Demons that cannot be buried

Is there a tougher sell in Australian sport than the Melbourne Football Club?

Even if one was to shut their eyes tightly and wish away the tanking imbroglio, the Dees would still stretch the creative marketing genius found on ABC’s Gruen Planet.  Child labour and compulsory euthanasia ads for ‘The Pitch’ segment would have been a relative doddle.

Perhaps it’s no small coincidence in 2008 the late Jim Stynes convinced Gruen regular Russell Howcroft to sit on the club’s board.  In the midst of the urgent $5m debt reduction program Howcroft sought to resolve perceived uncertainty over what Melbourne stood for.

To this end Howcroft believes a failing brand could do worse than revisit what worked in better times. “The history really matters in brands; the critical thing was about being proud of the heritage” Howcroft was quoted as saying in The Age recently.

The club embraced Howcroft’s advice, moving from a minimalist, modern logo to an elaborate historical pictogram (influenced in no small measure by radical ideas man and CEO, Cameron Schwab).

To remind us all Melbourne are, or at least were a successful club, last year’s Queen’s Birthday blockbuster saw the 12 premiership years emblazoned on the MCC Members stand parapet.  The 2013 ‘First and Forever’ membership campaign also goes to pushing the heritage angle, and at first glance is a typically strong and emotive call to arms.  After all, Melbourne did write the rules of the game, and in Robert Menzies’ metaphoric salad days (Sir Bob wouldn’t have touched the stuff) did dominate the competition in an era of few comparison.

Grand old flags, old school ties, good old days…

Sure, it speaks to the club’s prime demographic, a valid promotional strategy.  But what of the lost generations, the Gen X, Y and Z’s who’ve been starved of glory since Neil Crompton’s shock flag winning snap almost half a century ago?  To really appreciate the product offer supporters would do better owning a time travelling DeLorean than the customary Volvo.

Perhaps more could be made of the likes of high flyer Jeremy Howes.  But selling a football team can be nigh impossible when the product quality cannot be guaranteed – and even more so when it’s a veritable lemon.  The goodwill around Jim Stynes’ courageous battle with cancer, and more successfully Melbourne’s $5m debt, has been tragically wasted.  The myriad errors of judgement that eroded Melbourne’s culture and competitiveness must have rusted on Demon fans wanting to storm their AAMI Park offices, located on what might otherwise be described as the Olympic Boulevard of broken dreams.

In retrospect, a major fork in the road was the ‘Cuckoos’ Nest’ interviewing panel (as Kevin Sheedy recently alluded to) passing on the Bomber legend in 2007.  Melbourne would surely be in a better place today with Sheeds, no matter how hard it is at times to swallow his alternate reality.  For starters, thousands more Demon fans, young and old, would have bought into the Nic Naitanui phenomenon (as opposed to the Jack Watts work in progress).  And the destructive meddling by so-called support staff endured by Bailey would never have happened under Sheedy’s watch.

Wonderful hindsight aside, to this day most red and blue faithful would have no truck with the course the club took in 2009, apart from the typically clumsy execution which has the club in Caro’s cross hairs, and less frighteningly the AFL’s.

It is fair to say luck and Melbourne haven’t been well acquainted either.  Whereas the Dees played safe picking Watts, the punt on the mercurial Liam Jurrah backfired in extraordinary, soul-destroying fashion.  And Scully’s departure the previous year, albeit karmic given the manner of his acquisition, was undeniably harsh given the Giants’ sharp conduct.  The passing of Broadbridge and Stynes too have pushed the club towards emotional breaking points.

But just when Melbourne could ill afford another stuff-up after Bailey’s embarrassing sacking, the wouldabeen sacked CEO with the nine lives oversaw the bizarre appointment of two 20 year old co-captains.  Nevermind the unwarranted pressure on Grimes and Trengove, how was Mark Neeld ever going to garner crucial senior player support for his no-nonsense regimen?

Now the dysfunctional cubby house of unfulfilled talent is being dismantled. Several remaining senior players are still reportedly on unhappy terms.  About the only hook for Demon fans to hang their beanie is father-son pickup Jack Viney. Whilst set to make an immediate impact, he is just one player.

Consider Rivers has gone – no mug given the Cats see him as a viable replacement for Scarlett. And Moloney – a bit of a mug, but one of few to be relied upon in the trenches.

