Will the ultimate AFL grand final gamble pay off for the Melbourne Demons?

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Jake Lever (pictured) high fives fans after winning a match.
Jake Lever (pictured) has been the bedrock of the Demons' grand final premiership push. (Getty Images)

The big names command the big dollars and the big trade headlines.

The superstar midfielders, the glamour key forwards – they’re the names that set trade talk alight at the end of every season.

Clubs move heaven and earth – and give away significant future assets – to land these marquee players thinking they’re the final piece of the premiership puzzle. 

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Think Chris Judd, Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Lynch, Jeremy Cameron.

It’s not often – in fact it’s very rare – that clubs invest so heavily, stake their future success, on backmen. 

Landing a key defender just doesn’t quite create the same kind of buzz among a supporter group as a big-name midfielder or forward.

But Melbourne’s decision in the past five years to give up a significant amount to bring in two such players can be seen as the catalyst for not just the reason why it’s in Saturday’s AFL grand final, but why it is the hot favourite to lift its first premiership since 1964.

At the end of 2017 on the back of a ninth-placed finish, the Demons gave up two first-round draft picks among a deal with Adelaide for Jake Lever.

He didn’t come cheap either. It wasn’t just the draft picks, he signed a five-year deal on about $750,000 a year.

The following year, after jumping all the way to a preliminary final berth, Melbourne went again, giving up pick six to Gold Coast in a deal for its co-captain Steven May.

May, like Lever, was also commanding a significant salary of about $750,000 a year, after reportedly being on $1 million a year at the Suns.

Early in his first season at Melbourne, May was caught being out drinking while recovering from an injury – a no-no these days in most AFL clubs.

Lever’s first season in red and blue had been underwhelming, and here was May, having to stand in front of his teammates and apologise for having a few beers.

It brought significantly into question what Melbourne had given up to get these two. The picks, the money.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 28: Lincoln McCarthy of the Lions and Steven May of the Demons during the 2021 AFL First Qualifying Final match between the Melbourne Demons and the Brisbane Lions at Adelaide Oval on August 28, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 28: Lincoln McCarthy of the Lions and Steven May of the Demons during the 2021 AFL First Qualifying Final match between the Melbourne Demons and the Brisbane Lions at Adelaide Oval on August 28, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Remember, this isn’t how most clubs go about building to a premiership.

But in 2021, the Dees’ judgement has been vindicated.

The backline has been the bedrock of their premiership assault and May and Lever are the key pillars there, not just in action but in leadership.

Melbourne's defence paves path to grand final

Melbourne has conceded more than 80 points just twice for the whole year, and gave up a miserly 1,443 points for the home and away season.

This is easily the fewest since St Kilda in 2009 (not including 2020’s shortened season with shorter quarters).

The pair were both named All-Australian for the first time, May the rock solid negating defender, Lever the roaming intercept marker.

Lever doesn’t just stop scores, he creates them going the other way. He took the most intercept marks in the competition this year and created the fourth-most scores from them.

Jake Lever marks the ball against Gary Rohan of the Cats during the AFL First Preliminary Final match.
Jake Lever marks the ball against Gary Rohan of the Cats during the AFL First Preliminary Final match. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Of course, much of Melbourne’s defensive success this year has been built on the midfield’s two-way running, the selfless actions that have turned a group of good individuals into a brutal, in-sync team.

It’s not all about getting forward and scoring anymore, they’ve bought into what coach Simon Goodwin has been selling – a steely commitment in which only working together will bring the ultimate reward.

But still, it will be the performances of May and Lever that will have the biggest influence on the result of the grand final.

Both midfields are packed with stars, while Melbourne’s forward line has been a work in progress all year and the Bulldogs’ backline is a low-profile, no-frills outfit.

Dogs coach Luke Beveridge was brilliant in enacting a plan to negate May when the two teams last met in Round 19, using Mitch Hannan as a defensive forward to tag the Demon defender out of the game.

Lever still had 15 intercept possessions but May couldn’t get involved and the Dogs won by 20 points.

Jake Lever (pictured right) chases Patrick Dangerfield (pictured left) during the 2021 AFL First Preliminary Final match.
Jake Lever (pictured right) chases Patrick Dangerfield (pictured left) during the 2021 AFL First Preliminary Final match. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Beveridge will have had two weeks to come up with a plan. He’ll need to either cut May out of the game again, or make sure his team’s ball use going inside 50 avoids the ever-present safe hands of Lever.

They simply won’t be able to muster a big enough score without succeeding in at least one, if not both of those tasks.

“They got heavily whacked and criticised for many of those selections,” Melbourne great Garry Lyon told Fox Footy about the Dees’ unconventional recruiting strategy.

“May and Lever, for years they (critics) sat there and said: ‘What a waste, how much money are you throwing at these blokes? One’s a drop-off defender that won’t defend and one’s drinking pots in the beer garden.’”

Melbourne paid a big price for two players at an end of the ground that doesn’t attract the spotlight.

It might be about to pay off big time.

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