WHEN Melbourne sat down with out-of-favour forward Tom McDonald last September for his exit interview in the club's Queensland hub, the conversation was forthright.
Form and fitness issues had restricted McDonald to just nine games and seven goals last season. At 28 years of age, his outlook at the club now appeared vastly different to only two years ago when he propelled the Demons on a remarkable September run with a 53-goal campaign.
Kept out of the side by youngster Sam Weideman, expected to slip even lower down the pecking order upon the anticipated arrival of Ben Brown, and likely to be overlooked further for the continued development of Luke Jackson, the contracted McDonald was told to seek opportunities elsewhere.
But just as McDonald's fortunes had flipped in the two seasons after his breakout 2018 campaign, they have drastically altered once again in the six months after his defining 2020 exit interview with the Demons.
Despite speculation linking McDonald to clubs like Greater Western Sydney, Collingwood and Essendon during last November's Trade Period, no suitor could be found. Still under contract at Melbourne until 2022 courtesy of a four-year deal penned after his career-best season, he would ultimately stay put.
Touted to move back into defence, then trained on a wing throughout pre-season, long-term injuries to Weideman and Brown have since forced McDonald to return to his now customary forward role on the eve of round one.
Once again, although somewhat unexpectedly this time around, the athletic and versatile 194cm McDonald now looms as an important player in another pivotal campaign for the Demons.
'WE DON'T WANT TO JUST MAKE FINALS' Dees eyeing the ultimate prize
"Tom was outstanding in the off-season," Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin told AFL.com.au.
"We spoke at his exit interview before he left the hub and Tom was really clear about what he wanted to do in his off-season and how he wanted to train. He wanted to lose some weight, he wanted to get his agility back. He felt he was carrying around too much weight. But he just needed a circuit-breaker.
"We spoke about the fact there would be an opportunity to look elsewhere. But if you walk back through the doors, it's a clean slate. We've got a good relationship, Tom and I, so we understood where that would sit.
AFL FIXTURE Check it out here
"As it got closer towards the back end of the Trade Period and we knew nothing was going to happen, we started to have some more conversations about what his pre-season would look like. We wanted to give him the opportunity to play on the wing, but also as a forward. We've trained him up in both of those areas of the ground.
"He's had an outstanding summer. He's lived up to his word around what he was going to do throughout his off-season. I'm sure if you ask him, we've lived up to ours in terms of giving him opportunity."
With Weideman and Brown on track to return at almost identical stages after the first month of the season, and with Jackson working well in tandem with four-time All-Australian ruckman Max Gawn throughout pre-season, the squeeze for positions in the forward line is bound to tighten soon enough.
But even should McDonald leave the forward line, he won't necessarily leave the team. He had spent the summer, prior to Weideman's fractured leg and Brown's latest bout of knee surgery, training on a wing.
It's where Melbourne is confident his short-term future could lie, with the Demons still searching for more outside run to complement Ed Langdon having moved fellow new recruit Adam Tomlinson back into a defensive role last season.
MEDICAL ROOM The full AFL injury list
So, could the Demons fit all five of Brown, Weideman, Jackson, McDonald and Gawn – each standing well in excess of 190cm – in the same team during the upcoming season? Don't rule it out.
"We're really open to how our team structures up," Goodwin said.
"Tom spent some time on the wing and we actually liked the look of how that was playing out for us in some of the game simulations that we were doing.
"We're open to playing Ben, Sam, Luke and Tom all in the same team, if that needs to be the case. We're certainly not pigeonholing the way our team wants to line up and who wants to be in it. It will be the players that are in-form and what's best for the way the team is performing."
Melbourne's new-look forward line could also complement changes to other areas of the field, with the Demons strongly considering handing rookie James Jordon a round one debut in the midfield.
First-round pick Jake Bowey has also impressed, having been trialled across half-back throughout the summer, while fellow youngster Bailey Laurie is also considered to be among those gunning for an early-season debut.
"There's no limitations, that's my message to all of our young players," Goodwin said.
"There are no limitations based on where you get drafted and where you play. When you're ready, you'll play. They're giving themselves a great opportunity to play senior footy this year.
"But it will be competitive for spots. Those two guys, Jake Bowey and Bailey Laurie especially, have put their best foot forward. I'm sure they'll play some footy throughout the year."