Melbourne’s demons – This is the life we’ve chosen

Melbourne needs no sympathy. After being coached to lose for years, they are getting what they deserve. That losing culture they fostered, to ensure high draft picks, has become entrenched.

The 79-point loss to Port Adelaide in round one left most people doubled over with laughter. At the weekend they gave 51,153 fans sore jaws and aching bellies with another hilarious parody, a 148-point loss against Essendon.

Melbourne fans were laughing uncontrollably. Some were forced to leave the MCG early on Saturday before they wet their pants.

The routine, pretending to be a football club, made a mockery of Demon fans and all associated with the AFL industry.

The massive defeat continues the knee-slapping trend of one of the most under-performed teams in the AFL, and they’re starting to get booed off the stage.

The Demons last premiership was almost 50-years ago, way back in 1964. The following year, with Melbourne third on the ladder, six-time premiership coach Norm Smith was sacked.

Though Smith was reinstated, the club has never recovered. Melbourne has played just two grand finals since 1964 for two heavy losses.

Thirteen coaches have tried and failed to lift the Demons beyond Norm Smith’s curse. The latest victim is Mark Neeld and he’s having a tough time, like each man before him.

Neeld will be looking over his shoulder at recent history. In 2011, a 186-point loss to Geelong cost former coach Dean Bailey his job. The week before Bailey was sacked, former Adelaide coach Neil Craig quit following a 103-point loss.

Craig is now Sports Director of Performance at Melbourne.

When Bailey was sacked he had 22 wins from 83 games. Neeld, with four wins from 24 games, isn’t tracking to match Bailey’s success.

There is no suggestion that Neeld should quit or be sacked, but he’s under more pressure than any rookie coach in AFL history.

At the end of last season Neeld slashed 12 players from Melbourne’s list. Among the departures were retirees Clint Bartram and former captain Brad Green. A horde of high draft picks were cut, including Lucas Cook, Ricky Petterd, Jamie Bennell, Jordan Gysberts and Cale Morton.
The Demons also traded Stefan Martin, Brent Moloney and Jared Rivers, while Liam Jurrah was let go for behavioural issues.

To bolster the list Neeld recruited a swag of discards from other clubs, including Chris Dawes (who hasn’t played a good game since 2010), Shannon Byrnes (lucky to get another chance), Cameron Pedersen (lucky to get his first chance) and journeyman David Rodan.

Those fringe players were never going to elevate Melbourne beyond mediocrity. At the weekend, Pedersen and Dawes weren’t in the side, while Rodan had six possessions (as the sub) and Byrnes gathered 11 possessions, something he regularly did at Geelong.

The turnover of players and their recruiting has highlighted Melbourne’s woeful drafting and poor ability to get the best out of its players.

Neeld was devastated after the loss, his words tortured and slow. ‘There is only one way out of this and that’s to stick together and to work hard. There is only one way out of this and it is together.’

The enormity of his task was apparent to all who squirmed through his press conference. Neeld was shattered and helpless.

‘The whole club is hurting,’ he said. We can’t pretend the last two hours didn’t exist. We’ve all got to man up or person up, whatever the term is and accept that.’

His terminology, person up, is part of the problem. Neeld is trying to be politically correct, which doesn’t suit the environment of football clubs. Simply, there are no men at the Demons who seem capable of rebuilding on the previous five-year rebuild.

On Sunday Neil Craig craved for white line fever. ‘We need to get this combative effort, this desire to compete, both offensively and defensively back,’ he said. ‘The intensity we see in our preparation we haven’t seen in our games. We saw glimpses of it in the NAB Cup.’

Glimpses aren’t enough. Melbourne was competitive for ten or fifteen minutes on Saturday before being humiliated. Almost a year ago, in dreadful conditions, they sent Essendon on a downward spiral with an upset win.

That night the Demons showed grit and determination. A year is a long time in football.

‘The bottom line is we can’t move with game plan structures unless there’s competitive element in your game,’ Craig said. ‘Nothing else happens until that’s in place.’

