Melbourne FC Insight Story (Herald Sun)

An impressive story to come out from the Herald Sun this week. One of the newspapers column writers put together this piece – an insight into the ‘new’ Melbourne Football Club. Even more reason to snap up a membership and be part of this exciting journey. Premiership glory is just around the corner…

THE clock is yet to tick past 7.30am as the Melbourne players start trudging in.
It’s going to be another long, exhausting day at AAMI Park. Colin Sylvia is texting, Jared Rivers shuffles in yawning. Nearly every player sips water. The Demons are about to be subjected to more pre-season torture by new coach Mark Neeld and his beefed-up coaching crew and the Herald Sun has been granted unfettered access to witness it. It is a captivating insight to how the AFL’s oldest club is trying to fight its way out of the darkness.
Inside Melbourne’s state-of-the-art headquarters the physio room is a blur of movement as players prepare to hit Gosch’s Paddock in about an hour. Head trainer John Stanaway and his team are in the middle of a busy morning taping, strapping and massaging. The smell of liniment is almost overpowering.
“Some of them are high maintenance,” Stanaway laughs. “But no, they’re a very good bunch.”
Around the corner Matthew Bate and Jordan Gysberts change in the locker room. Los Angeles street signs adorn the walls. “Rodeo Drive” hangs above Brent Moloney’s locker.
But there’s little joking around. The players know what awaits them.
Down the hall Neeld and strength and conditioning manager Rob Jackson sit in an open plan kitchen and lounge area eating breakfast – Jim Stynes’ Jimbo Super Muesli – and flicking through the Herald Sun.
After discovering football operations manager Craig Notman is on cleaning up duty, Neeld “accidentally” spills his cereal dregs over the bowls and plates sitting in the dishwasher. “He’ll love that,” Neeld chuckles.
Β AT 8am the coaches and football staff file into a meeting room to discuss the day and week ahead. Eleven men – Neeld, Neil Craig, Brian Royal, Jade Rawlings, Leigh Brown, Todd Viney, Josh Mahoney, Paul Satterley, Aaron Greaves, Andrew Nichol and football analyst Luke Chambers – sit at a large timber table scattered with coffee cups and laptops.
Football manager Mahoney says AAMI Park co-tenant Melbourne Storm has written the Demons an apology after the NRL club invited several Carlton players and coaches into the building for a tackling session while the Demons were training.
“Obviously it’s no good for us having other AFL clubs coming in here watching our sessions while we’re in the same facility, and they recognise that,” Mahoney says.
Neeld then takes over. The words “defensive day” and “congestion goals” are on the projector screen.
The coach goes over his basic attacking philosophy before Brown announces a tweak to how the team wants to sweep the ball out of defence. Backline coach Rawlings reinforces points for the “defensive grid”.
“There’s some real attention to detail we’ve been short on,” he says.
Nothing is left to chance and it is all discussed in modern day AFL-speak – “grids”, “boxes”, “bumpers”.
The meeting ends with applause for Brown, who will be awarded life membership at Collingwood’s AGM on Wednesday night.
The room empties, but Neeld stays to fine tune with IT man Chambers.
The coach pores over the wording, symbols and sizing of a defensive day Powerpoint presentation that will be shown to the players soon. It offers the first insight into his perfectionist nature.
“These need to be here, make this bigger, move this, take these out,” Neeld says. “Now, what else do I need to change?”
IN the huge gym the Dees share with Melbourne Storm and Victory, a group of players including Jack Watts, Cale Morton and Sylvia are ticking their legs over on the stationary bikes. They have a laugh at a rap music video and watch Premier League soccer highlights.
Moments later all players are summoned into the theatrette for a meeting. The group is reminded of its obligations in an upcoming Christmas music video shoot for members.
There are giggles as the 2008 version rolls up on the screen. It puts the team in a buoyant mood, but Neeld gets the biggest laugh.
“Unfortunately I’m double-booked so I can’t make it. Work out between yourselves who is wearing the Santa suit because it’s sure as hell not going to be me,” he says.
“But do it right or it will earn you a strike.”
The strike system is ruled by Jackson. If a player gets three in any two-week period, he and his teammates in that position are ordered to a 6am beach swim. A group of players had to brave the elements recently.
The Christmas video offers the final few minutes of relaxation before the serious stuff starts.
