For as long as I’ve been following football, one of the more constants has been how ordinary the Melbourne Demons have looked over the years.
Season 1997 is the year that I started following football, and back then, they’d finished up as the wooden spooners, having only won four games – four games behind the 15th placed Hawthorn. Neil Balme, who had coached Melbourne since 1994, was sacked just nine games into the season.
Unbeknownst to me, there were a number of intangibles surrounding the Demons around this time period, none more burdening than the proposed merger with Hawthorn to become the Melbourne Hawks. This was ultimately scrapped as both supporters of Hawthorn and Melbourne rallied against the proposed merger.
The Dees weren’t like the Hawks at the time. Hawthorn, despite the premiership in 1991, had a very sizeable debt and were suffering financial losses, whereas the Demons, although strugglers on the field, were financially stable, which prompted the idea of a merger
Mergers, at the time, had been a real sticking point. Footscray, Richmond, North Melbourne and Fitzroy were all clubs that were proposed to merge with another club at one stage or another – but all of them were shut down until the Fitzroy/Brisbane merger at the end of 1996.
Season 1996 happened, where the now infamously dubbed ‘Merger Game’ was the last game on the home and away calendar and with that game, the members and fans voted with their feet and to the delight of both the Hawthorn and Melbourne faithful, both teams would keep their place in the league right up until now.
Since then, we’ve seen the Hawks erase their debt and go on to become one of the more prominent clubs of the 21st century. You don’t need me to go into detail about Alastair Clarkson’s breakthrough flag in 2008 or the premiership treble from 2013 to 2015.
However, in the case of Melbourne, things haven’t been so peachy. Yes, they made the grand final in the year 2000, but were never going to seriously challenge Essendon that day – having been the best team all year round.
Since 2000 right up until they broke through for finals again in 2018, Melbourne had only played finals just four times in between. Particularly from 2007 onwards, the club faced a massive uphill struggle, both on-field and on.
To an extent, head coach Dean Bailey, who took over from Neale Daniher after the 2007 season, was charged with helping rebuild a Demons team through a period where debts soared past $4 million dollars. Despite finishing last both in 2008 and 2009, it was during this period that saw the Dees unearth players such as Nathan Jones, Neville Jetta and James Frawley – players who’d go on to forge good careers.
We were also introduced to players such as Austin Wonaeamirri and Liam Jurrah, players who could bring some excitement back into Melbourne and the MCG, but unfortunately, both of their careers would prove to be short-lived.
During this time, it was later revealed, there were allegations that Melbourne had been deliberately throwing games away in order to secure an extra draft pick. This entire matter was an utter debacle – the club was found not guilty, but both Bailey and the general manager of football operations, Chris Connolly, somehow managed to still cop a good whack by the AFL.
Then, of course, we all remember what happened when they went to Kardinia Park in 2011 and witnessed one of the most vicious beatdowns I’ve ever seen. Bailey was promptly sacked that night and of course, the man who succeeded him, Mark Neeld, set the club even further back.
Those two years that Neeld started the season as coach of Melbourne, resulted in average losing margins of 50 points in 2012 and 64 points in 2013. After the loss to Collingwood on Queen’s Birthday, Neeld was handed his marching orders – you don’t need to tell me this was Melbourne’s darkest period.
Fast forward to today and Melbourne – a team who I’ve thought for years would struggle to find their way back to the Finals alone let alone win a final – are now just one win away from their first Grand Final in 21 years and another step towards their first premiership in nearly 60 years.
Yes, it’s a feel-good story, but It’s also crazy to think how far this list has come over the years. I’ve had this strong fascination for how a list is developed and built since I began writing about the game, and whilst there should be credit elsewhere within the club, this column piece is narrowing down how exactly Melbourne built their list… almost basically from scratch.
It’s a little alarming to think that from the 2005 Draft all the way to 2012 – just five players are on Melbourne’s list: Among those are Max Gawn, Tom McDonald and Nathan Jones. All of them have seen through the darkest periods of this club through the 21st century.
