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Trying times with a team that wasn't very good

I SPENT 2009 embedded with Melbourne Football Club. The idea started with chief executive Cameron Schwab. He liked a book I'd written, Southern Sky, Western Oval, on the 1993 season which I spent with the Dogs. He invited me to do the same with Melbourne, but experience had taught me that writing books about losing teams is a difficult task as the tempo of the narrative keeps dropping. I said, instead, I'd write a series of articles.

The previous year, I had attended a football meeting in a Darwin pool, summoned late one night by that great football eccentric Kevin Sheedy. Once in the water, we gathered around him like players gather around coaches. ''Tanking's bullshit,'' he declared. ''I tanked in 1993 and won a premiership.''

In 1993, Sheedy dropped a series of Essendon players entitled to believe they had a rightful place in the team and gave their spots to untried youngsters. That is, in the short term, his priority was not winning. He looked to the future and the team he might build. That could be described as tanking, but who could say Sheedy was wrong? I don't see how any AFL club can be told it is not entitled to adopt that policy whenever it chooses.

Before the 2009 season began, Schwab and I had a conversation. I said I believed the club had the right to make the selections it wished and put the players where it chose but if I ever thought the players weren't trying - or doing what was known in the old days as ''playing dead'' - our arrangement would end. I didn't see a Melbourne game in 2009 where it seemed that the Demons weren't trying. They just weren't very good.

The stories I wrote were mostly to do with the club's heritage and characters. The two biggest Melbourne stories of the year were president Jim Stynes being diagnosed with cancer and the spectacular arrival of Liam Jurrah. I enjoyed the year and getting inside one of the nation's most historic sporting clubs. The most frustrating aspect was, paradoxically, watching the team play. AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou described them as a ''poor team'', and they were. There was something - a doggedness or perhaps an inspiration - that collectively they lacked and which the appointment of Mark Neeld in 2011 was intended to redress.

The West Coast game in round 14, 2009, followed the news that Stynes was seriously ill. On my way to that match I had a horrible thought. Stynes had done so much to revive the club - if the players didn't fire up and make a stand on his account, then it seemed that the Melbourne Football Club literally amounted to nothing. A club official I spoke to admitted approaching the game with the same dread. As it happened, the Dees showed plenty and won.

They finished the season with four wins, losing the now famous match against Richmond. That was the game when they swapped forwards and backs. As someone who had watched the Dees wend their uninspired way through the season, I was glad when Bailey did it, seeing it as a coaching application of John Kennedy's dictum, ''Don't think - just do! Just do something!!'' He did something. What is more, Melbourne played no worse for the changes. Indeed, there is no guarantee Melbourne would have won any more games in 2009 regardless of what they did.

Another instance of tanking being cited against the club is that, against St Kilda, full-back James Frawley was moved off Nick Riewoldt after holding him goalless in the first half. Again, it seemed to me that a case could be made for the move. Frawley was one of their best two or three young players. Melbourne was not going to improve - and is not going to improve in 2013 - until one of its talented young players takes a quantum step forward and becomes a major figure in the game.

The question with Frawley is whether the Dees can get better value from him up the ground.

Tanking was part of the football conversation in 2009, a grey hum that hung over the game and involved clubs other than Melbourne. The resting of star West Coast ruckman Dean Cox for the last part of the season was called tanking. What changed everything for Melbourne was former player Brock McLean's comments on a television talk show.

The view of a player is a whole lot more serious than the view of any commentator but, even so, a case could still be made in defence of the club. I recall a game at Etihad Stadium where McLean was marooned in the forward pocket, but the Dees midfield was regarded as too slow and McLean was seen as part of the problem. However, this week's report that there was a tacit agreement among the coaching staff not to win games takes the matter to a new level. If proven, a grey issue turns into one that's black and white.

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