The competing teams in Saturday’s Grand Final have had their fair share of heartache over the years. But for the former players at Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs aflplayers.com.au spoke with for this article, the 2021 decider is a culmination of the years spent developing towards the bottom rungs of the ladder.
In 2012, a 20-year-old Jack Trengove was named Melbourne captain — the youngest skipper in AFL/VFL history. He spoke to aflplayers.com.au about the adversity he faced in the Demons’ darkest era, and why he remains grateful for the challenge.
Words from Jack Trengove
There was this feeling of hope.
Coming to the club, Melbourne had obviously been through some challenging years, but there were some high draft picks in our year and the years before me as well, so you could sense a changing of the guard.
That first couple of years, while we didn’t make finals, we were actually showing quite good progress. It was an exciting place to be around.
But a few things didn’t go our way, and suddenly we found ourselves on the bottom of the ladder and, metaphorically speaking, pushing crap uphill. It was difficult at times; there is no denying that.
I certainly didn’t expect that I was going to get named captain. I went into that pre-season trying to work as hard as I could. I had just turned 20, so I was still trying to find my feet as an AFL footballer, but it was a challenge that I was up for taking.
Personally, it was an honour to be named captain of the oldest footy club in the land, and one with such a proud history. I genuinely believed at the time that we were in a great position to really turn things around.
We were faced with a number of different issues. We weren’t winning games early in the season, and doubt started to creep into the playing group as to whether we were being taken in the right direction.
I was co-captain of the oldest club in the land and I was sitting on the sidelines and couldn’t do anything about it, because I was injured. It was the first time I’d ever been injured in my life.
That culminated in more losses and more pressure. There were plenty of sleepless nights for me, trying to learn things about myself and put my best foot forward on game day to try to change the performance around.
It might sound weird, but I’m grateful for every second of it because I was challenged so much. It made me a better person.
We went through the Mark Neeld era, then Paul Roos came onboard and suddenly, the hope was back.
There were plenty of new teammates, but we finally found a group that we thought would be successful in the long term.
It was great to be part of that transition. I’m grateful I went through the lows, because it makes you appreciate the highs the club is currently going through so much more.
Maxy Gawn is one of my best mates. I was in his wedding; he’s going to be in mine at the end of this year.
I still remember the day we got drafted together vividly. The transition he has made from the boy he was on that day to where he is now is absolutely incredible. He deserves every bit of success that comes his way, because I know how hard he worked to get there and how hard he continually works.
I spent a lot of time with Christian Petracca when he did his knee. We were in rehab together, and I think the things he learnt through that time have made him a better player.
Clayton Oliver lived in my house for a period of time, so examples of that, guys I’ve had a lot to do with in the past who are massive contributors to why the Dees are playing this Saturday, it’s great to see them go from where they were to where they are now.
I’m going to the game on Saturday and I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing the boys end the premiership drought.
Jay Kennedy-Harris arrived at Melbourne in 2014, when the Demons were coming off three consecutive bottom-three finishes and had not played finals for eight years. He explains why the club’s previous misfortune makes Melbourne’s grand final berth “a bit more special”.
Words from Jay Kennedy-Harris
I still remember walking through the doors on my first day.
I didn’t really know who a lot of the players were. I watched a lot of footy growing up, but Melbourne, at that point, wasn’t really a team that you’d flick the TV on for.
Coming into the club, there were 50-odd years of heartache for the supporters.
We’d only been there for two, three, four years, but we’re led into feeling the same heartache and the pressure mounting from supporters. It always felt like losses were worse for us than what they would’ve been for other clubs. It carried a lot more weight; people thought we were hopeless as a club.
Going through those first few seasons and not winning much, it can be tough when you see other guys you grew up playing with who are off at other teams playing finals every year. But it’s good when it all eventually comes to fruition.
For guys I started with, like Christian Salem and James Harmes, to now being about to play in a Grand Final — I think the tough years make it a bit more special than being drafted straight into a top-four club.
Now, the star-studded list has come together and is finally producing great performances. Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca have become the midfielders everyone hoped they would be.
I still keep in touch with a few of the guys. It’s always really nice to speak to them after a win. Petracca and I live together, so his career is something I’m pretty invested in. I’ve been lucky to see the growth of a potential star deliver on his enormous promise.
When we won the prelim, I just felt happy for all of those boys. I know how hard the last two years would’ve been. All the critique the club has dealt with, for them now to be in a Grand Final, I imagine it’s a huge weight off their shoulders.
Western Bulldogs Team of the Century member, Brian Royal remains invested in the club he played 199 games for through a trying era. The 1983 best-and-fairest winner reflects on his association with the club as a past player and supporter.
Words from Brian Royal
Back in 1985, we got to a preliminary final.
We just got pipped by Hawthorn. That was as close as I got to a Grand Final, which was frustrating. It would’ve been nice to play in a premiership, but it is what it is.
You go through a period not only as a past player, but a supporter of the footy club, just wondering whether you’re ever going to win a premiership.
That seemed a fair way off, but it was brilliant when the boys were able to achieve the ultimate in 2016. I believe it put the Bulldogs back on the map.
Now, you drive around and see all the kids wearing Bulldogs jumpers. Even at Beaumaris Football Club, where I’m the director of football, you see a lot of the junior kids at training in Bulldogs colours. That was a rarity in my time.
Once I finished playing in 1993, I then had 21 years in the AFL as an assistant coach.
Over that time, you’re caught up in the club that you’re working for, so it didn’t feel as though I really supported the club. I went to some past player functions — I didn’t go to a lot —but since 2013, when I finished at Melbourne, I’ve really enjoyed my time being able to get back to the footy club.
Now, while we’re a really successful club, it’s exciting to go and watch the footy.
It’s a brilliant effort to do what they’ve done, and the road that they’ve had to travel to get to where they’ve gotten.
It’s a credit to not only ‘Bevo’ (coach Luke Beveridge) and his coaching team, but also the playing group. It’s an amazing effort.
If they get over the line this weekend, you’re going to look back and go, ‘Wow, that will probably never happen again’.
Jarrad Grant became a cult hero at the Bulldogs after being drafted with pick five in 2007. He recounts the Dogs’ heartbreak in 2010 and praises the unsung work of former coach Brendan McCartney.
Words from Jarrad Grant
It seems like an eternity ago.
The number one thing I recall is coming up the race at the MCG in front of 80,000. We were up at half-time, but I think Brian Lake gave away a free kick to Nick Riewoldt before the third quarter even started and it turned the tide a bit.
The tougher times that followed the 2010 preliminary final were probably a stepping stone to the success they’ve had over the last six years.
Brendan McCartney was the coach at the time, and while his win-loss record didn’t read very well and he was obviously dismissed as the coach, he built a lot of the foundations.
Perhaps it’s been left unnoticed, but all the defensive foundations had been laid. We were just lacking the attacking style.
Bevo came in pretty refreshed and gave everyone some newly added confidence. Everything just flowed from there.
I didn’t get the ultimate success, but I’m happy for my former teammates.
I’ve spoken to ‘Libba’ a couple of times over the last couple of weeks, and I always take an interest in how Easton Wood’s going. We were drafted in the same year. I was our first draft pick, and Easton was considered a smoky. He’s gone on to have such a great career.
Sometimes it takes you a few years.
Even with Melbourne, it’s been up-down, up-down. Sometimes you just need some home truths, some added work or a new philosophy, and things can blossom.