Brisbane were undoubtedly the darlings of the AFL in 2019, enjoying a meteoric rise from 15th to 2nd after nine seasons out of the top eight.
As Max Gawn started his run-up, which was really more of a dawdle-up, a little too side-on and considered, I turned to the person next to me and said: “He’s going to miss to the right.”
Gawn did miss, but to the left.
It was fitting: what the Demons have long been best at is surprising you in the different ways that they can fail.
Gawn’s kick, struck with a total lack of conviction that belied the strength and determination of his preceding mark and overall performance, confirmed Melbourne’s latest ignominy.
It was a sad, logical conclusion to a trilogy of disappointment that started at the end of 2017. Their final two performances last season, both at the MCG too, were Gawn’s kick in the form of full matches: an uneasy, unconvincing, squeaky win over the Lions followed by a convincingly catastrophic loss to a Collingwood team with nothing to play for, which ensured that Melbourne would also have nothing to play for the following week.
It was a calamity softened by the thought of what should come next. There was no assured decline looming for the Dees like there seemed to be for West Coast, no hundred-mile walk back to relevance as for North Melbourne, and no crippling ambiguity as to where the team actually stood – see: Collingwood.
The Demons had too much young, realised talent to be held down. So much went wrong last year: injuries to both captains, as well as to Jesse Hogan and Max Gawn – unequivocally the team’s two most important players – combining to miss virtually half the season.
With the promise of better health, and the confirmed excellence of Jake Lever to replace the mostly theoretical excellence of Jack Watts, making finals in 2018 was an obvious and reasonable expectation.
And so they may still make finals – a three-point loss to the team that finished last year’s home-and-away season second on the ladder doesn’t change much. But this was an opportunity: the Demons had key absences (Jack Viney, Tom McDonald) but with Patrick Dangerfield out and Harry Taylor finished after the first quarter, this was a game that the favoured Dees should have won.
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They didn’t, making it another small chapter in their now voluminous misery book. The critical murmurs surrounding the team’s off-season will only get louder. And for whatever the weirdness of that off-season, or at least the weirdness of the discourse around it, signals or doesn’t signal, it’s apparent that there’s just something undeniably off about this team.
They look unstoppable at times – a connected defence repelling attacks, vicious contested ball success leading to break-away, lightning quick handball chains out into space, setting up Hogan or Christian Petracca to cap the brilliance with the most brilliant act in the passage. The way they strangled the life out of Port Adelaide last season, crushed the Crows in Adelaide and ran over the top of Collingwood on Queen’s Birthday spoke to a team whose ceiling is as high as anyone’s.
But then there were two meek, incomprehensible losses to North Melbourne, an early season dagger loss to a Hawthorn team that couldn’t beat anyone, and a total roll-over against the Giants in the final month of the season in a game that was supposed to be a blockbuster.
The inconsistency was shining in this game against Geelong – the powerful, weaving brilliance of Petracca, the interior magic of Clayton Oliver, the dominance of Gawn, and the spectre of Hogan bringing the Demons back from an uninterested, lethargic second quarter where Geelong did whatever they wanted – allowed acres of space at stoppages, with tackles half-heartedly missed as Geelong players spread with an intensity that the Demons had no inclination to match.
It says a lot about Melbourne that they were able to drag themselves back, to the point where they should have won.
But it perhaps says more that they needed to drag themselves back in the first place – suggesting that maybe the lessons of last year still haven’t been learnt yet.