IT WAS meant to be the start of something glorious.
The 2007 season had felt like a year of such promise for Melbourne. Having enjoyed a stretch of 11 wins in 12 games the year prior, catapulting the club into an unlikely semi-final appearance, the Demons had been billed as Victoria's beacon of hope. They were the team that would supposedly end six years of interstate dominance.
Instead, it was a campaign that started a decade of Demons hell, as bad decisions, bad management and bad football tore the club apart from every angle. This is the story of Melbourne's false dawn, its darkest days, and its re-emergence as potentially the League's next premiership juggernaut.
THE FALSE DAWNS (2007-2010)
IT WAS a rosy summer for Melbourne.
The side had just overcome a strong St Kilda team in the 2006 elimination final, after dazzling throughout a period of 11 wins from 12 games between April and July, and now looked ahead to the 2007 season and the prospect of a premiership push.
Touted as the most likely Victorian team to break a run of six straight interstate premierships, dating back to Essendon's Grand Final victory over Melbourne in 2000, the positivity that had punctuated pre-season quickly turned to doubt and dismay.
Nine straight defeats to start the year, including successive drubbings at the hands of Geelong, Fremantle and Sydney, gave an indication that something was wrong. It resulted in Neale Daniher, coach for the last decade, departing the club prematurely in June.
Daniher's assistant, Mark Riley, took charge in a caretaker capacity for the final nine matches. But it did little to change the momentum. Five of the side's last six losses were by more than 40 points, resulting in a finish third-from-bottom and a 5-17 record.
While clubs with an eye on a rebuild might otherwise look to a national draft with optimism, that fateful 2007 campaign also started a wretched recruiting run. The selection of Cale Morton, taken with pick No.4 ahead of players like Patrick Dangerfield and Cyril Rioli, meant Demon drafts were soon approached with a sense of cautious unease.
Whereas Dangerfield would become a Brownlow Medal winner and a dominant player in the competition and Rioli would win four premierships and a Norm Smith Medal, Morton played just 73 games before being traded to West Coast for pick No.88 a few years later.
Things weren't getting better, either. Now under the guidance of Dean Bailey, Melbourne started the 2008 season with a 104-point loss to Hawthorn and a 95-point defeat to the Western Bulldogs in its opening two matches.
The Demons lost 12 of their first 13 games, with 2000 Grand Final captain David Neitz forced to retire in May due to a broken disc in the back of his neck. Cameron Bruce and James McDonald were named co-captains for the remainder of the year.
If things looked like they were turning with a one-point win over Brisbane mid-season, they weren't. There would be seven more losses from the final eight games, including a 116-point defeat to Geelong that featured a scoreless opening term, as the Demons went 3-19 to finish with a first wooden spoon since 1997.
Jack Watts would be taken ahead of three-time All-Australian ruckman Nic Naitanui with the No.1 selection at the following draft, while Sam Blease – who played just 33 games for the club – was also recruited with a valued first-round pick.
Welcoming the first selection didn't spell better days. Again, Melbourne lost 12 of its first 13 games of the 2009 season in a run that also featured Watts' infamous Queen's Birthday debut. The result was a 4-18 record and a second straight wooden spoon.
Tom Scully and Jack Trengove would be the No.1 and No.2 picks in the draft, while Jordan Gysberts (who played just 19 games for the club) and Luke Tapscott (48 games) were also recruited with top-20 selections.
They would still work out better than Lucas Cook, the club's 12th pick in a 2010 draft compromised by Gold Coast's entrance into the competition. He didn't play a single game for the Demons, yet arrived after a season in which things looked like they might be slowly turning.
Two straight early-season wins by 55 and 50 points against Richmond and Brisbane respectively had supporters excited for what was to come. Finals was even on the radar after three more consecutive victories improved their record to 8-1-10 with just three matches remaining in the year.
Even though three straight losses from those games killed their September hopes, a young list was being built and rays of positivity were shining through. Max Gawn had been taken with pick No.34 in the 2009 draft, Tom McDonald had been claimed with pick No.53 in 2010, while the prospect of father-son selection Jack Viney loomed in the years to come. All three would prove pivotal in the success that was around the corner.
But before things got better, they would get much, much worse.
THE DARKEST DAYS (2011-2013)
THE SEASON of 2011 would be defined by one number. One hundred and eighty-six.
A 186-point loss to Geelong, where Melbourne trailed by triple-figures by the 27-minute mark of the second quarter and ultimately conceded a score of 37.11 (233), would be symbolic of the club's most dismal period.
The Demons might have still won eight games for the year, but that result led to Bailey's sacking and the appointment of Todd Viney as interim coach. It had also been preceded by infamous comments from Carlton's Mitch Robinson about the side's style of "bruise-free footy" earlier in the season.
It was followed by yet more lamentable decisions – and bad luck – during the trade and draft period, typified by when the club lost former No.1 pick Tom Scully after just 31 games to expansion side Greater Western Sydney.
The appointment of Mark Neeld was followed by the club opting to trade its first-round selection at the draft, pick No.12, for Mitch Clark. He would play just 15 games for Melbourne across two seasons.
