LOST amid Melbourne's miserable 2019 campaign was a significant development.
It's rare anything larger-than-life personality Christian Petracca does sneaks under the radar but his impressive season – particularly from round eight onwards – was, perhaps, one that did.
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Petracca was rewarded with a top-five best and fairest finish at the Demons for the first time, and even then it was somewhat written off as owing to the lack of other contributors.
He also led the club's goalkicking with 22 in what was a dysfunctional forward line dealing with the loss of Jesse Hogan and prolonged struggles of Tom McDonald and Sam Weideman.
Possibly the 23-year-old's start to the year was still ringing in critics' ears.
Or maybe they were still fixated on him passing out in a professionally supervised hypoxic pool session, where Melbourne footballers walked with medicine balls under water.
There were calls for Petracca to be dropped after he won only 11 goalless disposals in the round seven win over Hawthorn, a week after having just 12 in a loss to Richmond.
It's believed there were also some internal discussions of a similar nature but the voice that matters most, coach Simon Goodwin, was having none of it.
Christian Petracca 2019 comparison
By season's end, Goodwin was publicly singing Petracca's praises, all the while aware his young star still had more to give.
"I think Christian's had a really strong season in a difficult space for the team," Goodwin told 3AW radio in August.
"He's been really consistent in what he can deliver forward of the ball but we'd love to play him a bit more through the middle of the ground.
"The challenge will be to build a fitness base that will enable that to happen.
"We know what he can do forward – he's doing it really regularly for us now as a forward-half player – but (we'd love to see him have) the ability to go through the middle for sustained periods."
Petracca's forward-midfield split has been an annual talking point almost ever since he was the No.2 pick in the 2014 NAB AFL Draft but some context is required.
An anterior cruciate ligament rupture in his left knee at Demons training, just three months after being drafted, meant he missed the entire 2015 campaign.
He then suffered a broken toe trying to dunk a basketball at the end of that year and took another six weeks to recover.
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Petracca also underwent a clean-out on the same knee last year, making him one of 17 Melbourne players to undergo some sort of post-season operation.
Worth noting is the issue was unrelated to his ACL setback.
He was restricted until Christmas and completed only about 30 per cent of the pre-season, which may offer a reason for his slow start to 2019.
Melbourne has upgraded its strength and conditioning department, with former Port Adelaide and Arsenal fitness guru Darren Burgess at the forefront.
Petracca looms as a project player for Burgess, who already played a role in sending the Demon and teammate Christian Salem to Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, United States.
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They spent 10 days there before returning last week, completing a Burgess-designed off-season program, with some extra input from Nike specialists.
Petracca also spoke beforehand to Western Bulldogs superstar Marcus Bontempelli, who made the same trip with Josh Dunkley last year.
His weight and skinfolds are both down and he is already a mile ahead of this time last year as he heads into the final season of his current deal.
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Petracca wants to be mentioned in the same breath as the AFL's best midfielder-forwards, from Brownlow medallist Dustin Martin down to Toby Greene and Jordan De Goey.
Industry people speak in awe about his three-goal, 20-possession effort against St Kilda in round 19, a month before he racked up 25 disposals and seven clearances in the last round against North Melbourne.
There was one moment in that Saints match where he intercepted a handball and a split-second later had slotted a checkside goal.
Later in the same game, Petracca cleverly chose to thrust his right boot at the in-dispute Sherrin near the goalsquare, instead of trying to win possession, and put through another major.
He isn't the first player to have lofty goals but he isn't any normal dreamer, as the bevy of clubs that asked about him – two of which are understood to be the Hawks and Bulldogs – will acknowledge.
Petracca is a power-packed athlete with extraordinary awareness and hand-eye coordination who thrives on one-on-one warfare and is capable of feats most footballers are not.
That high-level basketball background has come in handy.
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Understanding Petracca's ambition means digesting that he doesn't want to be a full-time midfielder – but he does crave more midfield minutes than he's typically logging.
However, his wish requires an improved physical capability and a greater willingness to run defensively, something Melbourne's coaches have preached to him.
The Dees' midfield logjam is also a hurdle he and the coaches must clear.
Dealing with criticism
Petracca might seem like he has impenetrable self-confidence but those who know him best will tell you he has struggled with insecurity.
His own high expectations of himself were joined by vocal external critics in the past two seasons, in particular, which became crippling on occasion.
At one stage, Petracca even deleted Instagram from his mobile phone but he is back using social media again.
His high ball drop is part of the analysis around his at-times sub-par set-shot goalkicking but his mental demons when lining up can also be a problem.
During Melbourne's tight round nine loss to West Coast, Petracca even went to handball to a teammate while 20m out from goal – and subsequently misfired his shot.
Renowned goalkicking expert David Wheadon refers to it as the "fear of failure".
Petracca's shot-at-goal accuracy on set shots in 2018 was an awful 30.4 per cent, but rose to 43.5 per cent this year – yet in 2017 he went at 68.4 per cent.
Sources close to him say learning how to better deal with all the noise around him was a major factor in his excellent form down the stretch this past season.
Part of that owes to experience – he's 15 matches off reaching the 100-game milestone – and greater maturity.
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Petracca's also someone who benefits greatly from the key people in his life showing their belief in him, and that's where Goodwin was important.
The Demons are privately confident of bouncing back in a big way next year, evidenced in their pick swap with North Melbourne during the Telstra AFL Trade Period.
That deal being deemed a success is heavily predicated on them re-ascending the ladder.
If that is to happen, Petracca will have no small role to play – and there will be little chance of him being overlooked again.