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BRIDESMAIDS AGAIN by Whispering Jack



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Historians of the future will have little difficulty in finding words to define the year 2020. “Covid-19”, “pandemic” and “plague” come readily to mind.

The Covid-19 pandemic dominated the year in every aspect of life and it certainly didn’t spare AFL football or the Melbourne Football Club. In the circumstances however, it didn’t treat it as badly as the Spanish Flu epidemic which raged a century earlier from February 1918, through 1919 and into 1920 when it finally petered out in April of that year. Melbourne was in wartime recess in 1918 but returned for a winless 1919 season and a wooden spoon.

One hundred years later, the competition had doubled in size to 18 teams and the Demons finished 17th with five wins. Hence, the improvement in pandemic-ravaged 2020 to 9th with nine wins in a shorter 17 game season would on the face of it, appear to be satisfying, but it truth, it left most supporters with hollow feelings. We were the bridesmaids again.

The year began with the expanded AFLW competition played under the much maligned conference system. The Demons won four games out of six to make the finals but, as in the past, they were routinely inaccurate in front of goal. They managed 1.8.14 in going down to the fledgling Saints (3.1.19) in Round 3 after early wins against North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, recovered for a couple of good wins but were on the ropes after a capitulation to the Blues  before the finals were called early. A stirring final quarter saw the Demons 4.5.29 home by three points in the Elimination Final against Giants 3.8.26 with Lily Mithen booting the winning goal with 30 seconds left on the clock. A few days before that game was played the world officially entered pandemic mode and AFLW season was called off with no premier declared. Stalwart Karen Paxman was the club’s best player in the truncated season.

The AFL men’s season was also called off on the following day without the announcement of a return but not before the Demons lost their opening round match to West Coast in Perth by 27 points in the final match of the round.

The opening game was played to an empty stadium under new rules to enable players to cope better with the pandemic including shorter quarters. The AFL left it until half an hour before the start of this game to let the public and the players know and Melbourne capitulated giving away four consecutive goals in a few minutes before the first break. 

Over the ensuing months, Australians were asked to abandon their normal lives to control the impact of the disease. There was no vaccine and no cure, and like 100 years earlier, the people relied on quarantine, supportive medical care and the goodwill of the community.

As the months passed, plans were made for the resumption of the season. The AFL factored in the possibility of further restrictions and while the eventual restart happened in mid-June, the worsening situation in Victoria meant that clubs were shipped around to interstate hubs, the fixture was changed randomly and willy-nilly. The idea of the football frenzy with daily/nightly games to compact rounds was introduced to ensure that the season could proceed with the minimum of disruption.

However, the Melbourne Football Club was one of two clubs that simply couldn’t avoid disruption and it probably paid a very high price for that eventuality. After destroying the Blues in the first half of the return game and then barely managing to hold on to win by a point, the Demons’ third game was scuppered when Bomber Connor McKenna returned the only positive test of the season.

Much later, that game was declared a bye with the encounter rescheduled to the end of the season, meaning that both clubs were deprived of a vital rest during the frenetic second half of the season. Who knows whether the benefit of such a break which was available to all other clubs might have helped the club across the line in those vital games lost in Cairns to Sydney and Fremantle?

The club’s season was already on the line when it played its first game for the year on the MCG against Geelong. A sluggish start proved costly for the team which took time to get going and, in the end, a narrowly missed shot at goal by recruit Adam Tomlinson in the last 40 seconds was costly. They performed well against the Tigers but lacked the class to take advantage of opportunities to keep in touch and, as the clubs evacuated Victoria, the possibility of making finals was looking remote. 

With Melbourne moving up to its first hub home in Sydney, a minor revival was under way. The Demons disposed of Gold Coast and Hawthorn but then faced the top two clubs in Brisbane and Port Adelaide within four days playing out of their new Queensland hub. They nearly stole the match against the Lions at Metricon Stadium but collapsed in a heap to the Power at the Gabba drawing the ire of the club’s Chairman, Glen Bartlett.

The tongue lashing had the desired effect with three resounding victories on the trot against Adelaide, North Melbourne and Collingwood that saw the club enter into finals contention. The Demons were raging favourites against the Western Bulldogs but a poor third quarter saw them tumbling to defeat. 

Melbourne was becoming a team of nomads and their next stint saw the team sneak home by two points in Alice Springs against St Kilda. With four games left of which three were against teams that were out of contention for the finals and the other fading fast, it seemed only a formality that Melbourne would play in the finals. However, there was a catch.

The team had to dash across the continent and play two games in four days up in Cairns, the first against Sydney in trying conditions after a long trek out of their hub on the Sunshine Coast. Disaster followed disaster four days later against Fremantle and, despite victories over the Giants and Bombers, a ninth placed finish two points behind Collingwood was the club’s epitaph for 2020.

Christian Petracca had a superb season and took third place honours in the Brownlow Medal along with his first Keith “Bluey” Truscott Memorial Trophy. Clayton Oliver was once again imposing as a midfielder although hampered by problem shoulders that required post season surgery. Steven May was outstanding in defence while skipper Max Gawn shrugged off some knee issues and close opposition contact to dominate the club’s ruck. Jack Viney and Christian Salem also stood out during the year while the consistent Ed Langdon was the club’s best recruit and gave great drive from a wing. 

First year players Luke Jackson, Kysaiah Pickett and Trent Rivers all showed great promise for the future but the experiment with Harley Bennell ended in disappointment after some glimpses of excitement for a reprise of the early days of his career. To make the finals, the club needed more from Tom McDonald and Jake Melksham  who were down on their previous standards and it’s to be hoped that 2021 will see them back to their best.

What to make of the coach’s year given the challenges of managing a team of nomads and life in the hubs with no second tier competition to gauge his reserve players? We could point to a number of miscalculations with regard to player positions (eg James Harms in defence) and team selections both early in the season and during the period of the cross continent games that ended in the twin debacles in Cairns. All in all however, Simon Goodwin managed a difficult task reasonably well and without too much luck. The fact remains that he will inevitably start 2021 under the pump! 

The club goes into 2021 with a key on field recruit in full forward Ben Brown, some interesting young recruits, a couple of significant coaching inclusions in premiership coach Mark Williams and former star Adem Yze and high hopes of rising further up the ladder.

The club posted a loss of $2.9m thanks mainly to the effect of the pandemic but thanks to some fancy accounting and asset revaluations, we’re not supposed to feel too bad about the result. Like the feeling of always being the bridesmaids and finishing ninth on the ladder again. 

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