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As the Demons loom, North can learn from Melbourne's wretched past

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North Melbourne and Melbourne seem to have spent much of their VFL/AFL existence in positions of complete contrast.

It took the Roos 50 years after entering the competition to win their first premiership. The Demons for much of that time were a powerhouse, famously winning five of six premierships between 1955-60.

When North Melbourne became a league heavyweight under Ron Barassi in the 1970s, it was Melbourne's turn to experience life at the bottom, the Dees going without even a finals appearance for 23 long seasons between 1964 and 1987.

The contrast continues to this day. North beat the Demons 17 times in a row from 2007 until 2017, but Melbourne has dominated recent clashes. And certainly in the AFL era, the difference has seldom been as stark as right now.

When these two teams clash at Marvel Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Demons, riding high at the top of the ladder, will be shooting for their 17th consecutive victory. North Melbourne, meanwhile, has lost its last seven games now - most abjectly. Indeed, in its last five losses, the "narrowest" defeat has been by 50 points.

This is a clash best summed up by the head-to-head odds being offered. At the time of writing, Melbourne was paying $1.01, North Melbourne $21. In a two-horse race, that's pretty amazing, and says plenty.

Compounding the Roos' current woes is some unrest within the club about the demeanour of coach David Noble, who ended up apologising to his playing group for a fearful spray he gave them after their 108-point loss to Brisbane in round three.

And there, perhaps more disturbingly for North Melbourne, there might just be some similarities (albeit from a decade ago) with Melbourne.

Consider North Melbourne's current state, and it's hard not to think back to the Demons of a decade ago, appointing a relatively low-profile coach in Mark Neeld for the 2012 season, and dispensing with him by midway through the next after having won just five of 33 games under his watch.

Neeld, who'd come into the job having forged a strong reputation as a development coach at Collingwood, didn't end up utilising those talents enough with the Demons. Instead, a playing group was fractured, as a greenhorn coach attempted to strong-arm his way to personnel and cultural change.

Senior players suddenly found themselves on the outer and youngsters were imbued with too much responsibility to be able to handle, Brad Green tipped out as skipper, Jack Trengove and Jack Grimes installed as co-captains - Trengove the youngest AFL skipper ever at just 20.

Neeld would later concede that he hadn't given the older players on the list enough time to prove how they could contribute to the cause. In the end, retirements were hastened, some left, and the added pressure on Trengove and Grimes didn't help either's career much at all.

Melbourne stands as testimony to the dangers of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Without sufficient experience, or older players left disenfranchised and dispirited, the Demons, even after Neeld's mid-season sacking, ceased to even be competitive. In that wretched year, they lost no fewer than six games by more than 90 points.

Noble has been at the helm of the Roos for 31 games now for five wins and a draw, a strike rate of 17 per cent compared to Neeld's 15 per cent from his 33 games in charge. It's the other comparisons which are more worrying for North Melbourne, however, than merely the win-loss percentage.

Like the Demons under Neeld in his first season in charge, North in 2021 had some good moments, the highlights an inspiring win over West Coast in Perth, and a trouncing of Carlton.

But the second (half) season for Neeld in 2013 was a disaster in which his team ceased even to offer effort, and in which he completely "lost" the senior players. The parallels with Arden Street in 2022 are striking.

The Roos have been blown away early in nearly all those heavy losses, suggesting a team beaten psychologically before it even starts. Their senior players have been for the most part, poor; skipper Jack Ziebell has been well down, while other members of the leadership group like Kayne Turner or Aidan Corr have at times been questioned, and the impact of recruit Hugh Greenwood limited.

Those less-than-anticipated returns have raised to unfair levels the demands on the likes of Luke Davies-Uniacke and even first year draftee Jason Horne-Francis, whose management has now pushed back talks on a contract extension, another disturbing sign.

North Melbourne sources say players have asked Noble "on a number of occasions" to moderate the personal nature of his criticism, and the coach, to his credit, has owned the issue and delivered a mea culpa.

But (rightly or wrongly) a low profile coach without a storied playing career of his own is always on thinner ice than a big name former player turned coach when he questions the commitment of his troops. And when someone of that ilk has the playing group tune out, can they ever really be won back?

Of course, even Melbourne of 2012-13 got there in the end, thanks to Paul Roos, Simon Goodwin, some astute recruiting, and good development.

But can the Roos really afford to go through another painful coach removal? And do they have another decade of being this poor to spare? It's a question North Melbourne's board will be pondering anxiously ahead of another potential car crash on Saturday.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au