Neeld's appointment did little to inspire an uptick in form. Melbourne lost its first nine games of the following 2012 campaign, including a disastrous 108-point defeat to West Coast and a woeful 101-point loss to Sydney.
It played games without jumper sponsors, finished the year with a horrible 4-18 record, and finished above only the second-year Gold Coast and the first-year GWS on the ladder. It took Jimmy Toumpas, who played just 27 games for the club, with pick No.4 at the draft.
Toumpas' selection had followed that of Jesse Hogan, taken via a mini-draft selection that the club had traded part of its Scully compensation to receive. While the young West Australian forward would claim the NAB AFL Rising Star in his second full season on the senior list, his stint at Melbourne lasted just 71 games.
The missteps of years gone by would now culminate in 2013, arguably the worst season in Melbourne's history.
The campaign had started by Jack Trengove being appointed co-captain alongside Jack Grimes. At just 20 years and 181 days old, it made him the youngest skipper in AFL/VFL history.
Trengove had been thrown to the wolves. He spent just two seasons as co-captain, during which Melbourne went 6-38, as his maiden year as the club's leader started with losses of 79 points to Port Adelaide, 148 to Essendon and 94 to West Coast.
Melbourne would win just two games for the year, also losing to the Giants – the expansion side's only victory of the season – as the thrashings piled up. Another 112-point defeat to North Melbourne came as the team lost seven games by more than 80 points.
Littered in amongst the drubbings and the 2-20 record was a $500,000 tanking fine, the sacking of Neeld in June and the appointment of Neil Craig – yet another interim coach – for the final 11 matches of the year.
Overall, across the seven seasons of Melbourne hell that had just gone, the Demons had a bleak record of 34-2-118. They lost 34 games – as many as they had won – by more than 10 goals. They lost seven games in seven years by triple-figures.
Something had to give. Fortunately, things were about to start looking up.
THE RE-EMERGENCE (2014-2021)
IT WOULD soon get better.
The 2014 season, and the start of the Paul Roos era at Melbourne, wasn't perfect. But there were signs of hope. Nathan Jones was announced as the sole captain at the start of the year and, despite a 4-18 record that saw them avoid the wooden spoon only by percentage, there was a sense that this was the start of something.
The off-season prior, with Roos at the helm, Melbourne would send the second and 22nd pick at the draft to GWS for a combination of Dom Tyson, pick No.9 and No.57. It was a blockbuster trade that grabbed the attention of the football world, but set the Demons on a steady path.
Although pick No.2 would turn out to be Josh Kelly, one of the League's most skilled players nearly a decade on, Tyson would give a young Melbourne side an injection of experience and talent that it desperately lacked and needed at the time.
Pick No.9 would be used on Christian Salem, selected to this year's 40-man All-Australian squad for his performances across the half-back line, while Jayden Hunt – taken with pick No.57 – has also matured into an important part of the team's defence.
Off-field, more good moves were being made. Simon Goodwin would sign a five-year deal to join the club at the conclusion of the 2014 campaign, penning a contract that would see him spend two seasons as an assistant under Roos before taking the reins as head coach by 2017.
Christian Petracca and Angus Brayshaw were taken with picks No.2 and No.3 respectively later that year, while Alex Neal-Bullen was drafted with pick No.40, highlighting the start of a new direction in the club's recruiting.
This brave new path was typified by the Demons taking draft bolter Clayton Oliver with pick No.4 the very next year, a bold choice given his sudden rise to prominence but one that has undoubtedly paid dividends.
Michael Hibberd was an underrated, experienced pick-up in 2016, before the club traded a first-round selection for Jake Lever in 2017. Again, it was a daring decision but one that was justified by the club nailing its later picks at the draft in the same year – recruiting Charlie Spargo with pick No.29, Bayley Fritsch at No.31 and Harrison Petty at No.37.
Another first-round pick was traded for Steven May in 2018. Yet again, it was another masterstroke further aided by the club using its later selections that season on Tom Sparrow at pick No.27 and James Jordon at pick No.33.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing on-field. But unlike between 2007 and 2013, the failings have been rectified quickly. That was the case in 2019, when a down season after a thrilling run to the 2018 preliminary final was softened by the club trading a future second-round pick for Ed Langdon, signing Adam Tomlinson as an unrestricted free agent and recruiting brilliantly at the draft.
That year, a future first-round selection was traded to North Melbourne so the Demons could bring in both Luke Jackson with pick No.3 and Kysaiah Pickett with pick No.12. Trent Rivers, drafted with pick No.32, has complemented that duo perfectly.
As has Jake Bowey, who is set to play in a Grand Final in just his seventh senior game after being recruited to Melbourne with pick No.21 last season. Ben Brown, traded in from the Kangaroos for a second-round selection, will also be a key member of the team that is aiming to snap a 57-year premiership drought this Saturday night.
It has been a long road for Melbourne. But victory this weekend, and having a premiership cup to show for it, will surely make the decade of Demons hell that has preceded it worth the struggle.