How Melbourne's past is inspiring the new generation to success

Former AFL ump calls for stronger response to umpire dissent (2:16)

Retired AFL umpire Matthew Head says incidents of player contact with umpires need to be stamped out to protect the game. (2:16)

IF YOU'RE A footy fan that happens to join thousands of Melburnians on a Saturday morning during non-lockdown times jogging the Tan running track in Melbourne, you may come across a few familiar faces.

There's David Neitz.

There's Guy Rigoni.

Is that Rod Grinter?

This core group of 20 or so past Melbourne Football Club players, who would normally be doing their weekly fitness session and breakfast post-mortem, are not seeing each other in the flesh right now. But through Melbourne's bid to end a 57-year premiership drought, they, and the rest of the Melbourne past players, are riding every bump of the 2021 AFL season like they did in their own playing days.

Beyond his sometimes controversial on-field persona, 1980s and 1990s defender Rod Grinter was a club-first player who was destined to stay involved long after his senior playing days were over. He felt like he belonged from the moment he arrived.

"When I first came down to Melbourne from Katandra West, I was 17 and I didn't really have a lot going on in my life to be honest," he tells ESPN.

That would soon change.

Grinter was a heart and soul player on and off the field in the Demons' mid-1980s revival, his skills and importance to a team that played in five straight finals series was often underestimated by those that focused on his tribunal rap sheet. But inside the club, 'Balls' was appreciated and loved.

He stayed on to captain the reserves once his senior career was over, he spent time in the sales department and even acted as a runner.

"Leaving my family in the country, Melbourne became my adopted family. All the players became my best mates. The footy club was always there and was always a part of my life," Grinter says, and today it continues in his role as the Chair of the Past Players and Officials Association.

The notion of a past players' association sounds quaint in this day of entrenched professionalism, but part of Melbourne's success in 2021 has been an embrace of being a good teammate, and by extension, a good clubman. That has included an embrace of the past players' association that is unique in today's football.

"David Neitz was down at the club early in the year when they were setting up the David Neitz Academy. Simon Goodwin, Alan Richardson and Mark Williams were there, and they got talking about what the past players do," Grinter explains.

"David told them about a group that meet on a Saturday morning and trot around the Tan. Some can still run, some just walk, but we all end up at a café afterwards for breakfast and a chat."

This got the current day coaches thinking. Given the current charges were scheduled to be doing fitness sessions nearby over the next few Saturdays, an invitation soon came from Max Gawn to the Past Players.

"We were all welcomed to join in for the Saturday fitness session with the current guys and we ended up having 30 past players running alongside today's list. All of the current players then joined us for our regular breakfast catch-up, we had 70 odd Melbourne players mixing together after training."

While a simple gesture, it's been symbolic of a new Melbourne ethos that has been noted by Grinter.

"The biggest change I've noticed with the way the boys have been playing, is their want to play for each other and the broader club, not as individuals. The way they speak after games, it's all about the supporters at home and that connection is really felt from the past players," he says.

"The club opened up to past players from far and wide for that session, no matter how many games they'd played. We all really cherished the connection of that day."

Current Demon James Harmes has recently joined the Past Players committee, and an AFLW past player will soon be appointed.

The Past Players Association is not just a social connection. It works with the AFL Players Association for those former players experiencing hardship, acting as the conduit between the AFLPA and past players to access the benevolence funding the current AFL players gained in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

While the financial side of support for past players is central to what the association does, the emotional side also looms large. It's unlikely any past players group has had to deal with as much tragedy over the last two decades than Melbourne's. Losing Robbie Flower, Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, Troy Broadbridge, Colin Sylvia and coach Dean Bailey at young ages has touched all eras of the association. Grinter, who played with Stynes, Wight and Flower, and had close connections with the others, says those experiences have seen a lot of ex-players hold the bond of this association more dearly.

"One of the messages we have as a group in light of all of those tragic losses, is let's not waste the opportunity to go to the footy together, let's not waste the opportunity to catch-up at this function, because you just never know what's around the corner," he says.

"And then there's a group of players from the 1950 and 60s golden period who still meet every week at the Bentleigh Club, Ron Barassi and his era, which is pretty inspiring."

Grinter has the distinction of being one of only two Demons (with Steven Febey), to be on the field in both of Melbourne's Grand Final appearance since 1964 - 1988 as a player and in 2000 as a runner for coach Neale Daniher. Acting as Danhier's runner from 2000-2006 gave him a second wave of connections with Demon alumni, and he's impressed by how close that group are.

"I'm as close, if not closer, with that Daniher era as my own playing era, even though they are 10 years younger than me," he says. "They had some success and now, socially, they are really tight, so it's really great to be a part of that too."

"That era is all passionate about the footy club and they're all passionate about Neale."

Daniher also plays his part, despite his long battle with Motor Neurone Disease. During the lockdown of 2020 he started a WhatsApp group for his former players called ODD (Old Dilapidated Demons) with a unique set of challenges.

"Each week of last season he nominated one of his ex-players to be 'coach of Melbourne' for the week ahead. That person had to pick the team, who was in, who was out, what his strategy was for who we were playing and how we were going to beat them," Grinter reveals.

