FOR THE past 15 years Melbourne and Brisbane have spent most of their time holidaying in September, rather than playing finals.

The Demons broke through in 2018 to play in the penultimate game of the season - only to regress the next two years - while the Lions languished in the bottom half of the table for a decade until their resurgence under Chris Fagan.

Now, following remarkably similar list builds, they square off on Friday night in a first-versus-third blockbuster that shapes as a precursor to the finals.

So how has each club, finally, lifted itself from the doldrums to the competition's upper echelon?

Surviving the test of time

Both clubs have a handful of players who have endured more losses than they'd like, but have stuck around long enough to be part of the rise.

Nathan Jones is the poster boy for this.

The former Melbourne skipper played finals in just the seventh and eighth games of his career in 2006, but then had to wait until games 262, 263 and 264 to do so again in 2018.

As much as anyone, the 33-year-old epitomises the Dees, and whatever role is left for him in 2021, he's the glue that kept things together when so often they could have fallen apart.

Melbourne's Nathan Jones is chaired off after his 300th AFL game in round six, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

Max Gawn, Tom McDonald and Jack Viney are the other three players who fall into this category, battling away for either side of a decade now.

Gawn faced questions over whether he'd be a consistently good player, McDonald over whether he could recapture his 2018 form, and Viney on his durability.

Brisbane has its own trio, led by half-back Daniel Rich, who is having arguably the best season of his career.

Rich won the NAB AFL Rising Star award in 2009 and played finals that year, only to have to wait another 182 games and 10 seasons to play in September again.

Ryan Lester and current skipper Dayne Zorko have also served a decade to be crucial members of the current team.

These players are the fabric of their respective clubs and the pillars on which the rest of the list were built.

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Accumulating high-end young talent

This is arguably the most important part of any list – and lays the groundwork for the later steps.

Not only do you get the picks, but you have to get them right, and Melbourne used the 2013-2015 drafts to load up.

In that three-year span the Demons took Christian Petracca, Angus Brayshaw, Clayton Oliver, Christian Salem and Sam Weideman in the top 10.

They also drafted Alex Neal-Bullen, Jayden Hunt and the sneaky rookie selection of James Harmes, who have all become valuable pieces.

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To be cheeky you could go back as far as 2014 for the Lions, although no one expected Academy product Harris Andrews (pick No.61) to turn out to be the dominating, dual All-Australian defender he has become.

The real cream, and high-end selections, came in 2016 and 2017.

Cam Rayner, Hugh McCluggage, Zac Bailey, Jarrod Berry and Brandon Starcevich were all first-round selections that came in that two-year window and have all become critical contributors in the past 12 months.

Chasing the big fish

With the high-end talent locked away, both clubs went after the 'big fish' in trade or free agency, almost by chance to begin with.

After slowly building under the Paul Roos regime, Melbourne first grabbed Michael Hibberd from Essendon following the 2016 season – a year he sat out due to the Bombers' supplements saga.

Twelve months later it was the chase for key defenders, the true cards, that brought Jake Lever from Adelaide.

The clubs slightly overlapped here as Brisbane also raided the Crows following their Grand Final loss to Richmond, grabbing Charlie Cameron.

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The dynamic small forward wanted to return to his home state and saw enough in Fagan's first year in charge to lure him to the Lions.

Again, hindsight is wonderful, but not many pundits thought Cameron would scale the heights he has.

Both clubs hit more big moves following 2018. Melbourne, on the hunt for a premiership, recruited former Gold Coast skipper Steven May to partner Lever, while the Lions blindsided everyone by acquiring Fremantle ball-magnet Lachie Neale.

As the Demons identified they needed key defenders, the Lions looked to the other end of the ground, adding what some saw as the final piece of the puzzle with free agent Joe Daniher last October.

Filling in the gaps

Obviously teams are made up of more than high-end draft picks and big-name trades and free agents.

The 'trade for needs' mantra has rung true - and it started with leadership for both.

Melbourne swooped on Jordan Lewis at the end of 2016, and a year later Brisbane talked Luke Hodge out of retirement. Both had big roles with young lists.

The Demons identified a need for some outside run and went after Fremantle's Ed Langdon, along with versatile Giant Adam Tomlinson.

Melbourne's Ed Langdon fires off a handball under pressure from Richmond's Shai Bolton in round six on April 24, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

Brisbane has been a little more prolific, and often by taking educated gambles.

Linc McCarthy, Marcus Adams, Callum Ah Chee and free agents Jarryd Lyons and Grant Birchall all came for little to no cost with injuries dogging many of them.

All have played in every one of Brisbane's seven straight victories.

On the drafting side, it was about making the most of some lower selections. Melbourne identified, and developed, Charlie Spargo, Bayley Fritsch, James Jordon, Harrison Petty and Tom Sparrow to become regulars, as Brisbane have with Deven Robertson, Noah Answerth and Jaxon Prior among others.

Forks in the road

While the parallels are many, there's a couple of differences – after all, progress is not linear.

The Dees had one extra bite of the cherry after their horror 2019 season, and boy, did they make it count, selecting Luke Jackson, Kozzy Pickett and Trent Rivers.

Brisbane has been the beneficiary of its Academy, having access to Andrews, Eric Hipwood and now Keidean Coleman.

There's no perfect way to construct a list, and these teams could plummet this year, next or the one after, but what they have shown is with a thought-out plan, some good development and patience, the pieces can be put in place to give you every chance of success.