Supporting a laughing stock: what it's been like following the modern-day Demons

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WHEN YOU'RE USED to having your heart broken, it takes a lot to put yourself out there again.

That's true in a romantic sense, but it also applies to supporting a perennially unsuccessful sporting team.

For the overwhelming majority of Melbourne fans, it took until late this season to genuinely believe the Demons could actually break their competition-long premiership drought.

At 6-0, after battering Richmond at a packed MCG, it was still too early to assume anything. At 11-1, despite back-to-back finals-shaping wins against flag fancies the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane, there was still no counting of any chickens.

Then came a midseason slump which fuelled the doubts swirling underneath the surface, but Simon Goodwin' side bounced back with five straight wins to finish the regular season, lighting embers of hope that this could indeed be the year. For others that moment of realisation didn't arrive until the dominant qualifying final win over Brisbane. For many, it wasn't until the even more comprehensive preliminary final win against Geelong that true belief returned.

Why? Because for the best part of two decades, supporting the Demons has caused significantly more pain and anxiety than joy and fulfilment.

It's a pain only a tiny minority of fans can truly empathise with - ask a Collingwood supporter how it felt watching their side nosedive to 17th this year and become a rabble off the field. I'm sure some of the answers would include descriptors like anger, frustration, exasperation, despair, shame. Now imagine those feelings compounded over the best part of 20 years.

It's hard to describe exactly what it felt like supporting a club like Melbourne as it became one of Australian sport's laughing stocks. The weekly losses caused enough hurt, but it was more than that.

It was the pause and look of pity when you replied "Melbourne" to the question as to which team you supported.

It was the snide comments when debating the important football issues of the day: "What would you know, you're just a Demons supporter."

It was the soul-crushing lack of hope ahead of an upcoming match, when a win wasn't within the realms of possibility - a 'brave' loss was all you could hope for.

It was the hanging of hats on the odd Rising Star nomination, or All Australian squad representative.

It was the head-shaking confusion when yet another coach was sacked, or the latest top draft pick amounted to nothing, or board was spilled, or sponsor departed, or decent player bolted for the door as soon as he was out of contract.

It was looking longingly at other clubs' state-of-the-art facilities and home bases, while Melbourne continued to exist semi-nomadically.

It was the fist-clenching pangs of jealousy when witnessing other fairytale sporting victories - the Boston Red Sox ending the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, Leicester City's famous 2016 triumph in the English Premier League, and closer to home, the Sydney Swans and Western Bulldogs ending decade-long AFL premiership droughts in 2005 and 2016, respectively. Akin to witnessing one of your best friends kiss the girl you secretly had a crush on in high school, you put on a brave face and pretend you're happy for them, at the same time trying to disguise multiple layers of heartache.

It was the tanking enquiry.

It was bottoming out during a time when two new franchises were introduced by the AFL and scooped up the lions' share of talented draftees.

It was the early and tragic deaths of legendary club figures Sean Wight, Jimmy Stynes, Robbie Flower, Dean Bailey, Troy Broadbridge and Colin Sylvia.

It's the worry an entire generation of supporters could be lost, because winning matters most in the emotion-charged setting of the schoolyard.

It was the onset of a pseudo medical condition called MFCSS (Melbourne Football Club Supporters Syndrome), a mysterious psychological condition where sufferers believe disaster is just around the corner, no matter how rosy the current situation. In layman's terms, it was the feeling that even in good times, "Melbourne's gonna Melbourne."

It was the dry-mouthed horror of realising there is a genuine chance the club you love could fold ... and the stark realisation your life would be infinitely less stressful and pained should that actually happen.

It was the lingering malice of the Norm Smith Curse, which even Melbourne games record holder David Neitz recently admitted "was a real thing."

It was all of that, and so much more.

But this year, a new Melbourne has emerged - a club that displays professionalism, care and unity on and off the field; a club boasting a playing list that is talented enough to go deep into September for the foreseeable future, and with a coaching staff able to extract the squad's full potential.

Win or lose on Saturday night -- and make no mistake, a premiership win would be a joyous exclamation point on the incredible rise of 2021, and the only way the Norm Smith Curse could be truly buried, according to Neitz -- Demons fans can now finally feel a sense of pride when watching their team in action.

And no amount of MFCSS can cloud what appears to be brighter days ahead.