Melbourne exorcises demons to rise from 57-year hell

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

The legendary Dennis Cometti once said: “Get the hearse for the curse”.

He wasn’t talking about the Demons, but his words couldn’t be more applicable.


The origins of the Norm Smith Curse that has become embedded in footy folklore extend all the way back to 1965, when Smith – who was involved in 10 Melbourne premierships as player and coach – was controversially axed by his board.


While he was reinstated just days later, the damage had been done. Melbourne was never the same.


When Smith resigned as coach on his own terms in 1967, he eerily declared that “it will be a long, long time before Melbourne wins another premiership.”


A botched merger, salary cap breach, and tanking scandal would plague the club as dark decades of despair ensued.

The Demons were desperate for a circuit-breaker as the curtains closed on season 2020. They hadn’t tasted September action in two seasons despite 2018’s preliminary final berth, and there was cause to sack Simon Goodwin.


An unstable board unsure of itself might have done just that. The Demons of old might have done just that. But led by CEO Gary Pert, the club embarked on an extensive internal review, one that found Goodwin was their man.

Adem Yze and Mark Williams crucially came on-board as assistants. The support around Goodwin bolstered.


The board had treated their coach with dignity and respect, they hadn’t hung him out to dry. It was a luxury Norm Smith was never afforded.


Maybe, just maybe, that was the catalyst for the curse to be lifted.

The review also spawned a shiny new team attitude. Out with selfishness, in with selflessness. It was wholeheartedly embraced by Max Gawn and his disciples, a group fed up with mediocrity.


That mediocrity was put to bed for good as all the pieces of the premiership puzzle began to adjoin.

Defensive pillars Jake Lever and Steven May finally had a clear run with injuries, and started to build synergy together.

Bayley Fritsch evolved into the goalkicker they so desperately needed, while Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca found ways to take their games to new heights in the middle.


Max Gawn came into his own, not only as a ruckman, but as a leader.

Mark Williams transformed average kicks into elite kicks.

The team adopted a relentless hunter mentality, and fierce hunger for contested footy.

It all culminated in an emphatic run to the premiership.


Melbourne finished on top of the ladder, won their qualifying final by 33 points, their preliminary final by 83 points, and the grand final by 74 points. Barnstorming is an understatement.




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That being said, the blowout margin didn’t do the grand final justice.


12:11 into the third quarter, the Western Bulldogs led by as many as 19 points, but would be pummeled by a red and blue avalanche of possession as they bled profusely from the centre square.

From that point, the Demons scored 100-7 as they enforced a staggering 93-point turnaround, kicking 16 of the last 17 goals.


There never has been, and there never will be, anything like it in grand final history.


Only the longest of droughts can bestow such force upon a team.

And if there was a passage of play that epitomised the season that was for Melbourne, it was the lead up to their 17th goal.

The Demons were 49 points ahead, but Clayton Oliver still enacted his team’s relentless pressure, running hard defensively to put himself in a position to desperately smother Caleb Daniel’s kick, with the Sherrin ricocheting into the path of Christian Petracca.

Petracca was the man of the hour, and could’ve easily blazed away for goal as he entered the forward 50 unmanned, but he was selfless, a split-second glance inside all he needed to find Tom McDonald with a pinpoint centreing ball.

It’s passages like that that set Melbourne apart from the rest.


And it’s players like Petracca that turn great teams into premiership winning teams.

He plays with equal parts poise, skill and explosiveness.

When he cleanly collected the ball on the half volley and split the big sticks off one step from the 50-metre arc, for the game's first goal, it foreshadowed the dominance he was about to unleash.


By the time the final siren turned anticipation to euphoria for the Dees faithful; Petracca had 39 disposals, two goals, 24 contested possessions, 15 score involvements, 11 inside 50s, nine clearances, eight intercept possessions and 896 metres gained. The numbers speak for themselves.


When Basil Zempilas took to the lectern to announce the Norm Smith Medalist, there wasn’t a seed of doubt in anyone's mind as to whose name was about to be read out.

Having become Melbourne's first ever Norm Smith Medalist, on such a momentous occasion, Petracca had thrust himself into the crux of Demons history.


How'd he celebrate? By tucking the medal away and acting like he hadn't won it.

His reasoning: "That award is an individual award, we don't play footy for individual awards."

Selfless.

It's entrenched in the DNA of the new Melbourne. It's the foundation upon which this success was built.


And for all Petracca's plaudits, he wasn't the only star.


Bayley Fritsch bagged six majors, including two in a less than a minute to kickstart the Demons' pulsating and fateful surge, becoming the first player in 24 years to kick six grand final goals in the process.


Fritch's no. 31 guernsey - made famous by six-time premiership player Ron Barassi - is once again Demons royalty.

In fact, feel good sub-plots were littered around Perth Stadium.

Key defensive piece Steven May sustained a hamstring strain in the prelim, one that should've kept him sidelined for three to four weeks. He got his scans, but refused to find out the results, instead managing his symptoms in the grand final’s lead-up.

May was able to pass his fitness tests, subsequently earning selection in the biggest game of his career, and was far from a liability, holding the potent Aaron Naughton to nine disposals and a singular goal.


Then there's Ben Brown, who could only manage less than a goal a game in 2020 after three 60-goal seasons, and was told to explore his options by cellar-dwellers North Melbourne. The glaring, and at times brutal, spotlight of the AFL media was fixed firmly on him.


He landed at Melbourne, and was made to earn his stripes in the reserves, but emerged from the hardship with a premiership medallion slung around his neck, having nabbed three grand final goals along the way.




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Unfortunately, for every tale of triumph, there is one of equal heartbreak.


Nathan Jones is a Demons legend. A 302-game stalwart who captained the club for six years. He played in just 101 wins, yet his loyalty never wavered, and even the most treacherous of Melbourne’s bleak years couldn’t dent his spirit.


For so long, he was the brave soldier among a sea of listless comrades, the beacon of hope when there was so little light. He lived and breathed the crippling 186-point defeat at the hands of Geelong, the tumultuous fallout of the tanking scandal, the painstaking rebuild.


Yet he has no premiership medallion to show, his on-field impact dwindling as long sought-after success finally beckoned. It's cruel. Fortunately Jones' absence meant he could be present for the birth of his twins; just compensation you could argue.


Like Jones, the legacies of past figures aplenty live on in the bowels of the Melbourne Football Club.


One being that of the revered Neale Daniher, who coached the Demons to a grand final in 2000. Daniher's words – "when all is said and done, more is said than done” – are plastered across the Melbourne changerooms, and were drawn upon by Max Gawn in his spirited half-time address.


It means that in some small way, Daniher, who fought so hard to break Melbourne’s drought decades ago, was able to help lift his cherished Demons over the line.


And while the on-field adversity has been well documented, Melbourne has battled its fair share of turmoil off the field.


Since the turn of the century, the club has lost Troy Broadbridge, Jim Stynes, Dean Bailey and Colin Sylvia, among others, in varying tragic circumstances.


There's no doubt their smiles were beaming down from the heavens above on Saturday. As was that of Norm Smith, who is at peace with his beloved Demons once again.

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