If there's one loss fans didn't see coming in 2024, it would've been a 92-point loss for the Melbourne Demons at the hands of a Fremantle side that won just ten games the year before.

Or perhaps even a 35-point loss to last year's wooden spooners in West Coast.

Despite back-to-back years of straight-set exits from the AFL Finals, Melbourne was still considered a flag fancy heading into 2024. The club maintained its core group of players in the off-season, boldly holding onto Harrison Petty, as well as shutting down trade rumours for Clayton Oliver.

Yet after Round 14, the Demons have a 7-6 record and sit 11th on the ladder. With five games against current top-eight sides still to come, Melbourne's finals chances are on the ropes. How did they get here?

A pre-season of 'culture' issues

It's a fairly undisputed fact that off-field drama spells trouble for on-field performances for any team, in any sport. The Adelaide Crows 2018 pre-season camp is a notorious AFL example that saw the Crows go from a grand finalist team to a 11th-placed side one year later.

Melbourne's offseason after its heartbreaking finals exit to Carlton was constantly littered with controversy.

On October 4th, 2023 Tom Morris reported on AFL Trade Radio that Adelaide and Essendon were open to poaching Clayton Oliver from the Demons. Later that evening, Seven Adelaide's Theo Doropoulos reported Oliver was "open to a move to the Crows".

The potential move arose amid rumours Oliver was disgruntled with the way his injuries were handled by Demons medical staff throughout the 2023 season.

Melbourne's troublesome situation with Oliver continued further after the shock trade reports. Oliver's mental health concerns were broadcast to the public following an admission to hospital on the 12th of October, as well as an early departure from a pre-season training camp in Lorne near Christmas time. Oliver additionally was also caught driving whilst suspended in December. In January, he took an extended leave from the club to deal with personal issues.

Although Oliver returned in time to play in Opening Round, it's clear from his 2024 statistics that the 2023 off-season has impacted Oliver's on-field performance.

Oliver is averaging 4.3 tackles per game in 2024, a decline of 2.4 compared to his 2023 output and a career-worst. His clearance numbers have also significantly decreased by 2.2, his disposals have decreased by 5.5 and his contested possessions by 3.4. These statistics are at their lowest since Oliver's first AFL season in 2016.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17: Clayton Oliver of the Demons kicks during the round one AFL match between Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on March 17, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Harrison Petty was another Demon open to a move to Adelaide, however, Melbourne didn't budge, as they aspired to contend for a 2024 premiership with Petty in their best 22. A verbal offer of five years was reportedly offered to Petty, but Melbourne was not inclined to accept two first-round picks for Petty's services.

Melbourne's hard-bargaining efforts to maintain a player they valued paid off, but Petty sounded disheartened to stay in Victoria. Speaking to Nine News Adelaide, Petty said, “I suppose at some stage I'd be open to a move back (home) …  It is tough at times.”

Perhaps Petty's reluctance to stay in Melbourne can be attributed to his poor performances this season.

Petty has been thrown around the ground this season in a swingman role, as well as even spending time in the ruck against Fremantle. Spending the majority of his time in the forward line, Petty has kicked just three goals from 11 games this year. His disposal numbers have also been down, as well as marks inside 50.

Melbourne utility Joel Smith was next to join Melbourne's offseason controversy. Smith returned a positive test for cocaine on matchday, in the Demon's Round 20 win over Hawthorn. On February 20, 2024, Sports Integrity Australia (SIA) accused Smith of three further anti-doping provisions, including trafficking or attempted trafficking of cocaine. This was an additional gut punch to the Demons, as Smith remains on a provisional suspension awaiting a potential four-year ban.

Smith's positive drug test ignited a media storm on Melbourne's culture. Simon Goodwin and Max Gawn argued their case that there was no problem with Melbourne's culture, however, the Demons still received a litany of backlash.

Although Joel Smith was not a regular goal-sneak of a teammate like Bayley Fritsch, his presence was impactful, and his absence in 2024 has highlighted Melbourne's key forward issues. Melbourne is ranked 14th for goals per game, a considerable drop from the 2023 ranking of sixth. The Demons are also ranked 13th for marks inside 50 in 2024, compared to sixth in 2023, and second in their premiership season.

Significant injuries

To strike further pain to all Melbourne supporters, the Demons have been, and are still dealing with injuries to key troops.

Recruited from Adelaide in the 2023 trade period, livewire Shane McAdam was unable to play until Round 10, battling a persistent hamstring problem. Jake Bowey suffered a broken collarbone in Opening Round, whilst Charlie Spargo has experienced setbacks with his Achilles injury after playing against Sydney.

Jake Melksham is still awaiting a return from a 2023 ACL tear, whilst Jake Lever and Lachie Hunter have also suffered leg injuries, keeping them out of the side for multiple weeks.

Christian Petracca's horrific rib injury in Round 13 against Collingwood added further salt to the wound of Melbourne's 2024 campaign. Despite a courageous effort to play on, the Demons star was eventually found to have four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a Grade 5 lacerated spleen, resulting in an open surgery.

The fact that Petracca was signed off to continue playing, despite the severity of his injuries, sparked further debate about the professionalism of the Melbourne Football Club. In a since-deleted Instagram comment, Petracca reassured that he was "responsible" for his return to the field in the King's Birthday clash, and not the medical staff. However, Melbourne's medical process still copped criticism from the media.

“Certainly the player has a lot to answer for in this situation, but sometimes they have to be saved from themselves," SEN's Sam Edmund said.

"I just think it's a poor decision and it's not a medical decision, that's a... collective decision," David King also told SEN.

Where to next?

With their star midfielder done for the season, and underperforming players around the ground, Simon Goodwin needs to rejuvenate his side to continue a push into finals contention.

Following the bye, Goodwin is expected to make multiple changes for the clash against North Melbourne.

Father-son draftee Kynan Brown is set to debut, after spending this season as a dependable hard-nosed player at Casey. Averaging 17.3 disposals and 4.8 tackles, Brown has had notable games which included a three-goal performance against Footscray and ten tackles against Williamstown.

Draftee Koltyn Tholstrup is in line to play his second match to add a burst of youthful energy in the midfield. Tholstrup has played just the one AFL match in his debut season, but has been consistent at VFL level, averaging 19.6 disposals and 4.9 tackles.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10: Koltyn Tholstrup of the Demons speaks with Simon Goodwin, Senior Coach of the Demons during a Melbourne Demons AFL training session at Gosch's Paddock on April 10, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)Another option Goodwin could pursue is running Tom Sparrow through the midfield. Sparrow was positioned in the middle for Melbourne's pre-season intraclub matches as well as the Demons pre-season clash against Carlton. Sparrow looked right at home, kicking three goals and recording 20 disposals in the Community Series match.

However, since Oliver's return Sparrow has been playing amongst the forwards, most recently named as a forward pocket against Collingwood.

Whilst the Demons lack a key target inside 50, their future is building excitingly. Jacob van Rooyen is only 21 and McAdam is building off of strong VFL performances. Continuing to provide AFL experience for the Demon's young crop will only further develop their ability.

A tough fixture lies ahead for the Demons - five matches against current top-eight sides, which excludes games against dangerous sides of Brisbane, Western Bulldogs and Gold Coast. An injection of youth, positional switches, or a resurgence in form will be necessary if Melbourne are to reinvent themselves and push for finals this season.