Demons aim high after AFL off-season from hell

By Shayne Hope
Updated March 3 2024 - 10:05am, first published 10:01am
Clayton Oliver is a vital part of Melbourne's plans to claim another AFL premiership. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)
Clayton Oliver is a vital part of Melbourne's plans to claim another AFL premiership. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

A hellish summer has landed Melbourne smack in the centre of the AFL spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Troubled midfielder Clayton Oliver's personal health issues, the Joel Smith drugs saga and former president Glen Bartlett's legal stoush with the board have all threatened to derail the Demons in the off-season.

Persistent rumours surrounding Simon Goodwin's position have forced denials out of the club, which has repeatedly backed its coach.

The off-field tumult has added further fuel to the fire after the Dees' second successive finals flop, with the drought-breaking 2021 premiership under Goodwin now seeming like a distant memory.

Critics have questioned Melbourne's club culture, which chief executive Gary Pert last year declared "the best I've seen in 40 years" in football.

As is often the case in this caper, that culture will be judged in hindsight.

Months of intense media and public scrutiny hasn't fazed Demons captain Max Gawn, who has stood tall as a leader of his club throughout.

The imposing ruckman leaves no doubt about his players' motivation heading into the new season, which presents as a make-or-break campaign for the highly talented group.

"I don't think the external storyline necessarily makes us want to prove anything, but certainly our own storyline of losing four finals in a row is why we want to prove something," Gawn said.

"We have put ourselves in great positions, and I love that we've put ourselves in great positions.

"Top four is incredibly hard to do and we've done it three years in a row.

"But we've sort of been embarrassed on the finals stage; four times at the MCG, twice against sides that aren't from Melbourne, and (three) of them we led at some point in the game.

"Collingwood we might not have, but we certainly got close.

"That's what we want to prove to our supporters and those in the external world, that we have improved over this last little bit.

"We have looked at those finals and it's something we want to get right."

Oliver's fitness, both physical and mental, is crucial to Melbourne's chances of adding another flag to the 2021 success and elevating their status from "good'' to "great'' among the modern era's most decorated teams.

The Demons have one of the competition's most feared engine rooms when the 26-year-old ball-winner shows up alongside Gawn, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney.

But without him Goodwin's arsenal might lack the required firepower to compete with the best.

Gawn wants to keep Oliver "honest" this season and has stayed on-message with the club when declaring their intention to make sure the four-time best-and-fairest winner reaches his full potential.

"I want to set Clayton up for an unbelievable season and I want to set Clayton up for the rest of his life," Gawn said.

Regardless of Oliver's on-field presence or otherwise, the Demons will have a new look in 2024.

Brodie Grundy was traded to Sydney in an admission the experiment of a ruck-forward partnership with Gawn was a failure.

Defender Michael Hibberd has hung up his boots, and much-loved premiership teammate Angus Brayshaw was forced to retire on medical advice because of concussion effects, just days out from the start of the season.

A forward-line that has been the Demons' weakest link in recent seasons has been bolstered by the addition of ex-Adelaide sharpshooter Shane McAdam.

Jack Billings has been brought in from St Kilda, Tom Fullarton has joined from Brisbane and No.7 draft pick Caleb Windsor has shown glimpses of untapped potential over summer.

Gawn, one of 18 premiership players from 2021 still on the list, maintains a positive outlook.

"It hasn't been weighing too many people down with what's been going on," the skipper said.

"We've had a really good summer, we've been able to get some miles into a lot of players.

"Jack Billings and Shane McAdam have come across and hopefully made us better, and Caleb Windsor could be a sneaky chance to play in those early games, so I think we're a better team.

"I heard Steele (Sidebottom) say the same Collingwood won't win it this year, and that's 100 per cent correct.

"The same Melbourne won't be able to finish top four this year. We have to improve and get better, and hopefully we will."

If Melbourne can improve, especially with a fit and firing Oliver, then another flag is clearly possible.

But they face plenty of competition, not least from rising Carlton, last year's beaten grand finalists Brisbane and reigning premiers Collingwood.

All have beaten the Demons in September during the past two years - so, too, have Sydney - but Goodwin is determined to use those finals failures to his advantage.

"I think any time you can use adversity to grow, you're looking at it the right way," Goodwin said at Melbourne's season launch.

"The first thing we did when we walked back into the club (for pre-season), as coaches to start with and then the players, we looked at our finals.

"We've lost four finals in a row and we're not going to shy away from that, we're going to grab that as an opportunity.

"We're going to use that adversity."

Australian Associated Press