It’s now or never for the underachieving Melbourne Demons.
After several seasons of failing to reach high expectations, the Melbourne Demons will be seeking to legitimise their reputation as one of the strongest AFLW sides.
With the re-injection of fearless leader Daisy Pearce, a reliable coaching panel and an overall strong line-up, Melbourne must deliver this season.
The proposition of a maiden finals appearance is a dangling carrot in front of the Demons – if they can find a balance between their signature slick ball use and increased on-ball aggression, there’s no reason they can’t achieve great things.
What did we learn from last season?
Mick Stinear’s side displayed promising signs in their 2019 campaign with four wins and two narrow losses. Yet, a colossal loss to Adelaide in the final round was a reality check for the Demons.
After finishing third-last in their conference, it became clear Melbourne were not quite at the level where they could match it with the league’s top sides.
The tone for the Demon’s season was set in their Round 1 clash with Fremantle. Whilst they were always around their opponents’ mark, a late 3-goal surge to the Dockers stole the victory from the red and blue.
Seem familiar? Melbourne were travelling along nicely all season – not setting the world on fire, but staying comfortably in contention. Cue a demoralising thumping from the Crows in their last match, and all finals hopes were out the window.
Whilst it could be argued this game did not appropriately reflect the Demons’ 2019 performance, grasping big games with mental and physical strength will be a key challenge in 2020.
Much of Melbourne’s past finals heartbreak also stemmed from poor goal kicking accuracy. Throughout the past 3 seasons, they have been sitting at just 40-50 percent in front of goal.
When considering the Demons missed finals based on percentage, this is an area which could use some attention.
It’s an adage as old as footballing time, but ‘playing your role’ may have somewhat worked against Melbourne last year. Simply because, they arguably had too many people playing the same role, with similar skills.
Having several talented players with a flair for ball use is by no means a bad thing. Yet, it’s important to balance this out with hard-at-it inside players who use grit and strength to surge the ball forward – an area Melbourne may be somewhat lacking.
Yet, as star midfielder Lily Mithen tells us, it’s this heartbreak that’s driving her side in 2020.
“There’s plenty of learnings out of our past few seasons,” she says.
“We definitely have missed out on finals and what not but that’s been no one’s fault other than our own.
“There’s definitely plenty of room for improvement and hopefully we go one better than what we have previously.”
Melbourne’s line-up appears extremely impressive on paper – an elite midfield supported by a strong backline and a serviceable forward line.
Despite a lack of past success, the Demons host one of the most consistent lists, which should speak volumes with their overall cohesion.
Unlike other sides, Melbourne have avoided a player decimation with the new expansion sides, bolstering their stocks to create a reliable brand of football.
“The fact that we didn’t have to start from scratch and we’ve been able to retain a whole chunk of our list over the four years I think should be a real advantage,” Mithen says.
“I think we’ve been able to continuously develop together and we obviously know a lot of our teammates strengths and how they play their best footy.
“Things aren’t going to just click instantly but we definitely do have a lot of chemistry amongst the group which should help us.”
The finesse of Aleisha Newman, Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea (just to name a few) makes Melbourne’s midfield elite – a strength they should look to capitalise on in this season.
Pair this with impressive running power scattered throughout all areas of the ground, and the Demons have the potential to thrive with powerful, attacking play.
Former Bulldog Libby Birch will be a welcomed addition to the Demon’s backline. Her intercept marking and versatility will be vital in making up for the loss of Bianca Jacobson and Katherine Smith, to work commitments and injury respectively.
An impressive arsenal of young talent could reap rewards for the Demons this year. With the likes of Maddi Gay and Shelley Heath coming into their prime, competition for spots will be fierce.
Melbourne’s draw also seems to present ample opportunities for confidence building wins – with a game against the rebuilding bulldogs and another three against expansion sides, the Demons are in an excellent position to reach the next level.
The most imperative hurdle for Melbourne to overcome will be their inconsistency.
