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THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS: 2023


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When the dust settled on 2023, the Melbourne Football Club coach Simon Goodwin lamented that the club knew it needed to score more to land a second premiership in the current era. He opined that an average of one more goal per game would have had his charges in football’s stratosphere. 

Goodwin was right and, based on his team’s scoring opportunities, that extra goal (and more) was well within its grasp if only they had better converted their shots at goal. Take the side’s last six defeats (mainly in the second half of the season) for season 2023:-

Rd 11 - Fremantle 12.7.79 defeated Melbourne  10.12.72
Rd 15 - Geelong 11.12.78 defeated Melbourne 8.15.63
Rd 16 - GWS 7.5.47 defeated Melbourne 5.15.45
Rd 22 - Carlton 9.6.60 defeated Melbourne 8.8.56
Qualifying Final - Collingwood 9.6.60 defeated Melbourne 7.11.53
Semi Final Carlton 11.7.73 defeated Melbourne  9.17.71

Incredibly, the Demons amassed 125 scoring shots to 102 in those six losses to net a total score of 47.78.360 against 59.43.397. 

The figures don’t lie - given a touch more accuracy in front of goal and you’re looking at a premiership but instead, for the second year in a row, it was out of the finals in straight sets. In 2023, the team was by far fitter in body than the one that limped out of 2022. It’s biggest loss was an outlier by 27 points in the Gather Round vs Essendon in Adelaide and the rest were all close losses, many by less than a goal. 

As a measure of how close Melbourne was to a possible flag in terms of the team’s strength was that in its two matches against the premiers it scored a total of to 15.29.119 to 18.14.122. Let that sink in!

Things were different for much of the first half of the season. The Demons were in scintillating form during their two practice/simulation matches with the combination of Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy looking a treat as they dominated in the ruck as well as scoring goals when rested. The club appeared to be in good shape all over the ground as the season approached. The midfield led by Jack Viney, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver was in electrifying form!

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The optimism seemed vindicated in Round 1 with a massive 50-point thumping of the Western Bulldogs at the MCG. Ben Brown and Kysaiah Pickett booted four goals apiece but the celebrations were marred by the latter’s two week suspension over his high bump on Bailey Smith. Pickett went on to score 37 goals for the season but was rarely in that electric form displayed in the opening round. Brown scored another four in the team’s loss to Brisbane in the following round but injuries cut him down to a total of only seven games and three more goals for the season. 

Things went awry in Brisbane when skipper Gawn went down early with what at first appeared to be a season threatening knee injury. His stunned teammates looked dazed in the moments after their leader left the field and it was only after a long delay later in the game, occasioned by the failure of the Gabba lights, that they were stung into action; a flurry of goals left them 11 points away from what would have been a remarkable victory. 

Gawn’s injury was not as severe as first thought and was well covered by Grundy over most of the following rounds of his absence with one glaring exception in that Gather Round game in the wet at Adelaide against the Bombers when defender Steven May was also sorely missed.

Aside from that defeat, the team coasted through most of the first half of the season, putting away some of the competition’s lesser lights until it returned to Adelaide in Round 10 to play in the wet again, this time as Naarm in the Indigenous Round against Port Adelaide. Disaster struck.

The home team controlled the first half but the midfield trio of Oliver, Petracca and Viney restored life and clearance dominance to the team which surged with seven goals from a game-high deficit of 25 points to a 17 point lead late in the third quarter. Lachie Hunter was involved in a controversial report which resulted in an after the siren goal to Port which overcame the Demons by four points in the driving rain. It was later revealed that Oliver had badly damaged his hamstring in the final term, possibly a factor in this loss and certainly, a major blow for the team’s 2023 campaign as his absence lingered over the following months interspersed with hospital visits for foot blisters and other ailments as he struggled to regain fitness. 

The cloud of darkness hovered over him for the remainder of the year and while he did well on his comeback late in the season to be among Melbourne’s best in the finals, it wasn’t the same old Clarry. Suddenly, coach Goodwin was confronted with a series of dilemmas which were spread through the middle and into the run towards the finals.

In the first instance, he did well to cover the absence of his champion midfielder. He was fortunate to have Christian Petracca, already in starring form and Jack Viney stepped up to the plate in stunning fashion. The defence was well led by key position stars Steven May and Jake Lever and buttressed by Angus Brayshaw and novice Judd McVee who comfortably took over and remained in the role of a medium defender in the temporary absence of Christian Salem. 

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The forward line however, was just managing although it had found a player of the future in young key forward Jacob van Rooyen. Kade Chandler finally began to make an impact and was kicking goals and Alex Neal-Bullen was quietly and continuously adding energy and grunt to the prime endeavour of keeping the ball in the forward line through the application of pressure.

