Almanac Footy: Splendid isolation? How a Demon premiership will be different





by Chris Weaver


Respect is hard-earned for the Melbourne Football Club. It’s not an easy club to like. The merger talks, the tanking scandal, the establishment credentials – it’s not the normal footy fairy-tale. This is the footy club that is even apologetic about its own moniker, with the Demon nickname unrepresented in the club logo or on much of our merchandise.


Frankly I don’t rail against the stereotype. Elitism is the one ‘us versus them’ angle we have and, in my view, it’s better to be hated in footy than ignored. But it’s a shallow niche, which is why I wish we made more of the ‘Demon’ name – like ‘Bombers’, it’s unique and evocative. It’s the lasting legacy of Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes, whose arrival in 1933 in my opinion marks one of Melbourne’s two watershed moments – the other being 1965’s twin crises of Ron Barassi Junior’s departure to Carlton, followed a few months later by Norm Smith’s axing and uneasy reinstatement.


Those three men are inextricably linked to extraordinary success – ten of Melbourne’s 12 premierships were won between 1939 and 1964. ‘Checker’ and his protégé Smith were the constant in all ten pennants, while Barassi was one of only two ever-presents in the six flags won between 1955 and 1964. The long periods bookending this era are comparatively barren: two upset wins over Fitzroy (1900) and Collingwood (1926) delivered premierships, while in my lifetime we’ve nudged out daylight for the honour of being runners-up to exceptional Hawthorn and Essendon sides.


The fallow periods explain the relatively small supporter base, as does the lack of a suburban heartland. There was little point during the nascent VFA era or the burgeoning VFL years in supporting Melbourne unless you were a member of the ground that housed the footballers. My family’s support originated with my grandfather – a country trialist who never so much as graced a reserves game (or the MCC Members’ Reserve), but who developed a cordial relationship with fellow regional recruit Ron Barassi Senior.


My grandfather’s Demon story included one notable sacrifice. He secured two tickets through a scalper for the 1964 Grand Final for himself and my father. On arrival at the MCG, one turned out to be a fake. Paternal love trumped disappointment and my grandfather insisted that Dad enter the ground on the good ticket to hopefully experience a flag for the first time. My father’s memory of the game was subsequently tarnished by this minor trauma, and he spent the rest of his life hoping for an alternative father-son premiership experience. They have both since died, but it gives me a sense of joy knowing that my aunt is one family member who has been able to make the trip to Perth for her inaugural Grand Final.


My introduction to the Demons was the John Northey-coached side that made five consecutive finals series from 1987 to 1991. That was a blue-collar team with a hard edge, featuring graduates of a development program devised by Barassi and Barry Richardson, then directed by the notorious Ray ‘Slug’ Jordon. Northey’s team wasn’t without skill and versatility (Brian Wilson, Alan Johnson, a young Garry Lyon and the agile Jim Stynes) but his playing lists lacked depth and experience. Only in the three finals contests against the newly formed West Coast Eagles did the Demons shade their opponents on games played. Melbourne won eight finals across those five series, including five Elimination Finals, and the heroes were often journeymen or honest toilers getting their day in the sun – Jamie Duursma battling against Stephen Kernahan or Tony Campbell toiling to stop a helmeted Jason Dunstall. The culture and commitment were exemplary, but they were ultimately not enough to break a premiership drought.


The current team shares a commitment to Northey’s organised defensive ethos but is otherwise a very different beast. Northey’s side lacked a regular, league-leading on-ball brigade. Simon Goodwin’s team in contrast possesses the best midfield mix I’ve seen at Melbourne, with Clayton Oliver standing out as a generational talent. I’m convinced that handling, balance and vision are the three attributes that most commonly separate the best ball-winning players from the rest. On all scores, ‘Clarrie’ is well-blessed even in relation to his peers. I’m too young to have seen Robert Flower play – and I appreciate that his were delicate talents not always discernible purely from a glance of the stats – yet I believe that Oliver could be the best Melbourne player since our last flag.


Barassi’s mandated isolation – and that of many other Demon luminaries, such as Neale Daniher – is the obvious sore point this week. We all know how bittersweet this is but what I think will be really difficult is the inability to congratulate or commiserate as a collective at any time in the foreseeable future. Footy can only be understood as an intensely tribal game, one that celebrates local identity and ingrained rituals. Richmond’s officials, fans and families in absentia were able to temper last year’s dislocations with the memory of recent public celebrations; for Melbourne, no such memory bank exists. I suspect that many of us are putting on a front; the reality of a sparse loungeroom followed by curfew will be anything other than splendid isolation, especially following a fortnight of fitful build-up. The Preliminary Final win was occasion for private enjoyment rather than pure and public elation. Winning the Grand Final may provide as many emotional challenges as losing – a newly exiled Nathan Jones being the emblem of this strange and unwelcome physical distancing.


We head into an unknown – the sort of experience that none of us would have envisaged but for which we retain expectation and excitement. It is the first time in 57 years that Melbourne enters a Grand Final as the favourites, with our fellow fans having either fallen on the journey or waiting for us at an undefined time and place. It’s 32 years since I first joined my late father – a less emotionally invested but still loyal fan – at a Melbourne game. This is not the journey that we would have wanted or predicted, but I’m hoping the destination is still worth the while. This is a club that – having shed the easy options and Messiah obsessions – has built steadily and earned its rewards, much as it did when I first fell in love with it in the late 1980s.


It is that quiet commitment to growth and the faith in key personnel that should convince neutrals that this is a Demon side worthy of respect.




The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE.


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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I hope your grandfather saw some of the Dees’ 50s glory Chris

  2. He saw one or both of the 1939 and 1940 flags, I know that much – active service ruled out 1941. He spoke about the 1958 Grand Final too (he said that it was obvious from early on that Melbourne would lose). I’m not sure about the rest.

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Wonderful contribution Chris. You’ve analysed the history of the Demons’ fans torture and the mixed emotions which the virus is imposing on you and all who sail in the good ship Melbourne. I would add David Schwarz to your list of Melbourne talents in that early 90s period. I haven’t checked my memory so I may have the timing wrong, but in my memory he was a superb player, especially prior to his knee injuries.
    Good luck on Saturday, and don’t allow the limitations of the experience dampen the occasion for you.

  4. Thanks, Peter.

    You’re spot on re David Schwarz. He was probably the player most emblematic of Melbourne’s rise under Neil Balme in 1994 and the troubled years that followed. An outstanding talent. How good was he? I suspect we’d look back on him as rivalling Wayne Carey as the centre half forward of the 1990s if not for the knee injuries. The mere fact that he returned after three reconstructions in the space of 12 months (not all on the same knee) to eventually win a best and fairest, play in a Grand Final and register 150 games is a wonderful story of persistence.

    But it could have been so much more…

  5. Daryl Schramm says

    A very moving and enjoyable read Chris, even at this late stage of reading. I think most are very comfortable with the game and the result.

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