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From last to first pick: Why there's plenty of hope at Arden Street

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Roar Rookie
25th November, 2021
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North Melbourne Football Club is an interesting beast, and for many years it had been assumed that the club just couldn’t afford to bottom out lest it financially collapse.

So having finished 2021 in the wooden spoon position – the first time since 1972, in the then 12-team VFL – North Melbourne should be by all predictions on the verge of collapse as supporters desert the club with dwindling hope.

And yet the supporters haven’t left and the club is still intact.

A couple of weeks ago the club announced that it is free of debt for the first time in 34 years, since 1987. This is laudable no doubt; doing it during the turmoil of COVID-19 and finishing 17th in 2020 and 18th in 2021 goes entirely against the accepted wisdom. The script was ready but the club ad-libbed brilliantly.

It’s important to acknowledge that a footy club with 152 years of history is more than a plastic franchise, and that is where much of the core strength of support has come to break the shackles of debt.

The ‘give and take’ element of this is seen in the storied history. Good and bad. Life.

The North Melbourne cheer squad show their support

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

In 2003 former West Coast and North Melbourne premiership player Dani Laidley returned to Arden Street to take on senior AFL coaching. In that debut season Laidley was faced with a bit of everything, starting with a first-up win and a loss down at Geelong followed by a rare draw at a Docklands stadium more reassembling a beach.

In Round 6 former North legend Wayne Carey fronted up as a Crow against his old side in a grudge match very different to most, having resigned from the Kangaroos in disgrace the previous year.


A few weeks later, Round 11, and the Kangas were hosting Richmond at Docklands in the one and only senior game for the year of Jason McCartney. It would also be his final AFL match. The Bali bombings survivor completed a remarkable comeback and provided the full stop moment with a crucial late goal in a three-point win and subsequently announced his retirement in a post-match on-field interview. Talk about an introduction to coaching in Laidley’s first half-season.

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Laidley coached 149 games over seven seasons and recently returned, along with another recent former coach, Brad Scott, to Arden Street to help mark the occasion of reaching debt-free status. It was her first time at the club as Dani – another reminder that a footy club is about life. The club and Laidley have earnt tremendous respect – I’ve not heard a bad word said.

With ups come downs: Ben Cunnington has announced he has bigger things to deal with and will be embarking on a chemotherapy course to overcome secondary cancer after his initial 2021-ending testicular cancer diagnosis earlier this year. We hope for the best for Cunners.


Within a week the club had some good news: North has selected its first-ever No. 1 draft pick in young Jason Horne-Francis from the South Adelaide Panthers. Horne-Francis walks full of hope into a wooden spoon club, but a club that’s far from the predicted rabble. He walks into a history and a legacy and a community. He walks into a club that is so much more than a football team.

In recent years North Melbourne has established an AFLW side after a long connection with Melbourne University in the VFLW and has moved to a standalone VFL structure. These parts help piece together a true community club.

Will there be too much focus and pressure on Horne-Smith? I’d argue not. He joins Will Phillips (Pick 2, 2020), Tom Powell (Pick 13, 2020), Jacob Edwards (Pick 1, 2021, midyear), Tarryn Thomas (Pick 8, 2018), Luke Davies-Uniacke (Pick 4, 2017) and Jy Simpkin (Pick 12, 2016) as top-end draft selections who are either just nearing their sweet spot in their mid-20s after just under 100 games and are showing signs of being ten-year players.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that Jacob Edwards was considered a potential top ten had he held off and waited for the end-of-season draft. These players bring with them hope in truck loads.

Horne-Francis is ‘senior ready’, and North Melbourne has shown that bottoming out – on the ladder at least – is far from the worst thing that can happen. It’s what happens next that’s important. After 1972 North Melbourne went on to make the 1974 grand final and win their first VFL premiership the following year in 1975.


And after all, if nothing else, supporting a footy club is an exercise in hope.