Football rebuilds are notoriously painful and sometimes seemingly never ending, as Carlton fans would attest.
In times of decline, supporters of clubs are desperately looking for glimpses of a more promising future. That glimmer of hope. The type of glimpses Essendon has given its fans this season as the young Bombers have looked to emerge again, more than 16 years after the club’s last finals victory.
As in daily life, expectation management plays a key part in shaping the supporter experience.
Carlton has long sold the “we’re coming” narrative. Until recently, Collingwood was projecting a confidence it could still play finals, while Hawthorn refused to acknowledge it needed to bottom out, with Hawks fans, so accustomed to success, in for less profitable times.
It’s a delicate balance between selling hope and reality.
To commit to memberships, fans need to feel they are either investing in something successful or something that’s entering a growth phase. There’s nothing less palatable than being somewhere stuck in the middle.
Essendon has been honest with its supporters, following a policy of under-promise and over-deliver. Bombers fans now feel like they’re embarking on an exciting journey, a feeling further fuelled by Sunday’s thrilling win over Freo.
North Melbourne is hoping to provide a similar ride for its supporters.
In recent times there are few examples of a club in a more dire state than the Kangaroos when David Noble took over.
The previous coach, Rhyce Shaw, had resigned after a period of absence from the club to deal with personal issues, North had won only three games in the 2020 season – one of its last 15 – and conducted a brutal list overhaul. Noble had seemingly inherited a basket case.
Highly experienced in a range of football roles across several clubs, Noble brought an immediate sense of calm and, most importantly, direction.
Port Adelaide, Gold Coast and the Western Bulldogs provided a torrid introduction to senior coaching, but North showed steady signs of improvement, culminating in a 54th birthday the coach will long remember in his home state on Saturday.
The winless Roos stormed from 32 points down to end their 16-game losing streak with a seven-point win over Hawthorn at York Park in Launceston. It was a huge result for a playing list and supporter base desperately seeking the affirmation and nourishment only victory can fully provide.
Noble was recently criticised for his assertion that nailing down process and game style was more important than winning for his developing side. Process would lead to outcome he said, and so it did.
You could sense North’s first win since round nine last season was coming. If not for some costly skill errors, the Roos would have beaten Collingwood the week before, and they were also very competitive against undefeated Melbourne in round seven, Adelaide in round four and Geelong in round five.
Like all the good North Melbourne teams of the past, Noble’s Kangas play with heart and physical presence. As former Essendon premiership player Adam Ramanauskas said on Grandstand, their intent is obvious.
“You look at passages of play from North Melbourne, you can see the system developing, you can see the process of what they’re trying to do,” he said.
“There’s no doubt [what] they’re going to be, when the final product is developed … it’s a high-pressure team that wants to get up in the face of the opposition, turn the ball over and then go offensively with speed.”
To compare their weekly playing list with that of the opposition can paint a grim picture, especially given the absence of key players like Robbie Tarrant, Luke McDonald, Jed Anderson and Aidan Corr. Jared Polec is also missing and, while an expensive acquisition given his relatively moderate output, he is one of the side’s few elite ball users.
But just as process and adherence to team principles lead to outcomes, they can also help bridge a gap in talent.
Richmond has won three of the past four premierships with, at best, a handful of players you could categorise as stars of the competition. The Tigers’ success has been built on the sum of all parts.
That’s not to suggest North Melbourne is talentless.
Jy Simpkin has now served a significant apprenticeship and is flourishing in the midfield. His 38-possession game was a career high and he complemented veteran Ben Cunnington – 37 possessions – superbly.
Luke Davies-Uniacke, the fourth pick in the 2017 draft, is starting to arrive as a player with his strength, step and clean finishing catching the eye, and Tarryn Thomas shows glimpses of his immense natural ability.
Cam Zurhaar played his best game for the season with four goals, while Lachie Young’s late contest back with the flight was a moment that epitomised North’s commitment. Charlie Lazzaro, Tom Powell and Will Phillips are all gaining valuable exposure to the top level.
To borrow from football’s extensive bank of cliches, the Roos are playing for one another and they’re also playing for their coach.
While North Melbourne won’t be imminently contending for premierships, they are taking significant steps towards becoming a highly competitive side again.
Nobly laying the foundations for many more happy returns.