What of former senior regulars Matthew Bate, Ricky Petterd and Jamie Bennell?  Granted, the once highly promising Petterd and Bennell have been blighted by injuries, however #13 draft pick Bate always struck as a step above the Casey back paddocks in which he curiously languished the past couple seasons.

Last but not least there’s Cale Morton, a #4 draft pick who like too many Melbourne young guns lost his mojo, and was unceremoniously traded for two fat ladies (pick #88). Moving on the likes of Morton, Gysberts (#11 in 2009) and Cook (#12 in 2010) speaks to either seriously bad recruiting, poor development, or both.  And will Jack Watts ever emulate Jack Hawkins’ late bloomage, or will Jack ‘Why’ also be shunted off for three not-so magic beans.

Had the brains trust pulled off a recruiting coup or two, this scorched Earth policy might be easier to accept.

Alas, Chris Dawes (Robin to Travis Cloke’s Batman) must overcome a crisis of confidence which has cruelled his none too crucial marking and kicking. Which otherwise renders him an expensive decoy to Clark and Howe.

A battle-scarred David Rodan was outstanding in patches for the Power, but at 29, how does one correlate his recruitment with the divisive treatment of club stalwarts Cam Bruce and Brad Green?

Another good ordinary player, Shannon Byrnes, at least recognises the ingredients to a winning culture.  How many wins he’ll influence for his new club is debatable.

Melbourne is not alone in football administration’s hall of shame.  Collingwood’s former failed attempts at pubs, property and progress a case in point.  But the demons plaguing Melbourne are so endemic.  Following Barassi’s Earth shattering defection, Norm Smith’s scandalous sacking in 1965 is said to be the cursed Babe Ruth moment.  By 1980 the football club legally separated from the MCC, coinciding with decades without decent training and administration facilities, punctuated by the near merger experience with Hawthorn in 1996, and the Joe Gutnick cash for interference rollercoaster.

Yet now, despite having reconciled the sins of the past, the club is in a perilous Catch 22, clinging to historical threads in lieu of a better narrative.  Being one of the oldest football clubs of any code in the world and bearing the name of football’s nominal home (not to forget a fine Whitlams’ song) is compelling, but is it enough?  It’s certainly limiting, for last-ditch options such as relocation, for the club of Australia’s second largest city, is as hair brained as it sounds.

Nevermind dial-a-quote Jeff Kennett’s rantings about inflicting an extended state of purgatory, the club is too numb to feel another boot up the backside.  There’s precious little left for the AFL to punish in any case – and in all likelihood Connolly and Schwab’s unquestioned, misplaced passion will suffice.  As the ghosts of Tom Wills and Jimmy Stynes watch on, one can’t imagine the death warrant being signed on a 150 year old institution.  But as the supporter attrition rate escalates, what will Melbourne look like in 5, 10, 20 years?

Finding the right pitch is an unenviable task facing the Demons, and the League.  For the sake of Australian Rules Football, hopefully inspiration will emerge before Melbourne joins Fitzroy in football’s faded annals.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Suzanne Considine says

    Correct, as a Dees supporter I’m numb & will cop whatever kick comes our way. Conversely, the troops are gathering. We’re sick of being pummelled. At first numbed by Jimmy’s passing we can now see he’s calling us to action & with the spectre of Norm Smith standing over me as I stroll from Jolimont to the G I cannot ignore the call to engage & involve my Demon-loving community to rise above your predictions

  2. A lot wrong with this article; not to mention the “fine Whitlams’ song” farce.

  3. Jeff Dowsing says

    Well, I guess like the ‘Pies you either love or hate the Whitlams Tony.

    I don’t love or hate the Demons, but as someone with ancestors who played and grandparents who barracked for them, I empathise with their plight and I respect your optimism Suzanne. I’m not so much making predictions as illustrating the harsh, difficult reality facing Melbourne (and to varying degrees other Vic clubs). There are no easy answers, only that the best would have been found on the field. Sadly, whereas 3 years ago there was great hope, that elusive 13th flag now seems further away than ever, especially given the current 18 club AFL structure and the difficulty to survive, let alone contend.

  4. Barkly St End says

    Intelligent article, just about the best footy article I have read in the off-season.

    I’m an old Footscray boy, so I understand all about a club being in the doldrums for decades at a time.

