Can Clayton Oliver be great again in 2024?

If Melbourne are to make a late charge for glory this season, they need Clayton Oliver to be great again. His heart and mind are willing, but his body is not. It’s hard to see how it will be again this year.

As the Demons staggered to find the finishing post on Saturday night, dazed by North Melbourne’s shock and awe last term, Oliver was on the bench, as powerless as the 28,774 fans in the MCG stands to influence the outcome.

can clayton oliver be great again in 2024?

Clayton Oliver was held to 14 possessions against North Melbourne.

Perhaps it was the randomness of rotations though it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Oliver at his pomp would have been allowed anywhere near the pine with the game on the line.

The margin was three points, though the Demons were quite possibly only seconds away from Dee-saster, the siren sounding before the ball could be thrown back in deep in their defence.

There was a time not that long ago, Oliver’s sure hands under pressure would have been precisely what was needed to hold at bay a charging opponent.

Oliver is a Demons great who has been merely good in 2024. Here, he had a dirty night, unable to break the hard tag of Will Phillips. His tally of 14 possessions was his equal second-lowest from 176 games. Seven were turnovers.

Wherever Oliver went, Phillips followed. By his side at every stoppage, and in his head. Even when North were in possession, Phillips’ focus was on the Demons No.13. Oliver gave away five frees, his second-equal highest of his career, several of which were out of frustration.

When Oliver was tagged out of the game in round 23 last year by Finn Maginness, Goodwin went into bat for his star, saying he was “outstanding for the team”. This time, Goodwin took a different tack.

“It was a tight tag, and Phillips did a good job. If you had to say who won the battle, you’d say he won the battle,” Goodwin said.

“He shut Clayton out of the game for the majority of the night. Clayton keeps working through it and he’ll continue to work through it.”

With Christian Petracca out for the rest of the season, Oliver can expect more of the same in the run home. The attention on him may have taken the load off midfield newbie Trent Rivers but their on-ball brigade struggled.

A side that prides itself on the contest, the Dees lost contested ball by seven and clearances by eight against the bottom side.

It does not take much imagination to see Brisbane’s Josh Dunkley by Oliver’s side on Friday night at the Gabba.

Oliver will need to be on his game. Unlike Phillips, Dunkley is a bona fide league footballer who knows how to find the pill as well.

The key to breaking a tag is no secret. Run, run and run. Six days earlier, Nick Daicos ran Phillips ragged to the point where Alastair Clarkson subbed him out at three-quarter time despite his man having done what was asked. Daicos was to be the match-winner.

Oliver does not have Daicos’s running capacity at the best of times, let alone coming off a severely interrupted preseason when he dealt with personal issues. Nor does Oliver have another position he can go to when things are not working.

At 26, time is still on Oliver’s side to return to his best, but the time he needs this year he won’t have until summer to clock the miles on the track he needs to power from contest to contest.

A victory against North would not usually be a cause for much celebration, but every win is vital for the Dees, who have won just two of their last six and will finish the round out of the eight.

For three quarters, this was very much a typical Melbourne arm wrestle under Goodwin. The last quarter, though, was not atypical of the club’s recent demons, losing contests, ceding territory and leaking goals in a hurry.

Despite the football trauma of recent weeks, the Dees still have spirit. Teenager Kynan Brown, the son of former Demon Nathan Brown, showed it in his first game. He had been on the field only a matter of minutes when he ran down Nick Larkey, halting what loomed to be a potentially match-winning charge forward.

“I’m so proud how we held up,” Alex Neal-Bullen said. “For our boys to stand tall, train a lot of things that we’ve trained for a close-game scenario and execute, four points never felt so good.”

For his troubles, Brown was presented with Angus Brayshaw’s helmet, the weekly prize awarded to a Demons player for a selfless piece of play.

“Any time you can get a win and build belief within your walls is important. And tonight was an important step in that we think we still have a lot of footy left in us this year,” Goodwin said.

“We think we’re still got a lot of optimism about where we could go and what we could do. But we need to start improving as the year goes on now, and now we’re one game post bye we’ve had a win.

“As I said, it certainly wasn’t perfect. But we’re proud of what we did tonight in terms of getting a result.”

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