IF A WEEK is a long time in football, then the past 13 days have been an eternity.
It was Round 1 preparation for all, shortly followed by the possibility of unemployment for many, as the brutal consequences of the COVID-19 crisis hit the AFL industry.
And to say it’s been an unpredictable journey within the four walls of the Melbourne Football Club is an understatement.
On Wednesday, March 11, this story begins.
The Melbourne players were on a four-day break following their final Marsh Series game of the pre-season, when they received a message from club doctor, Dr. Zeeshan Arain.
With the coronavirus quickly taking over the world, the boys were told to meet at Casey Fields the following morning – their new home base for the foreseeable future.
The shake up saw Melbourne's AFLW side isolated at AAMI Park under strict protocols set by tenant clubs, with alternative arrangements made for the VFL and VFLW programs.
Upon arrival at Casey in the early hours that Thursday, the GM of Football Josh Mahoney and Dr. Arain addressed the football department, outlining the club’s plan going forward.
Josh Mahoney + Dr. Zeeshan Arain spoke to the players about COVID-19 as they arrived at Casey Fields this morning. ?? pic.twitter.com/rAk9ieAR0n— Melbourne Demons (@melbournefc) March 12, 2020
“We’re going to make a lot of changes around the way we do things day by day and the way that we work,” Mahoney said to the group.
“We’re also going to be asking you to make some lifestyle changes for a period of time.
“This is going to get bigger and bigger, and the longer time we can have with no one in here infected, that’s going to be a benefit for us as a footy club.
“We want to get ahead of the curve, because things that we’re putting in place now, people will say are a minimum standard in one week’s time.”
And Mahoney was right – things did get worse.
Throughout that Thursday afternoon, one by one, people from all areas of the club were sent into some form of isolation.
Whether it was players with runny noses, or staff who had attended festivals, no risks were being taken, as Dr. Arain applied the appropriate measures to keep the virus away.
And while people weren’t necessarily nervous, they were aware – aware of others’ behaviours and aware of their own.
Nobody wanted to cough, sneeze or show any form of weakness, as this was certainly not the time to be falling ill.
But putting the drama aside, work resumed, and the boys hit the track for a main session like no other.
You could say it was ‘business as usual’ – that term has been thrown around regularly throughout this time – and to an extent, it was. But there was a difference.
There were no high-fives, hands were being washed at regular intervals, and for maybe the first time ever, there was some doubt around whether the season would actually go ahead.
The players left that evening with cameras in their faces, as they headed home to begin a lockdown of their own.
Fast forward two days, and with just eight sleeps until the team’s first scheduled game of 2020, normality had restored – kind of.
Some players were absent, one player was watching from his car, and others put up their hand for selection in a mini intra-club match that proved to be telling.
Toby Bedford shone at half-forward, Kysaiah Pickett’s pace couldn’t be missed, and Bayley Fritsch was irresistible in the goal square.
It was an important session, and for those two hours, football was all that mattered.
Come Monday, Casey was beginning to feel like home.
Sure, the drive was further than that of AAMI Park for most, but it was a facility that didn’t have to be shared with other sporting codes, and there was a seclusion to the place which brought comfort to many.
Training continued, education ramped up, and a table tennis table was installed bringing plenty of banter along with it.
Fun was being had and everything looked back on track, until AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan fronted the media that night.
In an announcement unrivalled by any in the association’s history, the season was slashed to 153 games, with a new-look fixture set to be created, should the year go ahead.
It was a shock to the system, a statement full of doubt, but one that gave fans a glimmer of hope that they would be seeing football in 2020.
The Dees weren’t disheartened, they were encouraged about what lied ahead, and the boys whipped out the golf clubs on Tuesday afternoon.
There was great camaraderie among the group, as Luke Jackson showcased his ‘unique’ swing which left the boys in stitches.
While everything felt normal in the bubble at Casey Fields, the spread of the virus continued in the outside world.
Wednesday was considered D-Day for the league, as a final call on Round 1 was set to be made.
The time of the announcement was left up in the air, as Twitter went into meltdown anxiously awaiting the verdict.
Finally, at 7:45pm, McLachlan emerged at AFL House and gave the season the green light.
This allowed Demons coach Simon Goodwin to deliver some exciting news to two youngsters upon arrival the next morning.
Bedford and Pickett were set to debut, while there were tough conversations had with other players who wouldn’t be pulling on the guernsey in Perth.
After the final main session of the week, the boys had reason to celebrate, as lunch time was spent out on the turf, with a competitive game of Finska breaking out.
Just one hike to Casey Fields remained for the group ahead of their clash with the Eagles, with a late change in schedule impacting their build up to the game.
A Saturday morning flight was initially planned, but the Demons were required to share a plane with Fremantle, delaying take off to 7pm.
This meant the club’s captain’s run was had on home soil, which allowed the boys to cheer their AFLW side on in the dying stages of a Semi Final thriller.
From Casey to the airport, and the airport to Perth, a long trek began as the Dees headed west.
It was a late arrival and a tough night’s sleep, but after an unpredictable road to the season proper, game day finally arrived.
Barring a team walk in the ghost town of Western Australia, the boys spent the morning indoors, avoiding external people at all costs.
It was a waiting game for the players who helplessly watched the time pass by, but when they finally boarded the bus and ventured to Optus Stadium, the biggest news of all was broken.
McLachlan, who has proven to be the protagonist of this story, made one last statement – one which rocked the AFL world.
His hand had been forced from higher authorities, and with state borders to be shut down, the competition could no longer proceed.
It was set to be postponed after the conclusion of the round, leaving a hollow feeling among the Melbourne camp.
The Dees arrived at the empty arena – no one in the stands, no game next week.
It was weird.
But the show had to go on.
To the best of their ability, the club blocked out the news and focused on what was in front of them.
There was plenty to celebrate with five new faces receiving their guernseys in the rooms, as some heart-warming pre-recorded messages were played from the boys’ loved ones.
When the time came for Max Gawn to lead his troops up the race, the atmosphere, or lack thereof, was truly understood.
The team song wasn’t exactly echoing around the stadium, in fact, it was barely loud enough to hear.
There was minimal noise, minimal excitement and minimal purpose for what was going to be the last game in a long, long time.
While Melbourne didn’t take a backwards step with four points on the line, it was ultimately outplayed by one of the superior sides in the league.
The Dees went down by 27 points, but the result, in a way, seemed inconsequential.
After the final siren sounded, drawing the season to a halt, Goodwin highlighted the importance of what’s next, not only for the club, but the entire nation.
“What I do know is that we need to use this time as a community,” he said post-game.
“It’s bigger than footy. It’s a lot bigger than footy.
“We need to be role models in this area, help our community to get this virus in check, and then we can reassess how that looks for the footy industry.”
A tough day in a number of ways.— Melbourne Demons (@melbournefc) March 22, 2020
Max Gawn chats after our loss to the Eagles. ???? pic.twitter.com/SXtuqrFMIj
So that was that.
One game done, a strange one at that, leaving the Demons winless and with a long journey home.
The club drove straight to the airport and boarded a charter plane, where one row was assigned to each person to ensure social distancing requirements were met.
After 32 hours and what had been an interstate trip like no other, Melbourne landed back home at 3:20am on Monday morning.
It was the eeriest of feelings as a football club on edge wandered slowly out of Melbourne Airport.
This capped off a monstrous 13 days where people had been performing roles far beyond their job description and working alternative hours to help the club tick.
But after all that had been done, no job was safe.
In pure darkness with a cold breeze blowing, players, coaches and staff crossed the Airport bridge and went their separate ways, disappearing into the uncertainty of what the next 10 weeks hold.