In 1995, the previously undefeated Carlton hit flat ground, dropping games on both sides inferior. In Monday’s practice, captain Stephen Kernahan stopped the group in the middle of the round and growled in his hoarse, gravelly voice: “We’re not losing another fucking game!” They finished their round, beat Hawthorn by 102 points at the weekend, won their next 16 games and qualified for the Premiership. They were one of the great teams, a team that bridged the semi-pro and fully pro eras, a team that pretty much trained themselves, a team that got back into shape with six guttural words.
That wouldn’t be enough for the management of men these days. In 2022 football clubs stress the importance of culture, connection, roles, safe environments, talking about your problems. Melbourne would have done a lot of that this week. In the space of a fortnight they suffered two casualties, injuries, illnesses, criticism of the small crowds, leaked text messages, drunken sleds, mowers, infected hands, punishment for community service, an Integrity Department investigation, and a conga line of question marks. What’s going on here, as Steve Kernahan would no doubt ask?
If their September was cinematic, the following fall was procedural. The only real hint of conflict came in February, when manager Simon Goodwin was splashed on the front page of the Herald Sun for the atrocity of having a beer with his players. It was a strange story, which didn’t quite pass the Sorrento Pub test. We read the story of a man in a high-pressure job, going through a marriage breakup, at the end of a month-long lockdown, enjoying a beer and a punt with his players. He was being criticized by a League CEO whose bread is buttered by Big Gambling and Big Alcohol.
The Dees circled the wagons, laughed it off, and won the first ten games of the year. They were just ticking boxes. They would choke, freak them out, bomb and hope. Their defense, led by Stephen May, was impenetrable. “Be very scared,” said David King. “Melbourne are around 70% of last year, and they are already proving they are 50% better than the rest of the competition.”
Maybe players shorted out as they struggled with the math of this. But ahead of the game against Fremantle, there were signs that things weren’t quite right. The only top team they had beaten was St Kilda, who tried something new in the first season, only to get blown up in the face. They were far from convincing against a miserable North Melbourne. Winter was here, injuries were increasing, the forward line wasn’t clicking and every opponent was treating them like a free kick, a chance to try something new. After all, this competition is set up for the fighter, for the swooper, for the team that can mine, copy and pick holes.
And then came the fight. It’s a sad situation when a drunk footballer who hit his teammate leads the evening news. Guys who assault their partners get a lot less attention. This incident goes right back to the 1990s, when alcohol-related incidents were swept under the beer rug. But we rarely hear about it these days. Most top players are cleanskins. As Bailey Smith showed this weekend, most debauchery takes place in the off season.
It’s a strange thing to say when Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn and Christian Petracca raffle all three Brownlow votes each week. But May is arguably their most important player. He rarely gets beaten, straightens them up and is an incredibly smart footballer. Every player in the competition has undoubtedly been instructed to stop sending the ball to him. The coach’s favorite phrase is ‘command behind the ball’ and May plays a central role in that. When he suffered a concussion, Melbourne suddenly looked deadly.
It’s tempting to dismiss an incident like this as a trifle, as a fatality in a world of alpha males. But in a club like Melbourne, it’s important. Nathan Jones was livid when he spoke about it on Friday. Gawn, coming off one of the best individual games in years, looked pissed and disappointed. If his 2021 Captain’s Diary is anything to go by, they’ve spent a good chunk of 2021 in the emotional swipe spot, expressing their love and gratitude. They had a trademark, TRUE, – Trust, Respect, Unity, Excellence’. Three quarters into a Grand Final, Petracca had just been torn apart, Gawn told him, “I’m so proud of the man you’ve become.” The contrast to May’s alleged outburst this week couldn’t be starker.
After a week of fights and drug-related scandals, there’s nothing like a date for the Queen’s birthday and the presence of Neale Daniher to remind us what really matters. All the trifles and the catastrophic pale. The current Melbourne manager talks about ‘learnings’ and ‘resets’. Daniher would never use such language. As a player, as a coach, and as the public face of motor neurone disease, he never faked weasel words. He has now lost his ability to speak. But he will be at the MCG today, doing far more important tasks than waking up a flat football team.
Daniher was a fierce coach in his day, and we can try what he might say in Melbourne if given the chance. Don’t be a one-year-and-state wonder, would be the main thing. In 2021, you were running downhill. You were the feel-good story. This year, it’s more of a chore. This year, the entire competition, the football media and even your former employees are all after you. What is the strength of this culture, this system and this trademark of which you are proud?