Essendon kicked 15 goals to one in the second half. Melbourne managed five for the game. It seems the competitive element might be missing for a while.

Crisis talks will be held but they’re pointless. Melbourne needs to put up with what they’ve created, which is a losing culture.

When a club performs as the Demons did on Saturday, it’s often an indication that the coach has lost his players. Neeld hasn’t been there long enough to lose his players, unless he never had them to begin with.

Neeld would be mortified by the cold brutality of simple reality, that his team isn’t good enough and what he’s doing isn’t working.

Hopefully he eschews the review. What is to be learned is already known. Melbourne was horribly uncompetitive and will be for some time.

Following an investigation into alleged tanking, the AFL fined them $500,000 for being uncompetitive, which apparently isn’t tanking.

Altering a culture that demanded failure will take all the savvy Neeld has.

He should start with the obvious, and tell his players to man up instead of person up, or whatever the terminology is at Melbourne.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Andrew Starkie says

    Matt, you’re spot on. Playing to lose has created a damaged culture at Melbourne.

    You’ve reminded me of a piece posted on this site last year that said something similar – we are what we do. If a club commits bad acts it will become bad. If that makes sense.

    Love your work, will check out your site.

  2. To my mind the tanking/Scully draft was just the visible tip of the “poor culture” iceberg. Going back to the Norm Smith sacking for an explanation seems stretching it to me (you are not the first person to raise it). Melbourne have had a successful passionate culture and performance since then under Northey and Neale Daniher. Flags aren’t the sole measure of a successful club. Sustained finals participation is success in an 18 team comp.
    As an outsider it has seemed that Melbourne has been too much about ‘head’ and too little about ‘heart and passion’ for the last 10 years. There is more to a club than suits and strategies.
    Those issues are the background noise, but watching the Eseendon massacre on TV the practical problem looked like Neeld trying to weld the Mick/Collingwood game plan – presses and occupying space – onto a team of kids without the physical capacity or experience to cope with it. He has tried to make them run before they could walk.
    When the Eagles were crap in 2008/9/10 Woosha first got them to chase, tackle and play on a man. Presses and zoning didn’t come into it until 2010 when they had some strength and experience.
    I feel sorry for Neeld, but I really think that a more experienced coach would have them learning from 8 goal losses where they can harass and stay competitive to half time. The naivety of his game plan is crushing the spirit of young men that need to be developed and fostered.
    An experienced coach would tell them they will be judged on the tackle count for the next month, not the scoreboard.

  3. “Melbourne needs no sympathy”. You’ve said it all, Matt.

    Nor does Melbourne’s current plight warrant any special attention. I know journos need to sensationalise to sell papers and boost ratings but I can’t believe the amount of hoopla being written about the need for AFL intervention, the “stench of death” and the like. I could easily recount half a dozen points in the last 30 years of the sorry history of Richmond (not to mention some rock bottom moments at just about every other club) that would exceed Melbourne’s “crisis”.

    I see only two possible differences between Melbourne’s predicament and those that have befallen other clubs over the years and even then, I’m not convinced that either forms the basis of special consideration.

    One is the loss of Jim Stynes. I cannot recall another club losing such a great leader who, at the time, was providing so much drive and hope. His untimely death must have been shattering for all concerned. However, I find it puzzling that the club, rather than use Jim’s life and deeds as inspiration, has been seemingly incapable of filling the leadership void.

    The other is the “tanking” allegations and the impact these may or may not have had on the culture of the club. I can’t buy this as an excuse either, given that this was stuff that supposedly happened four years ago and the accusations were hardly unique to the Demons.

    So what you’re left with is the same old rotten mix of poor management, poor decision-making and lack of money creating a self-perpetuating environment of mediocrity. Nothing new under the sun about any of this.

    Nor is there any quick fix, as Richmond has found after three decades in which they tried just about every brand of snake oil solution. Melbourne just needs to suck it up, do whatever cleanout of staff and players they consider necessary and rebuild from the ground up.

  4. Anthony Neval says

    i think u are a arm chair exspert period end of the story. Melbourne will rise to be a powerhouse

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