Mahoney thanks the club’s pre-draft train-on players for their efforts and the focus starts to narrow. When Brown, and then Neeld, start talking you can hear a pin drop in a room holding about 60 people.
“Right, defensive day,” Neeld begins. “Create as many scoring opportunities as we can from our defensive work – that’s the basis of this activity. Keep the ball in our part of the ground. If the blue team cause a turnover … go for it, you can break.
“You blokes are very offensively talented so play the game. If you cause a turnover and can snap a goal, do it.”
Rawlings then goes over a “five-point checklist” for manning the mark and tries to catch players out. He calls out Rivers, Jordie McKenzie and others for answers.
“It’s about setting ourselves up with good habits,” Rawlings says. The room falls silent for a moment before Neeld snaps: “Let’s go”.
By 9am they’re outside on Gosch’s Paddock and being hit right between the eyes. The squad is divided into pairs for a brutal sprint session.
There is a 300m, a 150m, another 150m and another 150m. There is no more than 30 seconds rest in between.
The Matthew Bate-Cale Morton partnership sets a furious pace. So do Nathan Jones and Jack Trengove.
A brief rest is followed by another 300m. Two more 150m sprints then come in quick succession. Craig fires footballs at unsuspecting players as they gasp for air. Dan Nicholson yells: “C’mon boys, this is easy s— here!”
“C’mon, keep it going. Good start,” Trengove offers.
But it’s not over. There’s another 150m. As Bate breaks again, Craig barks at Morton: “C’mon, attack him!”
Ricky Petterd gets some treatment, Jeremy Howe is stretching his quad, but elite performance manager David Misson ploughs on. “Thirty seconds,” he yells.
Craig and Misson have brought a hard edge to training and as Neeld peers above his shades, you can almost see this club regaining its steel.Looking on, Viney says the new coach has set the tone.
“If you had to say what percentage out of 100 that he’s been serious or jovial, it would be 90/10. He has come in firm,” Viney says.
“He’s obviously come from Collingwood, ‘Misso’ was at St Kilda and Sydney, ‘Craigy’ comes from a really good program, Leigh Brown is not long out of it. There’s no holes.”
The players are subjected to yet another 300m. Bate is in the zone. Then a 150m. Melbourne Storm giant Jaiman Lowe walks past raising his eyebrows. “That’s too far for me,” he says.
The players are then put out of their misery. The warm-up is done.
Back indoors, the gym is the lonely refuge for the rehab group. The bikes, whirling away earlier in the day have stopped except for one – Luke Tapscott works up a furious sweat as he continues his recovery from a hip injury.
“I’m slowly getting through the rehab,” he says. “I can’t wait to get back out there. I got a little taste of it today and it’s going well.”
Around the corner James Frawley, Jake Spencer and McKenzie are in the swimming pool, in the middle of a vigorous underwater running session. “It’s hard work, but it can get pretty lonely,” Frawley says.
By now training is in full swing outside and all the hallmarks of the modern game – intensity, press, pressure and zones – are evident. Mitch Clark is a presence up forward, Clint Bartram is busy, Brad Green’s vision is excellent and Trengove’s decision-making is razor sharp.
The players then split into small groups for game-specific drills. Midfield coach Royal oversees an exercise he calls “fire in the hole”.
A ball is rolled towards a player from a random angle. He must quickly gather and retain it against as many as six tacklers.
Royal zeroes in on Sam Blease. “C’mon Bleasy. Use your voice Bleasy. Don’t get stripped … offence, defence, support.” A whistle sounds. Finally, it’s over.
At 12.30pm the squad heads inside for a “flush” – a light massage designed to remove toxins and lactic acid from the body – before a dip in the pool and lunch.
The players sit down to a meat and salad spread in their rec room, a large space containing a kitchen, tables, couches and plasma TVs. A “Revenge From Mars” pinball machine does not get much love these days.
As the players enjoy a few moments of relaxation, Rawlings walks past. He explains the adjustment they’ve been forced to undertake.
“We hit them for six in the first week of training,” he says. “They weren’t ready for it, but they’re adapting and going well.”
As the players take a breather another meeting begins. Barry Prendergast, Neeld, Craig, Mahoney, Viney, Tim Harrington, Kelly O’Donnell and Gary Burleigh finalise strategy for the pre-season and rookie drafts.
Recruiting manager Prendergast paces back and forth from the whiteboard. The others sit facing him in a room no bigger than 6m by 6m.
