Demons
Star Demons forward Bayley Fritsch (Photo: Michael Kleine/News Corp)

The Last Saturday in September is a fabled day on the Australian sporting calendar. For the best part of 150 years, it has been the day that the AFL (and its predecessor, the VFL) decide on their champion. After COVID pushed the football calendar all out of shape in 2020, this year the AFL Grand Final again took its rightful place.

With the two best-performed teams on 2021 taking the stage, a game of the highest quality was expected – a tight and tense affair. We got the first and, for the most part, we had the second.

In a game full of wildly swinging momentum, it was the Melbourne Demons that broke a 57 year Premiership drought, thoroughly overwhelming the Western Bulldogs with a remarkable late avalanche of goals to run out 74 point winner and claim the 2021 AFL Premiership.

Led by Norm Smith Medallist Christian Petracca and standout forward Bayley Fritsch, the Demons turned around a 19 point deficit late in the 3rd quarter, kicking 16 of the games final 17 goals in an astonishing onslaught.

Despite a red hot start, the Demons were held to just a single goal over a quarter and a half, before a Fritsch double inside 75 seconds got the Dees rolling and on their way to the club’s 13th premiership.

Petracca gathered a record tying 39 disposals whilst up forward Fritsch kicked six goals, leading the Bulldogs defenders on a merry dance in front of 61,118 spectators at Perth’s stunning Optus Stadium.

The Bulldogs looked nervous early, as the usually cool headed Bailey Dale kicked out of bounds on the full under little pressure. Alex Neal-Bullen’s set shot fell just short and was rushed through for a behind. Ben Brown then found space to mark on the lead, but sprayed his shot left.

The Demons were bringing it physically but were a little wasteful in possession.

It was Petracca that finally found the big sticks, turning on a dime and slamming the ball through from 50 metres out.

The Dogs almost got on the board through Josh Schache, though his shot fell just short. Live wire Cody Weightman, who would be well held by veteran Demon Michael Hibberd, slammed into the goal post in his attempt to mark Shache’s kick.

Melbourne rebounded quickly, finding Bayley Fritsch for a mark in the goal square, their leading scorer guiding through a simple kick for the Demons 2nd major.

The dogs eventually got their opener through Roarke Smith. He jumped for a pack mark but while those around him fell, Smith kept his feet to snap home an easy goal.

Melbourne’s pressure was immense, causing conniptions in the Dogs back line.

Kysaiah Pickett chased down a seemingly lost cause. That implied pressure saw Bailey Williams gift the ball back to Melbourne. Charlie Spargo almost walking into an open goal.

Williams’ nervy start continued as he dropped a simple mark, Fritsch capitalising to push the Demons lead to 19 points, eventually settling at 21 points as the siren sounded to end the opening quarter.

Despite their dominance, the Demons might have felt that they somewhat squandered their ascendancy. Despite finishing on top of the AFL ladder, remarkably Melbourne were the worst team in the league when it came to shooting accuracy. That glitch in their system came to the fore as they kicked 5 behinds in the quarter, four of them very gettable kicks.

That fear became a reality in the 2nd term as the Bulldogs bit back viciously.

Just 43 seconds into the quarter, former Magpie Adam Treloar roved well, snapping a much needed Bulldogs goal. In a practically identical scenario at the other end of the ground, Clayton Oliver steered his kick wide.

Treloar again made the Demons pay for their wastefulness, snapping his 2nd goal inside three minutes. He was proving a thorn in Melbourne’s side as he broke free of the ensuing centre bounce to feed full forward Aaron Naughton. The exciting Dog gathered the ground ball and snapped a fantastic goal from 30 metres out as the Bulldogs suddenly had all of the momentum.

The Demons needed a steadier and found it from their own high profile off season recruit in Brown. The former Kangaroo marked well in traffic and kicked with typical accuracy to give his side a little breathing space. Skipper Max Gawn then marked in the pocket and looked to have kicked a fantastic goal from a tight angle, only for the goal umpire to somewhat controversially rule the shot a behind, despite Gawn starting to celebrate.

With the Dees perhaps a little frustrated at that decision, as well as a few others around the ground, the Dogs once again took control of the contest. Captain Marcus Bontompelli was not his usual destructive self at the stoppages, but at 6’4” he’s a more than handy option to push forward. He did this to devastating effect, marking strongly and converting his set shot to reduce the margin to four points.

Then, Lachie Hunter – in an otherwise anonymous performance – cleverly drew a free kick out of Spargo, who found himself in unfamiliar defensive territory. Hunter’s kick was true, giving the Dogs their first lead of the Grand Final.

Bontompelli kicked a carbon copy of his first goal to push the extend the Bulldogs lead to eight points at the half time break, a remarkable turnaround given the Demons dominance of the opening exchanges.

