A season lit up by the stars: Melbourne’s road to the grand final

The decision to embrace a selfless attitude, not to mention stellar seasons from several stars, has been pivotal in Melbourne’s rise this season.

We look back at 2021 and how the Demons reached the showpiece event on Saturday in Perth.

ROUND 1 v FREMANTLE
Win 80-58
Steven May and Jake Lever were pivotal in defence, as the Demons posted a scrappy 22-point win. Christian Petracca (23 disposals, two goals) and Tom McDonald (18 disposals, two goals) were important, with the Demons holding off the depleted Dockers. In his 100th AFL game, Clayton Oliver (35 disposals, seven clearances) began his march towards Brownlow Medal favouritism. “We had such command from behind the ball … I thought our back six were outstanding today in the way they defended,“coach Simon Goodwin said. “Having May, Lever and [Adam] Tomlinson playing a good chunk of footy together, makes a massive difference to your team.“

ROUND 2 v ST KILDA
Win 91-73
The Demons notched back-to-back wins to start a season for the first time in four years, due in part to five straight goals across the second and third terms. On an emotional night when the Saints staged the inaugural Spud’s Game in memory of the late Danny Frawley, it was the Demons who thrived. Oliver (37 disposals), Christian Salem and Petracca (both 30) were superb, while Kysaiah Pickett provided a highlight with a clever snap. “I took my young lad to the footy a lot and he used to watch Cyril Rioli, and I’m not making comparisons to Cyril, but I used to take him cause he’s worth coming to watch and I think that’s what the Melbourne supporters would love about ‘Kozzy’ too,” Goodwin said.

ROUND 3 v GWS
Win 102-68
On a day the Giants lost Stephen Coniglio, Phil Davis and Matt de Boer to injury, the Demons conceded three of the game’s opening four goals but rebounded and withstood a late final-quarter comeback to make it three wins on the trot. It was the Demons’ first 3-0 start to a season since 2005. Captain Max Gawn was best on ground with booted two goals while Jack Viney, Petracca, Angus Brayshaw, Ed Langdon and Jayden Hunt were also impressive.

ROUND 4 v GEELONG
Win 85-60
The Demons were in control in a 25-point win in wet conditions at the MCG. Petracca was best on the ground with 36 disposals, nine clearances and two goals, while Oliver (34 disposals, six tackles), Viney (24 disposals, eight clearances) and Bayley Fritsch (14 disposals, four goals) were also important. However, there was some concern when May was substituted off before half-time, having taken a stray elbow from Tom Hawkins which left him with eye-socket damage and concussion. “I did have a few worries about my vision because I couldn’t open my eye for a few days because of the swelling. That was a little bit scary I guess because I had never been in that situation. But the doctors assured me that I would be fine and it’s just swelling,” May said later.

Max Gawn in action during Melbourne’s 2021 season-opener against Fremantle.Credit:Getty Images

ROUND 5 v HAWTHORN
Win 104-54
Gawn was the best afield, enjoying 26 disposals, 24 hitouts, five clearances, eight contested marks and a key goal in the final term which broke the back of the Hawks. The Demons booted eight goals to two to finish in a blaze of glory. Langdon, on a wing, was dominant with three goals from 17 disposals, while Salem and Oliver, each with 30 disposals, Petracca (23, two goals) and Tom McDonald (22, two goals) also enjoyed a productive afternoon. Nathan Jones says this unit is better than the 2018 version which fell in a preliminary final.

ROUND 6 v RICHMOND
Win 82-48
The Demons’ faithful knew something special was brewing after their side posted a sixth straight win to start a season for the first time since 1965. On a night Jones became only the second Demon to notch 300 games, Petracca (38 disposals, 10 clearances, one goal) was superb and led the charge, while Tigers’ counterpart Dustin Martin was concussed and finished on the bench. Defender Michael Hibberd had limited Martin to only eight disposals before his injury. Salem, having inked a five-year extension, had 39 disposals while Oliver (36) and Langdon (32) were also pivotal.

ROUND 7 v NORTH MELBOURNE
Win 103-73
The Demons found themselves on top of the ladder for the first time since 2005, having overcome a 19-point half-time deficit. Viney (toe) was a late withdrawal but Fritsch booted a career-high six goals as fellow forward Ben Brown made his club debut. Oliver (25 disposals) and Petracca (23) were busy and May was dominant in defence with 25 touches and a whopping 14 marks. However, victory was tempered by Adam Tomlinson’s season-ending knee injury.

ROUND 8 v SYDNEY
Win 67-58
The Demons overcame a slow start and were delighted that key forwards Tom McDonald (four goals) and Brown (three goals) clicked. Petracca, having inked a seven-year, $6 million contract extension, was superb with 28 touches and eight tackles, while James Harmes (30 and five clearances) had a successful return from a wrist injury. Gawn had an intriguing battle with Tom Hickey.