    But our situations differ markedly.

    We are a struggling club that has always struggled, but we have an identity that can attract people to it in the burgeoning Western suburbs of Melbourne. We have some hope of growth.

    Melbourne is the opposite in every respect. A grand club, with a grand history (in fact most outside of footy struggle to fully appreciate Melbourne’s history, not just in Australian terms, but world terms), a club traditionally supported by Melbourne’s well-heeled.

    But as Jeff correctly points out, it’s a club struggling for an identity in the modern age.

    Should Melbourne align itself closer with its MCC heritage, or distance itself further?

    Could it ever move away from the MCG to allow clubs which can fill it more regularly to be based there?

    Should it drop all pretence of being a central Melbourne team, or a team for the residents of East Melbourne and Jolimont, and move permanently out East – way, way out East.

    Whatever happens, I wish Melbourne all the best, and I thank MFC again for our one and only premiership.

  5. The Whitlams are ok Jeff but I like Bob Dylan better.

    In his usually cryptic Ballad of the Thin Man the chorus is thus:

    But something is happening here
    And you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones ?

    Perhaps with the respect to the recently gained high momentum to the atrition of the Demons (which may well lead to their evolution to a different species or even extinction) the following modification of those three lines is appropriate.

    But something is happening here
    And you don’t admit to what you did
    Do you, Mister Demetriou ?

  6. Barkly St End says

    Is Mr Jones still with the dees, or did he get traded to another club in the shake up?

  7. Excellent article, Jeff.

    Melbourne blighted my childhood. They won six premierships between 1955 and 1964, many of them after beating The Pies in the Grand Final. Their last flag was in 1964, which was the year I did Form 6 Matriculation Exams (Year 12, VCE for Gen Y readers). So after being brilliant through most of my childhood they have been crap through my adult life, stretching through to “retirement” age. (And I include their participation in two Grand Finals that they never looked like winning as examples of crap) They couldn’t even save themselves from merger, despite hard work by Brian Dixon. Melbourne was saved from merger by Don Scott and the Hawthorn faithful.

    1965 is a crucial year. Obviously, as Jeff mentioned, Barassi’s defection and Norm Smith’s sacking but also the first case of MCG sharing as the Tigers moved in (and won five flags in fifteen years) In the small world of Victorian Semi professional football prior to the 1980s, having the ground at which all finals were played as your exclusive home ground was a huge advantage. It became a disadvantage when the ground was shared by other clubs and they all still maintained training grounds, while the Deees were left with no training ground in a period when football was becoming full time. The Dees also suffered from free loading by the MCC and its members.

    Having said all that, as Jeff writes, Melbourne’s biggest problem is years of mismanagement. Melbourne, like Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon, Richmond and Geelong is one of the Victorian clubs that the competition needs and which it will protect from its own mismanagement. But Melbourne has been in need of a lot more protection than all the other clubs.

  8. Ripsnorter says

    THis is sadly all very true for demons fans and they must be amazed with the fact that time and time agian they can manage to find themselves back down the bottom after another false dawn.

    I think you hit the nail on the head for their current woes being with the reasons why the did not want Sheedy and not the fact that Sheedy may not have been a good move anyway. This club is run by two of the most overated people in football being Schwab and his mate Connelly. These two basically run the club with some help from Garry Lyon over a coffee or two during the week and will never put a coach in they can not control. I am not sure why Connelly does not do the job himself and save the club a lot of money.

    Schwab was brought into Fremantle because they were a basket case and he did some good in getting them up and going off the field and lifting their profile and membership. Then he decided to bring in his best mate to coach the club – unprofessional and unwise and set the club back once again until they rode off into the sunset having over promisesd and under delivered.

    Not to worry – they slotted straight back into Melbourne and continue with their delusions of footballing prowess dragging a great club down with it.

    Stynes did great things with that club and putting together a board without great historical links to the club was on the right track. However he failed to get rid off his old mates and led to the Bailey sacking where Stynes understood the night before that it was Schwab that would be going – ultimate Farce.

    I am not that familiar with the Whitlams music but these two would have been well at home on his front bench from the sounds of things.

  9. Gough may not have been too fiscally adept RS but he was a great socialist visionary and a believer in radical reform.

    This would be oppostie to the current MFC paradigm. For that reason Gough would not have had Heckle and Jeckle on his front bench.

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