Dee-constructing the issues at Melbourne

Has an AFL team that has not delivered anything since before colour was added to television ever talked themselves up so unjustifiably as Melbourne have over the past 12 months?

Sunday’s three point loss to the well-fancied Cats at the MCG featured numerous indicators that this is a team believing its own hype, belying its own mental fragilities and a club-wide philosophy that appears to stretch no further than “near enough is good enough”.

Much has been made of the decision made by numerous Melbourne listed players to lodge an official complaint over safety concerns surrounding the proposed pre-season camp set up by Melbourne coach, Simon Goodwin, his assistant Brendan McCartney and Football Operations Manager, Josh Mahoney. Little has been made about the attempt to sway this perception in the media in the build up to Round 1 by Melbourne’s internal communications department.

Every News Ltd publication in the country wore Max Gawn on its back page on the 17th of March, proudly declaring that after 8 seasons as an elite footballer, he’d given up cigarettes, and decided to go booze free the entire pre-season, subsequently shedding 8kg for his efforts. Without wanting to disparage the actual effort taken to shed 8kg and stay off the beers for six months, the mentality behind this statement has to be brought into question. Again, the “near enough is good enough” mindset manifests with Gawn stating that he’s now doing the base requirements expected of someone of his standing in the competition. Not setting new standards for his peers, or raising the bar for his rivals, but happy just to now be meeting expectations.

It was the first thing that popped into my head watching him take a tremendous pack mark 20 metres out to win the game for Melbourne in the dying seconds of yesterday’s game (a fantastic pass from Cam Pedersen warrants a mention here too). The resulting nonchalance in his approach to lining up for goal, not seeming to be too concerned with the wind factor, or whether the ensuing siren would sound simultaneously with his run-in, Gawn casually walked in, placed it on his boot and missed by a half metre, as if he were kicking a thank-you football into the Melbourne faithful post-game.

A similar approach taken by Christian Petracca, having two minutes earlier been given a fortunate shot on goal resulting from a dubious decision. The same Petracca who was to infuriate then-coach Paul Roos with his delayed start to his career stemming from a broken toe suffered playing basketball. The same Petracca who spent the majority of his off-season partying with childhood friend, and NBA superstar Ben Simmons. Petracca’s instinctive snap that was lucky to sneak in for a behind presented a player lacking the ability to act appropriately during the big moments of a game. His pre-season presented an inability to work on that.

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Following Gawn’s article on his pre-season revelations, we were treated to Angus Brayshaw’s admission that the pain suffered from impacted wisdom teeth being tolerated through Melbourne’s pre-season training was the worst that he’d ever experienced in his life. The implication of the article being that little communication was made between Brayshaw and the Melbourne coaching staff as to his situation, which in the micro-context can be excused as a young player, already with numerous setbacks in his career to date, wanting to push through and get the best pre-season he can. However, in a larger context, Angus Brayshaw is arguably one concussion away from his career being over; a former #3 draft pick, the investment by Melbourne in his welfare should be paramount. A clear line of dialogue between player and club should exist to ensure the club are across his discomfort. It’s an issue that has already plagued the club with the failed pre-season training camp with several younger players feeling unable to speak out or address their concerns with the coaching staff appropriately.

The recruitment of three-time Hawthorn premiership player, Jordan Lewis has proven a contentious one to date with Melbourne fans. Seen, optimistically, as being able to provide the club with the leadership and knowledge of what it takes to not just be successful on-field but create a successful off-field culture, Lewis has generally proven to be the antithesis of this. His 50m penalty for abusive language toward the on-field umpire (“Learn how to cop a fu**ing spray” captured on the live feed directed towards the umpire in question.) and resulting goal for Geelong at a crucial stage of the game was telling, and created a Melbourne supporter dialogue on social media surrounding the notion that Jordan Lewis is playing for Jordan Lewis, with no interest in investing in what Melbourne are trying to accomplish here.

