OPINION

Polished Melbourne could be poised to erase some of the Demons of the past

Defender Jake Lever has been a big part of Melbourne's success this year. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Defender Jake Lever has been a big part of Melbourne's success this year. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

One of sport's most famous jinxes was American baseball's "Curse of the Bambino", involving legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Boston Red Sox had been one of the game's most successful teams, until they sold Ruth to the then-struggling New York Yankees in 1920.

The latter side would quickly become, and remain, a powerhouse. The Red Sox would go a staggering 86 years without winning another pennant, from 1918 until 2004.

Australian football hasn't had curses of that magnitude, though the "Colliwobbles" came close in terms of recognition. Collingwood went 32 years without a flag from 1958-90, famously playing in nine grand finals along the way without winning even one.

But Melbourne does have its own burden eerily similar to the Ruth story, involving one of football's most famous names: Norm Smith.

The man after whom the best-on-ground grand final medal is named played in three Melbourne premierships.

He then coached the Demons to another six flags in an incredible era of success for the club, which played in seven grand finals from 1954-60 for five wins, and landing another in 1964.

Smith's sensational and scarcely believable sacking midway through the next season brought it all undone.

Though promptly reinstated after public outrage, the damage to the fabric of the club had been done.

Melbourne would fall in a heap, not only in 1965, but for the next 22 years - in which it did not make even a token finals appearance.

The Demons' flag drought is now up to 57 years.

They've made just two grand finals in that time - 1988 and 2000 - and just happened to run into arguably the two strongest teams of the modern era, thrashed by a then-record 96 points against Hawthorn on the first occasion, and by 10 goals against Essendon the second time.

The history lesson is appropriate. Because it's fair to say Melbourne is, right now, as close as it's been to a 13th premiership as at any stage of the long run of outs.

And long-suffering Demon fans are quite rightly starting to get a little toey about the prospect.

That 1988 model under coach John Northey was as willing as they came. But frankly, it couldn't hold a candle to a Hawthorn outfit which took it apart when it mattered.

In 2000, Neale Daniher's version simply couldn't compete with an Essendon team which lost just one game all year.

Even the Melbourne which made it to a preliminary final in 2018 did so against the odds, coming from outside the top four to win two finals before running into a rampant West Coast on its home track in Perth.

But at 9-0 - the club's best start to a season since 1956 - this model under Simon Goodwin has it all over that one, too.

Not that the personnel is that different. Indeed, there's still 17 of the 22 that played in the 2018 preliminary final on the books. But the addition of just a few names and a few tweaks to how Melbourne plays its football have made a huge difference to the Demons' capabilities, and so far, their performance.

The most obvious differences are at either end of the field.

Down back, key position players Steven May and Jake Lever are combining superbly to give Melbourne the AFL's stingiest defence, conceding a miserly average of just 62 points per game.

Up forward, Melbourne in 2018 was the league's highest-scoring team. But relied heavily on a bevy of medium-sized goalkickers, in addition to Tom McDonald and Jesse Hogan.

This year, there's more balance about the forward set-up. Bayley Fritsch is the perfect foil for a range of talls now including McDonald, Ben Brown, Sam Weideman and Luke Jackson; Kysaiah Pickett is the brilliant ground-level goalsneak the Demons needed.

Even a perpetual strong suit, the midfield, ticks over so much better.

The brilliant Christian Petracca is a much more complete player three years on and one of the game's most explosive midfielders, while Ed Langdon gives this team a lot more pace.

Most importantly, this midfield has a much better balance between inside and outside work and more potent delivery to that forward set-up than has been the case since 2018, after which the Demons would consistently rack up healthy inside 50 numbers for very poor conversion rates.

The challenges continue in 2021. But the Demons keep rising to them.

They've knocked over both last year's grand finalists, Richmond and Geelong, as well as Sydney.

There's still four of the current top eight the Demons have yet to play, but in their current mood, who'd think they couldn't answer them just as emphatically.

A near 60-year premiership wait is going to mean some jittery fans as finals draw nearer, but there's something a lot steelier about this version of their team. It really is a very good chance of going all the way.

And if tales like the curse of Norm Smith are your fear, Demon fans, maybe this little slice of the past will give you some encouragement.

Melbourne has been 9-0 to start a season just five times.

On each occasion, the end result has been a shiny premiership trophy.

Now that's a slightly happier historical anecdote, isn't it?

This story Rohan Connolly | Polished Melbourne could be poised to erase some of the Demons of the past first appeared on The Canberra Times.