By LIAM DURKIN
WHILE countless Melbourne supporters across the region have no doubt watched the replay of their AFL premiership multiple times since the grand final was played, emotions of a different kind were felt by another local who had a personal connection to some of the players.
Former Melbourne player and Moe resident Declan Keilty played alongside the likes of Max Gawn, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver during his time at the Demons from 2017 to 2019.
A St Kilda supporter as a kid, Keilty has adopted Melbourne as the team he now follows most closely.
With the dust settled since the Demons momentous victory, Keilty, who is the new senior coach of the Moe Football-Netball Club, said the fact Melbourne won an AFL flag after 57 long years had officially sunk in.
“I did get a bit emotional towards the end,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to some of the guys since, it is pretty special for them to be able to win the flag after so long.
“It was special for me to be able to watch it because I played with most of them. There was a little bit of me that wished I was still there but at the same time I was just thrilled they won.”
It was not all smooth sailing during the grand final, as a goal early in the third quarter from Western Bulldogs superstar Marcus Bontempelli left Melbourne with a 19 point deficit to overcome.
Keilty felt signs were ominous at this stage of the game, but said a crucial moment from midfielder James Harmes allowed the Demons the chance to settle.
“I thought that momentum shift the Bulldogs had in the second quarter might have put Melbourne in a position where they wouldn’t be able to come back,” he said.
“There was probably that defining moment when James Harmes won on the wing, kicked it to Bayley Fritsch who kicked a goal from the pocket. From there they just piled the goals on. That was probably the defining moment, if they had of lost that contest they potentially could have lost the game.”
Pile the goals on Melbourne did, as they kicked seven majors in under nine minutes to virtually take the game away from the Bulldogs.
Like all watching the match, Keilty was stunned by what unfolded.
“It was really interesting to hear Petracca talk about it after the game when one of the coaches grabbed him and said ‘you have to take hold of this moment’,” he said.
“Instead of them going safe with the way they were playing their footy they really attacked and that was the main reason they won, they weren’t afraid to put it to the Bulldogs. Because they were down by 19 points it was basically the only option they had, they stuck with it and it worked out.”
Come three quarter time, Melbourne had a comfortable but by no means safe 24 point lead, but further goals early in the final term stretched the lead further, as the last 15 minutes turned into more or less a formality.
In the end, the Demons won 21.10 (140) to 10.6 (66), with the 74-point margin their largest ever in a grand final.
Given Melbourne’s recent history, Keilty didn’t want to celebrate too early, but decided to call it once he saw players and coaches embracing on the side lines.
“I’m always a bit sceptical. It was probably about five minutes left when I saw Goody (coach Simon Goodwin) start shaking everyone’s hand and giving big hugs, that’s when I was like ‘we’ve won it, we’ve definitely got it in the bag now’,” he said.
When the siren did finally sound, Keilty said he felt a range of emotions.
“I was just happy, joyful and a bit relieved,” he said.
“Football is a tough business. They had a period of time where they struggled as a club. Culturally they had to fix things up. I’m sure every club has gone through that stage, probably not to the extreme that Melbourne had to go through. It almost takes the club to get to the bottom to be able to turn around and get to the top.
“I was happiest for Simon Goodwin, the way he presents himself in the media that’s exactly what you get as a person. He’s a genuinely nice guy, he sacrificed a lot for the club.
“There was a tipping point where they almost got rid of him once we finished 17th in 2019 I think a lot of people wanted him out. To the clubs credit they understood his importance to the group, I was just happy for him that all his effort showed through.
“The drought was mentioned during my time at the club. Goody was big on the idea of a higher purpose. That is something that stuck with me. It is the reason why we play footy and one of those high purposes was ending the premiership drought.
“Max Gawn was probably the second person I was most happy for.
“He is unbelievable. His character, he is an amazing person, a great leader. I was really excited for him when he was named captained, it’s in his nature to lead.”
Some great footage and audio of Goodwin addressing the players at half-time of the grand final shows him telling his troops to ‘put a smile on your face’.
Keilty said this positivity was part of the now premiership coaches mantra.
“He’s in a position where if he is doubtful that they are going to win then that carries through the whole group,” he said.
