The 2014 season was a significant step forward for North Melbourne. The Roos finished the home and away season in their highest position in coach Brad Scott's five-year reign (sixth), beat every other team in the top eight and won their first finals since 2007. However, consistency was an issue, with costly losses to lower-ranked teams such as the Brisbane Lions and Carlton preventing the Roos from securing a top-four berth.
Brad Scott successfully made North a more defensive team in 2014, with the Roos far better equipped to handle the opposition momentum swings that had plagued them in 2013. The 'tough love' Scott showed Levi Greenwood (in 2012 and 2013) and Sam Wright also paid off, with the pair emerging from stints in the VFL to become key players. Scott has enormous faith that his team's best is good enough to beat any team. His challenge in 2015 will be ensuring North produces its best – or close to it – week in, week out. Scott is contracted to the end of 2016.
Tighter defence: North became harder to score against this season, conceding 78.7 points a game (fifth in the AFL) compared to 87.7 points in 2013 (eighth).
Beating the best: North beat all of this year's top five home and away teams, including remarkable away victories against the Sydney Swans at the SCG in round four and Fremantle at Patersons Stadium in round six.
Greater midfield depth: The addition of former Saint Nick Dal Santo, Levi Greenwood's renaissance and the continued development of Ben Cunnington and Sam Gibson meant North was able to cover the long-term absences of Andrew Swallow (Achilles) and Daniel Wells (foot), and Brent Harvey during his three-game suspension late in the season.
Consistency: If it was going to make the top four, North could not afford to drop games to the Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast (at home) and Carlton. The Roos were also strangely flat in their losses to Essendon (round one), Collingwood and Adelaide (round 13).
Injuries: After a good run with injury in recent seasons, North was hit hard in 2014. It started behind the eight ball with skipper Andrew Swallow carrying an Achilles injury into the season, but Jamie Macmillan (fibula), Daniel Wells (foot) and Nathan Grima (foot) then suffered injuries early in the year that ruled them out for most of the season. Lachlan Hansen (hip) also missed six of the last seven games, including all three of North's finals, while key-position players Robbie Tarrant (tibia), Cameron Delaney (toe) and Tom Curran (foot) played just one senior game between them, and second-year forward Taylor Garner did not play at any level after suffering a hamstring injury in the NAB Cup loss to Hawthorn in late February.
MVP: Ben Cunnington
The young midfielder had a quiet patch mid-season, but led North's midfield brilliantly at the start of the year in Andrew Swallow's absence and came home strongly too. Led the Roos in clearances and contested possessions and proved himself a dangerous pinch-hitting forward late in the season. Was North's best player in the finals, averaging 26.7 possessions and 6.3 clearances a game.
Surprise packet: Ben Brown
North's key-forward stocks were hampered by injuries to Robbie Tarrant, Majak Daw and Tom Curran, and Aaron Black's disappointing form, but mature-age recruit Ben Brown stood up in the Roos' hour of need. The 200cm Tasmanian quickly became a cult hero at Arden Street with his red mop top and quirky – but effective – run-up to goal, but, more importantly, proved himself a highly effective sidekick to Drew Petrie. In 11 games, Brown kicked 18 goals, including a team-high four in the comeback elimination final win over Essendon.
Best rookie/first-year player: Luke McDonald
The son of 1980s North forward Donald McDonald made a seamless transition into AFL football in 2014, making his debut in round one and missing just two games, the first through illness and the second when he was rested ahead of the finals. McDonald played predominantly in defence, where his pin-point left foot stood out, but spent some time on the wing later in the season and performed a solid shut-down role on Rory Sloane in the Roos' round 22 win over Adelaide. Finished third in the NAB AFL Rising Star award.
Disappointments: Ryan Bastinac and Aaron Black
Forward Black and midfielder Bastinac entered this season as two of North's brightest young prospects, but both endured disappointing years despite playing every game. Black, who was troubled by a shoulder injury, struggled to have the same impact he had in 2013 alongside Drew Petrie in attack, kicking 26 goals in 25 games compared to 33 in 18 last year. Bastinac averaged 16.4 possessions a game compared to 21.3 in 2013 and regularly started games as North's substitute.
Best win: 12-point win over Essendon, second elimination final, MCG.
North looked down and out when it slipped 33 points behind early in third term, with the Bombers controlling the tempo of the game as they had done in their comprehensive round one defeat of the Roos. However, sparked by four goals from Brown, Wright in defence, and Wells, Greenwood and Cunnington in the midfield, the Roos slammed on 12 goals in the second half to the Bombers' six to claim a memorable victory. It was their first finals win since 2007 and, significantly, they did it without the suspended Harvey.
North's round 15 loss to the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba was an unmitigated disaster. After a bright start that saw them lead by 22 points after the opening 17 minutes, the Roos went to sleep and found themselves 33 points behind early in the third term. North came back from there and had its chances to pinch the game in the dying seconds, but ultimately could only blame itself for losing to a team that had won just three games heading into round 15.
What needs to improve?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, North has to narrow the gap between its best and its worst if it's going to make the leap into the top-four in 2015. With the competition so tight, it simply cannot afford to continue dropping games to teams it should beat. The preliminary final loss to the Sydney Swans also highlighted that the Roos need to keep injecting class into their team, with quick, classy outside runners and an elite key defender priorities.
Retirements: Michael Firrito is the only North veteran who remains unsigned for next season and, given his outstanding 2014 season, he is likely to play on next year. Some doubt surrounds the future of young key forward Tom Curran, with a recurring right foot injury (navicular) limiting him to just six senior VFL games in his three seasons at Arden Street.
Delistings: Liam Anthony, Taylor Hine, Mitch Wilkins and rookie Tim McGenniss are all out of contract and look set to finish up at Arden Street. Key defender Nathan Grima also remains unsigned for 2015, but is expected to earn a new deal, although small forward Robbie Nahas' future remains unclear, especially given Kayne Turner's impressive development late this year.
Trades/free agents: Levi Greenwood remains out of contract and will be in demand after his breakthrough season, but the midfielder is likely to stay at North. Running half-back Aaron Mullett could attract opposition interest after falling out of favour late this season, while North might be open to rival offers for Ryan Bastinac and Brad McKenzie. The Roos are also in the running to sign Carlton spearhead Jarrad Waite and Western Bulldog Shaun Higgins as free agents.
What they need
Although Lachlan Hansen's absence late in the season did not help, the preliminary final loss to the Sydney Swans underlined the Roos' need for a 195cm-plus key defender. Joel Tippett could play that role, but North will presumably be looking for another 'gorilla' defender in the draft or at the trade table. North's inside midfield stocks run deep, but another classy outside midfielder in the mould of Daniel Wells would not go astray.