MELBOURNE isn't just eyeing September this season.

No, the Demons have their ambitions set on a far loftier target.

The club has seen it all over the last three years, blurring the exact trajectory of what had been, and still is, a promising young list. Fortunes have been so mixed, you could hardly blame coach Simon Goodwin for being unable to see through the fog and know exactly where his side is placed.

Are they the team that rode on the crest of a wave to the preliminary finals in 2018? Are they the side that slid so dramatically under the weight of expectation in 2019? Or are they the outfit that showed a bit of both, the good and the bad, in 2020?

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Confidence in Melbourne, externally at least, might have faded somewhat. But it hasn't left the club's coach. He still has the core group of players that inspired that remarkable September run of three years ago, and has overseen talent being added both through the draft and at the trade table ever since.

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Can the Dees push for a premiership in 2021?

Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin outlines his plans for the Dees in 2021

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Of the 22 players who featured in the thrilling semi-final victory over Hawthorn back then, 17 remain on the club's list. Steven May was added the following summer, Ed Langdon, Adam Tomlinson and Ben Brown after that. Four first-round picks have also joined the group in the years following.

Internally, there has also been growth. Christian Petracca was the competition's breakout player of last season, captain Max Gawn remains the League's premier ruckman, Clayton Oliver was an All-Australian squad member last year, and Jake Lever has found continuity in both his footy and his body.

But yet, results have drifted. The club won 16 games in 2018. It has won just 14 in the two years since. And so, the question has been posed. Where is the team that emerged so emphatically all that time ago? And how far away is a similar, if not stronger group, from returning to those remarkable, memorable heights?

Max Gawn and Clayton Oliver celebrate with Melbourne fans after the Demons' 2018 semi-final victory over Hawthorn. Picture: AFL Photos

"Not far away at all," Goodwin told AFL.com.au.

"As I said last year, the foundations have been laid as a club over a period of time now. I stand by that. Our expectations are a lot higher. We don't want to just play finals. We want to play significant finals and win significant finals.

"I sit here with great empathy for our footy club and our supporters, it's been a long time … 1964.

"We need to put ourselves into a top-four position to give ourselves the best chance to win the ultimate. That's what we're setting out to do. We want to be part of a footy club that does something pretty special and leads our supporters to something they haven't seen for a long, long time.

"The foundations have been laid and I think we've had the summer that gives us the capacity to do that. We're setting ourselves to go about it."

Melbourne was, rightfully it seemed at the time, listed among the premiership favourites ahead of the 2019 season. However, the Demons then started the year with just one win from their first six matches, with their finals hopes in tatters almost instantly.

A similar situation unfolded last year, as the club won just one of its opening four games in a truncated season. Again, from the outset, the side had given itself an immediate uphill mountain to scale.

Jack Viney leads dejected Demons off the MCG after their round five loss to Richmond in 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

Goodwin is aware that the slow starts have been a factor before, putting his side behind the eight-ball almost straightaway. So, what gives him the confidence that this season will be any different?

"I see maturity building and I see a real leadership among our playing group starting to evolve. They understand what it takes to be successful. They also understand the challenges that come with that," he said.

"There's been some good foundations that have been laid, but as we start to progress there's a greater understanding of the consistency required to do it and get there. I'm excited by what the playing group has done over the summer, but we've got to go out there and show it."

That growing maturity might have been evident last season. If you forget the slow start to the year, the indifference of a ninth-place finish and the frustration born from lame defeats to the already-ousted Sydney and Fremantle in back-to-back fixtures in Cairns, then the signs were otherwise quite positive.

Melbourne won eight of its final 13 games, beat finalists including Collingwood and St Kilda, while the team also came within a kick of besting premiership contenders Geelong and Brisbane.

Angus Brayshaw and Aaron vandenBerg celebrate a Demons goal against Collingwood. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

But it was the final fortnight that really pleased Goodwin. In the knowledge that only victory would keep its slim post-season chances alive in the club's last two games against fellow top-eight challengers Greater Western Sydney and Essendon, Melbourne won both.

Ultimately, results elsewhere went against the Demons. But the back-to-back wins were still enough to give the side an impetus to attack a summer that the club now believes will lead to bigger and better things this year.

"We spoke about that after the season," Goodwin said.

"There was enormous pressure on us as a footy club to win those games, they were like mini-finals. We were able to execute and perform in those games. Even though we didn't get to the finals and weren't able to experience that once again, those games will hold us in great stead.

"That's a sign of the maturity. You start to experience those games more often, you start to achieve in those games and that builds the belief within the playing group and within the club. It starts to build the trust in the supporter base."

There has been another crucial factor in Melbourne's growing maturity. That has come from the club, without a premiership of its own since 1964, looking elsewhere to instil a winning mentality into the playing and coaching group this summer.

Goodwin has brought former 271-game Melbourne legend Adem Yze into his coaching panel, with the ex-Demon bringing with him three premierships worth of experience from his time at Hawthorn.

Port Adelaide's experienced 2004 premiership coach, Mark Williams, has also joined the club as its new head of development and has enjoyed an influential start to his time at the Dees.

Melbourne development coach Mark Williams looks on during a training session in December. Picture: Dylan Burns, AFL Photos

"He's a winner," Goodwin said.

"He comes from a rich family that wins. They win lots of games and they win finals. He's got an unbelievable ability to develop players in a whole range of different ways and he brings a great kicking program to our footy club.

"He's got a lot of passion and a lot of enthusiasm. Plus, he's a winner. He's embedding that within our playing group and especially within our younger players."

If Melbourne is to reach the heights Goodwin is so confident it can this season, a lot of the club's success could be defined by Petracca's brilliance. The ever-improving 25-year-old was scintillating last season, capping a career-best year with a maiden best and fairest, a maiden All-Australian blazer and a top-three finish in the Brownlow Medal.

The club's leading goalkicker in 2019, Petracca was its best midfielder in 2020. Powerful, explosive and prolific, there is more to come from someone who has already emerged as one of the competition's most watchable players.

Melbourne's Christian Petracca evades a tackle from Fremantle's David Mundy. Picture: Getty Images

"He isn't going backwards," Goodwin said.

"He's going to keep to a really high level of playing, because he's manic about being the best player he can possibly be and being involved in the best team he can possibly be in. That's his leadership. He's our best trainer, he trains to a really high level all the time, and he's really driven about how he improves his game.

"Everything I've seen through the summer would indicate that he's only going to get better. He had a breakout season last year, but a lot of good players have breakout seasons and then they just keep going. He's got an appetite to want to keep going and improving and get better."

Another the club hopes will inspire a return to finals football this year is Clayton Oliver, with the gun midfielder destined to reach new levels having enjoyed a seamless recovery from post-season shoulder surgery.

Clayton Oliver ahead of the 2021 season. Picture: AFL Photos

However, uncontracted beyond 2021, murmurs arose last November that Oliver could see his long-term future elsewhere. But the Demons remain unconcerned by the whispers, with Goodwin left with no doubts that the star onballer will commit his best years to the club.

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"Without question," Goodwin said.

"He's a great person. He's very passionate about his team and his club and driving success. I think we've got that right across our playing group. They want to stay together and they want to achieve together, so I can see that playing out in a positive way for us.

"I'm looking forward to coaching Clayton for a long time."