After two weeks of insipid performances, culminating in Saturday night’s 148-point defeat by Essendon, Melbourne’s season appears to already be over. For a team that has been in a rebuilding phase for several years, it is a hard blow to take.
Many Demons fans were hopeful that 2013 was the year that their team would begin to move from the ‘rebuilding’ stage to firmly cementing themselves as a competitive team in the league. Recruiting some fine young talent at the end of last season, including future midfield stars Jimmy Toumpas and Jack Viney, seemed to signal a positive year ahead for the Demons.
However, after an awful round one performance against a Port Adelaide team widely thought of as the AFL’s ‘basket case,’ things went from bad to worse against Essendon. The Demons were beaten in every statistic that counted, with their inability to win clearances and contested possessions showing just how far behind they are to other teams. Perhaps the most damning statistic was that they had only 35 tackles for the entire game (as compared to Essendon’s 61). This low number directly reflects the perceived lack of effort of the players.
Perhaps the most worrying sign for the Demons, apart from their woeful on-field performances, is the lack of leadership shown by prominent club figures. CEO Cameron Schwab and list manager Tim Harrington have been largely silent on the troubles facing the club, leaving coach Mark Neeld to face the music from both supporters and the press. This has resulted in the impression that the administrators and club board have lost faith in their coach and team.
This lack of support given to the coach gives fuel to the notion that when a club is having a tough time on-field, it is solely the fault of the coach, inevitably leading to calls for their sacking. That the calls for Neeld to be sacked have already begun is an indictment on the culture and leadership of the club.
When a team puts in a performance as dire as the two it has shown so far this season, the coach cannot be held responsible. Whilst it is their job to provide a game plan and direct the players as to how best to go about the game, it is not their fault when the majority of the players in the team fail to implement this game plan.
The blame for the poor performances of this year rests on the lack of desire shown by the Melbourne players. When players choose not to put in any effort, it is doubtful that any coach would be able to implement a successful game plan.
However, that being said, the lack of on-field leadership shown by the Demons is reflected in the lack of leadership shown by their off-field leaders. In addition to some poor recent recruiting of mature-aged players, the culture at Melbourne has become one where the players and administrators have no confidence in the club and it’s direction. This is not something that can be fixed by the coach, nor solely by the players.
What Melbourne needs is a complete overhaul, starting from the top, down. Those leaders who fail to inspire confidence in the players should be shown the door, and replaced by others who will defend their club and give a sense of direction to the players. Importantly, these leaders need to show the players that the ‘tanking’ saga of the off-season is well and truly behind them. A new culture needs to be built, one that values winning and success, and one that the players want to be a part of.
Coupled with this should be an overhaul of the playing list. Too many Melbourne players have shown far too little effort and passion. The club needs to weed out those who are disinterested in the cause or unable to play to the level required. This may lead to more short-term pain – there are currently only five or six players who have shown the requisite effort and desire – but may be necessary in the long term. Recruiting in the next two years will be absolutely crucial to this – the Demons need to find and develop top-flight midfield talent, something they desperately need.
Finally, the coach needs to be given more support. Whilst he has made some dubious recruiting choices, Neeld has inherited a largely sub-par list. The Melbourne administration needs to rally behind its coach, and give him all the support he needs to make the changes necessary in order to successfully move forward.