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2014: THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS

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2014: THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS by Whispering Jack

They say that in biblical times, the worst droughts lasted seven years. The droughts brought with them famine and pestilence and in some cases the desperation was so great that the people turned on each other and devoured their own. Fast forward to the present and I search for answers to the question: what did Melbourne do to deserve its current winning season drought and why, when the magical seven year period of disaster upon disaster came up at the end of 2013, did it not end there and then?

After all, according to American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "into each life some rain must fall". Surely, now was the time for at least a shower or two if not a deluge?

Melbourne had a new, highly paid and well credentialed coach in Paul Roos, had recruited well in the midfield with Bernie Vince, Dom Tyson and Daniel Cross coming on board and there was stability off the field with new blood at the top and a well-credentialled administrator in CEO Peter Jackson coming into his first full season at the helm.

But with a record of only four wins, a slightly improved percentage and a poor finish that saw the team lose its last ten games on end, it could hardly be said that the drought was broken in 2014. By any measure, the final result has to be looked upon as more than a little disappointing and even if we did see an end to multiple defeats of the magnitude of in excess of 100 points, we are kidding ourselves if we place our faith on an improvement from the low base of 2013 when the club was in such turmoil.

So what really happened to the drought breaking rain?

There were ominous signs already when, early in the new year, so many important players were off the track and involved in some form of rehab. The club seemed to be hit hardest in the big man department where the bulk of its rucks and key position forwards were forced into limited preseason preparation. We saw little during this vital period of ruckmen Mark Jamar and Max Gawn while the three projected key players making up the attack Mitch Clark, Chris Dawes and Jesse Hogan were all sidelined. Clark and Hogan were destined not to play any AFL games in 2014 (Hogan was restricted to one late season VFL game) while Dawes played his first game for the season in round 4. Defender Colin Garland also missed a large slab of the pre season and made a late start to the season proper. The adverse effect of this on the club was felt at the beginning of the year by the absence of so much tall timber from a team whose depth was stretched from the outset as well as at the end when those players ran out of steam due to the lack of proper preparation.

It wasn't all doom and gloom early with the Demons winning their opening NAB Challenge game against Richmond at Etihad Stadium on a night when the midfield performance was encouraging thanks to the newcomers led by Bernie Vince and a strong performance from Jack Trengove, now relieved of the mantle of captaincy. The next outing to Alice Springs against Geelong (a narrow loss) was also promising but Jesse Hogan's back injury put a dampener on things. The last of the practice matches was a thrashing by the reigning premier in the heat at Casey Fields with a much weakened side so little store was placed on that outcome.

A pall was cast over the season in March with the passing at the age of 47 of former coach Dean Bailey of cancer marking the death of another from the club who departed all too young. Bailey's passing came not long after it was revealed that another former coach in Neale Daniher was battling Motor Neurone Disease.

The season opened with a winnable game against St. Kilda. Melbourne dominated the early minutes before kicking itself out of the game with 10 consecutive behinds. It didn't help matters that a team so bereft of big men lost Jack Fitzpatrick and Tom McDonald (who had kept a tight rein on Nick Riewoldt early) by half time. Despite having less scoring shots, the Saints won by 17 points in the end and their skipper, left without a true match up, kicking a match winning three goals to be best on the ground.

The Demons had a bad day for their first home game against the Eagles who demolished them by 93 points. With no attack to speak of the hosts were limited to four goals making it a total of 10 in two weeks. The troubles continued into round three at Spotless Stadium when they stayed in touch with the Giants until early in the last quarter. So desperate was the team for marking forwards that James Frawley was moved into attack but all to no avail.

The Demons finally broke the ice in round 4 when they stunned the Blues by 23 points with Dawes starring in his return game. He kicked 2 goals as did Frawley, Bail and Watts. The team continued to show improvement but went down in consecutive games to Gold Coast and Sydney at the MCG. Much of the better form was being generated by a midfield in which Nathan Jones was relishing the captaincy and no longer having to play a lone hand with important contributions coming from from Bernie Vince, Dom Tyson and Daniel Cross. The loss of Jake Spencer to injury was offset by the return of Mark Jamar who was starting to show glimpses of his form from 2010. Jack Trengove was also missing from the side from this time on after being diagnosed with a fractured foot.

Meanwhile, it was announced that Mitch Clark, who had been unable to shake off the effects of soft tissue injuries in the aftermath of foot injury had retired due to depression while it was becoming less likely that Jesse Hogan's much awaited debut would come in 2014, such was the severity of his back troubles.

Despite all that, the Demons really clicked at Adelaide Oval when they upset the Crows to record a win in the City of Churches for the first time in a decade. Jack Viney was involved in a week of off field drama as he successfully fought a MRP suspension for a supposed high bump at the AFL Tribunal. On the following Saturday, the Dees fell at the last hurdle against the Bulldogs but returned to the winning list beating Richmond by 17 points.