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Whilst Lewis’ three match suspension for his behind the play hit on Carlton’s Patrick Cripps in 2017 (subsequently fracturing Cripps’ jaw) was lauded by these same supporters as being a line-in-the-sand moment that Melbourne, long the whipping boy of the competition, would not tolerate being pushed around, and would now look to be the aggressor.

This incident subsequently proved to be a catalyst for more undisciplined acts that bordered on cowardly throughout the year for Melbourne, as they became far and away the owner of the worst tribunal record of any team in the competition in 2017. Bernie Vince, Jesse Hogan, Christian Salem and of course the infamous incident that saw Tomas Bugg suspended for six weeks for belting Swan, Callum Mills off the ball, all saw suspensions at crucial stages in the season.

A trademark of Melbourne’s aggression would be to see players under a high ball crashed into from behind after taking a mark, sling tackles well after the ball was declared dead, and a higher rate of niggles and jumper punches at stoppages than you would see from other AFL sides. What wasn’t apparent was the acts of courage that great teams are built on – running back with the flight of the ball, gut running, providing shepherds for teammates, taking a hit when it was their time to go. These crucial elements were non-existent on Sunday also, and all things considered, you would argue that this side is the most unnecessarily thuggish since the dying days of the Sheedy era at Essendon. It is delusional to suggest that this is the tough way to play the game, yet it continues week in and week out to suggest it is anything but deliberate.

Much has been made of the development of culture at Melbourne’s affiliate side, the Casey Demons. Something I have largely witnessed first-hand over the past two seasons. Huge credit must be given to Justin Plapp and Brett Allison for the way they have turned a huge corner from a scenario that saw numerous Melbourne players unwilling to compete in the VFL, or turn up in an acceptable state, to a Grand Final in 2016, and numerous players from this list develop to become AFL listed players – Bayley Fritsch, making his debut yesterday the obvious example of this.

In some respects, it has to be wondered if Melbourne are a victim of their own success here, in that players have been able to go back down to this level, take advantage of such a strong VFL side, and coast on their talents without wanting to put in the hard work to develop further. Unbeatable at Casey Fields at their best, the statistician and the water boy would have churned out 30 disposal games in some of these sides.

Quite often throughout these dominant VFL seasons, a Melbourne listed player would show individual dominance out in the cold, windy conditions at Casey without leaving second gear, only to find themselves back out there a fortnight later, having failed to translate that into AFL level.

The obvious comparison from here is Geelong’s player-led revival in 2007 that took ownership of similar cultural issues, on-field selfishness and preference of being liked over respected, and went onto become an all-time dynasty, rivalled by few throughout the history of the game. Does Melbourne have this type of leadership, or the age profile to pull it off? Its leaders in Nathan Jones, Bernie Vince, Jordan Lewis and Jack Viney, are all on the wrong side of 30 (with the exception of Viney, himself struggling with ongoing foot injuries and currently sidelined) and those listed are often in the worst offenders for the undisciplined acts marring this side.

Is there a player from the next age bracket down capable of pushing through the cultural switch required for this side that is obviously talented enough to win a flag? The one that seemed the most capable, was continually bullied by the rest of the playing list, referred to as “Poofter Boy” and sent packing to Greater Western Sydney on a multi-million-dollar contract. What Melbourne would do for the likes of Tom Scully to be able to show the hard gut-running required to someone like Jayden Hunt, who appears content to be nothing more than a cult figure of the club and the league alike. 

Melbourne’s talk of the talk in spite of a walk that would put Stephen Hawking to shame is consistent with many other clubs in similar positions – Carlton of the early 2010’s, St Kilda of the late 90’s immediately come to mind. Individual achievements outweigh the moderate to meagre team achievements, and are left with merely a legacy of finger pointing of who could have done more.

I write this hesitant in the knowledge that Melbourne have the capacity and overwhelming talent to prove me wrong, but I’m calling their season done as of now. In fact, it was done the minute the pre-season camp was cancelled. They will implode this season in a big way, and it won’t be pretty.

 

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