The Melbourne Demons are a genuine 2021 AFL premiership contender.
While teams such as Fremantle and Carlton are the justifiably popular dark-horse selections of the competition, it’s the Demons who fly under the radar as a potential top-four team.
Scepticism isn’t without reason.
Melbourne have made the finals once in the last 14 seasons, and the fifth-place finish in 2018 appeared to be an aberration in the two seasons that followed.
For over a decade, no one has taken Melbourne seriously.
Finishing second last on the ladder in 2019 after a preliminary final appearance the previous season only added fuel to the fire.
However there was something building in the Demons prior to the 2020 season that felt different.
Adding Adam Tomlinson and Ed Langdon, having already recruited Steven May the previous year, showed that Melbourne were clearly looking to strengthen areas of deficiency.
There has been a lot of criticism directed towards Simon Goodwin over the past couple of seasons for a myriad of reasons, whether they are related to tactical errors or a lack of strong personnel control.
But what Goodwin and the Demons were building was a game plan designed to outlast every other team in the competition.
Pending full fitness of the defensive core, Melbourne’s plan was to turn into a tight defensive unit that could distribute cleanly and spread hard to the wings, outworking their opponents over the space of four quarters.
There was a distinctive early 2010s Port Adelaide vibe to the approach, and with the way Melbourne’s squad was set up, a good rebound year was to be expected.
Except the way 2020 panned out, Melbourne were never a chance.
The shortened quarters put an end to the competitive advantage the Demons had planned for, and the need to adapt to the new playing conditions made the new strategy confusing and unclear.
However, 2020 went a long way to show what Melbourne’s identity will look like going forward in 2021.
Christian Petracca finally played the footy many were longing for, averaging 23.5 disposals and four clearances in the shortened games as a midfielder.
Petracca forged what will be the league’s most dangerous midfield duo for the next five years with Clayton Oliver, while maintaining his goal-a-game average, as well as adding 13 goal assists in 17 games.
The impact Ed Langdon had in the second half of the season suggested the right call was made with his recruitment. His two-way running took a far bigger step forward than the prolific yet sluggish start to the season.
Even the necessity to turn Adam Tomlinson back into a defender has had a positive impact on Melbourne, who now have three completely different tall defenders who can play multiple roles within the defensive half.
And perhaps the most encouraging of all the additions was Trent Rivers, who had an immediate impact in his first season at senior level.
The 19-year-old returned to the team in the second half of the season and looked the most polished and smartest Demon of them all.
With the height to provide some intercepting relief and the skills to execute angled kicks out of the defensive half, as well as the engine and competitiveness to extract the ball through the midfield, Rivers has played a large part in establishing the identity of Melbourne going forward.
While many saw a disappointing season in the nine-win Demons, the coaching staff saw an opening to shift the squad to a more youthful and decisive group, driven by the likes of Trent Rivers.
The Demons were involved in an astonishing four pick-only trades, which were designed to get the team in a position to draft three players who match the high work ethic philosophy Simon Goodwin has long sought to adopt.
Seeing the immediate impact that Rivers had in 2020, Melbourne decided to risk the future picks in order to maximise the current young talent in the squad, and it was a risk well worth taking.
Jake Bowey is the type that most clubs would look at starting as a small forward, but as a junior, he performed excellently on the wing with pace and skills that match the out-working game plan of the Demons this season.
Similarly, Bailey Laurie is small in stature but extremely damaging with ball in hand and will be a perfect conduit between centre stoppages and forward 50 entries, potentially in the same way as Zak Butters at Port Adelaide.
Fraser Rosman was the third and final pick for the Demons and is the tall, athletic type that generally becomes a fan favourite upon senior debut.
Whether Melbourne try to develop him into a key position player or understands the incredible mix of speed and endurance Rosman possesses and allows him to play on a wing is a question for the future, but the Demons were astute in their drafting.
And if it was not obvious enough that Melbourne feel like they’re ready to rise once again in the AFL, then the recruitment of Ben Brown should act as the final tick on the checklist.
Historically, the Demons have had issues with offensive efficiency and in one off-season, the club has gone a long way to fixing that.
Criminally underrated, Brown is the exact presence Melbourne needed to allow for a fully functioning forward line to exist.
The 28-year-old is a strong contested mark, but is at his best as a lead-up forward, which inevitably attracts defenders to follow him.
This subsequently will create space in different pockets inside the forward 50 for the smaller players to operate, with Bayley Fritsch able to take full advantage and find easier shots for goal.
It also means Sam Weideman can fearlessly fly for the ball without the pressure of being the team’s number one key forward, and the likelihood of Brown and Weideman appearing in the same aerial contest is minimal.
The Demons have improved their outside midfield group with endurance, pace and classy ball use, which will allow for precision-based entries to be directed towards Brown and Fritsch.
Meanwhile the likes of Oliver, Petracca and Jack Viney can hack the ball forward knowing the aerial advantage Weideman and Brown will have.
The further vacancy on the wing could even lead to a rejuvenated Tom McDonald finding another role within this team, having been on the outer in 2020.
The third tall forward option would come between Luke Jackson and McDonald, but if the 28-year-old can recapture the fitness that led to him averaging 19 disposals and seven marks a game in defence previously, he may have the advantage with his aerobic capabilities.
This all makes for fantastic potential for a team that has been mocked for a long time.
There is now good depth in every position and a lot of talented young players begging for an opportunity.
Melbourne are finally ready to implement the strategy that had been prepared for 2020, and run the opposition into the ground.
There is plenty of run and good ball use out of defence, the wings are starting to fill up with players possessing elite endurance and good kicking, and crucially, the midfielders can finally play their preferred roles. No more will Jack Viney or Clayton Oliver find themselves as the outlet option on the wing.
The likes of Tom Sparrow and James Jordon are bashing the door down to get regular midfield minutes, while we can expect a lot of Bailey Laurie in 2021.
It is an exciting forward group bursting with strong aerial ability and dangerous pace at the bottom of packs. We are finally going to get to see a Melbourne team that should produce consistent footy all around the ground.
For too long, Melbourne have failed to deliver success and consistent, long-term hope to their loyal fans.
Finally, we are going to get to see a version of this team, under coach Goodwin, that has players in the right spots, and is playing with a clearly defined identity.
It’s time they looked cohesive and worked harder than every other team in the competition.
If your default is to shun the Demons and not take them seriously, a return to familiar footy may serve as a reality check.
If you’re a supporter, embracing the excitement has been hard in the past, but what has previously been a mirage is quickly turning into a very real oasis.
Because Melbourne are coming, and in 2021, no one is safe in this premiership challenge.