There’s not a doubt in my mind that we’ve got the two best teams in the Grand Final this year, for both Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs have been constants in the top two of the ladder for most of the home and away season.
In a way, their line-ups on Preliminary Final are nearly identical. Whilst Melbourne have a ruckman that’s easily in the top two percent of big men across the competition, both sides have got quality midfield talent that possess the blend of grunt and finesse, they’ve got forward lines that know how to kick a winning score and defensive lines that are without question have them as the stingiest teams in the league to play against.
It seems apparent to me that a lot of the narrative is on Melbourne this year, and I think it’s fair enough. I wrote back a few weeks ago about how Melbourne built their list up to get where they are and it won’t be stressed enough times that Melbourne had fought their way back from such a burden both on-field and off during the late 2000s and early 2010s.
As we all enjoyed – or despaired, depending on your mood – the week off with no football played, one word kept relaying back into my head.
We could easily stretch back across the years of starved success for both teams, Melbourne’s search for the holy grail for the first time since 1964 has been well documented, as has the Bulldogs’ two premierships since they made the jump to the VFL in 1925.
But as I think about redemption, the more I think back to their respective standings across the past few years. For both had their respective rises and falls, which in turn, have led to both sides on their current rise once again.
It’s amazing to think that it was just over two years ago Melbourne were consigned to a bottom-two finish, winning just five matches for the season. The previous season, we all remember what happened, they managed to steel themselves into a preliminary final berth, only for West Coast to pull their pants down and send them back to Victoria devoid of any confidence and dignity.
The first half of that match felt so brutal, we could’ve easily inserted the Simpsons quote of the child screaming ‘stop, stop they’re already dead!’ it’s a gag that gets used a fair bit, but it doesn’t deviate from the fact that it was accurate – 10.9 to six behinds is a procession, no matter how you try to spin it.
The following season just had statistics that damned the team, for as good as they were in their contested game – second in centre clearances, fourth in contested possessions, fourth in tackles and fifth in generating forward 50 entries, it was their scoring that let them down hugely; 17th for both points for and goals scored, as well 17th for conceding points and last for shot efficiency and goal efficiency.
I can’t recall a team in all my life that made such a fall from grace in the manner that Melbourne did in 2019. There was much made about their large list of off-season surgeries to key players. Chief among these were the likes of Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca, Tom McDonald and Jack Viney, who missed portions of the 2019 pre-season.
Did complacency come into the equation as well? I thought I read from a few articles this year from Demons players that there needed to be a change to mindset to how they applied themselves to the craft of playing the game. A change in mindset that has arguably succeeded this year.
Thinking back on Melbourne’s 2019 campaign, I can recall certain players that I had massive problems within this time. None more so than Petracca. Everyone knows how talented the lad was as a junior. The year of 2014 was the first year I started writing about football and when it came to assessing the draft for publication – Petracca was the clear standout.
He was powerful, yet mobile and had the capacity to float forward to kick goals – some might say the total package as far as midfielders went. Yet somehow it felt for a few years after he slipped to Melbourne’s grasp with the second overall pick that he was inconsistent and underachieving. Maybe we just didn’t give him enough time to fully recover from an ACL tear? Too often, we expect players to pick up exactly where they left off – it is often more complicated than that.
One thing everyone can agree with about him is that his star talent has now come to fruition, as has many others within the side, and it’s this mindset that has helped Melbourne get to where they are right now.
He wasn’t the only one in 2019 that faltered. Viney was put on his ass both literally and figuratively as his output in the midfield was lowered sharply, McDonald went from over 50 goals in 2018 to 18 in 15 games and fell completely out of favour. Steven May came in with fitness issues and Jake Lever was returning from a ruptured ACL and the club was left with very few consistent contributors.
They were much better in a 2020 season that could’ve been easily written off by many, but let’s be honest, being improvers wouldn’t have been a hard thing considering the 2019 year they just had. They ultimately finished ninth, just missing out on the top eight by half a game.
It was an improved season. However, missing the finals again meant that more pressure was heaped on this year. For Simon Goodwin, this felt like make or break. I can remember distinctly saying on the A3 Footy Podcast to my colleagues and good friends at the start of this year that this Melbourne side is too good to be languishing in the middle of the year.
Having Melbourne miss the finals again this year may have spelt an unceremonious demise for Simon Goodwin. As harsh as that might have sounded, I’ve said it over the past few years now that a sad truth about football is more about results than anything else.
But full credit to everyone involved at Melbourne: Goodwin himself, the coaching staff, the players and those behind the scenes for the turnaround, because since 2018, I quietly believed that this team were much more capable than ninth, 10th or anywhere in that middle bracket of teams.
The way that they have played this year, there is a strong emphasis that nothing is a given in life. When they play, they don’t wait, rather they just take and prey on the opposition by a suffocating defence and pile on goals with a frenetic style of ball movement that only the best teams seem to master.
Now they’ve got the chance to go all the way to redeem themselves, to truly stamp themselves among a list of competition elites. The only team in the way of that now, is a team that did it all before five years ago.
