Tom McDonald was a man with a plan when he sat down with Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin for his post-season review.
He knew the club wanted to trade him despite there being two years remaining on the four-year deal he signed when he was flying as a key forward in June 2018.
Back in form: Melbourne’s Tom McDonald.Credit:Getty Images
But he wanted Goodwin to know he was going to be prepared when pre-season arrived, whether he remained a Demon or not.
McDonald’s plan included running every second day in the off-season, having finished his time in the club’s hub out of the senior team. He wanted to lose weight and rediscover the endurance base that had allowed him to always finish at the front of club time trials early in his career.
His pragmatic attitude impressed Goodwin and he promised McDonald that if he wasn’t traded and followed his plan he would start 2021 with a clean slate.
As McDonald ran at Collingwood’s training ground near AAMI Park during the break he noticed a personal trainer running a program with clients that seemed like it could help him.
The program involved quick steps and agility exercises more akin to tennis practice than footy training but McDonald knew it was exactly what he needed to do to improve. Having flirted with different diets in his time as an AFL footballer, he also settled on a mostly meat diet that he felt gave him more energy.
None of this work convinced another club to take on his contract during the trade period and McDonald found himself back at Casey Fields in a Melbourne jumper.
Goodwin was true to his word but McDonald had fallen to the back of a forward queue that included Sam Weideman, recruit Ben Brown, Luke Jackson and Mitch Brown. He began to train on the wing in the new year as the Demons looked to find a role for him that might benefit the team.
Then, within a week in February, Melbourne lost Brown and Weideman to injury and the club threw a lifebuoy in McDonald’s direction and hedged their bets, signing former Kangaroo Majak Daw as a rookie.
The question in many Demons’ minds was: could McDonald’s career ride a third wave back to form?
He had slid from being touted as a potential All-Australian defender midway through 2015 to such a ragged player in 2017 he was moved forward in desperation.
That move appeared a spectacular success as he kicked 72 goals in 32 games from late in 2017 and throughout 2018 as the Demons charged to an unlikely preliminary final.
Then, again, his form disappeared quicker than magician David Copperfield.
McDonald knew how to rebound from oblivion. He just needed to rediscover the uncomfortable edge that keeps him on track when his form is good.
In round one, McDonald polled four coaches votes as he kicked two goals against Fremantle and the resurrection had begun.
As he enters the match against Essendon on Saturday night, just one week after the birth of his second child, he has kicked 23 goals and polled coaches votes in eight of his 13 games, including a perfect 10 in a matchwinning performance against the Swans in round eight.
He has become Melbourne’s prodigal son.
“He’s the first picked now in the forward line as a tall,” says Lynden Dunn, the recently retired Magpie who played alongside McDonald at Melbourne.
“He’s got an elite tank and he is a great mark. When he runs and jumps at the ball, his arms are so long and he is pretty strong and you just can’t get near the ball. He is a real confidence player.”
That confidence is well known at the Demons who suspect part of McDonald’s motivation will be to prove others wrong.
Former Demon high-flyer Russell Robertson admires McDonald as a player and person, saying his resurgence shows the strength of his character.
“It’s hard when you have to work through those periods with a lot of people doubting you. You start to doubt yourself,” Robertson said.
“I think he is one of the best kicks for goal in the league. He has got a super set of hands and he worked through the yips.”
McDonald’s remarkable turnaround has given the Demons food for thought as the future of the key forwards on their list shifts each week.
Suddenly McDonald is essential as he is the forward-50 target 20.3 per cent of the time and the unsigned Weideman and in-the-VFL Brown have entered that footballing no-man’s land McDonald knows so well.
The future is uncertain, but McDonald has proven himself to be a player of real substance.
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