James Webster described last year's Black Diamond Cup grand final as a "bizarre" feeling.
The three-time Elliott Davey medallist and three-time premiership winner was sidelined with injury and running messages for his Terrigal Avoca teammates, who went on to claim the flag after a thrilling decider with long-time rivals Newcastle City at No.1 Sportsground.
The bittersweet emotion has helped fuel the fire for Webster, who returns for the Panthers in 2020 having missed all of last season with a knee complaint.
"I'd never missed more than two or three games in-a-row before during my career, so it was quite odd being out for the full season," Webster told the Newcastle Herald.
"I was running messages for our guys in the grand final and it was a bizarre feeling. Obviously stoked that we won, but no matter what you do you're not quite part of that 22 and it's not the same feeling.
"I'll be back in red, white and black again this year and I'm really looking forward to it. I think everyone is keen for footy given the circumstances [coronavirus], but being out for longer I've missed it that little bit more."
Webster, who joined Terrigal Avoca seven years ago following stints at GWS under 19s, Essendon's rookie list and NEAFL side Redlands, underwent surgery to repair damage in his left knee after the 2017 campaign.
The 28-year-old electrician, who lives on the Central Coast, said his right knee now needs an operation as well but wants to "put it off until I'm done with footy".
This means Webster comes back to the Panthers in 2020 well rested after more than 18 months off the field, helped by this year's delayed start.
"The body feels the best it has in years because of the break. That's pretty positive," he said.
Webster said he's enjoyed being back at training with Terrigal Avoca recently after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
Round one is just over a fortnight away and AFL Hunter Central Coast community football manager Sam Zikman expects to finalise a draw next week.
Webster said he feels the Panthers have a chance to defend their title having retained "a full list". Last week the club requested a clearance for Mitchell Price from the Murray Football League.
Terrigal Avoca have played in eight straight grand finals.