Mismatch of the season? Demons return to premiership Perth to take on grounded Eagles

This Sunday, Melbourne will set foot into Optus Stadium for the first time since 25 September last year, when they not only smashed the AFL’s longest active flag drought but also buried their premiership demons to take out their first flag in 57 years.

It is a return to the scene of the most glorious day in their recent history, when they thrashed the Western Bulldogs by 74 points to complete the competition’s rags-to-riches fairytale.

Having trailed by 19 points midway through the third quarter, the Dees ran riot, outscoring the Bulldogs 16.4 (100) to 1.1 (7) from that point onwards to take home the club’s 13th premiership and first since 1964, putting an end to nearly six decades of mediocrity in the process.

It was the culmination of several years of hard work after the club found themselves in a massive financial hole when several key personnel arrived with the ultimate end goal of returning them to their current status as a powerhouse and destination club.

It was in 2013 when Glen Bartlett, Peter Jackson and Paul Roos arrived at a Melbourne that was on a road to ruin. Thanks to their extraordinarily hard work behind the scenes, slowly but surely the club was rebuilt and put on the right track.

Following three seasons in charge, Roos orchestrated the handover to Simon Goodwin, who last year led the Dees back to the promised land after years of steady progress and in doing so cemented himself as a great of the club.

It was the second time a Roos handover had produced the ultimate success, after his successor at the Sydney Swans, John Longmire, led that club to a flag in just his second season in charge, in 2012.

Since that glorious day last September, the Dees have only continued to go from strength to strength, winning their first eight matches to be the only undefeated team after as many rounds and therefore sit on top of the ladder with a one-game buffer on the Brisbane Lions.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The lure of winning a flag on home soil after COVID-19 denied them that opportunity at the MCG last year is driving them to go back to back this year, where another flag would be the most celebrated in the club’s history given the ongoing global pandemic.

The reason I say this is because while the Dees won last year’s flag, they did so behind WA’s hard border, which prevented Victorians from crossing unless it was absolutely essential – and even then two weeks in hotel quarantine was required first.

Victorians had to improvise, watching a grand final on television under strict lockdown conditions for a second year running.

Therefore winning a flag at the MCG would allow Demons supporters to soak in the success in the flesh, similar to how Western Bulldogs fans did likewise after seeing their side smash a 62-year hoodoo in emphatic fashion in 2016 as well as Richmond the following year.

Last Sunday afternoon the Dees kept St Kilda goalless in the opening quarter en route to a 38-point win, which was marred by a knee injury to captain Max Gawn – though the skipper is in no doubt to face the West Coast Eagles on Sunday.

They are yet to be seriously tested in their premiership defence, and while they will start rampaging hot favourites against the struggling Eagles this Sunday, they surely won’t want to take them lightly, especially at Optus Stadium.

Max Gawn of the Demons celebrates a goal

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Adam Simpson’s men have been hit hardest by injuries and COVID-19 protocols, which have prevented them from fielding a full-strength side at any point this season.

So much so, Simpson fell victim to the protocols last week, with former Essendon coach Matthew Knights presiding over their 75-point loss to the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba last Saturday night.

It was the first time that Knights took charge of an AFL side on game day since his ill-fated stint as Bombers coach, where he struggled to fill the shoes left behind by legendary coach Kevin Sheedy, between 2008-10.

Since then he has redeemed himself by leading the Geelong Cats VFL side to a flag in 2012 – which three-time premiership Cat David Wojcinski played in – and becoming an assistant coach to Chris Scott at Kardinia Park before moving west.

All the prematch talk was about just how much the decimated Eagles, who have had to rely on top-up players from the WAFL, would be beaten by a Lions side that have set the benchmark in attack, being the competition’s most potent scoring side in two of the past three seasons and so far this year.

Despite the scoreline suggesting otherwise, the westerners did well to keep the Lions at bay, not allowing them to rack up a massive score as was expected from them, though they just conceded the century at the death.


(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Their on-field struggles aside, they also have several club veterans on the wrong side of 30, not least full-forward Josh Kennedy who turns 35 in August, and former captain Shannon Hurn, who is currently the club’s longest-tenured player, having debuted back in 2006.

Both, along with a host of others, are likely to retire at season’s end as the Eagles undergo what looms as a painful rebuilding period, akin to that of post-2006 when Chris Judd and Ben Cousins left the club the following year, with the side crashing to last place in 2010.

Their struggles come as their cross-town rivals Fremantle start rising back up the ladder, the Dockers having won seven of their first eight matches. They could so easily have been undefeated if not for a poor second half against St Kilda at home in Round 2.

The term ‘Flagmantle’ has been coined by many of its long-suffering supporters, who saw their side come closest to the ultimate glory when it lost to Hawthorn by 15 points in the 2013 grand final.

This week news emerged that two fans who are so quietly confident that their side will go all the way this year had the word tattooed on their thighs.

But as far as the Eagles, who will get Adam Simpson back on deck this week, are concerned, another painful week looms in the office for the visit by reigning premiers Melbourne, with predictions of yet another heavy defeat on the horizon for the blue and golds.

That is then followed by another trip to the other side of the Barassi Line, where the struggling GWS Giants in Sydney await and with the likelihood that Leon Cameron’s star-studded side (if we can still say that) will rack up a much-needed win on their home deck.

As for Melbourne, they’ll be keen to continue building their percentage as they continue to reinforce themselves as the team to beat for this year’s premiership, with no end in sight to their current winning streak, which currently stands at 15 matches.

And if they can go all the way again, we could be talking them up as the next dynasty side, following in the footsteps of the Brisbane Lions (2001-03), Geelong Cats (2007, 09 and 11), Hawthorn (2008, 13-15) and Richmond (2017, 19 and 20).

But that’s still ahead of them. They first need to take care of the struggling Eagles at Optus Stadium on Sunday, and a win as expected will see them maintain their buffer at the top of the ladder.

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