“If he showed signs of negativity that would have taken onto the field. That’s what I like about Goody, the type of vibe he creates is compelling and you take that energy out onto the ground.”
Away from the emotional side, Keilty believed one key area had enabled Melbourne to win this year’s premiership.
“Their game style has changed since I was there,” he said.
“Their biggest thing now is their ability not to cough up the ball. To be able to under pressure, just to be able to keep the ball alive and keep it in their possession. In earlier years Melbourne had a tendency to just give up the ball to the opposition.”
As the Demons moved through the season just gone, Keilty felt Melbourne was primed for a realistic shot at the flag as the business end approached.
“It was actually the second time they played Adelaide (in Round 22),” he said.
“Throughout the year they were beating a lot of teams but they weren’t flogging teams, but then when they versed the Suns, belted them by 98 points, and Adelaide, belted them by 41. It was probably at that point I thought they were in a really good spot.
“My hope before the season was just Melbourne would finish top eight. I honestly didn’t think they would have won the grand final. I probably would have put my money on someone else.”
Any doubts surrounding Melbourne’s credentials were surely squashed following their walk-on-water type preliminary final annihilation of Geelong.
The 83-point win was described by many Melbourne past players and long-time supporters as the best they had ever seen their side perform, a view shared by Keilty.
“It was unbelievable. It just seemed like no matter what they did it would work and vice-versa anything Geelong did they couldn’t do anything right,” he said.
“I think it was just one of those days.”
Keilty’s own career at Melbourne netted just two senior appearances in 2019, but the achievement in getting as far as he did was noteworthy considering the journey he went through.
The 26-year-old took the long way to the top, slogging it out in the VFL for a number of years before being picked up in the 2017 rookie draft.
During his VFL days Keilty would work from 6am to 4pm and then go to training.
At one stage he was sleeping on a couch at a friend’s place that was too small for him, and also working at a car wash on weekends to make a few extra bucks.
It would be another two years from the time he was drafted to the time he made his debut, but the hard work eventually paid off, and Keilty ran out for his first AFL game against Hawthorn at the MCG in Round 7 of the 2019 season.
The car wash to the MCG must have felt worlds apart.
Reflecting on the game, which Melbourne won, Keilty said it was a great experience.
“I was pretty nervous. I was okay leading up to the game, but running out onto the MCG and just before the bounce the nerves started kicking in.
“The game itself I thought I did alright, the nerves got me a fair bit, I didn’t think they would get me that hard, but I still enjoyed the day.
“It was lightning quick, you almost have to predict where the ball is going to go. If you are watching the ball your defender or the opposition is already on the move.
“I played in a couple of VFL grand finals before, I thought they were quick, but this was on another level.
“I played up forward and switching into the ruck. In my first ruck contest Jarryd Roughead gave me the biggest corky in the quad of my life. I think I beat Ben McEvoy once so I’ll claim that.
“The thing I’m most proud of is being able to share the first game with mum and dad. That
was pretty special.
“I had some family and friends out in the crowd. To be able to see them after the game and share that experience with them made it all worth it.
“That was definitely number one. It might have only been two games but to me it was everything.”
For what it is worth, Keilty rated Christian Petracca as the best he had played with.
However, Keilty was quick to point out the man who now has a Norm Smith Medal was also one of the most diligent trainers he had come across.
“The reason he is such a good player is he works hard, regardless of how talented he is he wouldn’t have got anywhere near the calibre of player he is without the hard work that he’s done,” Keilty said.
“Playing Collingwood in the VFL one day there was a three on one, Petracca was the one and he managed to win the ball and hit this beautiful lead up inside 50.
“I remember standing there thinking ‘this kid is going to be something special.”
Like all premiership teams, there are always good stories to come out of them, and Melbourne is no exception.
Bayley Fritsch kicked six goals in the Demons grand final victory, but many may be surprised to learn he wasn’t even getting a game three years ago.
Fritsch played alongside Keilty in the 2018 VFL grand final, and his rise from virtual nobody to household name could provide a lesson in persistence to footballers across Gippsland as pre-season for 2022 gets underway