Not even the most broken, pessimistic Melbourne fan could have seen 2019 coming.
A preliminary final appearance was followed up by a 5-17 season that was somehow even worse than a 17th-place finish would suggest.
Only the faux AFL team on the Gold Coast conceded more points or scored fewer than the Demons last season.
It was the kind of nightmarish year that brings out the worst in footy discourse – “they’re soft”, “they got ahead of themselves”, “loser club” – all of those scorching-hot takes that might just contain a kernel of truth but are impossible to prove or disprove.
Maybe the Demons were overrated heading into 2019 and their putrid preliminary final performance should have been a giant red flag for optimists.
Maybe they got figured over the off-season that followed.
Maybe their coach is no good.
Maybe they relied more on Jordan Lewis and Nathan Jones than we realised and when those two tipped over the edge they took Melbourne’s hopes with them.
Or maybe the explanation is much simpler than any of that. Maybe they stunk in 2019 because they got injured a lot.
I don’t know when exactly it started or why, but at some point a good chunk of the footy-watching world decided injuries weren’t a valid excuse, which is of course ridiculous.
Melbourne’s four most important defenders are, in some order, Jake Lever, Steven May, Michael Hibberd and Neville Jetta.
That foursome appeared on an AFL field together a total of twice in the 2019 season.
Any combination of three of them managed just six games together. That’s a killer for a group that has never previously played together.
Unsurprisingly, the 2019 Demons conceded a goal on 25.9 per cent of their opponents’ inside 50s, which was better than only the Saints and the Suns.
Continuity might be as important as talent in today’s AFL, especially when it comes to the defensive part of the ground. It’s no surprise the Tigers were able to hold it together even after their superstar key back Alex Rance went down last year when you consider the amount of footy Nick Vlastuin, Dylan Grimes, Bachar Houli and David Astbury have played together.
It wasn’t a whole lot better at the other end for Melbourne. The now-underrated Christian Petracca – I’ll buy any and all of your Petracca stock – played every game. But Tom McDonald managed just 15 matches and was hobbling around like he should have been put on ice for a good chunk of those, while Alex Neal-Bullen played 14 and Jake Melksham 12.
With Jesse Hogan gone it was another far-from-ideal situation for a unit trying to forge a new identity and build chemistry.
Unsurprisingly, the Demons converted just 18.8 per cent of their inside 50s into goals, which was good for dead last in that category, just a year after they were the highest-scoring team in the league.
There weren’t many positives for Melbourne last year, but the one thing injuries provide is opportunity, and Marty Hore grabbed his. The mature-age recruit looked more than comfortable at AFL level and should only find life easier when (or if) he’s sharing the field with the Demons’ best defenders.
Similarly, Bayley Fritsch is good and looked more than comfortable and capable in the later parts of the season when playing in the attacking half of the ground. He too will benefit from playing alongside a healthy McDonald and Melksham, who might just be Melbourne’s most important player, just as they will benefit from playing alongside him.
The midfield is still strong. Max Gawn and Clayton Oliver is the best ruck-rover combination in the league, though Melbourne fans will be hoping Oliver spends more time in 2020 kicking with his eyes open than he did in 2019. James Harmes has established himself as a fine player. Angus Brayshaw needs to be better. Jack Viney needs to be fit.
Last season was ugly – there’s no point pretending otherwise – and current injuries to Gawn and especially May are concerning. And you can’t have a decade as futile as Melbourne did recently without carrying some baggage.
Thankfully, the Demons don’t need to look too far into the past for an example to give them hope. There were plenty of snickers at Richmond’s expense after a pitiful 2016 season.
It’d be foolish to predict Melbourne can repeat the feats of the 2017 Tigers, but after what footy has served up in the past half-decade, it’d be equally foolish to insist they can’t.