Gawn remains one of the most important players on Melbourne’s list – he’s the captain of the club for a reason. Not only is he a guy who is in the top echelon of the 200-centimetre brutes that possess elite ruck craft with a side of impeccable footy smarts, but also a very likeable figure inside the four walls of Melbourne and one that unquestionably helps lighten up the mood around the club too.
I remember following the 2018 season and consistently commenting about just how versatile Tom McDonald can be. Having been more of a key defender up to this point, he was spending more time on a wing and up forward and kicked over 50 goals for his troubles. Sure, since then he’s been quite up and down, but he’s a player that can genuinely turn a game on its head.
For Jones, he will remain one of my favourites to come from the red and blue. Not just because was he a very talented and hard-working midfielder, but at a period where he could’ve easily have jumped ship, he stayed loyal to the cause and helped set a tone of professionalism, despite the lack of first-tier games.
Should Melbourne go all the way this year, whilst it’s unlikely, It’d feel so good to see Jones named as the Medi-Sub, because a premiership medal would be a just reward for his dedication all these years.
Before the 2013 Draft, the club has been shit out of luck for draftees, with a vast majority of them either ending up on another AFL list or not playing at all. First-round picks such as Jack Watts, Cale Morton, Tom Scully, Jack Trengove, Lucas Cook and Jimmy Toumpas were all disappointing for one reason or another.
The post-season of 2013 was the year it all started to change. Paul Roos, highly revered and respected in the close football circles, was named as head coach and with it, came the beginning of a list rebuild that would eventually become one of the top playing lists in the game.
At the trade table, they sought Adelaide’s Bernie Vince, a player that whilst not necessarily a star player during his tenure, he was vital in terms of shouldering the brunt of the workload as a midfielder in a team that lacked quality mids significantly. They also recruited Dom Tyson, who they acquired from GWS as a bright star of the future.
In the deal for Tyson, they would offload the second overall pick along with pick 20 and 72 to receive Tyson, Pick 9 and 53. That second pick would eventually be Josh Kelly and how he would’ve gone in this Melbourne side is anyone’s guess. Tyson himself would be solid, but not the man that would carry the Demons midfield going forward.
But if they hadn’t made that trade, they wouldn’t have selected Christian Salem, who the Dees took with that pick nine. Granted, rebounding defenders over the past decade have proven to be bountiful, but Salem evolved from a would-be midfielder into one of the better and silkier half-back flankers in the game today.
But, the following two drafts, saw them bring in midfielders with their three first-round selections – two of these selections have formed the nucleus to what is one of the best midfield brigades in the competition this year.
Some might argue differently, but I’ll argue that it was these picks during the 2014 and 2015 Drafts that were vital to get where Melbourne are right now.
For how Christian Petracca slipped to Melbourne’s grasp with the second pick, I remain dumbfounded. Yes, I understand that St Kilda looked to fill a key forward need with Paddy McCartin. In the lead up to the draft, I had Petracca better than McCartin and whilst it is through no direct fault of Paddy’s or the St Kilda list management this has proven to be correct – concussions are cruel aren’t they?
Melbourne also had the pick following that, which was compensation for James Frawley’s defection to Hawthorn via free agency. The compensation for free agency has been dodgy since its inception. Was Frawley directly worth a top-three pick? Absolutely no chance when you consider Hawthorn were handed pick 19 as compensation for losing a bloke named Lance Franklin.
However, Melbourne were not going to complain. They netted Angus Brayshaw with this pick, who has gone on to play strong roles both as an inside, bullocking midfielder and as we’ve seen in the past couple of years, a role along the wing – whether it’s to negate an opposing wingman or just to provide a strong link in Melbourne’s transition when they have the ball.
It would be the following draft that saw Melbourne net a player that, six years on, has emerged into one of the best players in the game, certainly one of the best five players this season.
