Brodie Smith and Crows teammates look dejected after the round 10 match between Collingwood and Adelaide at the MCG, May 18, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

EXPECTATION and youth can be a dangerous mix in the AFL.

When you add in a six-year finals drought that stretches back to 2017, it's the sort of mix that can leave a club and its fans pulling their hair out when things aren't going to plan.

After four years of linear improvement, the Adelaide side of 2024 is learning what happens when expectations are not met. Following a dispiriting loss to Hawthorn last weekend, which left the impression that Sam Mitchell's young group is overtaking them, the Crows have slid to a 4-1-7 record on the season.

The tough questions have come this week and chairman John Olsen was forced on Wednesday to defend the re-signing of coach Matthew Nicks for a further two seasons back in March, when expectations were high.

A lot has gone wrong since and the team will get younger on Thursday night when 19-year-old midfielder Billy Dowling debuts. But regardless of the result against 17th-placed Richmond, the Crows face a serious challenge to recover enough to play finals this year.

Adelaide players look dejected after a loss to Hawthorn in round 12, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

One win and one draw through a favourable fixture in the past month has not been enough to erase the damage of a 0-4 start to the season, so it's time for a stocktake on the club's current issues and the path forward.

Starting in the medical room, the loss of pre-season star Riley Thilthorpe to a serious knee injury before round one robbed Nicks of one of his crucial tall assets and the ability to have a different look in the ruck throughout games, which he will seek this week with Kieran Strachan (who will play his first senior game in two years) replacing Reilly O'Brien.

Every team is battling injuries in 2024, but the loss of much improved defender Josh Worrell (arm) and classy half-back Wayne Milera (knee) have hurt the backline, and the midfield has taken a significant hit in recent weeks with the loss of dynamic ball-winner Izak Rankine (hamstring).

Izak Rankine during the round 10 match between Collingwood and Kuwarna (Adelaide) at the MCG, May 18, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Add in the recent loss of their best ball-winning midfielder in Matt Crouch (shoulder) and sore veteran Taylor Walker (back) and you can see why the Crows are going to field what Olsen forecast would be the youngest team of the round this week.

On field, frustration is becoming evident and was best captured by young forward Josh Rachele's comments this week that he was seeking clarity about his lack of midfield opportunities against the Hawks.

Rachele expanded on those comments later and explained he was referencing what his role would be this week against Richmond, but Nicks clearly felt the need to address and resolve the issue with the talented youngster.

Josh Rachele in action during Adelaide's loss to Hawthorn in round 12, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"Josh and I have had a really good chat this week, and off the back of poor performance sometimes as a team what can happen is some frustration," Nicks said. "We've worked our way through that. He's been fantastic."

While midfield opportunities may help Rachele's development, the Crows were within their rights to balance what is best for the team right now and clearly made a decision that his class and creativity was needed in attack against the Hawks. It will be intriguing to see where he lines up against Richmond.

The issue for Adelaide is that, with the obvious exception of 21-year-old midfielder Jake Soligo, improvement has not been driven by enough of the club's young players this year, either because of injury, their own development, or a lack of opportunities from the match committee.

It makes the debut of Dowling well timed after an extended run of form in the SANFL, and more exposure should follow at the right time for draftees Dan Curtin, Oscar Ryan and Charlie Edwards.

Billy Dowling in action during the National Championships U18 Boys match between Vic Metro and South Australia, GMHBA Stadium, July 17, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

When looking for a recent comparison of where the Crows are placed and what their path out looks like, Fremantle of 2023-24 is an example of a young team that didn't handle expectations but was able to bounce back.

There has always been a sense that the Dockers have been a year ahead of the Crows in their build, and they broke their own finals drought in 2022 after six years, having launched that year with a one-point win against Adelaide, made possible by Heath Chapman's memorable goalline smother.

The Dockers then entered 2023 with that dangerous mix of high expectations and a young team, with players since admitting they weren't completely ready to meet them.

But in rebounding for a 7-1-4 start to this season and preparing themselves well for a finals charge, the Dockers have shown that progress is not always linear and there is a path for the Crows to follow.

It is far from ideal for a fan base crying out for success. But if expectations for 2024 can no longer be met, the challenge for Adelaide now is to at least do everything in its last 11 games to make sure their young players develop and mature, so they become the ones driving a crucial step forward next year.