Despite the looming problems with scoring goals, Melbourne brought down the rampant eventual premiers Collingwood in the Kings Birthday match, ending their long run of victories stretching back to Round 4. The result was close but it was comprehensive. 

After Bayley Fritsch went down with a foot injury in the game against GWS in Alice Springs, Goodwin gave Jake Melksham the opportunity to not just revive his career but also, to turn himself into an important fixture in the forward line. Petracca spent more minutes up forward and Brayshaw moved into the middle for cover. Tom Sparrow was given more responsibility in the midfield and Trent Rivers and Kysaiah Pickett went there at times as well. 

Some important victories were to follow against potential finals opponents in St Kilda and Brisbane. The Gawn/Grundy connection was sagging and the coach took the difficult decision to omit the dual All-Australian ruckman recruited from Collingwood and leave the ruckwork mainly to his skipper who was starting to put in some Herculean solo efforts. Goodwin also cemented the move of Harry Petty from defence to attack. 

With the finals a little over a month away, the dream was seemingly about to come true for Demon fans as the team found its forward connection and demolished the Tigers on a Sunday at the MCG in late July. The strong marking Petty kicked six goals from his six shots at goal, while Melksham and van Rooyen booted four goals each without a miss. That’s 14 goals straight from a team that had a reputation of failing to hit the proverbial barn door. It appeared that things were looking up.

But … (why is there always a “but”)

A week later, Goodwin’s forward line plans were thrown into disarray when his team overcame cellar dwellers North Melbourne after an insipid first half in which they lost Harrison Petty for the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Fortunately, Joel Smith succeeded in partially covering the situation when moved up forward to add two goals in a display that secured him the spot vacated by Petty (and before him, other injured forwards in Tom McDonald and Ben Brown). 

However, the die was being cast as far as the forward line was concerned. When the team played out its last game in the finals, that entire trio of dead eye forwards who had kicked 14 goals straight against the Tigers was missing and the results were there for all to see. 

Melbourne stumbled early in its game against Carlton but regrouped to dominate the last half and was arguably robbed of victory when a long bomb from Petracca was controversially called touched by the goal umpire. The subsequent goal review was inconclusive and the umpire’s decision stood. Ironically, the Blues were also the beneficiaries of victory in the semi final after an Alex Neal-Bullen snap was adjudged a goal by the goal umpire was overturned on replay. Such is life.

After overcoming an arm wrestle against Hawthorn, Melbourne put on the afterburners in Sydney to smash the Swans but lost Jake Melksham to a torn ACL on a day when Bayley Fritsch marked his return with five goals despite coming off the field in distress during the game.

The club’s accuracy woes in the final series referred to above and well documented elsewhere came back to haunt it in September. 

Things weren’t helped by the hammer blow delivered to Angus Brayshaw by Collingwood’s Brayden Maynard who controversially avoided suspension at the AFL tribunal. Nevertheless, the AFL subsequently sought to make Maynard’s “legal” action “illegal” by amending the rules concerning what is meant by a reasonable attempt to smother, a change that may well make no difference in practice. Nor is this any consolation to either Brayshaw or the club which could easily claim that the hit cost it victory in this game and, along with the defeat, a chance to win the premiership.

The club made an unfortunate second consecutive straight sets exit from the finals when it kicked its way out of the semi final against Carlton, a situation compounded by some poorly uncharacteristic defensive play at the death knock. 

It was season over on a Friday night but the news of the passing of club icon and arguably its greatest ever, Ronald Dale Barassi placed all of us under a dark cloud. The man who was hero to a whole generation of young Demon fans and whose name is synonymous with courage, resilience and integrity and above all, success, had left us forever.

Tearfully, we mourned the loss of a true legend. 

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As mentioned above, one of the highlights of the season was the seamless introduction of the talented Judd McVee into the Demons’ defence. He was there throughout the season and blossomed with every passing week. Much the same can be said of fellow Sandgroper Jacob van Rooyen who kicked 28 goals for the year in his 20 games after calls for his debut were answered in Round 3. The youngster fitted in comfortably as a key forward with an occasional run in the ruck with just the right amount of aggression at the ball. It sometimes got him into trouble and he overcame a trying week when exonerated after a marathon hearing of an appeal against a striking suspension incurred as he was attempting to spoil Gold Coast’s Charlie Ballard in Round 8. Van Rooyen was sorely missed due to suspension when the Demons lost their semi final to the Blues. 

Others to gain AFL experience and show promise were Bailey Laurie and father/son prospect Taj Woewodin while 2021 midseason draftee Daniel Turner looked a key defender prospect for the future at Casey and in his limited appearances with Melbourne. 