Some might argue their opponents as the villains of this story. However, what has happened since 2016 has seen the Dogs come full circle to a redemption tale of their own. Regardless of what you may think about 2016, the fact lies that it was a special day for the club and its supporters everywhere.
I know that many would’ve complained in years gone by that they might not live to have seen the club achieve such a feat, for all the preliminary final shortcomings that were seen over the years started feeling like it was customary to call it a year in the penultimate week of the finals.
I did read the article from our own Marty Gleason over the weekend and there was something that he said was right. The 2016 year changed the perception of this club from the side that believed ‘near enough is good enough’ to a mentality that ‘we can shit it in’ – not just in a Preliminary Final, but on the grandest stage of them all.
However, the notion of the latter didn’t go according to plan in the years that followed. From premiers in 2016 to 10th a year later, making it the first club since Hawthorn in 2008 and ’09 to win a flag and then immediately miss finals altogether.
It’s the kind of place, as players, you don’t want to be into, but the talks emerged about the dreaded premiership hangover and there is not a doubt in my mind that a large core of the playing group were significantly down on impact in 2017.
None of which were more documented than that of Tom Liberatore, who became a champion footballer in two countries in the 2016 off-season, playing in Vietnam for five minutes. I’m sure it was intended to be harmless fun, but understandably the club internally wasn’t pleased with his ventures in Asia.
Without trying to go too hard on him, I’m inclined to believe that there is probably some correlation mixed in there with his 2017 season. There was one game I remember vividly where he had amassed just eight disposals in an entire match and was subsequently dropped for the next match. He would miss the next four matches before regaining his place for the rest of the year, despite constantly underperforming.
He wasn’t the only one in 2017 to dip. Jason Johannisen got tagged out of games too easily, Josh Dunkley only played seven games as injury-plagued his year, Jake Stringer had a number of internal issues, and Matthew Boyd couldn’t find his way back into the side after an All-Australian year in 2016, which eventually led to be his last season in the AFL.
Yet, these were just issues that were tip of the iceberg.
The Dogs would plummet to bottom six in 2018, registering only eight wins, three of them coming in the last month of the home and away season. But still, that was enough for a strong contingent of Bulldogs supporters asking the question of why they have slipped as far back as they did and the heat was on Beveridge to get them back into contention.
Even in 2019, whilst the Dogs made the top eight once again, it must be mentioned that they were 4-7 halfway through the year before coming home with a wet sail. Then the club got absolutely beaten down and then some by the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
Season 2020 felt somewhat indifferent, the Dogs were expected to do much but ended up with very little. But in all honesty, in a year where they only played in Melbourne maybe three or four times across 18 games, it probably wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Despite all that happened, I keep referring to what I’ve said before about the league as a results-based business. And a second-straight first-week exit, this time against St Kilda, who have great history of tormenting the red, white and blue when it comes to finals football.
That pressure continued to mount heading into this year. Internally, this challenge surely must’ve been raised to Luke Beveridge during the pre-season to establish themselves as a powerhouse once more.
I have demanded numerous times this year that the club must do more than get to the first week – an Elimination final win at the very least to get over the hump of consecutive week one exits.
What they’ve managed to do this season is accomplish the pre-season goals set by the experts and then some more. Getting to a Grand Final has been hard enough work as it is for the Bulldogs – only two Grand Finals in 70 years. Now they have achieved another two Grand Finals in five years alone.
It’s truly spectacular. To get to here from where they were in 2018 comes from a variety of factors.
It’s the shrewd recruiting of players such as Taylor Duryea, Alex Keath, Josh Schache, Stefan Martin, Adam Treloar, Mitch Hannan and Josh Bruce over the last three trade periods.
It’s the drafting of first-rounders that have seen Aaron Naughton, Bailey Smith and Cody Weightman come into this team and impact almost immediately and if you want to go that step further, Tim English’s first-round selection in 2016 is a move that is going to reap rewards sooner rather than later.
It’s this recruiting that has helped the Bulldogs go from a high-possession side that seemingly can’t do much on the scoreboard, to a team of lethal weapons that have managed two 100-point wins this year when they could’ve barely scraped one together for years.
However, most importantly, it’s this brigade of guys who’ve been here from the 2016 flag. Johannisen and Liberatore are renewed men. Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Lachie Hunter, Josh Dunkley among others have emerged as the men leading from the front and help drive the example of the work rate required on the field to get the job done.
There are others here that have helped get the club back to the big dance, but I can’t go without mentioning Easton Wood here – the premiership captain five years ago, continuing to help organise a backline that is in the top four of the competition for points against.
Come Saturday night, approximately at 10:30pm Melbourne time, one of these teams will fulfil their redemption story to the highest degree, whilst the other one will have to at least work another chapter in their return to glory.
Regardless of who you support and who gets up in this game, I think that this is a Grand final that has all the hallmarks for an all-time epic. Whoever comes out on top, will be the most deserving winner.