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2013: THE YEAR THAT WAS by Whispering Jack

2 posts in this topic

Most of us heaved a sigh of relief late last year when 21st December came and went and nothing happened. The end of the world as predicted in the ancient Mayan calendar failed to materialise and life went on as usual in the aftermath, although for the Melbourne Football Club there was no respite as the clock ticked on into 2013.

The troubled times continued both on and off the field for the Demons, the situation deteriorating badly when the real football matches began at which time they plunged headlong into their season of darkness

The so called "tanking enquiry" ended in February with a negotiated outcome that had farce written all over it. After a seven month process in which 58 current and former players, coaches, administrators and officials were interviewed, the AFL found:

■ There been no directive from the Melbourne Football Club board or executive management that the team should deliberately lose matches in any game during the 2009 season;

■ The club's coaches and players did not set out to deliberately lose any matches during the 2009 season;

■ Former football operations manager Chris Connolly had made comments during a football department meeting concerning pre-game planning that were "prejudicial to the interests of the AFL";

■ Former coach Bailey, in regard to Connolly's comments, had also acted in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the AFL.

Connolly was banned from football for 11 months, Bailey (now at Adelaide) suspended from coaching for 16 rounds and by virtue of being their employer, Melbourne was fined $500,000.00.

President Don McLardy described it as "the price we had to pay" meaning that although both Melbourne and the AFL had legal opinion that a "tanking" case could not be sustained against the club, the club and the individuals concerned accepted the situation because the cost of defending themselves in court for doing what AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou had, often in the past given his approval and was common practice among several clubs (but never subjected to exhaustive investigation) would have been crippling.

There was a victim from the AFL side but it was not Demetriou. Adrian Anderson who instigated the investigation and was in charge of integrity at the AFL had already lost his job by the time the result was announced.

Meanwhile, Demetriou barely had time to blush at the outcome because he was already knee deep dealing with a graver issue - the peptides fiasco that continues to engulf two football codes; one of a number of scandals likely to see him gracefully depart the scene in the short to medium term.

The Essendon Football Club's supplements programme, overseen by sports scientist Stephen Dank, involving injecting players who had signed "waiver agreements" with supposedly unknown substances took the main focus from an AFL perspective.

However, the Demons were also implicated by revelations in April on the ABC's 7.30 Report of a series of text messages between Dank and Melbourne's club doctor Dan Bates that suggested Dank had given him advice about the treatment of players. The Demons eventually suspended the doctor who no longer works for the club. The immediate effect was that the club administration, already under pressure because of the team's early season performance, came under more fire from the AFL which was said to be less concerned about what may prove "legitimate substances" being administered to players than about being allegedly misled by the Demons. The club's explanation was that it investigated the matter from its side and found Bate had acted alone in dealing with Dank. Those dealings and the possible use by Melbourne players of prohibited substances remains the subject of ASADA's ongoing investigation.

By this time, the club's wheels were well and truly off and the issues confronting the club, it's Board and CEO both on and off the field were taking their toll.

The team had opened its 2013 campaign with a creditable performance against North Melbourne going down narrowly in the first of the NAB Cup double headers at Etihad Stadium before tiring in the steamy heat and losing to Richmond in the second. A skeleton side made up mainly of younger players had a narrow win against Port Adelaide at Renmark and things even looked somewhat promising until a couple of dismal losses in NAB Cup Challenge matches to St. Kilda and Gold Coast dented the confidence of the playing group. Both games were played in conditions of intense heat and humidity but Port Adelaide which had a shocking record at the MCG awaited the club in round 1. Hopes of a good start remained high.

Nobody, let alone the coach saw what was coming. It took until the 17 minute 38 second mark of the first term for a Demon score - a goal to Mitch Clark - but the visitors held a comfortable 29-point lead at half time. Melbourne managed a single goal after the main break and capitulated by 79 points. They weren't to know that their conquerors would make the finals and beat Collingwood at the same ground in the second week of September, but it was as bad a start as anything in recent experience including those floggings in the early days of the Bailey regime.

Worse was to come the following Saturday night when Essendon decimated a heartless Melbourne team that had no run and put in little effort. The final scoreboard painted a picture of the carnage at 28.16.184 to 5.6.36 and it was every bit as bad as 186. The fans heckled and booed their own players and the sky fell in.

Neeld had been intimately involved in developing the hard press that contributed to Collingwood's premiership success in 2010 but at Melbourne he lacked players like Swan, Pendlebury, Thomas, Sidebottom and Beames who made that all possible. To the contrary, the leadership in place when he arrived was not of a quality necessary to support the task; they did not take kindly to his methods and he failed to garner their unqualified support. Instead, he turned to a young leadership that was barely ready for what turned out an intolerably heavy burden.

That night at the MCG against Essendon was the breaking point. Neeld's failures exposed, his career as coach was effectively over although it would be another 9 rounds before he would face the guillotine for the actual beheading.

The first victim of the club's deteriorating situation was CEO Cameron Schwab who was forced to take responsibility for what was happening both on and off the field and, as one does in these circumstances, he resigned.

The miserable onfield performance was playing havoc with financial projections. A long-hoped-for major sponsorship with a Chinese airline was put on the scrapheap a week earlier and a commercially disadvantageous fixture combined with pathetic on field performance spelled financial disaster. McLardy and Schwab met on the Tuesday morning and fronted a media conference at the MCG in late afternoon. Vice-president Peter Spargo was appointed acting interim chief executive officer but he soon made way for an appointee who bore the AFL's imprimatur - former Essendon CEO Peter Jackson who officially took over on mayday, an entirely appropriate date for the changing of the guard.

