This is Melbourne’s moment to put demons of old aside

Sack Simon Goodwin!

Just joking.

After racing to a 10-0 start to the season, Demons supporters have over the last four weeks endured a sinking feeling we came to know pretty damn well during 57 years without a flag.

The return of that awful feeling – the fear – has set in as we contemplate in terror the idea that our golden age is ending before it has even begun.

On Thursday night, Melbourne face the Brisbane Lions at the home of football. The top-of-the-table clash should have Demons supporters salivating but instead, we’re breaking out in a collective cold sweat.

Only three players are missing from the line-up that eviscerated the Western Bulldogs on that famous day on September 25, 2021 – but two of them, captain Max Gawn and forward Tom McDonald, are huge outs for the team.

Over the last month the club has been whacked from pillar to post by , speculation that two of our best players, and Angus Brayshaw, could be headed to the exit, and the revelation of internal turmoil in the lead-up to season 2021.

All of a sudden, the best backline in the AFL has come back to earth with a thud, the best midfield in the competition has been reeled back to the chasing pack and our multi-pronged forward line can barely kick 10 goals in two hours of footy.

Opposition clubs have figured out how to marginalise Ed Langdon out on the wing, Ben Brown has lost his rhythm up front, Jake Lever has looked all at sea without May in the side and Sam Weideman – who should be stamping his authority on games and making the case for his permanent inclusion in our best 22 – has looked diffident.

Add to that the fact Clayton Oliver has fallen into the bad old habit of trying to do too much on his own, while his partner in crime, Christian Petracca, hasn’t looked right for weeks.

, in particular hurts.

It’s not just because he’s the best ruckman in the competition.

It’s not just because he’s our captain.

Gawn is the team’s north star and moral compass. – to his teammates, to the press and to himself – that no amount of media training has been able to coach out of him.

He would be under no illusions that the Brisbane game shapes as a potential season-turning point for a club that is facing a very difficult run home.

There’s a statistic that should spook the hell out of Demons supporters, too – the Lions last won at the MCG in round 21, 2014.

The Lions are well and truly due a win at the ’G and what better way to end that dismal run than against ?

For old Melbourne, all of these on and off field problems would practically guarantee a loss to the Lions on Thursday night.

In the past, during the old Melbourne days, the grumblings about coach Simon Goodwin would have already begun.

The more unhinged of the Demons faithful (cough, cough, yours truly included) might have already begun speculating about his future.

That hasn’t happened thus far and nor should it. We aren’t old Melbourne anymore.

We are the new Demons, reigning premiers, with a durable game plan and All-Australians on every line.

Almost without fail, every reigning premier faces an inflection point in the following season as injuries, fatigue and mental doubts set in. Some go on and prove themselves to be a champion team, like Hawthorn in the 1980s and the 2010s, the Lions at the turn of the century and Richmond most recently.

Some never quite get back to the summit, like the Bulldogs after their premiership in 2016 or West Coast in 2018.

This is Melbourne’s moment to define themselves as a team.

Was 2021 a flash in the pan? Are they a team of great players who managed to bring the elements together to coalesce into a great team for one season?

Or does this team have the strength of character, the guts, to stand up and be counted when it is shorn of its leader and talisman?

Vice captain Jack Viney has led by example in recent weeks, selflessly laying tackle after tackle, playing for his team.

The Demons could do worse than look to Viney – and big Max on the sidelines – as their inspiration against the Lions.

Do these Demons, in the years to come, want to be remembered as a champion team? Or just a very good side in 2021?

If the Demons stand up like Viney does, if they embody the best of the new Melbourne, they can win this match.

How they approach this match will help define their season, and their character.

James Massola is the Sunday Age’s political correspondent and a die-hard Demons supporter.

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