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AFL must save Demons

First Melbourne rebuilt. Lately, coach Mark Neeld has talked about rebuilding the rebuild. After their pathetic start to 2013, what do the Demons do now, rebuild the rebuilding of a rebuild?

That's the sort of farce an entire football club threatens to become should the level of ineptitude Melbourne has exhibited on and off the field these past few years be allowed to continue much longer.

''Of course we are [concerned],'' AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou conceded last week. ''We don't want the situation where a club has a significant loss and people are outraged and booing.''

That was in reaction to the round one smashing at the hands of Port Adelaide, a performance that up against Saturday night's 148-point disgrace against Essendon looked relatively competitive by comparison.

What would Demetriou say now? Whatever, it's what he does that's far more important.


And the time may well have come for the AFL to go a step further than subsidies and draft picks, and take over the running of one of the competition's foundation clubs, as it has been prepared to do with the newer franchises beyond the state border.

The league showed two decades ago it was prepared to move its own people into Sydney to keep the Swans viable. It didn't mess around and drafted David Matthews into head office at Greater Western Sydney. And it shouldn't mess around any longer waiting for the club bearing this city's name to fix itself. Because the Demons themselves can't, and won't.

This is about far more than Neeld's competence as a coach, and more than Melbourne's financial status. The club has an inherently weak culture that any number of new regimes has failed to strengthen. Direct intervention from head office may be Melbourne's last hope.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Demons' last premiership. The seeds of destruction were sown less than 12 months later, when the legendary Norm Smith was sacked as coach. The disease has festered ever since, occasionally going into remission, but always there, ready to turn the slightest hint of trouble into chaos.

Even the couple of high points in that half-century have come against the odds. When Melbourne made the 1988 grand final, it did so as a club based at a dilapidated training venue, its football department split from the administration. In 2000, Neale Daniher took the club to another grand final despite the meddling and interference from its president Joe Gutnick.

Gutnick had stepped in to bail out the club and just four years earlier, it had actually voted in favour of merging itself out of independent existence, a fact those associated with other battling clubs such as the Western Bulldogs and the departed Fitzroy, who fought tooth and nail to stay alive under their own steam, have never forgotten.

Many would equate the recent tanking controversy as the merger's on-field equivalent. The results have spoken for themselves, most obviously in the departure of the player the whole costly strategy set out to acquire (Tom Scully), but just as significantly in the pervasive and damaging message sent through a whole club.

A stream of senior players have been jettisoned or have left, the club having overestimated the strength of what remained. And their development, and that of a steady stream of highly rated juniors, has been stunted and compromised, the consequences seen again at the hands of the Bombers.

The ''new brooms'' at Melbourne come and go, but never manage to clean everything or in some cases even anything up. The sickness always seems to prevail.

Chairman Don McLardy said on Sunday the Neeld coaching team had been given ''carte blanche to change the culture of the Melbourne Football Club''.

But at Melbourne, that is far too great a task for a novice coach feeling his way. Even Norm Smith would be struggling with this version of his once great club.

Culture change is also primarily a job for an administration. And this one is too embattled, too fatigued and too scarred by its various travails to any longer have the resources, clout or credibility to right this sinking ship.

AFL headquarters does though. The league could deploy its best to work at Melbourne, help establish the first solid foundations it would have had for 50 years, find and develop a genuine, not half-baked and piecemeal, spiritual and physical home, assume marketing and promotional responsibilities and make the club something fans of future generations actually want to follow for reasons other than diminishing family ties.

That's a more essential task than debating Neeld's future or Jack Watts' best position. Because unless it's addressed pronto, those names will simply be replaced by two more who try and fail to turn around a club with a sick core.


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