Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca embrace during Melbourne's win over Hawthorn in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

IN THE first of the two consecutive COVID-ravaged AFL seasons in 2020, the Melbourne Football Club was one of the AFL's favourite teams.

It completed 99 per cent of tasks by the book, largely abided by the onerous health protocols, and happily contributed club resources to bigger-picture projects which helped keep the game alive in south-east Queensland when other parts of the country had shut it down.

Not even a meltdown by player Harley Bennell very late in that season adversely impacted the AFL's view of Melbourne being a model-citizens club in the toughest of times.

The Demons and every other club were well aware that Richmond was the AFL's wooden spooner on that 2020 behaviour ladder, with some Tigers players jeopardising the continuation of football in Queensland at that time, and with others generally displaying highly privileged attitudes in times where everyone was doing it tough.

It wasn't lost on key people at the Demons, particularly the players, that while they were thanked by the AFL for behaving impeccably, they again missed the finals and Richmond won the flag, a third premiership for it in four seasons. Being liked, it was observed and discussed by Demons heavies, didn't necessarily produce optimum on-field results.

Melbourne players leave an empty MCG after their loss to Geelong in round four, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

Melbourne instantly committed to hardening up operations and attitudes, not necessarily to be Richmond, but to adopt a Richmond-like ruthlessness. The resolve worked – the Demons won the premiership the next season. And now, the similarities, to a point, are continuing, with some behaviour attached to the Demons in the past two seasons probably giving them the same unofficial status the Tigers had in 2020, that of being the club giving headquarters the most headaches.

Player Joel Smith remains engulfed in a Sports Integrity Australia case alleging detection of cocaine during a match day test. Superstar Clayton Oliver was stood down by the club late last year and required AFL football department approval to return to senior list training. A former president has launched legal action against several parties over alleged behavioural matters. Steven May and Jake Melksham brawled in a Prahran street.

People at Melbourne know they are not that well liked at the moment by too many people outside their own operations, despite senior club officials, including CEO Gary Pert and coach Simon Goodwin, regularly denying they have a "culture problem".

Simon Goodwin and Gary Pert at a Melbourne training session in March, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The club is clearly committed to running its business its way, and while I would argue strongly there have, indeed, been cultural problems, I have also come to admire how at no stage has anyone attached to the club sought to play the woe-is-us card. Not even when the shattering news of brilliant midfielder Angus Brayshaw's retirement on medical grounds was added to the list of many Melbourne problems.

There has also been an understanding and acceptance of the regular negative media coverage.

The game-on approach has been present through all of Melbourne's public ordeals, and it is known that internally players and officials are deriving a source of power from being disliked and written off.

The decision last December to properly punish Oliver, and to indefinitely stand him down when he again presented in questionable condition at a pre-season camp, may have come 12 months – or maybe two years – too late, but it nevertheless came.

Dealing with Oliver and some of his behaviour had always been problematic, and his all-time great football ability, which secured him four best and fairest awards between 2017-22, simply meant that some issues had been ignored. That's how football clubs work – off-field problems are dealt with on a scale according to on-field ability, until the point of no return is reached.

Clayton Oliver handballs to Max Gawn during Melbourne's win over Hawthorn in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Melbourne officially hit Oliver with a set of conditions which the club was convinced made it impossible for him to return to the senior team by the 2024 season's Opening Round.

But he did. Brayshaw's retirement obviously created a vacancy in the Demons' best 23, but so diligent had Oliver been in his personal and physical rehab that he would have probably been included for the first game anyway, which was a loss to Sydney at the SCG.

Melbourne people and Oliver himself know they are nowhere near the end point of their program, but there has been an obvious pride from club and player as they negotiate their new non-negotiable parameters of existence together.

This was evident in a brilliant post-match interview conducted by Sarah Jones, after the Demons' big win against Western Bulldogs two weeks ago. Standing alongside an obviously proud Gawn, and clearly empowered because Gawn was there, Oliver spoke like never before, showing humility and an awareness of his good fortune to still be a Melbourne player.

The Demons' Opening Round loss followed the straight-sets finals exit of 2023, where qualifying and semi-finals were lost to Collingwood and Carlton, respectively, by seven and two points. It was a second consecutive season of two finals losses, and added great weight to the notion the club's quest for another flag was over.

Gawn had a shocker against the Swans and his old teammate Brodie Grundy in the season-opener, and it is known he was embarrassed by his performance. He won't want this made public – but everyone at his club knew about one minute into the game that he shouldn't have played that night due to a heavy flu-like ailment.

Max Gawn during Melbourne's loss to Sydney in Opening Round, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Gawn's leadership of Melbourne has been rightly hugely celebrated, yet also questioned in the past six months as the Smith and Oliver situations played out messily. People who know him best say he has never led better during this timeframe, and free of the flu-like symptoms in the Demons' second and third games of the year, he was back to his best in big wins against the Dogs and Hawthorn.

More public evidence of the internal galvanising of Melbourne came late in the Hawks game when Christian Petracca ran all the way to the defensive goalsquare to stop a goal, even with his team nine goals clear. Petracca immediately celebrated the act with a double fist-pump, and all Melbourne defenders rushed to thank him.

The background to the joy around this act is an off-season commitment by Melbourne players to embrace selfless people and acts as part of a wider project to never take for granted the elite work of the team's defensive structure, led by May and Jake Lever.


Even with the injuries sustained by May (ribs and back) and Lever (knee) against Hawthorn and the doubts about their availability for upcoming matches, Melbourne isn't complaining. It was one of the less vocal younger players in the team who quickly reminded the playing group after the Hawks game that when one man goes down, there is always another to replace him.

Just as Marty Hore replaced the injured Jake Bowey, and Christian Salem has stepped in to play the Brayshaw role, veteran swingman Tom McDonald will likely cover for May. Again, no woe-is-us attitudes, just a get-on-with-it mentality.

As much as things change in footy, and footy clubs, two facets will always stay the same.

One, a club can only act its way out of behavioural problems, not talk its way out. And two, winning matches will make nearly all problems disappear anyway.

Melbourne is ticking both those boxes. It won't be falling away, not in 2024 anyway.

X: @barrettdamian