But his emergence into the higher end of the draft board came so suddenly for Clayton Oliver. He went from being unlikely to be drafted to being a Morrish Medal winner as the best kid in the then-called TAC Cup for Murray and taken fourth overall by Melbourne in the 2015 AFL Draft.
In the space of two seasons, Oliver had a ‘Bluey’ Truscott medal to his name, being adjudged as the best and fairest for Melbourne at just 20 years of age. Since then, his penchant for the contested ball has become more and more damaging every year. Even if he doesn’t win the Brownlow Medal this year, you would sense that there’d be a victory around the corner.
It would take Petracca a little while longer to really get going, but he has come along very strongly the past few years and is now widely regarded as a ‘game-breaking’ midfielder the Dees envisioned when his name was read out on draft night. You can almost put him in the same category as you would with Marcus Bontempelli, Dustin Martin and Patrick Dangerfield in the sense that he can put goals on the board as well as rack up contested ball and clearances at will.
They didn’t shy away from making trades all the way through, either. You can argue that since 2016, the club knew that they needed to continue with bringing in help from the outside. Jeff Garlett and Heritier Lumumba were serviceable gap-fillers when they came to the side in 2014, Jake Melksham in 2015 and Michael Hibberd in 2016 still remain on the list and remain handy contributors when fit and able to slot into this side.
I can recall Melbourne’s acquisition of Jordan Lewis in 2016 was seen as a bit of a coup, with the former Hawk playing a strong role in Hawthorn’s three-peat of premierships in the previous three years. He added plenty in his short time at the Dees and it shouldn’t be overlooked just how important of a role he provided.
After finishing 9th in 2017 after what felt like an eternity of hard rebuilding, and with finals on the horizon, they suddenly became a more desirable club for disgruntled or wantaway players.
Jake Lever had a breakout season for Adelaide, playing such a pivotal role in the Crows’ defensive half. He sought a trade to Melbourne and it cost them two first-round picks to get the deal done. Despite a season-ending knee injury mid-2018, Lever has worked his way back to fulfil the potential he demonstrated at the Crows, and has continued to play his part as the floating third tall, taking intercepts and positioning himself correctly.
The 2017 off-season also saw the club bring in Bayley Fritsch via the Draft, who had been flying for Melbourne’s VFL affiliate Casey that year and has since gone on to star in Melbourne’s forward line, so much so that he should’ve been in the All-Australian side this year.
They also added both Charlie Spargo and Harry Petty, players who have since come in and found a role inside Melbourne’s top 22. What’s made even more impressive was that the Demons didn’t open up their draft account that year until pick 29, having dealt away their first-round selection to Adelaide.
The following year, after being obliterated by West Coast in the Preliminary Final, they sought out Gold Coast co-captain Steven May, but for him to make the jump, they had to part ways with Jesse Hogan. Whilst Hogan showed promise as a key forward, also showed glaring inconsistencies with his game and in conjunction with the classic lure of a return to his home state of Western Australia, they made a deal happen with Fremantle which saw Melbourne get pick six in return.
This pick was then on traded to the Suns in a deal that saw both May and Kade Koldjashnij brought in. Whilst the latter of the two only lasted a couple of seasons due to ongoing concussion issues, it took some time for May to properly get going, as injuries and a poor fitness base hampered his 2019 campaign. May rebounded back to his best form in 2020 and continued that form into 2021, being justly rewarded with an All-Australian selection this year.
At the draft that same year, they had five selections, but none that stood out more for the Dees in 2021 than James Jordon with the 33rd pick. Jordon has come along quite well as a tough-as-nails role player. His strength is his tackling and has had games, where he’s done quite the job of winning the ball from the source – after playing no games in 2019 or 2020, Jordon has played every game this year.
The 2019 off-season, after a year of heaped misery in which Melbourne finished in the bottom two, was seen as one of the more important ones since securing Petracca and Oliver in the 2014-15 Drafts.
