Nathan Jones doesn’t leave anything to chance. He is Nathan Buckley-like in his single-minded focus on extracting the maximum from himself. Photo: Getty Images
‘‘The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.’’ - Albert Camus, from The Myth of Sisyphus.
The Melbourne Football Club is a good place to consider futile labor and the concept of pushing a boulder up a hill. No footballer in the game has laboured harder than Nathan Jones, for so little return in terms of team victories.
Every week, Jones pushes that proverbial rock up a hill, only to see to it roll down again. If most of the 22,000 who witnessed Melbourne’s capitulation to West Coast were flattened by the experience, one can only guess how Jones, the newly minted Melbourne captain, felt.
Unlike most AFL players, Jones didn’t really have an off-season. He trained constantly during the break, preparing himself with a personal boxing coach. He also trained with his younger brother Zac, who was drafted by the Swans at pick No.15, to ensure the kid was draft-ready.
Jones doesn’t leave anything to chance. He is Nathan Buckley-like in his single-minded focus on extracting the maximum from himself; this year, Jones has the added burden of captaincy, which always represents a challenge for the player who (through no fault of his own) becomes ‘‘an island of excellence’’ - the phrase once used to describe the meticulous trio of Robert Harvey, Nathan Burke and Stewart Loewe - in a losing team with a questionable environment.
Chance has dealt Jones a tough hand, if you discount individual achievements. In 2005, he was drafted at No.12, seven places after a skinny covert from basketballer called Scott Pendlebury, who had, in fact, barracked for Melbourne. Pendlebury, by dint of ending up at Collingwood (and partly because Pendlebury himself went there), has never played for a club that didn’t play finals in each of his eight completed seasons.
Jones played two finals in his first season as a mature 18-year-old. He cannot have imagined then that, not only would his club fail to play finals again in the next seven years, but that it would spend most of those seven years mired around the bottom. He could not have envisaged that, while Pendlebury would play under two coaches, he would ply his trade under seven (counting the three caretakers).
In the judgment of some within the football fraternity, Jones is a poster boy for equalistion, and for the rights of a long-term player to have a competent, well-resourced club. He is far from the first Melbourne player to play for consistently awful teams - Robbie Flower’s career was a study in loyalty and futility - but Jones is an extreme case of success deprivation in a system designed to help the poor teams.
There was no draft in Flower’s day (it arrived, in a limited form, as he was finishing), no salary cap. And the Demons, whose establishment connections were irrelevant in the '70s and '80s, had no hope.
Jones, obviously, has maintained a faith that the Demons will revive, as they did under John Northey in the late '80s and early '90s, and Neale Daniher a decade later. The draft system ought to have intervened by now.
But how many more Groundhog Sundays (the movie has a touch of Sisyphus about it) can Jones, who runs himself into the turf every weekend, endure? He is contracted until the end of 2015 and, as skipper, probably has more invested in the club than James Frawley, who is weighing up his future. Yet, in the free agency era, team success is a major attraction - and the lack of it, a major turn-off.
''The big challenge for Melbourne is to convince Nathan that he’ll play finals footy into the future,'' said Chris Connolly, the former Melbourne player and football operations chief who left the club following his year-long suspension for his part in the ‘‘tanking’’ episode. Connolly added that Paul Roos had been appointed to ''bring hope to all in the club'' and especially to the likes of Jones.
There’s no suggestion that Jones is contemplating leaving. He has won the past two best and fairests, received a reasonable pay rise (albeit his deal falls well short of the absent Mitch Clark’s) and has been annointed co-captain.
Still, it’s fascinating to ponder Jones’ unique position in the game - as a devoted player, with extreme professionalism, at a club that, despite draft picks and a heavy rotation of senior coaches, still hasn’t improved to the point of competitiveness.
At the end of his essay, Camus concludes that Sisyphus found contentment in his fruitless toil. ‘‘The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’’
Whether he’s happy like the Greek hero or fed up, Nathan Jones deserves more than an endless struggle uphill.