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  1. If the week when preseason training melds into scratch matches with other clubs, is the first marker for the beginning of a new season, then this has certainly been a torrid opener for the Melbourne Football Club in its campaign to remain a leading AFL premiership contender in 2024. The Demons were already under enormous scrutiny from the media and football’s fan base (including their own) after consecutive straight-sets finals exits, with Clayton Oliver’s well documented woes, the Joel Smith ban for a positive drug test, a mounting injury list that is heavily skewed against its forwards as well as the spectre of the off field scuttlebutt surrounding the long running battle in court with a former club chairman. It would be fair to say that very little improvement was seen in the situation during the week although, I do maintain that some small rays of light still presented themselves on the horizon. More of that later. Sunday’s match simulation was a bit like Melbourne’s recent weather. The game against Richmond opened brightly with 20 minutes of magical sunshine and five goals, followed by an hour of drenching rain and ten consecutive goals against, during which time the team’s style and cohesion was neither recognisable nor existent. There were moments of sunshine in the next stanza, the lead regained and lost again, then the heavy weather returned in the final term when the Tigers were more fierce in general play against a team lacking the rhythm of life required to win four points that weren’t even on offer. Jack Viney and Christian Petracca were the standouts and Kozzy Pickett was at times special a la Bruce McAvaney among many others who played out small cameo roles. Like Jacob van Rooyen who was clunking the ball well in the early proceedings. Newcomers Jack Billings, Caleb Windsor and young pup, Kynan Brown all showed something, youthful Will Verrall had nice half leaping around in the ruck (but perhaps not yet ready for senior action) when he replaced skipper Max Gawn who called it a day after two quarters (of seven) but not before booting a late goal at the end of the deluge. He then joined the 14 absentees, the ill, the injured and suspended, sitting on the sidelines as the team limped to a 23-point defeat after four quarters. But all was not lost … yet. Clayton Oliver and Christian Salem returned to the football fray in the fifth quarter, several classes above what was a VFL level after-game in three stanzas. Clarry warmed the cockles of our hearts, picking up hardball gets at will and booting the goal of the year deep on the boundary. Let’s hope he gets himself fully right for the all clear to play ASAP because he has too much talent for it to be wasted. First round draft pick Koltyn Tholstrup impressed in his outing as Melbourne slowly edged closer to Richmond and finished two points in arrears at the final bell. Some people still believed the end of the world had come. The team was given three days off but if you thought the rest period would be uneventful, you were wrong. By Monday morning, the critical reaction to the first up February scratch match loss ranged from indifference to apocalyptic. Some felt for the club’s safety in the wake of its various woes and things got worse on Tuesday with the news that Joel Smith was facing four new anti-doping rule violations from Sport Integrity Australia — three for trafficking cocaine and one for possession after his phone records revealed text messages to other players allegedly offering the drug. A news item appeared in the Murdoch press which quoted an unnamed source suggesting the 28-year-old was being "scapegoated" by the club which prompted the response from the club that "Joel has made it very clear that he has no issues or concerns with anyone at the Melbourne Football Club." Some not unexpected editorialising followed from the usual suspects in the media who appear to have been carrying on a vendetta about the club’s culture for a number of years. Read between the lines and the verdict was that the club’s dynasty was over with only one premiership to show for it. I want to comment about some of the editorialising in the media on the Joel Smith situation and allegations of poor culture at the club. Perhaps the more prominent critics need to take look in the mirror and reflect on their own behaviours in response to other such controversies of the past and, in particular, the way a certain club reacted in not dissimilar circumstances. I expect when the outcome of the current investigation is revealed, that our club faces up to what occurred with the proper responsibility that the situation warrants. No denial, no obfuscation nor blame-shifting as we saw elsewhere a decade ago. The acceptance of responsibility if and when the circumstances so deserve will be one of the measures of our culture. More turbulence on Wednesday with rumours swirling that the career of Angus Brayshaw who played such a pivotal role in the achievements of that dynasty was about to end due to ongoing issues with concussion that have stalked him throughout his career. The hammer blow came on the following day when it was confirmed that the Demon champion was retiring from the sport at the age of 28 after recent scans revealed microscopic changes in his brain after he was knocked out in last year's qualifying final by a mistimed smother from Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard, for which the Pies player somehow avoided suspension. A premiership player highly regarded for his football prowess and strong leadership, Brayshaw, who has been at the Club for nine years is much loved by the players, coaches, staff and supporters. Brayshaw walks away with five more seasons still to run on his multimillion-dollar contract, which expires at the end of the 2028 season, having played 167 games for the club. He finished third in the 2018 Brownlow Medal count and had two top five finishes in the Bluey Truscott Trophy for club champion. He will always be remembered for his courage and resilience epitomised in the goal that put the Demons in front in the third quarter of the 2021 Grand Final, after which the team was never headed. Some quotes from a shattered hero of the club:- “I am devastated that I can no longer play the game that I love, but I respect the verdict of the medical professionals, and the importance of putting my health before my career. “I am really proud of what I have achieved over the past decade. I have been able to live out my childhood dream and while it’s been cut short, I am forever grateful to everyone who has been involved. “Concussion is a massive issue facing our game. I hope from this, a terrible result for me personally, can come some positive outcomes for the future of player safety.” Brayshaw is certain to maintain some role with the club in 2024, his loss as a player will be difficult to cover. The manner of his leaving, his wonderful words in the hour of disappointment at the premature retirement and his positive demeanour together affirmed the solid culture of resilience that his legacy at the club will hold forever. The weekend couldn’t arrive too soon after all that but I did promise some rays of hope on the horizon. There was no apparent sign of any organized training during the week so no new injuries that we know about so far plus … There was a well attended season opener at the MCG which marked a welcome return to football after the venue was used for three concerts by an NFL groupie which decimated the surface of the ground which is now under repair. The Coterie sponsored function, on the other hand, saw a lift in spirits. Firstly, there seemed to be much optimism about the return to training of a number of the injured brigade. I won’t go into any detail because nothing was “official” and therefore best to wait until we see visual evidence of their return. Secondly, the speeches from coach, captain and the club chair were all positive, inspiring and reflective of a fair degree of confidence for the coming season. Similarly, the interviews with players from every line including the newbies. There was a wonderful tribute to Gus who understandably wasn’t in attendance only hours after his retirement announcement. I sense that the composition of next week’s Community Series Practice Match against Carlton at IKON Park will be as close as possible to the expected Round Zero lineup in Sydney, give or take Kozzy Pickett who isn’t available for the latter match up. I think that after all these years, I’m pretty good at reading a room. There seemed to be an undercurrent from players and officials that they are quietly seething at the poor rap, some of it insulting, they’ve received from sections of the media of late and that they are ready to show their resilience emphatically on the field of play which is, of course, the only sane way to respond.
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