Diminutive half back Caleb Daniel has a barely believable 26 possessions to half time, no Demon appearing to want to go near him. Treloar and Bontompelli were key drivers of the Dogs fightback, whilst Fritsch, Jack Viney and Clayton Oliver were the Demons best. After a hot opening term, Petracca was well held by Josh Dunkley in the 2nd quarter.

Melbourne needed a spark in the 2nd half, but it was the Bulldogs that got a lift in the form of veteran Jason Johannisen. The 2016 Norm Smith medallist took a huge goal line grab on the shoulders of Demons rookie Jake Bowey. He calmly snapped through the goal as the Demons visibly wilted.

Over the next few minutes, the Bulldogs successfully took control of possession, chipping the ball around to deny the Demons the football, taking 22 uncontested marks to just one over the next 10 minutes. They did eventually push forward, though. When Bontompelli kicked his 3rd from a smart snap, the Dogs led by 19 points but they looked in total control of the Grand Final with one and a half quarters to play.

Little did we know what was to follow.

In a nondescript stoppage just forward of half way, Viney broke from his marker to force the ball forward to James Harmes. His rushed kick fell somewhat fortuitously to the leading Fritsch, who made no mistake with his set shot. Then, it was Petracca time.

The Melbourne star broke free from the centre bounce, driving the ball towards the goal square where Fritsch leapt on Easton Wood’s shoulder, only to be inadvertently spoiled by his teammate in Gawn. Fritsch, though, kept his feet and strolled into the open goal to kick his 4th.

Another centre bounce clearance to Petracca saw him hit Brown on the lead. His conversion – Melbourne’s 3rd goal in three minutes – cut the lead back to a solitary point.

Angus Brayshaw got forward, diving to mark a Bowey chipped ball. Not a noted goal kicker, by any means, the former #3 overall pick nailed his shot to give Melbourne back the lead.

Petracca then pulled out a party piece, dribbling the ball in from 20 metres out, deep in the pocket. That was quickly followed by deep goals on the run to Tom Sparrow, then Oliver.

For the 2nd time in the quarter, the Demons had produced three goals inside three minutes to turn a 19 point deficit into a 24 point lead. The Dogs looked stunned at three quarter time.

The final term became a red and blue procession.

Brown goalled in the opening minute for the final term, before Fritsch added his 5th. By the time Neal-Bullen and Ed Langdon had gotten themselves amongst the goal kickers, the game was as good as over.

Tom McDonald, very quiet to this point, got on the board as he kicked the Demons 12th straight major. Treloar finally broke the run, but it was too little too late for the Bulldogs.

Melbourne continued to pile on the misery with Christian Salem wandering forward to kick a rare goal, young ruckman Luke Jackson bombing through a set shot, before Fritsch kicked his 6th – the most since Darren Jarman achieved the same for Adelaide back in 1998.

In the final seconds, McDonald again marked. As he deliberately approached the goal, the siren sounded. With it the Demons shed the longest active Premiership drought in the AFL, winning their 13th flag. To boot, McDonald’s shot sailed through for another goal as his teammates ecstatically embraced one another.

A 74 point victory looks, on paper, like an evisceration. But this was nothing of the sort. The Dogs were certainly jumpy in the early stages but they recovered wonderfully well to take a half time lead. Halfway through the 3rd term, they led by more that three goals and looked in total control.

It’s a testament to this Melbourne outfit, the best defense in the AFL, that they were able to turn the match around through attacking football. After Bontompelli’s final goal, the Demons scored a truly outrageous 100 points to just seven. That is something that nobody will ever likely see again at the professional level, let alone in a Grand Final!

The Bulldogs had precious few that were able to contribute over four quarters, though that’s to be expected in a match that finished as this one did. Bontompelli and Treloar were outstanding, however. Daniel faded after a brilliant first half. Kudos to Zaine Cordy and Taylor Duryea, as well. Cordy held McDonald until the red and blue tide simply overwhelmed him. Duryea successfully blanketed Pickett to the point that he may have played the worst game of his young career – it was certainly the least impactful the exciting young forward had been in any match this season.

For the Demons, the winners were plentiful.

You can’t start this discussion without Petracca. On the biggest stage, the 25 year old played the game of his life. With 39 possessions, he tied former Lion’s champion Simon Black for most possessions in a Grand Final. Of those, 24 were contested. He added nine clearances, eight interceptions and 15 score involvements, as well as a pair of delightful goals. This was a Grand Final performance for the ages. His running mate and childhood friend in Oliver also produced a gem with 33 disposals and 10 tackles.

Fritsch’s career year – his previous career high was 22 goals, kicked last season – finished in the most splendid way. Six goals in a grand final for 59 on the year. For a 2nd round pick in 2017 that many thought was a bit of a reach, he’s turned himself into a remarkable footballer.