After making a solid start to their VFL premiership defence with wins in their first four matches, the Casey Demons stumbled slightly but remained contenders for a top four finish until the last month of home and away matches. A few close defeats and the same yips in front of goal that were encountered by their senior counterparts left them in the position where they had to beat North Melbourne in a wild card game in order to compete in the finals proper. That was achieved easily but the elimination final against Footscray turned into an embarrassing 79-point loss after the non-selection of several otherwise eligible players just in case they were needed for the AFL finals. 

The AFLW team also failed in their premiership defence after a solid first half of the season. They were led brilliantly by new skipper Kate Hore but faltered late when the going got rough and injuries and illness hit the group. 

The Demons still finished second with eight wins and a percentage of 222.9, the ‘points for’ of 653 being the highest in AFLW competition history. Forward stars Hore and Eden Zanker  jointly shared the AFLW Goalkicking Award with a record 20 goals for the home and away seasons. Zanker kicked three goals in the final against Geelong to finish with 23 for the season, another league record (equal with Brisbane’s Dakota Davidson). 

The team’s luck ran out in the finals with losses to North Melbourne and Geelong (narrowly in the end) ending the season in disappointing fashion. Tyla Hanks and Kate Hore tied for the best and fairest with Lauren Pearce in third place ahead of another tie for fourth between Sinead Goldrick and Olivia Purcell. Hore was named as the All Australian captain in her first year as leader taking over from Daisy Pearce. Zanker was named All Australian for the first time. 

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The disappointment of straight sets exits by both the men and women was somewhat offset by a $1 million dollar windfall in becoming the One Club - McLelland Trophy Winners which earned praise from MFC Chair Kate Roffey who noted that the real value of the prize was the “extraordinary commitment it takes across the entire Club to field and support two extremely high performing teams each weekend”.

After the disappointing finish to the men’s AFL competition, attention turned to the trade and draft period. Brodie Grundy was traded to the Sydney Swans after the failure of the Gawn/Grundy experiment left him on the outer with one AFL appearance in the run into the business end of the season. That he missed out on playing in a final against his old club Collingwood and again in the semi against Carlton when the club was down in talent, was baffling given that the tactical substitute, Josh Schache was kept off the field completely in the latter game. Many observers felt that the handling of the situation provided poor optics for the club and devalued his trade worth. The Swans took him as cheap bargain for a dual All-Australian and they cashed in on another money ball deal picking up free agent James Jordon for nothing. Michael Hibberd retired with a premiership and several years of solid service under his belt. Luke Dunstan who tore his ACL at Casey late in the season, also retired. Jake Melksham was delisted but redrafted as a rookie while loyal servant James Harmes was traded to the Western Bulldogs. Former NGA recruit Deaykin Smith, who was Casey’s 2023 best and fairest but delisted, found his way to North Melbourne. 

The Demons traded for needs and picked up former high draft pick Jack Billings from St Kilda, high flying excitement machine Shane McAdam from Adelaide and Brisbane Lions’ ruckman/forward Tom Fullarton (who is now on the injured list). They later redrafted former player Marty Hore, back from Williamstown. In the draft, the club used two first round picks to secure Caleb Windsor (Eastern Ranges) and Koltyn Tholstrup (Subiaco WA) and took father/son prospect Kynan Brown (Oakleigh Chargers) as a rookie.

Christian Petracca capped off his finest individual season with a second 'Bluey' Truscott Memorial Trophy as Melbourne's club champion, polling 602 votes to finish 75 votes clear of runner-up Jack Viney, with key defender Jake Lever third on 456 votes. Angus Brayshaw (453) and Steven May (451) rounded out a closely fought top five. 

Conspicuously missing from that list was four-time 'Bluey' winner Oliver who missed a significant part of the season with a torn hamstring and foot blisters and had post season knee surgery amid some controversy about his recovery from those issues. Soon after the grand final, it was even claimed that the club had put him on the trade table and not long after, he was hospitalised following a seizure that resulted in a head injury. There were also issues with a case of driving while unlicensed. All of this was grist for the media mill.

It was becoming clear that Oliver was struggling with mental issues and in late December, he headed home from the Demons’ training camp in Lorne as he continued to deal with ongoing health challenges. He was left to heal and maintain his fitness away from the playing group and rejoined them a month later looking in reasonably good nick and hopeful of a full return to the fold in the last month of the 2024 preseason. 

Oliver retained the unwavering support of the playing group and the supporters throughout his ordeal and it’s worth reflecting how the club still performed strongly in his absence for most of the last half of 2023. Though he showed some good form on return, it was not reflective of the devastating 40 plus possession performances that he is capable of peeling off with regularity. However, in his absence, others stepped up and those extra midfield minutes of experience not only contributed to Melbourne comfortably finishing  in the top four, but the benefits should carry through and hold the club in good stead in the AFL competition in 2024 and beyond. More so, with Clarry’s full return to health in mind and body. We can’t wait!

