IT WAS the season from heaven that the Melbourne faithful had craved after 57 years without a flag.
Nine successive wins to open the campaign en route to a club-record 17 victories in the home and away season, capped by the stunning second-half comeback in Geelong to claim a first minor premiership since 1964.
The finals series that followed was, simply, the stuff of dreams. Three successive wins by an average margin of 63 points. The preliminary final obliteration of Geelong led by talismanic captain Max Gawn's five-goal romp. And then, the premiership triumph against the Western Bulldogs that stamped Norm Smith medallist Christian Petracca as a great of the club, and of the competition.
The addition of assistant coaches Adem Yze and Mark Williams had an instant impact in improving the Dees' ball movement and kicking execution. Now-departed head of performance Darren Burgess built the fittest squad in the AFL, while Therabody AFL All-Australian key defenders Steven May and Jake Lever headed the most miserly backline in the League.
The Demons' offence struggled to deliver from rounds 13-19 and questions were raised about the right mix of Ben Brown, Tom McDonald and Sam Weideman as key forwards. Financially, the relocation of the Queen's Birthday blockbuster against Collingwood to the SCG was far from ideal – and so was the subsequent loss to the Magpies.
Christian Petracca was the player of the finals, and Max Gawn's heroics will haunt Geelong supporters for years to come, but Clayton Oliver was the No.1 Demon in 2021. He added more weapons to his contested game and was all but unstoppable, averaging career highs in disposals, contested possessions, clearances and metres gained. An All-Australian blazer and third-place in the Brownlow Medal followed, and those honours will likely be joined by a third club champion award.
No one had Bayley Fritsch down for almost 60 goals in 2021 but here we are. The 24-year-old almost tripled his previous career-high tally of 22 majors to spearhead the Demons' attack, relegating key forwards Ben Brown and Tom McDonald to supporting roles. Fritsch's six-goal haul in the Grand Final was the biggest since Darren Jarman's bag for Adelaide in 1997.
An ill-timed leg stress fracture in February derailed Sam Weideman's season ahead of a year where he was pencilled in with Brown as Melbourne's key forwards. Despite strong VFL form upon his playing return, he struggled at the top level and returned just three goals from five games. He wasn't sighted at AFL level after the round 13 loss to Collingwood. Has re-signed for two more years but needs to improve in 2022.
There are three contenders here, and all came in Melbourne's final four games of the season. Max Gawn's gobsmacking second half against Geelong in round 23, complete with post-siren matchwinning goal, would win this category in most years. However, it was trumped by Gawn's incredible four-goal third quarter against the same opponent in the preliminary final. But both of those were surpassed in the third quarter of the Grand Final, when the Dees piled on three goals in one mad, mind-blowing minute to take a stranglehold on their 13th premiership.
Adam Tomlinson's ruptured ACL suffered against North Melbourne in Hobart robbed the key defender of any chance of Grand Final redemption after his former team GWS's capitulation to Richmond in 2019. His absence allowed Harry Petty to thrive as a lockdown tall back, but Tomlinson will be desperate to return to the biggest stage again in 2022.
How should they approach list management?
Without a first-round selection in this year's NAB AFL Draft, the Demons will need to back recruiting manager Jason Taylor and his team to again deliver with mid-range picks. Beloved veterans Nathan Jones and Neville Jetta have already retired, Aaron vandenBerg will seek opportunities at another club and Jake Melksham has indicated his willingness to do the same. Otherwise, it's about savvy salary-cap management, ensuring the club can recontract its key players in coming seasons after premiership premiums get added to any offers from rival clubs.
WHO'S CALLED IT QUITS 2021's retirements and delistings
Early call for 2022
Back-to-back premierships should be firmly on Melbourne's agenda. Max Gawn and Steven May are the only two of Melbourne's star core that will be 30 by the start of next season, while fellow All-Australians Christian Petracca (26), Jake Lever (26) and Clayton Oliver (24) will all be in their prime for years to come.
10 out of 10. Bar some fitness and form issues, 2021 was a dream season for the Demons. It delivered just about everything their long-suffering fans could possibly have hoped for.