Nathan Jones leads his platers from the ground after a win over GWS. Picture: Michael Klein
Nathan Jones leads his platers from the ground after a win over GWS. Picture: Michael Klein

The secret creed behind Dees’ resurgence

ON a large wall deep inside the Melbourne football department is an inscription written in French.

It reads, in big blue letters: "Esprit de corps".

By definition, this fiercely guarded club creed means "a shared spirit of camaraderie, enthusiasm, and devotion to a cause among the members of a group."

But for Melbourne, this is no run-of-the-mill footy slogan.

The internal mantra has become the cultural backbone and driving force of the Demons' resurgence under second-year coach Simon Goodwin.

Taken straight out of Norm and Len Smith's legendary coaching playbook, "esprit de corps" represents the special bond shared by the Melbourne players, support staff and their families, as the Demons try to break the longest premiership drought in the game.

"It is about mateship, and unity," Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin told the Herald Sun. "Doing it for each other, and for everyone at Melbourne.

"And it is based on a desire from the players to bring happiness and fulfilment to everyone around them; their teammates, their families, the support staff and the fans.

"That is what means the most to the players.

"When they can walk off the field and share that joy.

"That is what drives them."


Melbourne players flank Jordan Lewis on his 300th game. Picture: AFL Media
Melbourne players flank Jordan Lewis on his 300th game. Picture: AFL Media

Clearly, the emphasis for this young group of Demons on the brink of their first finals appearance in 12 years, is all about togetherness.

And while the Demons won't have finals experience on their side in September, they will have this signature accord and team harmony.

Five-time premiership player Frank Adams saw it when he met Melbourne players on a visit to the club last month.

"The one thing we had under Norm was a super bond between the players, which was built on respect, loyalty, trust understanding, and even love," Adams reflected this week.

"It was a special ingredient, and I don't think you can go all the way without it.

"And when I was invited in to address the players six weeks ago, apart from being astounded by how young they all look, I was really impressed by two things; the spirit of them, and their humour.

"It was a really positive environment and I thought to myself right then, 'everyone here is on the same page'."

For Adams, it was a flashback to Melbourne's golden era when six-time premiership coach Norm Smith would arrange dinner dances for wives and girlfriends the night of games, and even pay for the ladies' taxis to the club.

An engineer, Smith would also make prams for the first-born child of all his players, Adams said.

The focus on family was as important as the game itself, under Smith.

"You would play a game on a Saturday and you might make a shocking error in a loss," Adams said.

"You would go to the dinner and the dance that night, and your wife would be there and 'Smithy' would come up, and you would be still waiting for the burst.

"But he would say to my wife Noelle, not 'how are the kids', but 'how is Tracey, how's David, how's Joanne?'

"You might have only played one game under Norm, but he would know your children's names. That's how close we all were.

"But on Tuesday, you would be at training, and that's when you would cop the burst about the kick (laughing)."

Of the club dinner dances, six-time premiership player Brian Dixon said: "The band would fire up and we would all end up doing the barn dance for two hours, which was great Sunday morning training".

Three-time premiership player Hassa Mann added: "Everything was about the team and team spirit, under Norm."


Frank Adams with some of his former premiership teammates at the MCG.
Frank Adams with some of his former premiership teammates at the MCG.

But if that was Melbourne's golden era, this new team spirit under Goodwin has been forged, in part, out of the ashes of the darkest chapter in the club's history.

Only five years ago Melbourne slumped to one of the worst seasons on AFL record, winning only two games.

The average losing margin was 64 points; a thumping every week.

Before senior coach Paul Roos began his three-year rescue mission in 2014, a senior player told him in their first meeting: "I just want to feel human again."

Taking over from Roos' successful stint, Goodwin wanted to create a new identity, or a hook, for the team.

On a trip to Stanford University at the end of 2016, Goodwin was encouraged by Professor Jerry Porras, who wrote a book about successful organisational culture called "Built to Last", to discover the club's true DNA.

He sought a higher purpose for the players, to help govern an exciting new chapter for the once-besieged Dees.

Reading as much as he could about the club's golden reign in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Goodwin stumbled upon "esprit de corps".

It symbolised Smith's "No.1 coaching philosophy" throughout the most successful period in Melbourne Football Club's history, and six decades on, Melbourne's current of crop of players wholeheartedly embraced it as part of their inspirational new trademark.

The phrase is plastered on a white wall in the footy department meeting room, with an action photo of every current Melbourne player underneath it.

It draws upon themes of fearlessness, togetherness and commitment and is a link back to "what the club was built on when it was great".

Until now, this Melbourne mantra has been fiercely protected, much like Richmond's sometimes-tearful HHH - hero, hardship or highlight - meetings which helped connect and unify the Tigers' playing group last year.

Before that, the Western Bulldogs also found a special synergy under coach Luke Beveridge.

Nowadays, emotional connectedness in football is about much more than having a beer together.

The old pub method is out. Family picnics and babysitting stints are in.

And, like the Tigers' powerful storytelling, the Demons have also opened up about life stories, personal vulnerabilities and family bonds over the past few years, under the esprit de corps banner.

Said one observer: "It's all done on a much deeper level these days than just going out for a drink.

"Players are opening up and connecting and understanding one another in more meaningful ways."


Legendary Melbourne coach Norm Smith.
Legendary Melbourne coach Norm Smith.

But parts of these behind-closed-doors meetings at Melbourne, and other clubs, also remain fiercely-guarded.

"I'm not talking about that mate. It's private, sorry," said another.

The move to cancel Melbourne's gruelling pre-season camp, in part due to some player safety concerns, again tested this revolve.

The headlines screamed of disharmony and mutiny.

But co-captain Jack Viney was adamant the experience had the opposite effect, and in fact brought the club even tighter together on the eve of its 14-win season.

"We have just continued to try to build meaningful relationships," Viney said.

"We have done a lot of work around it and it's been a pretty crucial part of our schedule, allocating time to be able to create those bonds and relationships that are a little bit deeper than normal."



IT'S gold-plated footy wisdom from half a century ago.

And when it comes to confidence and team spirit, Len Smith's treasured coaching notes perhaps remain as ­relevant as ever.

Four-time Demon premiership player John Lord received a copy of the notes in 1965 from his then coach, Norm Smith.

In one chapter, Len Smith says trust, and a special camaraderie between teammates, was central to success.

"Confidence in a team game such as football with 18 players, surely comes from believing in your teammates knowing that they will be on hand to help you when you need them," Smith wrote.

"Knowing that even if he gets into trouble there will be a teammate close at hand to help him by talking, shepherding and ready and willing to ­receive a hand pass.

"This confidence in each other comes from friendship, tolerance and understanding and by practising intensely at training sessions on the basic rules - two men together - chasing your punch and talking to each other."

Demon John Lord with some of his premiership memorabilia. Picture: Michael Klein
Demon John Lord with some of his premiership memorabilia. Picture: Michael Klein

Len Smith was highly regarded for his coaching acumen in stints at Richmond and Fitzroy in the 1950s and '60s, but it was his brother, Norm, who enjoyed the glory.

And Lord believes the lessons hold weight as the Demons embark on a drought-breaking finals campaign.

Smith wrote that it was necessary to play "desperate football" as a team.

"I have reached the conclusion that some footballers or teams succeed because they cheerfully pay the price of success," Smith said.

"And others, though they may claim ambition and a desire to succeed are unwilling to pay that price."