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Demons: shock & awful

Dark times for the Demons: Melbourne players training this week.

Dark times for the Demons: Melbourne players training this week. Photo: Getty Images

MELBOURNE president Don McLardy smarted for much of his club's abysmal 2012 football season over a tabloid headline trumpeted early in the year describing the Demons as ''pathetic and disgusting''.

Privately shattered at the awful truth that Melbourne was being forced to rebuild its list from scratch - again, punch-drunk from the misfortune that seemed to be hitting the club at every turn and lamenting the dreadful lack of fight onfield; McLardy still believed those words ''pathetic and disgusting'' were unforgivable.

If only his football life and its associated problems were so simple now. Melbourne in 2012 played some dreadfully uncompetitive football and in those first weeks, which stretched to months, was generally thrashed week in and week out. Still ''pathetic and disgusting'' did seem slightly harsh at the time.

Not any more. In the context of what has emerged in recent weeks in the form of evidence being put forward and corroborated by a number of witnesses, ''pathetic and disgusting'' sums it up pretty well.

McLardy issued a plea on his club's website on Friday for ''natural justice'' as the mounting weight of damning evidence that the club fixed matches continued to emerge in all its shocking detail. A picture is being painted for the AFL's investigative team of dark threats, amateurish tactics and blatant match manipulation. The indication is still that Melbourne will fight this, but it looks shocking for all concerned.

The AFL is praying that Jim Stynes - and McLardy and the board it strangely continues to extol - can be kept at a decent arm's length from the fall-out. But even if Stynes' legacy is spared because we might never truly know how much he knew, the game must cast aside concerns about legacies and images and football myths and concentrate on repairing the collateral damage.

Melbourne will be harshly punished. Cameron Schwab and Chris Connolly will be finished at the club. But football lives, young men who played no real active part in the treacherous football facade which took place at the club in 2009 were ruined or at the very least tarnished by their association with it.

It is nonsense to suggest the AFL must carry the can for Melbourne because it created a system which encouraged tanking. That is rot. The AFL was not complicit in this. At best it was naive and at worst the commission and its chief executive incompetent in failing to see what was being unveiled in front of them.

The AFL introduced the priority pick to help improve struggling clubs. Like the four-man interchange, it was well-intended but created issues it did not foresee. Finally it removed it because football boss Adrian Anderson and a team of academics demonstrated to the commission the advantage was generally too great for those teams that earned one, with some obvious exceptions: when clubs were too hopeless to pick the right players or develop them professionally or create an environment that retained them.

The commission agreed the day it scrapped the pick that it also created a bad perception that teams were tanking. This column's view is that the chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, did not believe clubs plotted to lose. He seems to have been proven wrong. As we said, the AFL was probably incompetent but that should not save Melbourne.

Like Ross Oakley and his team when Nicky Winmar lifted his St Kilda jumper and two years later Michael Long spoke up about being racially taunted on Anzac Day, the current administration was far too slow to act on what it is now acting upon. But it never encouraged it and truly seems shocked at what it has learnt in recent times.

What the AFL, in fact, should feel sick about now is those players who aspired to its code, who walked into a football club believing in sportsmanship and playing to win and giving their all for victory. It is not surprising in hindsight that it has been a player who has lifted the lid on a secret Melbourne believed it could keep in the vault.

The Demons and their more rabid supporters keep banging on about the fact that everyone was doing it. No other club seems to have done it quite like this, though, and if Carlton is guilty then the current mood of the AFL indicates that club, too, will be forensically examined and punished.

Putting players in for surgery once a season is lost is not match-fixing because everyone associated with the game knows the playing field they are watching, backing or barracking upon. Even losing heart in one final game for an earlier pick seems more forgivable than systematic planning, career-ending threats and a plan which seems to have dragged on for weeks leading into months. To think that a player having on-field success was prevented from having more. No wonder Melbourne's misery continued to curse the club.

What Melbourne did in manipulating results was disgusting. The result of the fix was pathetic. To think that so many reputations could be destroyed and so many playing careers hurt all for one ambitious young footballer who began looking for a way out of the place after only one year.

If what some former players and coaches say is true, then the tanking was only the half of it. But to put in the fix for Tom Scully and not to create a training and development laboratory for all similarly-talented young men to improve and retain them is just so glaringly short-sighted. All those early draft picks gone. All those disillusioned once-proud Demons. What a sorry story.

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