephenson explains that he entered into talks with Tigers with an 'open mind' despite his strong Coolamon heritage.
"I was pretty open-minded about it all," he said.
"They seemed like they were pretty organised and pretty sure of what they wanted, and I like that.
"Seven years ago it might have been a different story. But when they call, you keep an open mind, when you want to get into coaching, or something like that, so I was open to it."
Stephenson said if his signing did cause a stir, he wasn't aware of it. He says he has received nothing but support from his friends.
"I don't know, I was in Adelaide," Stephenson said of the reaction about his appointment.
"We've been back for just over a week. It's been good. A lot of my mates, they were pretty happy for me.
"It's a difficult decision to make, the fairytale is, maybe you do finish at your junior club but things didn't work out that way. My mates are pretty happy for me, pretty supportive, which makes you feel good about it.
"It reinforces that it is a good decision for me and my family."
Clubs had called Stephenson in the past to quiz him about a potential return home. He admits he had brief conversations with Coolamon about a homecoming but said it was purely the timing of Tigers' inquiry that worked.
"(There were) a couple (of enquiries) but none that got too serious. Every now and again there would a club that would pop up and inquire about going there as a player and coach and stuff," he said.
"This was probably the first year that I was seriously ready. Especially with COVID, I've got a little girl, she's one and has spent a whole year away from family. Grandparents don't see her, aunties, uncles, cousins. With that, always having the ambition of bringing children up around family, that was a big thing, footy was another thing as well. There was probably a few things that compounded to make the decision. Everything worked out pretty well."
Stephenson travelled to Adelaide as a raw 21-year-old, fresh from starring for Coolamon in their 2013 premiership year. His status in the Riverina was growing rapidly, just as his game was, where he had earned the reputation as an athletic defender who could shut down the best forwards in the game.
He signed with South Australian National Football League (SANFL) powerhouse Central District, joining a number of other Riverina footballers at the club.
Stephenson admits the move was an 'eye-opener'.
"I started there when I was 21, it was a bit of an eye opener. You go over there, thinking that you're fit and you find out exactly where you've got to get to to be playing regular league footy there," he said.
"That was probably the biggest thing. Also, the time you've got to put into yourself away from footy in terms of your rehab, your weights programs, topping up on your running, your fitness, footy went from being a two or three nights a week thing to being five to six days a week over there.
"The culture of the footy club was fantastic. Honestly, it was the best thing I ever did."
While many Riverina footballers have had a crack at the SANFL and failed, Stephenson is one of the success stories.
He made an immediate impact at league (first grade) level and went on to establish himself as one of Central District's most consistent footballers.
Stephenson loved his time in Adelaide but stopped short of declaring the move a complete success.
"In terms of team success, no, probably not," he said.
"Everyone wants to win a premiership there. The last couple of years, we haven't played finals. The best we got was to a prelim. So in terms of team success, you'd probably have to say no. Once you get to that level, everyone's aiming for a premiership. No one's aiming to be an also ran.
"Personally, probably, I think I got the best out of myself over there.
"My expectations of myself was reasonably low in my first year, it was just to try and make the side and play a couple of games and use that as a foundation for the next few seasons. I was lucky enough to play every game, or every game I was available to through injury, in my first year."
Stephenson is pleased to see more Riverina talent beginning to make the move to Adelaide to test themselves in the league that is considered the strongest outside of the AFL.
He loved watching Jackson Kelly's rise at Centrals this season and believes there is two key traits needed for players to make it in the SANFL.
"It takes a bit of time to find your feet, it does, but I think the biggest thing is if you're going to pick guys to go over there, the thing you look at is one, are they coachable, and two, how serious are they about their footy?" he said.
"Someone like Jackson Kelly was pretty impressive when he came over from Tigers to Centrals this year. Jacko played a bit in the twos to start off with but he was pretty dedicated in doing the extra work and by the end of the season he was playing consistent league footy and was playing and going to head-to-head with some of the best midfielders in the comp. He's got a lot of weapons playing footy, he's got a lot of leg speed, he's fit and he's quite smart but he's super dedicated and very coachable so that's probably the two things you need to have."
Enjoying playing a part in the development of others confirmed to Stephenson it was time to step into coaching.
He didn't end up as Wagga Tigers' new captain-coach by accident.
"It's probably been in the foresight of my mind for a while," he said.
"Probably since I was 24, 25, I've been thinking about. Not immediately at that point but more towards late 20s, the closer I got to 30 it was more something I wanted to do.
"Then last year at Centrals, I played with a lot of young guys. Olsson, Durdin, Jordy O'Brien, they were a couple of young guys, and you got a fair bit of a kick out of watching them develop. We played together as a forward line and that's when I thought it's probably about time. When you started to get a kick out of helping the young guys coming through at Centrals, develop and improve their game. When that gave you a kick, you think it's about time to get into developing footballers back here, I guess."
Now the time has arrived to begin his coaching journey. While Stephenson appears a deep thinker, he will begin at Robertson Oval with a simple approach.
"Just to get the guys to continually improve each week," he said.
"They've had a bit of success in recent years but that's recent years so going forward if you're not continually trying to improve, eventually the competition is going to swallow you up and you're going to be back with the pack.
"That's the message that we're going to try and push is that we've still got to try and keep improving to try and be in a successful position. So guys turn up to training with a good attitude, willing to work on their game, their deficiencies. I think that will put us in a pretty good position."
Taking over a team that has won the last two premierships comes with a fair amount of pressure. Stephenson admits there is pressure that comes with the role, but explained it has nothing to do with the past.
"I suppose it's not so much pressure because of the past seasons, in any sort of sphere of sport there is always some sort of pressure, especially guys who hold a leadership position," he said.
"So there is pressure in that regard, that you want to strive to continually be successful but in terms of last year and the year before, it's a different playing group. But what you do know you get out of it is the guys who have played through them years, they have what it takes and they know what it takes to be successful.
"You hope that them guys can drive the guys who might have been unlucky or weren't quite playing senior football at that stage. You hope them guys can drive the new guys coming through to strive to continually be successful."
Stephenson arrived home a couple of weeks before Christmas. It was enough time to sneak a couple of training sessions in at Tigers and meet his new teammates.
"That's one of the good things about it, you meet a whole new friend group as well, at a new footy club, so it's exciting," he said.
"They were good. The attitude of the guys was quite good, if the attitude and effort are there it's a big tick from the start. It's a pretty good foundation going into a year of footy or pre-season."
As for what kind of coach he wants to be, Stephenson wants to be true to himself, and his players.
"Just be yourself," he said.
"Some people might be screamers, some people might not be but at the end of the day, if you be yourself that's probably the best way to go about it. That way guys know what they're getting."
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