Another controversy erupted in the early post season when forward Joel Smith tested positive for cocaine. Smith was suspended from the Demons' football program while Sport Integrity Australia investigated the circumstances of a positive test after the Demons' win over Hawthorn in Round 23. The matter is still ongoing.

There was no shortage of off-field controversy with litigation ongoing in the courts between former president Glen Bartlett and Melbourne Football Club Board members. It was recently reported that mediation talks aimed at ending the long-running dispute had broken down while a separate dispute over the fairness and transparency of the Board’s election process also appears headed for court. Watch these spaces*.

On a more positive note, another off-field development that occurred after season’s end was the long-awaited announcement of a feasibility study to identify a location for the Club’s long term home base at a redeveloped Caulfield Racecourse. The $570 million redevelopment would see its in-field, which is Crown land and about 10 times the size of the MCG, opened up as a community precinct, to be known as the Caulfield Racecourse Reserve. It is expected that the Demons would be a key tenant along with local sporting and community organisations and groups.

The Melbourne Football Club sits in the premiership window with great playing depth, a healthy culture and excellent leadership both on and off the field. It remains a strong contender as 2023 ends and we look forward to a resurgence in 2024 with a team that has a reputation as one of the hardest to beat in the competition and simply awaits the return of its straight shooters.

Bring it on!

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* in keeping with current Demonland policy, we will not accept discussion on matters being litigated in the courts or on sensitive matters relating to the mental health of our club’s playing group or derogatory comments and language about players and coaching staff. We ask that you please understand that this is partly a result of both medical and legal advice received and that you respect our decision. We are here to support our great club and its players.

                           THANK YOU

We take this opportunity to thank the many people who continue to keep Demonland running starting with all of you who contribute to our forums. A special mention to Nasher who is our IT guru and physically looks after the running of the site and to contributors Whispering Jack, George on the Outer, The Oracle, KC from Casey and Meggs as well as Binman who joins George and me on our Demonland podcast. Thanks to anyone I’ve forgotten (please forgive me) and to our great team of footballers and the club and its staff who make it all happen.

Go Dees in 2024 - Andy

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Outstanding summary! Hits all the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of 2023 perfectly.  
As stated, bring on 2024.  I can’t wait!

Edited by Deeoldfart
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Great job Andy but it just made me angry thinking how close we were, how injuries impacted us and how bloody [censored] our goal kicking was!!!! Let’s beat Carlscum, [censored] the filth, cheer when Viney puts Maynard into next week with the perfect bump, and we win the premiership. Anything less will not be acceptable 😬

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Just now, Phil C said:

Great job Andy but it just made me angry thinking how close we were, how injuries impacted us and how bloody [censored] our goal kicking was!!!! Let’s beat Carlscum, [censored] the filth, cheer when Viney puts Maynard into next week with the perfect bump, and we win the premiership. Anything less will not be acceptable 😬

The second censored word rhymes with log. Just to be clear 👍🤣

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Great summary but I feel the Injury tally has been undervalued. I know I have been on about this before, but considering the injuries to Gawn and Oliver during the season, the simple fact is that the Demons did remarkably well considering the loss of Brown, McDonald, Petty, Fritsch and Melksham - all key forwards at various stages and seasons for us.  The fact that the two finals which we lost by a total of - was it 9 points - is a minor miracle considering the critical absence of key forwards in the finals. Yes, McDonald and Fritsch played but neither were at their best due to the nature of their injuries, and if you add the loss of Brayshaw in the opening minutes, and the irony that Van Rooyen cops a week and Maynard is declared 'innocent', add that to the fact that, yes, they kicked poorly for goal,  points to the simple fact that had the Injury Gods been kinder they surely would have achieved more. That they lost, in my estimation, was almost inevitable considering the need to turn injury-bred dysfunction on an almost weekly basis. That they nearly won both finals, had they kicked straight, was almost miraculous.

The horizon is bright, as I see it. Billings and McAdam are potentially great gains, as are the youngsters we chose in the Draft. Add the discernable improvement of Laurie and Woewodin, the regained strength and fitness of Tomlinson, the hints Shache has given that he has maybe turned the corner, the pressure for selection from Howes and Turner, the hoped for return of a fit Petty and Oliver, and it's off to the 2024 Finals we go. 

May the Injury Gods be kind.

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That is a great summary of 2023 Demonland we certainly managed to shoot both feet of with our atrocious kicking for goal in the finals but it was a very good result to make top 4 again for the third time in a row. Now we need to capitalise on all that hard work. It will be harder in ‘24 as other teams rise some must fall but I do not believe it will be us, with a smidge of luck, improved forward connection and goal kicking accuracy we will be hard to beat. Let’s hope that Fritta, Petty and Clayton can get back to their scintillating best. Go Dees.!!!

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