Also-rans and whipping boys no more, but Melbourne managing expectation

Melbourne fans getting carried away with their team’s stunning start to the season would do well to take a leaf out of the Ted Lasso book of expectation management: it is the hope that kills you. But try as they might to resist the allure of sport’s great seductress, hope attaches itself to an unbeaten record like a fly clings to dung. Until Simon Goodwin’s men give reason to doubt, hope is here to stay.

To be fair, the Demons have had their feet bolted to the ground for so long now they will be entirely unaccustomed to the present state of affairs. Six wins and zero losses? That hasn’t happened since 1965, the year Ron Barrasi defected to Carlton and the year after Melbourne won their 12th and most recent VFL/AFL premiership. Since then it has been peaks and troughs – mostly troughs. There have been finals appearances, even the odd grand final here and there, but the lows have outnumbered the highs by some margin.

Since 2006, the year Nathan Jones made his debut, the Dees have taken part in September just once. On the theme of excrement, there can be no better summation of Melbourne in the modern day than Jones’s words after he and his teammates had dismantled Richmond at the MCG on Saturday night. “It’s been a shit journey at times,” said Jones, whose 300th senior appearance was marked by one of the finest triumphs with which he has been associated. In the context of a group craving credibility, there might have been none as important.

Nobody at the club is better placed than Jones to comment on the difficulty of being a Demon. On occasions they have threatened to come good, but by and large Melbourne’s place in the AFL’s pecking order has been stuck somewhere between also-rans and whipping boys.

When things have looked up, as when the Dees scaled the dizzy heights of a preliminary final in 2018, the dawn proved to be false. Hope, darned hope, was raised again but the Melbourne faithful needn’t have bothered. Instead of springboarding to greater things, they bottomed out and finished 17th in 2019 and again missed the finals last year. Forgive Melbourne fans for being gun-shy in the face of promise.

“It’s been bloody hard and bloody tough and they [the fans] have stuck by us,” Jones added. “Stick with this group because we’re going somewhere pretty special, I think. We’re putting together a pretty nice start to the year and we’re bloody excited by that but still realise there’s such a long way to go.”

For a club starved of success, the acknowledgment that nothing can be taken for granted will serve them well. Nothing satisfies hunger quite like achievement and the contrast was vivid at the MCG. Richmond, with three flags in the past four years, can win in second gear these days but on Saturday night they were outworked and out-enthused by a unit wanting its own place in history. To that end, this Melbourne team has far more in common with the 2017 Tigers than the current vintage.

“There’s a real sacrifice among the group about playing for each other,” said Jones. “No one will let each other down. Once you can embrace that as a team it becomes so powerful and we’re doing everything we can to holds onto that right now.”

On a more tangible level, Melbourne’s list profile looks to have timed its maturity to a nicety. There is reliability and class across every line and the likes of Max Gawn, Christian Petracca, Christian Salem, Clayton Oliver, Jake Lever, Ed Langdon, Angus Brayshaw, Alex Neal-Bullen – the list goes on – are coinciding their runs to the peaks of their careers.

“I think our leadership group’s been really strong,” said Goodwin. “They’ve been great in their ability to reset the team in critical moments.” The same can be said for Goodwin who, into his fifth season as coach, should know what it will take to return success to the oldest football club doing the rounds. He is not reinventing the wheel – the Demons play an honest pressure game built around strength in the contest and retaining possession – and it is resonating with his troops.

“Goody and the coaches put together such a really simple plan for us to execute through pre-season and we got to work doing that after the disappointment of the last couple of years,” Jones said. “We’re excited. Looking forward to next week already.”

Melbourne will take it one game at a time. There is nothing surer. But even the most pessimistic of Demons fans will be forgiven for peering into the fixture and feeling pangs of excitement. Never mind 6-0, with games against the Kangaroos, Sydney, Carlton and Adelaide to come, if this Melbourne team are as real as they appear they will be 10-0 by the time they meet the Western Bulldogs. By then hope will be so home at Melbourne it might as well wrap a red-and-blue scarf around its neck.