Why the Blues can take heart from Demons’ triumph

Within their stoic and hitherto fretful supporter base, the Demon triumph is viewed as the end of decades of torment.

But the breakthrough premiership is seen quite differently inside the club. From talking to players and staff, it’s clear that what happened in 2021 was, to a degree, an outcome they expected.

The football unit believed, and were divorced from the dismal past. What happened to Norm Smith and the MCC relationship, Gary Buckenara’s goal after the siren (1987 preliminary final) and the litany of other misfortunes – aside from the human tragedies that were very much on Max Gawn’s mind – were completely irrelevant to this playing group.

The Demons celebrate their grand final victory against the Bulldogs. Credit:Getty Images

This is how modern footy clubs operate. Highly professionalised players, coaches and football staffers are focused on the task ahead of them, on their own career and team goals, rather than what happened a decade, much less 30 years earlier.

To them, history is bunk, as Henry Ford put it.

This is why premiership droughts keep breaking, one by one: Sydney, Geelong, the Bulldogs, Richmond and now the game’s oldest club. Clubs with dismal histories can hire rational football industry pros who make the right decisions – like drafting Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver in 2014 and 2015, then trading in a pair of key backs.

The AFL is too unpredictable to venture which club stands the best chance of a breakthrough flag.

The only genuine Cinderella left in the pack is St Kilda (55 years and plenty of near-misses since), although Fremantle’s flag, whenever it happens, will be the catalyst for similar eruptions of emotion.

Christian Petracca in action for the Demons during the grand final. Credit:Getty

But the club that should take the most solace from Melbourne’s premiership is one that won’t be viewed as a Cinderella if and when they end their barren period, which has reached 26 years and counting.

Carlton, like the Demons of say 2017, have a very solid base of talent on which to build. Provided they make the right calls, the Blues can contend for the premiership within a few years.

Naturally, this will require administrative improvement under Brian Cook, Michael Voss’s coaching group to gel with the players and, not least, hitting the bullseye in the draft and trades.

The Blues can take inspiration from Melbourne. Credit:Getty

The critical difference between Melbourne and Carlton is that the Demons have built upon powerful midfielders – Petracca (pick 2), Oliver (pick 3), Angus Brayshaw (pick 3, 2014) and Jack Viney (father-son and a steal in the 2012 second round), plus Gawn and now Luke Jackson in the ruck.

Some three-quarters of their spine has been traded in: Steven May, Jake Lever and Ben Brown, the former pair at considerable cost. Of their key-position pillars, only Tom McDonald – drafted a decade ago – wasn’t an import.

This Melbourne formula is the reverse of both the conventional wisdom for utilising top picks and also of Carlton’s approach since the Blues went into a ground zero list reconstruction six years ago.

The Blues struck gold in 2015 when they landed Jacob Weitering (1), Charlie Curnow (12) and Harry McKay (10) in the national draft.

Charlie Curnow. Credit:Getty

These were excellent choices, but the issue since has been that, Sam Walsh aside, the Blues haven’t acquired the players who’ve usurped key-position forwards as the most valuable – the elite midfielder, who plays inside and outside, and can hit the scoreboard.

For the Demons, Petracca and Oliver are the full package, Brayshaw is a luxury on a wing, Viney a pit bull and Jackson shapes as special.

The Blues, having most of their spine if Curnow stands upright, haven’t gained enough power, strength and speed in the midfield to become a juggernaut. Patrick Cripps, superb inside, doesn’t have the legs of Petracca and Oliver, while Paddy Dow, in whom much hope was invested, hasn’t risen to those heights.

Walsh is the full package. In the modern game, his importance eclipses even Weitering and McKay.

The acquisition of Adam Cerra is important and much rides on his output, which also may slow Fremantle’s rise to contention.

In the premiership mosaic, clubs face a difficult choice in what parts are assembled first, bearing in mind that they often draft best available.

As the case of Cerra shows, the Blues are following an inside-out version of Melbourne: filling midfield holes via trades – Will Setterfield another example – having bedded down the spine.

Many within the AFL clubland contend that cultural change, off-field personnel and standards outweigh whatever names are called out in the draft or signed.

That might be right. But as the once hopeless or flawed organisations remake themselves, it’s also evident that finding the right players isn’t just a final step. It takes planning, patience and, most of all, realism.

As with Melbourne, the Blues have had enormous access to talent due to repeat failures. To make that great leap forward will require more power around the ball, and perhaps fewer power plays at board level and the front office.

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