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Friday, September 21, 2018

AFL finals 2018: Melbourne forward Jake Melksham’s rollercoaster ride worth the wait

A broad smile immediately appears across Jake Melksham’s face when he recalls the most important goal of his career to date.
Hawthorn had come back from the brink of elimination to mount a serious challenge in last week’s cutthroat semifinal.
But Melksham’s left-foot spear from the edge of the arc stopped the rot at a packed MCG and steadied Melbourne to keep alive their chances of ending a 54-year premiership drought this season. If not for that play, and another crucial Melksham goal a few minutes later, the Demons’ dream could be over.
And Melksham concedes Hawks defender James Sicily would have got the better of him in their individual battle.
The 27-year-old defensive forward had barely had a touch to three-quarter-time and was yet to lay a tackle.
But the moment of magic was proof the dangerous Melksham, the competition leader for goal assists in his second full season at Melbourne, can turn game breaker at any point.
“I pounced on a loose ball across the 50 there and looked up,” Melksham said.
“I didn’t see anyone in front of me and had a crack. As you would’ve seen, I was pretty excited about it.
“Sicily is a quality player and there was a reason the coaches wanted me to go to him.
“He’s influential across half-back if you let him do what he wants, so my role was to keep him accountable and try to negate him in any aerial contests, then just play my game of footy.”
The only aspect of Melksham’s role likely to change in tomorrow’s preliminary final against West Coast at Optus Stadium is his opponent.
Melksham took on the competition’s best intercept marker, Jeremy McGovern, on last month’s trip to Perth and came up trumps.
McGovern was allowed only 13 possessions and one contested mark, while Melksham produced a four-goal haul for the third time in his career and the Demons scored a stunning upset that guaranteed a return to finals action after 12 years on the outer.
“It might be something that we talk about,” Melksham said of his role, cautious not to give too much away.
“Most weeks I’ve gone to someone. Last time we went over there having to win to make finals and this time it’s even bigger stakes. It’s do or die.
“We’ll go over there and implement what we did last time and hopefully I’m here talking to you next week.”
Melksham has hit new heights since his move to Melbourne, but his football journey has been far more rollercoaster than smooth sailing.
A career threatened by the Essendon supplements scandal reached its nadir when he was one of 34 players forced to sit out what would have been his first season with the Demons in 2016 through suspension.
“It was a horrible time,” Melksham said.
“I spent four months training my arse off to prepare for a season and then didn’t play for a year. I came back and trained for another four months.
“I’d basically done two pre-seasons for last year’s season. It was tough, but we’ve moved past that now and we’re into some positive times.”
Early last year, Melksham was fined $10,000 by the AFL for giving misleading evidence during an investigation into his betting activity and was banned for striking a VFL opponent.
Upon return to action, he was tried out in a range of positions.
He started at half-back before fellow ex-Bomber and best mate Michael Hibberd returned from injury, moved to the wing and spent time in run-with roles as coach Simon Goodwin worked on how best to get the most out of his player.
It took half of the 2017 season — and half of the Queen’s Birthday blockbuster against Collingwood — for Goodwin to try Melksham in attack.
A brutally honest Melksham concedes it’s the position that players are thrown into when other roles aren’t working out.
But he kicked a goal against the Magpies, Melbourne won a thriller and he has flourished in the new role.
Melksham has since kicked 50 goals in 33 games, including 30 majors this season as the Dees’ third-highest goal kicker behind Tom McDonald (53) and injured spearhead Jesse Hogan (47).
He averages a league-best 1.5 goal assists this year and since that Queen’s Birthday breakout has been rated elite by Champion Data for inside-50s and score involvements, while ranking above average for disposals and goals.
“I played a little bit of forward at Essendon, not permanently, but I love it down there,” Melksham said.
“We’ve got a really dynamic group of boys that complement each other really well and make each other better players.”
Tomorrow will be Melksham’s fourth finals appearance, having made his September debut with Essendon in 2011.
And despite the fact he joined a Melbourne side that he always believed was on the up, the rapid rise has still taken him by surprise.
“I didn’t think that within two years I’d be playing in a prelim,” Melksham said.
“But I knew that we were going in the right direction and could play some strong football.
“That was what me and Simon spoke about when making my decision and I put a lot of trust in him, and vice versa.
“I’m rapt that I made the decision and I’m fully ingrained and etched in the club and I’ve embraced the history and the group and where we’re at as a club. I’m super excited for what’s coming up this weekend.”