Board members started falling off their perches and resignations followed until McLardy himself, having with Jackson overseen an assistance package from the AFL, stepped down on 14 June to be replaced by Spargo this time as interim president. High profile lawyer Glenn Bartlett who joined the Board a month later was elevated to the role of President on 16 August.

The changes at the top had little effect on the team's performance which remained insipid. An encouraging first half against West Coast in round 3 was offset by another bad fade out that turned a half time deficit of 10 points into a 95-point rout at the end. Incredibly, a week later, a club record 12 goal final term saw off the Greater Western Sydney youngsters but the club lost forward Mitch Clark for the rest of the year. The irony for the hapless Neeld was that he had recruited Chris Dawes to act in tandem as the twin towers in the forward line. Dawes was still injured when Clark fell to his injury and they have yet to play together in the same team.

The final quarter heroics against the Giants were all too short lived. A promising performance (by previous standards that is what one calls a 28-point defeat at the Gabba) was followed by more embarrassment and bloodletting with two ten goal beltings at the hands of Carlton and Gold Coast, a passable effort against Richmond and decimation at the hands of Fremantle, Hawthorn and Collingwood. Those last three efforts that saw beatings averaging in the order of 15 goals were more than enough. Neeld was delivered to the execution which took place neatly in the middle of the season and he was replaced by his former mentor Neil Craig.

The wash up from Neeld's term is that he proved in the end to be a poor choice. His brief was to reform an inconsistent, "bruise-free" combination that was below the required fitness levels of the top sides in the competition. His task was initially made more difficult by the well documented events that afflicted both the club and he in his first year and he struggled to handle the difficult tasks that faced him throughout his term. He was far too inflexible with a game plan that relied on an innocuous midfield, one which depended far too much on one player. Neeld's match day coaching performance was generally below par and, in the end, he lost the confidence of an already brittle playing group.

An older and wiser coach might have better been able to deal with division within the ranks, a dysfunctional leadership and a soft culture but there was a scarcity of quality experienced men available for the task at the time he was appointed.

Hindsight is wonderful but given the situation at Melbourne in the post 186 landscape, one might argue that most of the other coaches available at the time of his appointment (experienced or not) would also have failed in the same circumstances.

On the credit side, while Neeld failed to see out the three year programme established with fitness guru David Misson to develop a team with a harder edge, the club will benefit in from an improved list brought about by the necessity of ringing in change after a decade of poor recruiting, list management and player development and with his work in improving player fitness levels and bringing about a more professional training regime.

Craig immediately set about to project a different style to that of his predecessor and he enjoyed a brief honeymoon period. His debut as coach resulted in a 35-point loss to the Saints who jumped to a big early lead but were contained for most of the remaining three quarters. A major improvement was seen for three and a half quarters the following week at the MCG against the Western Bulldogs. At the 15 minute mark of the final term, a reinvigorated Melbourne led by 44 points. Seven unanswered goals to the visitors saw the Dees limp home with by 3 points. The taste of victory was sweet but there was to be no magical revival, only nine consecutive losses to end a season of horror.

Many of those defeats were dismal like the 122-point loss at Etihad Stadium to North Melbourne and the even more humiliating 37-point defeat at Skoda Stadium to concede the Giants' only win for the season.

There was the odd face saving performance here and there but in the final analysis, Craig's less severe form of coaching made little difference. Melbourne finished in 17th place with two wins and a percentage of 54.07.

After seven years in the wilderness, the AFL considered this insufficient to warrant special draft assistance. In a betrayal of its independent charter, the AFL bowed to the pressure of clubs who had an interest in protecting their own draft positions.

I have yet to mention the players. Undeniably, many tried hard but just as many were not up to the task or not fit enough to have a great effect on the club's season. The major exception was Nathan Jones who, for the second year deserved to take home the Bluey Truscott Trophy. He had a brief stint as captain and is a strong candidate to take the role on a permanent basis in 2014 along with Jack Grimes.

Both Grimes and co-skipper Jack Trengove suffered long term injuries at different times during the season and performed below par. Trengove withdrew from the captaincy at the end of the year.

Colin Garland also stepped up in 2013 and showed excellent leadership potential in a defence that was forever under pressure.

Three mature age players in Dean Terlich, Matt Jones and Mitch Clisby all proved valuable recruits while Jack Viney underlined his potential with some strong performances during the year. Some of the older heads at the club would have done well to follow his example of toughness and courage.

Then there was Jesse Hogan, the 18 year old best and fairest winner at the Casey Scorpions, a very special key position prospect recruited a year ago but due to start his AFL career in 2014.

Off the field Jackson scored a coup in snaring as major sponsor, Australia's largest motoring group, AHG which operate 103 motor vehicle dealerships across 4 Australian states and New Zealand. The deal was said to be worth $6 million over three years.

That achievement paled next to the appointment in September of Paul Roos as senior coach for a term of at least two years. The ascension of Roos was seen as a beginning of the spring of hope; he went straight to work with new recruiter Jason Taylor picking up five midfielders in the trade and free agency period including Dom Tyson, Bernie Vince and Daniel Cross and collecting more young talent in the drafts. Together with the emerging Hogan and the changing of the coaching guard, there is a new optimism sweeping through the club as 2013 comes to a close.

There are still many concerns for supporters of the club which is seen by many as an adjunct of the AFL. In the long term, Melbourne needs to regain its independence and to stand once again on its own two feet. And while Roos has diligently gone about the task of restructuring the list from the midfield up, there is the question of the effect of long term onfield failure on the club's stability and financial viability.

Does the club have the time to restore the team to competitiveness and strength on the field to enable it to sustain a place in the competition?

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Superb read Jack, cheers.

Now bring on midnight and the dawn of a new era.

Happy new year to all Demonlanders, raise a glass to 2014...the year the MFC began its climb back to being a powerhouse of the competition

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