"It was really funny and lighthearted, but kept us all interested and connected during lockdown."

In the early 2000s, Daniher reimagined a mercurial forward from Geelong, Clint Bizzell, as a rebounding defender at the Demons. Bizzell, and the likes of Ben Holland and Stephen Powell, who came to Melbourne from other clubs, have since gravitated to the Demon Past Players Association.

Bizzell attributes some of that bond to the rocky road that is emblematic for many generations of the past 57 years.

"Our era played finals every two years, which provided some great highs, but in the in-between years we shared some really crushing lows. But those lows also help connect you, through the really difficult times. I think we got to know each other better than if we'd just had success," he tells ESPN.

The leaders of that era, while not able to deliver a premiership, have been instrumental in keeping that bond together to be a driving force behind the association and their current September dreaming.

Bizzell explains that they still feel like a team today.

"We were lucky to have two outstanding individuals in Neale and Neitz lead us," he says. "We all know of Neale's character, and the regard we hold him in, but David has a humility that extends beyond anyone. He welcomes people with open arms and shows genuine care for people, he does that with anyone he played with, and their family and friends. Neale and David still lead our group."

Neitz and Bizzell started that Saturday morning running group, which has grown from a few players through to a larger group spearheaded by Grinter that spans the eras. They keep fit, talk about life and, naturally, talk about their footy club.

"Rod Grinter is the glue that holds all of the eras together at Melbourne Footy Club. He's a special human, Rod," Bizzell says.

The group rallies behind Daniher wholeheartedly, and there was no greater illustration of the crossing of eras of the association than when the Neitz-led Daniher Drive fundraising event weaved through Victoria and Grinter made sure his old coach John Northey's house in Lara was a stop on the route.

The vison of ex-players enjoying the success of today is an image that warms the heart of supporters more than anything else. The tears of Matthew Richardson and Billy Brownless during the Richmond and Geelong's drought-breaking premiership wins are indelible images, as is Tony Liberatore's joy at the Bulldogs and his son reaching the Grand Final that eluded him.

Sadly, these are not scenes Melbourne fans have seen in the second half of this season or its qualifying final win. But Grinter assures us these scenes are playing out in loungerooms back in Melbourne and are being circulated on a WhatsApp message group of past players. He has to leave his phone and only check at quarter breaks, such has been the constant stream of activity from the group during games this season.

Videos from past players came from all corners of Australia after Gawn's game-winning goal against Geelong in Round 23, with Bizzell earning the votes as best for his leap to celebrate victory against his first AFL club.

"By the third goal of the last quarter I started to clap and get animated, and by the siren I'd lost my voice - it took a week to recover," Bizzell admits. "But it means a lot. Last time Melbourne were in the finals in 2018, we were at the MCG and Stephen Tingay's partner was telling me that the only time she'd ever seen him shed a tear was the week before when we'd had our first finals win for so long."

Every Grand Final week, the association gathers the group of past players at the Jim Stynes Grill Room at the MCG for their annual reunion. In amongst a night of storytelling and reminiscing, the conversations invariably turn to the present and the hopes of their club.

As the years pass the number of surviving premiership players lessens, and when the vast majority of players who've never seen let alone played in a flag, look out to the turf that they once roamed around in the red and blue, they wonder whether that premiership drought will ever break.

Like 2020, in 2021 they won't be gathering at the MCG for that reunion, but right now the dream of a drought breaking premiership is still alive.

Last year the reunion attracted 98 attendees on Zoom with Russell Robertson as host, and this year it can be expected they'll crack the century of logins. Win or lose in the Grand Final, Melbourne's GM of Football Alan Richardson, who coached Grinter in his final year of suburban football at East Burwood, has assured his old comrade that today's coaches and players will be represented at the reunion, too.

With the finals caravan in Perth this weekend, the association also has a functional duty to perform, as they receive questions from West Australian-based former players.

"We've created a WA Dees WhatsApp group, because we need to communicate to the guys on how they can get tickets and the like. (Past Player) Kelly O'Donnell in his role working at the club and I are talking to guys like Damian Gaspar, Earl Spalding, Darren Kowal, Warren Dean, Jason Norrish, Shane Woewodin, Dean Irving, Steve Turner and those types to make sure they and the families of current players in Perth are all there to watch."

The Demons might even gain a few extra supporters in Perth, reportedly AU$30,000 has been spent on Melbourne memberships from Perth addresses in the last week in an effort for locals to gain tickets to a Grand Final. "You have to make hay while the sun shines," Grinter laughs.

It will be a bizarre feeling for the Melbourne Football Club Past Players Association this Friday and even more so if they do win through to the final day of the season. The mere thought of it even brings a hint of emotion to one of the most feared hard men in the club's history.

"You spend all of these years playing, then going to the footy with the same group of blokes, so if we do make it, you just hope there's a way we can watch it together outdoors and laugh, hug and cry, whatever the result is.

We've been staying connected with calls and messages all season and hopefully we get the chance to do it for the next few weeks too. But I think this team is good enough to contend for a few more years yet, so we're all going to enjoy following them in person again soon regardless of how the month pans out."