Christian Petracca had a great game against the Swans after signing a new contract.Credit:Getty

ROUND 9 v CARLTON
Win 94-68
The Demons had their first 9-0 start in 65 years. Tom McDonald booted three goals from 18 disposals and five marks and included 10 score involvements in a fine display. Fritsch (three goals) and Langdon (24 disposals, one goal) were also important, while Oliver (29 disposals, 10 tackles, one goal) and Petracca (27 disposals, eight clearances) crunched the Blues’ midfield.

ROUND 10 v ADELAIDE
Loss 95-96
The Demons had their first loss of the season when Taylor Walker booted a late goal at the Adelaide Oval, coming after the Demons had led by 16 points minutes earlier. Oliver had another evening out with 38 possessions (including 27 contested), three goals, 13 clearances and nine tackles. The Demons were denied a chance to steal victory in the final seconds following a contentious non-call on a potential deliberate out-of-bounds decision. “It [deliberate out-of-bounds] is still one of those areas that we are still finding our way as a game,” Goodwin said.

ROUND 11 v WESTERN BULLDOGS
Win 87-59
The Demons put on a defensive masterclass in denying the Bulldogs the ability to run from stoppages. Both teams began with a 9-1 record but it was the Demons who made the statement on a Friday night at a crowd-free Marvel Stadium. This match had been in doubt until the morning of the match after it emerged a Melbourne player had visited a tier-one exposure site. But he and his teammates returned negative tests. Oliver was superb with 32 disposals and five clearances, while May and Lever held up the Demons’ defence.

ROUND 12 v BRISBANE
Win 97-75
The Demons improved their record to 11-1, overcoming a 20-point deficit to storm to victory at a match transferred to the Sydney showgrounds. Petracca was magnificent with 26 disposals, including 16 contested, and two goals, while Oliver had 26 and kick-started the resurgence after the main break. Forwards Pickett and Tom McDonald finished with three goals apiece.

ROUND 13 v COLLINGWOOD
Loss 63-80
In what was Nathan Buckley’s farewell match as coach, the Magpies stymied Jake Lever and May and inflict the Demons’ second loss of the season in a Queen’s Birthday clash held at the SCG. The Magpies refused to bomb the ball inside attacking 50, ensuring May and Lever were accountable for an opponent. Petracca and Salem, however, were busy, while James Harmes and James Jordon provided run. The defeat gave Simon Goodwin something to think about heading into the mid-season bye.

ROUND 15 v ESSENDON
Win 68-57
Petracca (26 disposals, two goals) and Oliver (34 disposals, seven clearances) were again dominant in what was a gritty victory. A 100m penalty which gifted Jordon a goal was a key moment for the Demons, who were struggling to score with the same cohesion they had earlier in the season. Lever and May stood up late when the Bombers again threatened. This would prove to be Jones’ 302nd and final senior match for the club.

ROUND 16 v GWS
Loss 55-64
On a freezing cold Saturday afternoon, the Giants produced one of the upsets of the season while holding the Demons to a season-low score. Salem (31 disposals, nine marks, one goal) and Fritsch (eight marks, three goals) worked hard in a bid to drag the Demons over the line but the forward line lacked punch. Tom McDonald, Gawn and Luke Jackson failed to have an impact inside attacking 50, sparking calls for banished forwards Brown and Sam Weideman to return to the side. “It’s certainly something we’ll look at, there’s no question about that,” Goodwin said. Petracca and Langdon were among the Demons’ best but Goodwin was left frustrated by having only two goals from 18 inside 50s in the final term.

ROUND 17 v PORT ADELAIDE
Win 86-55
Brown returned while Petracca and Tom McDonald were influential, as the Demons turned off the Power. Petracca had 15 disposals and 484 metres gained to his credit by half-time, finishing with 33 touches and three goals on a dominant evening. Harrison Petty, May and Lever stymied the Power across half-back, Oliver had 33 touches, while small forward Pickett booted three goals.

Clayton Oliver tackles Willem Drew from the Power.Credit:Getty Images

ROUND 18 v HAWTHORN
Draw 79-79
On a chilly Saturday night without a crowd, a goal by veteran Hawk Luke Breust in the final minutes ensured scores were knotted at the final siren, leaving the Demons dumbfounded at what just had occurred. The Hawks had trailed by 27 points midway through the second term. Angus Brayshaw and Pickett both missed late set shots which would have given the Demons the lead. Petracca had a night out with 33 disposals, including 23 contested and nine clearances. While Oliver (34 disposals and eight clearances) and Viney (32 and six) also found plenty of the ball, Fritsch booted three goals but later came under fire from Hawks’ great Dermott Brereton for being a “faux tough guy” who is earning a bad reputation.

