The Melbourne Demons finished second last on the AFL ladder in 2019, amassing just five wins for the entire season.
With all the righteous wrath sent raining down upon the Melbourne Football Club this week, it was a pleasant surprise to find some rare words of compassion glittering like polished diamonds in the sludge.
Tony Shaw – as hard a player as there ever was but also a considerate person – was one commentator who refused to put Melbourne’s dreadful performance against Port Adelaide down to moral culpability.
“The lack of effort is sometimes… you don’t know what you’re doing”, were his wise words. And any committed footballer who has played in an extremely poor side over an extended period or been part of a single appalling performance should have known exactly what he was talking about.
There may be one or two players within that side who don’t care about their performance, and they’re not going to give themselves away, but after the game this group of men looked like they cared. They looked genuinely shocked and traumatised.
Melbourne’s choice of a demon as a mascot (rather than a majestic animal or bird) is an interesting one and so Mike Sheahan lamely took the opportunity to highlight seven deadly sins, devised by him, that he believed the players committed during the game.
Sins? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sin as the breaking of a divine or moral law especially by a conscious act.
The most fundamental moral law of football is providing maximum effort. The footage that Sheahan revealed included a couple of acts of apparent laziness but mainly it showed dropped marks, fumbles, poor decision making, reactive play, and lack of a game plan.
The Demons were awful but it wasn’t a conscious or deliberate act. They’re not sinners. Rather, they appear not to know what they’re doing.
If anything their performance seemed free of the actual seven deadly sins.
There appeared to be little pride in their performance, or lust for possession, they certainly weren’t envious of the success of the opposition, there was little anger, just despair, and they were gluttons for punishment rather than the ball.
Sheahan himself, when referring to the nervous young defender Daniel Nicholson, commented: “This is a bloke clearly without confidence”, rather than: “This bloke clearly doesn’t care”.
And he spoke of Port Adelaide’s rapid improvement as being a result of Ken Hinkley restoring the players’ confidence, not to superior moral fibre.
No one could question the commitment of Mark Neeld whose appears to have developed a tic in his right eye. At the post match press conference his demeanour mirrored that of the actor in a current television commercial masking his toilet odours with a can of Glen 20: the look of men who realise they’ve made a bad choice in their careers.
That is not to say there is not something seriously wrong with the Melbourne Football Club. It has a poor list obviously. Its young players, forced to play too early and too often, are succumbing to stress related injuries.
The valuable Jared Rivers departed for Geelong, and the experienced players they did recruit were rejects, not in great demand elsewhere, or in the case of Chris Dawes, uncertain they wanted to come.
It was mentioned during Sunday’s game that apart from the suspect ploy of running in numbers into the defensive zone without putting pressure on the opposition ball carrier, Melbourne appeared to have no game plan.
Whether that was because the players were too overwhelmed to carry it out, or that there wasn’t one, we’ll never know. But if it’s the latter, the honest hardworking Neeld and his coaching staff may have to go.
Clearly, the fundamental problem is mental. The psyche of a club that has collected two wooden spoons (even if they were engineered) and failed to finish higher than 12th in the past six seasons can’t be good.
And then it lost its much feted number one draft pick who left for greener pastures in 2012. And just days before that season’s opening it also lost its inspirational president.
In February, the lengthy and detailed tanking investigation finally ended. Despite Neeld’s denials it must have affected the morale of the players, even though many of them weren’t around in 2009. It certainly brought into question the integrity of the coaches, administration and board.
There’s no doubt Melbourne have demons that need to be exorcised. But not caring is not one of them.