Identifying the lack of outside run on the wings as a key issue, Melbourne looked to secure Ed Langdon from Fremantle after he had told the Dockers that he wanted to go back home to Victoria. Whilst the move didn’t quite help them get to the finals in 2020, season 2021 saw this move prove to be a masterstroke in a recruiting sense as Langdon became one of the more prime wingmen of the competition.
The club also added Adam Tomlinson from GWS via Free Agency, and whilst he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee this year, his 2020 campaign suggested that he had found a niche as the third tall in defence and played well in his first six games this year before he went down in Round Seven.
Then came the challenge of continuing to add youth to this side. A priority pick from the AFL to the Gold Coast meant that Melbourne was bumped down from pick two to pick three, meaning that they were going to miss out on Noah Anderson, who was argued as the second-best talent in the Draft Pool.
Whilst this was seen as a big gamble at the time, this move has since reaped massive dividends to the Melbourne camp, having given away their 2020 first-round pick to North Melbourne, as well as picks 26 and 50 for North’s pick eight. This was then on-traded to Fremantle in exchange for picks 10 and 28.
The results in the draft saw Luke Jackson taken at three, Kysaiah Pickett with the 12th pick and Trent Rivers with the 32nd pick and all three have excelled since. The future first-rounder that North picked up? That turned out to be Tom Powell, who I think will be a fairly good player in his own right – whilst there’s still lots to play out, the initial feeling is that neither club has lost this deal.
At the time, the Jackson selection was the most speculative as despite the magnificent athletic attributes he did possess, had very limited exposure playing football. However, since making his debut, has established himself as a mainstay in Melbourne’s 22, playing as both a key forward and pinch-hitting ruck in the ruck behind Max Gawn. His Rising Star award win this year is a just reward for his brilliant work ethic.
Kysaiah was the electric small forward that Melbourne were looking for, and after just two seasons, has firmly asserted himself as a forward threat: kicking 7.13 from just 14 games in his debut year was followed on by playing every game in 2021and kicking 37.28 this season which, for a 20-year old forward is about as encouraging as it gets.
Barring injury, he’ll be a consistent goalkicker of over 50-plus over the coming years – his upside could see him amongst some of the best small forwards of the 21st century – watch this space on that one.
Rivers has also played every game this year. In fact, he has not missed a game since being recalled to the team in Round 14 last year. He adds another layer to the Demons’ immaculate defensive unit. May and Lever have been the ones to drive the ship this year and their All-Australian blazers attest to this, however, Rivers’ ability to read and chop off the play has been quite crucial in many games this year – he’s a star in the making.
Whilst it is difficult to say much on Melbourne’s 2020 Draft cohort, only Jake Bowey, who was their first pick in the Draft has played just a handful of games – good ones at that. However, it can be said that the addition of Ben Brown from North Melbourne has been a move that has helped shape up that forward line to become one of the more potent attacking groups this season.
Yes, it took them some time to get his body right, but he’s come along strong towards the end of the season – 15.7 in his last seven games is a good return, and if he can string a full pre-season together and stay fit, the forward line becomes much more potent one.
Think about this, a Melbourne forward line that consists of deadly options such as Pickett, Fritsch, Brown and McDonald was something the likes of which Melbourne fans had not seen since the early 2000s when the likes of Neitz, Robertson, Aaron Davey and Adem Yze were allowed to roam around in the forward half together.
Regardless of which team you support, when you look back at Melbourne’s last 20 years, to come from where they were, this should be recognised and seen as such a commendable achievement.
Securing the minor premiership from 44 points down against Geelong on their home turf, as well as the win against Brisbane on the weekend, you’ve surely got to put them in the box seat to win their first premiership since 1964, and granted, there are so many elements that have helped with such an enormous turnaround.
But even if they don’t capture the holy grail this year, their shrewd recruiting over the past six to seven years has them in a good enough stead to consistently challenge and pose as a genuine premiership threat for at least the next few years.