Ben Brown wasn’t good enough for the Kangaroos by the end of 2020. In 2021, he’s a premiership player, whilst his former club finished stone motherless last.

Spare a thought, too, for Jack Viney. The son of club legend and former captain Todd, he overcame a nondescript year to play three incredible finals games. Despite not starting his career until 2013, through his famiily connection to the club he’s seen the entirety of Melbourne’s 15 year long run as the bottom feeders of the AFL. As the man himself said to Chanel 7 in a post match interview, his first career game was an 80 point loss, his second a 150 point defeat. In his own words, the Demons were a ‘laughingstock’.

Now, their the kings of the AFL.

Melbourne Demons 21 Goals 14 Behinds (140)

Western Bulldogs 10 Goals 6 Behinds (66)

Goals

Melbourne: Fritsch 6, Brown 3, Petracca 2, Neal-Bullen 2, McDonald 2, Spargo, Sparrow, Oliver, Langdon, Jackson, Brayshaw

Bulldogs: Bontompelli 3, Treloar 3, R Smith, Naughton, Johannisen, Hunter

Best

Melbourne: Petracca, Fritsch, Oliver, Viney, Salem, Brayshaw, Gawn, Jackson

Bulldogs: Bontompelli, Treloar, Daniel, Liberatore, Dale, Duryea

A quick indulgence, if I may….

As a writer, I pride myself on presenting a balanced, analytical view to you, the reader. I’m always amused that our illustrious leader here at Vendetta, Trey Daubert, took fully 10 months to discover which NBA team I supported, by which stage I’d written close to 80 NBA articles for him. How did he find out? He asked! There was no clue in my writing.

I hope that those of you who have read my AFL work can’t tell who I support through these pieces – though a quick scan of my Twitter account probably gives the game away. So, after yesterday’s huge win by the Demons, I’m going to let my guard down for a moment.

I am – as we we’re contractually obliged to call ourselves prior to this match – a Long Suffering Demon’s fan. Since 1964, the Curse of the Red Fox has been a cloud over this club. I wasn’t born for the worst of it, back in the 1970’s, but I’ve seen some truly awful Demons teams in my 43 years. I’ve watched with horror some of our mid 1990’s sides. I’ve been there for all of the terrible, inept, sides from 2007 through to 2017. Bereft of talent but infinitely worse, completely lacking in spirit and fight. We were lumbered with players that didn’t want to play for the club, that didn’t have the professional pride to give their best, to push through adversity.

It sickened me.

I have – as have countless Melbourne supporters – spent decades making self depreciating jokes about my fandom. I’ve not being able to proudly wear my clubs colours. I’ve had to endure the taunts and teasing of some absolute arseholes whilst at the grounds. People that, if my kids were not watching the games with me, might have experienced a little bit of physical retribution, such was their obnoxious behaviour. I’ve never been ashamed to be a Demons fan, but I have been ashamed to tell people that I’m a Demons fan. That’s a tough gig.

I’ve witnessed our apparent rebirths, too. The young side of the late 1980’s that made a grand final, only to be lambs the the slaughter – a 96 point loss – against a Hawthorn side that was one of the best to ever play. An equally green team that made the Grand Final in 2000, only to meet an Essendon side hell best on redemption after missing out on the 1999 flag. We got pasted that day, too. Even our good teams had poor luck!

I’ve seen so many people that were so important to the club, some of them legends, leave us too soon: Troy Broadbridge, Colin Sylvia, Robbie Flower, Jim Stynes (the man who saved the football club), Sean Wight, Dean Bailey. All should have been watching this, yet none of them could. To that end, a shout out to former coach Neale Daniher, famously fighting his own health battles with a bravery that I know I don’t possess.

We’re a club that for so long felt snake bit – as though nothing would ever come together for us. Even this year, with the club owning the home and away season to the point of topping the table (the first time since 1964, which proved a handy piece of synergy) it always felt like there was a sting in the tale. Steven May’s hamstring against Geelong. The Dogs – a team that usually gives us fits – coming into the Grand Final with serious momentum. Gawn’s ‘goal’ in the 2nd quarter.

When Bontompelli kicked that 3rd quarter goal, a lifetime of scar tissue re-emerged. I was gutted. I was sure we’d lost it. I began to wonder if I’d ever see a Demons premiership. (Like I said, a lot of scar tissue) So to see 16 of the last 17 goals kicked by my team was incredibly emotional. Yes, I cried. So did my kids. Short of my boys being born, they were the sweetest tears.

Now, like literally all of my family and friends, I can say that I know what it’s like to see my team climb the summit. To feel that release…decades of hurt. It’s wonderful. It’s exhilarating. It’s…a fucking relief!

Oh, and the kicker? It was my birthday, yesterday. Yep. The Demons went and won the damn premiership on my birthday.

Despite everything, I fucking love my club.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Go Dees.

JP