Melbourne started slowly against Port Adelaide in Alice Springs after the week's bye but recovered to give their opponents a fright, taking the lead in the final term but lacked the composure to pull off an unexpected victory against one of the ladder leaders. Melbourne was becoming known for its ability to apply defensive pressure but still struggled to penetrate opposition defences and that was certainly the story of the traditional Queens Birthday game against Collingwood. In a low scoring game, the team was well in the game but a disallowed goal to Bernie Vince after Neville Jetta played on, followed by a goal given away by an errant kick in defence late in the third term let the Pies off the hook. The Demons had such a defensive mindset that after kicking their first goal within 30 seconds, they managed just two more for the entire day.

A week later, the boot was on the other foot when Melbourne wrested the initiative from Essendon late in the game. A brilliant chain of attacking football resulted in Christian Salem's match winner but it also left many wondering for the rest of the year, where the attacking flair had been hidden and where it went after that game. The excitement of the last gasp win over the Bombers who had tormented them early in the previous season should have signalled further steps forward but instead, the Demons went into a shell.

They lost convincingly against North Melbourne who broke their defensive spirit with six unanswered goals in the third term and then gave away a big lead to the Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium before regaining the lead late in the third term and losing with some poor defence in the last. Two thrashings followed at the hands of Fremantle and Geelong.

The team's second venture to the Adelaide Oval could easily have resulted in a boil over with a Jay Schulz goal two minutes before the final siren securing a three point win for the home side.

After the bye, Melbourne again threw away a winning opportunity, this time against the Brisbane Lions with some wayward kicking for goal in front of a home crowd. Leading by 14 points into the final term, the Demons were far too defensive and some poor skills allowed the visitors to storm home. By now, even Paul Roos was feeling the strain, somehow blaming the defeat on the tanking saga of 2009. Given that five years had elapsed and the team make up was substantially changed, he wasn't particularly convincing.

From there, the side lurched home without much passion or interest and, on the way it put in a disgraceful display at home to the Giants kicking 3.16.34 to 15.8.98. The writing was on the wall for a number of players and a large list of delistings at the end of the season was a foregone conclusion. In the final game against North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium, the shackles were off and the team managed to record its highest score for the season but still lost by five goals to bring its losing streak at the ground to 20 matches. To add insult to injury (Max Gawn's knee), Chris Dawes got himself needlessly suspended for a week to be served in round 1 of 2015.

Over at Casey, the Scorpions experienced their worst season since the start of their alignment with Melbourne, resulting in the appointment of new coach Justin Plapp and a recruiting campaign to improve the depth of their VFL listed playing group.

The entire football world was shocked on 2 October to learn of the passing of Demon great Robert Flower at the age of 59. To a generation of Melbourne fans after the Norm Smith era, Robbie was regarded as the Demons' only champion; one of the game's true gentlemen, a man loved by all and one who personified extreme loyalty to the club.

Off the field, stability was restored at board level under club president Glen Bartlett although some felt he was being a trifle ambitious when he stated he wanted the Melbourne Football Club to be like the New York Yankees. The club recorded a modest profit and located the 1948 premiership flag through EBay even though it didn't know it was missing.

Nathan Jones stamped himself as one of the club's greats with his third consecutive Keith "Bluey" Truscott Memorial Trophy, a worthy club champion and potentially outstanding club leader going forward. Newcomers Dom Tyson, Bernie Vince and Daniel Cross all finished in the top five in club voting with a mature and much improved Lynden Dunn finishing fourth after an excellent season in defence. Other improvers in defence were Neville Jetta and high flyer Jeremy Howe who adapted well when moved there early in the season.

There was still much work to do after a year in which the club finished next to last, failed to win a "home" game or reach 100 points all year and recorded its lowest average score since 1920. The club had no Rising Star nominees and not a single player in the 40 man All-Australian short list (having produced All Australian players only once in the duration of its now eight year drought).

The trade and draft period saw a number of changes to the primary and rookie lists with the majority of the departures being players whose performances were not considered up to scratch or whose careers were marred by injuries and a couple of retirements. James Frawley was the best of those to leave but his best was from four years ago and although he finished in the top ten in the club best and fairest this year, many were disappointed with his contribution as a leading player and most were happy for the club to receive the AFL's compensation for his loss to Hawthorn as a free agent.

We still can't be certain as to when the drought will be over but with most pundits expressing approval of the club's off season recruiting and most players getting through the end of year training period safely, we can look forward with a little more optimism at the silver lining behind the clouds that will hopefully bring us some drought breaking rain and a more positive outlook for 2015.

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