When Your Club Was King: North Melbourne FC
By the time the 1990s were over the North Melbourne Football Club were the AFL’s indisputable kings.
A couple of flags, seven straight Preliminary Finals and a style of play which was some of the most intoxicating offence the sport has ever seen.
These were also the years where one of the game’s greatest ever in Wayne Carey shone brightest and where coach Denis Pagan emerged as one of the sport’s most celebrated minds.
Today in our ‘When Your Club Was King’ series we take a look at the Shinboners.
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WHERE DID I COME FROM?
Over their first 50 years in the VFL, the Roos were one of the league’s genuine sob stories. Between 1925 and 1973 they made the finals just five times and claimed no less than 13 wooden spoons.
The club was transformed however in the mid seventies after becoming flush with money and ambition, suddenly contesting five straight Grand Finals and winning the club its first two premierships.
It wouldn’t however be long until the Roos were back to their middling ways, facing financial hardship, preciously small crowds and limited on-field success.
Between 1984 and 1992 North saw September action just a two times with frustrations at the club mounting, especially considering the sharp contrast to what was happening within their junior ranks.
Under Denis Pagan, the North Melbourne Under 19s made a ridiculous nine straight Grand Finals and won five flags between 1984 and 1991 with the likes of Wayne Schwass, Tony Liberatoreand Damien Hardwick gracing the team.
North’s turning point came in the pre-season of 1993 where the Roos lost to Adelaide by 147 points. The massive defeat prompted the Roos to sack club legend Wayne Schimmelbusch and replace him with Denis Pagan who by then had left North and was busy coaching the Essendon Reserves.
It was a decision that not only completely remade the Roos, but changed the entire league in the process.
WHEN DID I BECOME AN ADULT?
Pagan’s impact on the Roos was both immediate and spectacular.
In his first season as coach in 1993 North unexpectedly made the Finals with Wayne Carey making the first of his seven All-Australian teams. Crucially, we immediately saw the seeds of the Pagan impact with the Roos introducing a rather extreme kick to handball ratio which not only came to define them throughout the nineties, but transformed North into an offensive juggernaut.
Something incredible was brewing at Arden Street however the Roos would have to endure some serious pain until they truly grew into the force we came to know.
After the losing the 1994 Preliminary Final to an-after-the-siren Gary Ablett goal, big things were expected the following year, however North produced a stuttered campaign which culminated in a 62-point Preliminary Final demolition by the all-conquering Blues.
These two bouts of extreme heartbreak however sewed the seeds of their league domination.
Though they missed out on the Minor Premiership by a half a game in 1996, they scorched through the Finals winning their first two games by a combined 98 points before running rampant on Grand Final Day, conquering the Swans and claiming the club’s third flag.
In just three years, Pagan had gone from being bossed around at Windy Hill by Kevin Sheedy to premiership coach. The North Melbourne Football Club was back.
WHEN WAS MY MOMENT IN THE SUN?
Granted, the 1996 flag broke a 19-year premiership drought however it wasn’t North’s masterpiece.
While their premiership follow-up was doomed by injuries to Carey and Corey McKernan, the ’98 Roos were a far more dominant home and away team and one that started heavy favourites on Grand Final Day. Unfortunately, they kicked 8.22, handed the Adelaide Crows back to back crowns and had the footy world asking some serious questions as to whether North were squandering their immense talent.
And then ’99 happened.
Though they didn’t spend a single week atop the ladder and went into the September with the worst defence among the 8 finalists, come September this was the most mature, hardened and focused Roos team Pagan ever at his disposal.
They won their first two Finals by a combined 89 points and made every post a winner on Grand Final Day, slaying the Blues and landing the club it’s fourth and most recent premiership. Incredibly, the ’99 Roos Grand Final Day team boasted a phenomenal 11 All-Australians.
STATISTICAL CALLING CARD?
Without a doubt, it was the famous ‘Pagan’s Paddock’ which was revolutionary in terms of direct, no nonsense football.
While yes, it was easy to apply a less complicated approach when you had one of the game’s greatest ever forwards in Wayne Carey in your team, however it was another thing entirely implementing it so well.
While the kick heavy mantra of Pagan fulled the North attack, boasting the league's premier offence no less than 4 times between 1993 and 1999, the Kangaroos changed the game in other ways too.
Under Pagan, North challenged the prevailing wisdom regarding the role of the defender, with the likes of David King and Martin Pike deployed as attacking half back flankers, who were just as valuable to keeping the the scoreboard ticking as they were to suppressing their opponents.
North Melbourne ‘Shinboner of the Century’ Glenn Archer was another who challenged traditional thinking, one who was both ruthless and incredibly reliable as a defender, but who was also a vital link-up player and someone who could also go forward and kick goals.
These vintage Kangaroo teams also prompted a league-wide re-evaluation in terms of deploying extra midfield numbers.
While again, Carey’s prowess up forward allowed North the luxury of extra midfield resources, Pagan was continually seeking an extra degree of adaptability from his talented group.
In that 1999 pièce de résistance for instance, Wayne Carey was held too just two goals while Peter Bell and Shannon Grant chipped in with four each, speaking to just how multifaceted the Roos were when they were at their very best.
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No, not every club can get it’s hands on one of the sport’s greatest ever, plonk him at centre half forward and go from there.
While Wayne Carey was one of the game's greatest ever, and played an unquestionably massive role in the behemoth that North became in the nineties, the Kangaroos had more strings to their bow than just their 4-time Club Champion.
The Roos under Pagan allowed future teams to think differently about the sport and encouraged the very best to let their imaginations run wild.
Those who leave the best legacy, regardless of industry, refuse to believe there's only one way to do something, and Pagan's Roos were constantly challenging traditional tactics, player positioning and list management, ultimately leaving an indelible mark on the game.
For a time, North Melbourne really was king.
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