Prendergast writes “Talent vs need” on the board, but it quickly becomes clear this is primarily a “need” operation.
Neeld and co. are well aware of the landscape – they are light-on for mature-age, big-bodied types who can give their kids a breather. They need some warriors to give the golden eggs time to hatch.
“We have got a lot of offensive talent and we have got them young,” Neeld says. “They are being flogged … we are quite aware we could find the tipping point with some of these kids, but we believe in a year or two they’ll be better for it.”
Neeld is keen on inside midfielders so that’s where the discussion starts. Then comes the project tall. “He has clearly got the most upside,” Prendergast says.
Prendergast does the lions’ share of the talking, but is frequently tested by Neeld. O’Donnell and Viney also chip in.
Craig has been silent. Neeld turns to him and says: “What do you think, guru?” The coach wants answers on a player’s perceived lack of competitiveness. Craig replies: “I’ve seen worse.”
A fascinating, often blunt, debate rages on a range of players – current and potential. Some of it is cutting, some of it is humorous, some of it is complimentary. All of it is to the point.
“He’s a toothpick” … “He’s a dead-set cross from me” … “He’s like Kung Fu Panda” … “He’s got something”.
Craig leans back in his chair, listening. He has spoken once in nearly 50 minutes. Out of nowhere he sparks debate on a VFL player. “To muddy the waters, what about … ?”
Twenty minutes later Craig’s question hasn’t muddied the waters, it has turned it into the Yarra after a three-day storm.
But then the conversation turns to two other potential recruits. One has superior endurance and skill, but the other is harder and tougher.
Neeld interrupts. His verdict offers the clearest insight yet into where he wants to take this club.
“Eighty thousand people, Queen’s Birthday, Collingwood, Dane Swan belting the s— out of us, who are you backing when the heat is on in the middle of the ground?” he demands.
The answers are fudgy so Neeld interrupts again: “I’m going with the grunt.”
After an hour the once-orderly whiteboard looks like a half-eaten plate of spaghetti. There are names, lines, arrows and circles all over the place. Craig seeks clarification from Prendergast on Plans A, B, and C. They have finally settled.
Forget The Phantom of the Opera. If you’re a football fan this is the best live show going around.
Back in the gym the heavy lifting is well and truly on. The players carry checklists and march from station to station in small groups, talking and encouraging. A table loaded with supplements stands in the middle.
Jackson and Misson cast an eye over proceedings.
Misson admits the Demons have been led on a steep learning curve.
“They needed some real structure with their training, weights and conditioning,” he says.
“We needed to improve their strength and fitness and we’ve put some systems in place to get them up to speed on what an elite AFL program is. To be honest, they’ve embraced it and in the seven weeks I’ve been here they’ve really taken to it.
“We can see a lot of upside and the improvement in just seven weeks has been more than I expected. We’ve got a long way to go, but they’re really taking the bit between the teeth and I think they’re enjoying the hard work.”
IT’S now 3.50pm and Royal holds court in the theatrette for the midfielder’s meeting.
The small group is shown videos from “stoppage day” the previous Friday. Midfield development coach Greaves stands off to the side with a laser pointer.
The players are reminded of the stoppage key performance indicator at Melbourne for 2012 and they are soon put on the spot.
“What was our body work like? Did I show my back? Did I get pushed under the stoppage?” Royal says.
The vision rolls. Greaves talks through the unfolding plays, alternating between sideline and aerial cameras to make his point while using terms like “plus one”, “wedge” and “the V”.
The level of detail is astounding. Here, it’s not so much football, but a giant game of human chess. The coaches pour over videos, offering constructive criticism. A Jordan Gysberts kick from the wing into the middle of the ground is picked out, despite finding a target.
“Lucky,” Royal says, instructing Gysberts to instead handball backwards to a waiting Nathan Jones, who can then kick it forward.
The vision is sped up, slowed down and even shown frame by frame. Good play is praised, but every mistake is pointed out and explained.
In the kitchen Craig finds a moment to make tea.
“Equalisation is what this game is all about now,” he says. “Every club has meetings, every club has GPS and every club has altitude rooms. But how do you analyse it, how do you present it? How do you work with the results?
“Competitive advantage is found in the attention to detail. It comes back to the people in charge.”
By 4.30pm the players are winding down, but the meetings just keep going. Prendergast talks to Neeld; Rawlings to Misson; Brown examines more vision.
It is this unrelenting attention to detail these men believe will make the difference.

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