Epic and rather sporadic losses in have derailed the Demons’ previous seasons, ending all finals hopes. Think their 60-point loss to Adelaide in Round 7 last year, and their 34-point loss to Collingwood the year before.
Melbourne will need to fight their mental demons; ones which have evidently cost them in the past. Otherwise, it could be another season of so close, yet so far…
However, if the Demons are to reach finals, they’ll have to get over the injuries which have plagued their preseason.
Top draftee Jackie Parry suffered a hamstring injury on the eve of Round 1, sidelining the all-rounder for an expected four weeks. Midfielder Lily Mithen and ruck Lauren Pearce are expected to miss three weeks each, while key duo Shae Sloan and Katherine Smith will be out for season with torn ACLs – a significant loss for Melbourne.
Mithen says, no more excuses
“We just want to play a brand of footy people want to come and watch,” Mithen says with pride.
“We want to play with freedom, we want to play with flair and show the outer world what the women’s footy game is capable of.
"We are sick of falling short and probably playing it a little safe at times, so if we can play and put everything out on the line, week in week out, that would be a successful season for us.”
“The more we can play to our strengths and consistently perform, we’ll definitely put ourselves in a really good position and hopefully get the Dees into finals.
“We’ve just missed opportunities to play consistently and that’s definitely where we’ll probably find most of our improvement is, to be able to play consistently, at a high level.
“Whether it be just not showing up, or concentration lapses within quarters, it’s our ability to bounce back as quick as we can and get back to what we do best, they have probably been a few of the key learning.”
What Stinear said
“Our competitiveness has gone to another level,” Stinear told the club website.
“We’re genuinely excited for what next season holds and we’re looking to do good things as a team.
“They’ve been working pretty hard and are committed to getting the best out of themselves.
“We’ve got great depth, it’s going to be tough for spots. (Selection) will certainly have its challenges, which is where good teams want to be.”
Star midfielder Paxman will be looking to upkeep her phenomenal input, after claiming the Demons’ 2019 Best and Fairest, and becoming one of just three AFLW players to be crowned a three-time All Australian.
Her outstanding endurance and strong work rate will again be a key facet in the success of Melbourne’s midfield.
Despite consistency being a downfall of the Demons, Paxman has been a pillar of stability. Her reliable performances will be bolstered to new heights in 2020, with the handy support of midfielders Pearce and O’Dea.
Melbourne will we overjoyed to welcome back their spiritual leader, Pearce. Whilst her midfield prowess should prove difficult to stop, it’s Daisy’s leadership which makes her such an important asset for the Demons.
After giving birth to twins early last year, Pearce has worked admirably hard to get back to her career best form. With the loss of Lily Mithen and Tegan Cunningham, she will need to step up early to fill her side’s attacking gap.
At 32, Pearce did not look to be slowing down in Melbourne’s practice match against Collingwood. Rather, her prolific ball use and signature skill was on full display, providing further evidence for why Daisy may just be the irrefutable queen of AFLW.
Downie was a key figure in Melbourne’s defence last season. Her one-on-one efforts were constantly impressive, often claiming bragging rights over her direct opponent.
The defender was reliable in the air and on the ground, noticeably lessening the opposition’s attacking flow.
As Melbourne seek to improve their fast, attacking brand, having a key pillar in defence will be critical when playing sides like Adelaide and Fremantle, who enjoy charging forward.
One to watch
It’s hard to go past Tyla Hanks when considering up and coming talent at Melbourne.
A standout player from the 2018 draft, Hanks will be itching to push for regular selection in the forward line.
A talented athlete, Hanks can have an impact wherever she goes. Whether that’s inside 50 or in the centre, her high footy IQ seems to put her in good stead.
At just 157cm tall, Hanks has no fear when attacking the ball – a skill which earned her the opportunity to play in the midfield during practice matches.
After showing promising signs, Hank’s challenge will be to reproduce these impressive performances on the main stage.