In 1995, the previously undefeated Carlton hit a flat spot, dropping games to the bottom two sides. At training on Monday, captain Stephen Kernahan stopped the group mid lap and growled in that gravelly gutted voice of his – “we’re not losing another fucking game!” They completed their lap, beat Hawthorn by 102 points that weekend, won their next 16 games, and coasted to the Premiership. They were one of the great teams, a team that bridged the semi and fully professional eras, a team that pretty much coached itself, a team whipped back into shape with six guttural words.
That wouldn’t cut it as man management these days. In 2022, football clubs stress the importance of culture, of connection, of roles, of safe environments, of talking through your problems. Melbourne would have done a lot of that this week. In the space of a fortnight, they’ve had two losses, injuries, illnesses, criticism of low crowds, leaked text messages, drunken sledges, haymakers, infected hands, community service penalties, an integrity department investigation and a conga line of question marks. What the fuck, as Steve Kernahan would no doubt ask, is going on here?
If their September was cinematic, the following Autumn was procedural. The only real hint of strife came in February, when coach Simon Goodwin was splashed across the front page of the Herald Sun for the atrocity of having a beer with his players. It was a strange story, one that didn’t really pass the Sorrento Pub test. We read about a man in a high-pressure job, going through a marriage break up, at the end of months of lockdown, enjoying a beer and a punt with his players. He was being criticised by a League CEO whose bread is buttered by Big Gambling and Big Alcohol.
The Dees circled the wagons, laughed it off, and won the first ten games of the year. They were just ticking boxes. They’d choke sides, make them panic, make them bomb and hope. Their defence, led by Stephen May, was impenetrable. “Be very afraid,” David King said. “Melbourne are going at about 70 per cent of last year, and they’re already proving they’re 50 per cent better than the rest of the competition.”
Maybe the players short-circuited as they grappled with the mathematics of that. But heading into the Fremantle game, there were signs that things weren’t quite right. The only top side they’d beaten was St Kilda, who tried something new in the opening term, only to have it blow up in their face. They were less than convincing against a wretched North Melbourne. Winter was here, the injuries were mounting, the forward line wasn’t clicking and every opponent was treating them as a free hit, a chance to try something new. After all, this competition is set up for the hunter, for the swooper, for the team that can exploit, copy and pick holes.
And then came the fight. It’s a sad state of affairs when a drunken footballer who has whacked his teammate leads the nightly news. Blokes who assault their partners enjoy far less scrutiny. This incident was straight from the 1990s, when alcohol related incidents would be swept under the beer mat. But you rarely hear about them these days. Most of the best players are cleanskins. As Bailey Smith showed this weekend, most of the debauchery takes place in the off-season.
It’s a strange thing to say when Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, and Christian Petracca are raffling the three Brownlow votes every week. But May is arguably their most important player. He’s rarely beaten, straightens them up, and is an incredibly smart footballer. Every player in the competition has no doubt been instructed to stop kicking the ball to him. The coach’s favourite phrase is “command behind the ball” and May is pivotal to that. When he was concussed, Melbourne suddenly looked mortal.
It’s tempting to dismiss an incident like this as a trifle, as an inevitability in a world of alpha males. But at a club like Melbourne, it matters. Nathan Jones was livid when he spoke about it on Friday. Gawn, coming off one of the best individual games in years, looked pissed off and let down. If his 2021 Captain’s Diary is anything to go by, they spent a good part of 2021 in the emotional sweep spot, expressing their love and gratitude. They had a trademark, TRUE, – Trust, Respect, Unity, Excellence’. At three quarter time of a Grand Final Petracca had just ripped to shreds, Gawn told him: “I’m so proud of the man you’ve become.” The contrast with May’s alleged outburst this week couldn’t be more stark.
After a week of brawls and drug scandals, there’s nothing like a Queens’s Birthday fixture, and the presence of Neale Daniher, to remind us what actually matters. All the trifles and the catastrophising pales. The current Melbourne coach speaks of ‘learnings’ and ‘resets’. Daniher would never use language like that. As a player, as a coach, and as the public face of Motor Neurone Disease, he’s never trafficked in weasel words. He’s now lost his ability to speak. But he’ll be at the MCG today, performing far more important duties than rousing a flat football team.
Daniher was a ferocious coach in his day, and we can take a stab at what he might tell Melbourne if he had the chance. Don’t be a one-year, one-state wonder, would be the general gist. In 2021, you were running downhill. You were the feelgood story. This year, it’s more of a grind. This year, the whole competition, the football media and even your former employees are all gunning for you. How strong is that culture, that system, and that trademark that you pride yourselves on?