THE MOMENT neatly fit the agenda-driven lowlights packages that were already being compiled. 

Melbourne was attempting to make a late charge at reigning premier Richmond three weeks ago, and Clayton Oliver had the Sherrin in his hands in the centre as the minutes ticked away. 

Oliver spotted Christian Petracca to his right, in some space, but fluffed his kick badly and watched as the Tigers zipped the ball down the other end to clinch victory.

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The 2018 All-Australian midfielder's error was replayed on loop across the next couple of days, as an example of the glaring flaw in both his and the Demons' arsenal.

Nick Riewoldt declared Oliver was no longer an elite player in the competition, while Melbourne great Garry Lyon – barely a year after calling him the club's best midfielder since the 1970s – announced he had "stalled". 

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A week after Oliver's blooper, he laced out his great mate Petracca inside 50 to set up the match-sealing goal against Gold Coast. 

Lyon, in special comments, said: "Clayton Oliver has taken big steps forward. It was a brave kick. You turn the ball over in that part of the ground, with this amount of time on the clock…" 

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Speaking to AFL.com.au this week, Oliver said he wasn't aware of the harsh appraisals he received. Even when he does hear them, they don't bother him. 

Only he and his closest confidantes know if that's true. But maybe there's insight in his staunch defence of Petracca, a player now receiving plaudits but not so long ago castigated for not realising his potential. 

As Oliver points out, what's been missed in Petracca's rise is how good he was last year – especially his "sensational" end to it – during the Demons' struggles as a team. 

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"People expect him to have 30 and three goals every game but he was playing his role every week and doing a really good job of it," Oliver said of Petracca's 2019 season. 

"That's what the club was happy with and that's probably why he finished so high in the best and fairest." 

Oliver, of course, became a dual Melbourne club champion at the age of 22 a year ago, sharing the honours with new captain Max Gawn. Petracca came fifth. 

Clayton Oliver by the numbers in 2020

STATISTICS

AVERAGES

AFL RANK

Disposals

25

4th

Effective disposals

18.2

7th

Contested possessions

12

4th

Groundball-gets

8.7

4th

Handballs

13.7

7th

Centre clearances

3.2

3rd

Clearances

5.8

7th

Inside 50s

4.5

7th

Pressure acts

21.5

11th

 

Demons coach Simon Goodwin, who's become familiar with criticism himself, heard and read the commentary around Oliver's shortcomings and said it would "sting anyone".

"Noise is prevalent in our game and it stings individuals but he's a very proud player. He wants to be a great player, and the best player he can possibly be," Goodwin said. 

"I don't think I've seen a player that works harder on his game. Every day he has a day off, he's working on something else on his game. He's going to continue to get better." 

Coincidentally or not, Oliver had more kicks (30) than handballs (23) in the past fortnight after the Richmond game. It's just the second time in his 88-match career that's happened. 

Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver at Melbourne training in August, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

"I actually didn't even know that," Oliver said, with genuine surprise. 

"I'm getting the ball a bit more on the outside, so I probably have more time to kick it rather than handball it. 

"But hopefully I can start hitting more targets by foot if I am kicking more. Everyone's got room for improvement."

Clayton Oliver launches a kick during the round six win against Gold Coast. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Goodwin thinks Oliver's critics don't equally praise the "exceptional" things he does, particularly in the clinches, where his instincts come to life. 

His ability to work the angles in football traffic is extraordinary, and there probably isn't a player quicker than him in gathering and getting hand or foot to Sherrin in that circumstance. 

Only Carlton captain Patrick Cripps has a higher contested possessions per game career average than Oliver since that statistic's been kept.

They went head to head in round two and Oliver took the points – the coaches' votes from the game confirmed it – even if he was too modest this week to claim them. 

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The five names behind Oliver on that list? Josh Kennedy, Nat Fyfe, Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Neale and Tom Mitchell. And he's capitalising more on those talents, Goodwin said. 

"What we are liking about Clayton in the last few weeks is he's driving his legs out of contest areas," he said. 

"Whether that be with handball or whether that be with kick, he's certainly having a bigger impact around contest areas."

The quartet of Oliver, Petracca, Gawn and Jack Viney were the Demons' best players in each of the past two games as they levelled their win-loss ledger through six games.

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It's something Melbourne failed to do last year, losing in five of the first six rounds on the way to a second-from-bottom finish, a disastrous follow-up to making a preliminary final. 

Injuries were an excuse – Oliver was one of many Demons who underwent off-season surgery, undergoing a reconstruction on both his shoulders  – but don't offer a full explanation for the drop off. 

Sunday's clash with Brisbane and its all-star midfield serves as the litmus test for whether they are truly back to the lofty heights of two years ago.

A triumph over the second-placed Lions might even reignite the premiership talk that was attached to Melbourne throughout the 2019 pre-season. 

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However premature that hype would be, winning a drought-breaking flag for the Demons, who last tasted ultimate success in 1964, is what motivates Oliver every day.

"I've been here for about five years now and I know a lot of the history of the club," he said. 

"It would be unbelievable if we could bring a premiership to the Melbourne Football Club – just to be a part of that, after 50 or 60 years (of waiting). 

"There are so many members and fans out there who've suffered for so many years, so it would be seriously unreal to bring happiness to those supporters who've stayed with us."