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THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS by Whispering Jack

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Melbourne atoned for the heartbreak of its frustrating finish to the 2017 season by, at long last, making the finals and then disposed of two highly credentialed and experienced teams in Geelong and Hawthorn before it capitulated meekly to eventual premier West Coast in the Preliminary Final in Perth.

The club’s progression has been forward and upward since it finished 2013 with two wins and appointed Paul Roos as coach. The number has increased to four, seven, 10, 12, and now 14 games. The Demons made the finals for the first time in a dozen years and are now tracking for their first premiership in five and a half decades.
 
In the women’s game, the club’s second season of AFLW competition was dogged throughout by inaccuracy in front of goal causing it to again just miss out on grand final honours finishing third after losing 4.7.31 to 5.3.33 to rivals and eventual premiers, the Western Bulldogs in the final round. The Demons were well led by Daisy Pearce and had a star player in  Karen Paxman. They will miss their skipper Pearce, who will be out of the forthcoming season on maternity leave - a first for the womens competition.

The Demons started their men’s campaign with a win in their section of the novelty AFLX competition, then won their two JLT  Community Series games against North Melbourne in Hobart and St Kilda at Casey Fields, the latter in unconvincing fashion after building a big lead early. 

The opening round AFL match against Geelong resulted in a disappointing loss after a missed shot from Max Gawn in the final thirty seconds ceded a 3 point loss. The club won its next two matches, again unconvincingly although their round 3 win against North Melbourne broke a long run of defeats going back over more than a decade. A poor game against Hawthorn and a final term collapse on Anzac Day Eve against the Tigers had Melbourne down with a 2 - 3 record. 

The revival began against Essendon and continued over the ensuing weeks as the Demons stretched their winning run to six games culminating with big wins against Carlton and Adelaide at Alice Springs and a solid victory over the Bulldogs. At the halfway mark of the season they were challenging for a top four spot on 8 wins and 3 defeats. The improvement had come from the return of injured pair Tom McDonald and Angus Brayshaw, the dominance of Max Gawn in the ruck and the strong form of Clayton Oliver and the young midfield. Jesse Hogan was consistently in the goals.

Jake Lever who had taken a while to get his bearings but was solid during the six game winning spree sustained an ACL injury in round 11 and it took a while for the defence to recover from his loss, regroup and consolidate. In the interim, the experimentation in this area was partly the reason for a poor month that saw a  three-game losing streak including a disappointing loss to lowly St. Kilda. Earlier defeats to Collingwood on Queens Birthday and away to Port Adelaide might have been expected but the  loss to the Saints hit hard and possibly cost the team the coveted double chance. 

Melbourne might have lost its star recruit, Lever, in midseason but the club did unearth two young players in Bailey Fritsch and Charlie Spargo who were both drafted in the 30s and established themselves as regulars for much of the year although they understandably ran out of steam a little at the end of the season.

The Demons regrouped after the slump. The back line steadied when Sam Frost returned to help the improving Oscar McDonald in a key defensive role but, after returning to the winning list against the Dockers in Darwin and the Bulldogs at the MCG, they suffered some disappointing losses involving an after-the-siren goal to Zach Tuohy in the return game against Geelong and a home upset against   Sydney after some shocking inaccuracy in the first quarter and a half kept the Swans in the game. The injuries were mounting and the loss of Hogan at that point in time appeared devastating to a team that had yet to record a win against a top eight side.

All that changed dramatically over the next four games starting with the Eagles in Perth and followed with a big win over the Giants that saw Melbourne finish in fifth place with a percentage of 131%. Then followed the emotion of a return to finals football and sound victories against seasoned playoff teams in Geelong and Hawthorn in front of crowds that gave majority support to the perennial underdog buoyed by the return from injury of co-skipper Jack Viney and the emergence at last of young key forward Sam Weideman who more than amply filled Hogan’s shoes. 

Not for the first time in the modern history of the club, the wall was hit out west. The Demons looked spent in the early moments of their preliminary final in Perth against West Coast and much like last year’s lapse at the final hurdle against Collingwood, this one game is likely to inhabit the players’ collective memory over the summer and into the new season.

Many players excelled and grew in 2018 and the depth of the club revealed itself when injuries struck. Max Gawn won the ‘Bluey’ Truscott’ medal and led an emerging midfield including the co-skippers Nathan Jones and Viney, a resurgent Angus Brayshaw (3rd in the Brownlow), Christian Petracca and Christian Salem and the incredibly improved James Harmes who stepped up several levels in the course of a season. The forward line was the best in the competition as many avenues were opened up to goals, breaking down only in that last final. The disappointment of that performance will surely act as a spur for even further improvement in 2019.

That improvement is expected to come from a defence bolstered by the recruitment of former Gold Coast skipper Steven May and the expected return of Jake Lever in the first month or so of the season. They join some solid performers in defence including Michael Hibberd and the indefatigable Neville Jetta - a star both on and off the field.

The Demons also picked up a handy defender from the Suns in Kade Kolodjashnij and a big ruck back up for All-Australian ruckman Gawn in Braydon Preuss. The club drafted a bevy of youngsters who will all take time to develop at Casey.

Melbourne farewelled Jesse Hogan, Dom Tyson and Dean Kent to other clubs via trades and Tom Bugg found a new home through the draft. Former club champion Bernie Vince retired late in the season after a meritorious 100 game career at his second club. Vince will not be entirely lost to the Demons as he has returned to the club in a part-time leadership and ambassadorial role for 2019. 

The loss that will hurt deeply is that of retiring CEO Peter Jackson who has overseen the six year progression from a team that won only two games in 2013 to become a preliminary finalist in 2018. Gary Pert has stepped into the breach to finish the task of leading the club to the promised land and a premiership.

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