ROUND 19 v WESTERN BULLDOGS
Loss 65-85
While still one of the premiership favourites, the Demons looked a touch shaky after the Bulldogs rebounded from their defeat earlier in the season with a 20-point win at the MCG. On a night Cody Weightman used Gawn as a stepladder, the Bulldogs reclaimed top spot on the ladder. Gawn may have dominated the hitouts while Oliver (38 disposals, 25 contested, eight clearances) and Petracca (31 touches) found plenty of the ball, but the Dogs’ midfield held sway.

ROUND 20 v GOLD COAST
Win 128-30
In a contest transferred to Marvel Stadium, the Demons were brutal in beating up on the young Suns. Jackson booted a career-high four goals, two in the first term and two in the second, while Brown (four), Fritsch (two) and Pickett (two) also enjoyed a fine Sunday afternoon. The ferocious Demons had 11 tackles inside their forward 50 in the first quarter and 18 in the first half. The goal rush also came as a result of a robust midfield. Oliver, with 35 disposals, including 12 clearances and a goal, led the relentless attack, while Petracca had 32 touches, including 15 score involvements and a goal of his own.

ROUND 21 v WEST COAST
Win 72-63
This was a win for the ages as the Demons survived a lightning break and a late West Coast flurry of four straight goals to claim victory on a Monday night at Optus Stadium. If there was one match which rubber-stamped the Demons’ premiership credentials, this was it. The victory, on the backs of Petracca (28 disposals and seven clearances), Oliver (28 and nine) and Brown (three goals), regained top spot. The emerging Jackson (21 and two clearances) continued his rise.

ROUND 22 v ADELAIDE
Win 104-63
Fritsch booted seven goals while Gawn, Petracca and Salem were important, as the Demons enjoyed a strong win at the MCG. The Crows booted four of the first five goals of the third quarter to cut the deficit to three points but the Demons’ maturity from that point was clear. Gawn had 27 hitouts, 19 disposals and 10 clearances, helping Langdon (27) and Petracca (23 and two goals) enjoy a day out. Oliver (28 disposals, five clearances, seven tackles) did not poll a Brownlow vote, with the umpires deciding Crows Paul Seedsman (3 votes, 29 disposals) and Ben Keays (2 votes, 36 disposals) were the two best afield. Fritsch polled one vote.

ROUND 23 v GEELONG
Win 81-77
Gawn may have had his issues in front of goal in previous years but his mark and post-siren goal to give the Demons victory at GMHBA Stadium – and the minor premiership for the first time since 1964 – reinforced the composure and improved technical kicking skills he now has. The Cats had led by 44 points midway through the third term but the Demons booted six goals to none in the final term to strengthen their premiership hopes, while rocking the Cats’ own premiership hopes. Gawn had 25 disposals and 39 hitouts, while Oliver had 39 disposals, nine clearances and two goals. Petracca, with 26 disposals, and Pickett, three goals, were also influential.

QUALIFYING FINAL v BRISBANE
Win 93-60
It was the start of a new season, according to Goodwin, who drew on stories across world sport to help his side relate to this year’s uncertain times. Former world No.1 tennis player Andre Agassi was one champion whose story resonated for the Demons and Goodwin, as had the attitude of Milwaukee Bucks’ NBA finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Victoria’s lockdown meant the Demons were denied a home final at the MCG, with this clash taken to the Adelaide Oval. It did not matter for they took control early and did not let up. Oliver, having enjoyed his second All-Australian selection, was dominant with 33 disposals, seven clearances and a goal. Petracca was also influential with 30 disposals and two goals, while Fritsch had four goals. Lever had 15 intercepts, highlighting how well the Demons had set up behind the ball. The win meant they had the next weekend off.

PRELIMINARY FINAL v GEELONG
Win 125-42
This was one of the more startling finals of recent years. The Cats have had their scoring issues in September but on this night at Optus Stadium they were strangled. The Demons’ run and carry swept their opponents aside almost from the opening bounce. Petracca (32 disposals, eight clearances and a goal), Viney (34 and nine) and Oliver (27 and seven) were inspirational but it was Gawn who was best on ground. The skipper, acting more like a ruck rover, had 33 hitouts, 19 disposals and booted five goals, leaving teammates and supporters delirious with goals on the run from outside 50m, snaps from stoppages and set shots. However, May’s hamstring complaint was a concern. In a bitter-sweet story, Jones returned home to Victoria – his dream of regaining his spot in the side over – to be at the birth of his twins Odie Reign and Dove Margot. Jones later announced his retirement.

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