Eleven months ago, there was plenty of hope at Arden Street.
Despite sitting on the bottom of the ladder, new coach David Noble had North Melbourne playing exciting footy last season.
There is always a club anchoring the ladder, but due to their youth and verve, the Kangaroos’ stay at the bottom looked more temporary than permanent.
But sometimes an oasis in the desert is a mirage instead. Since round 19 last year the Kangaroos have won just one of their 14 games — a victory over the COVID-ravaged West Coast earlier this season. None of their losses were by single digits.
It is not just on-field that North Melbourne appears to be struggling. On Tuesday, list manager Glenn Luff, national recruiting manager Mark Finnigan and national recruiting officer Ben Birthisel all resigned from the club.
Such an exodus of staff at the one time is uncommon in the middle of the season and perhaps indicative of bigger issues at play.
With two years on the bottom of the ladder behind them and at least one more in progress, are the Kangaroos on the way back up or are they stuck where they are?
The luck of the draft
From the outside, AFL recruiting is largely shrouded in mystery. Finding that champion team — one piece at a time — is the target of all 18 clubs.
There are three main ways that teams can get players: via the draft, trades, or free agency. For clubs struggling at the bottom of the ladder, the draft is the most important piece of them all.
The draft is all about hope; hope that the young kid that they pick up will become the next Dustin Martin or Marcus Bontempelli.
It is also the main way a club gets talent through the door, with a relatively small component coming via the two other ways. If a club nails the draft, it can set it up for years to come.
Since their first season out of the finals in 2017, the Kangaroos have made 22 picks in the national draft, alongside six rookie draft picks and three mid-season draft selections.
Despite this influx of new talent, it took some time for newer faces to impact the Kangaroos’ side.
The 2018 and 2019 seasons showed promise in parts. They left the club in two minds about whether to push ahead with the core of the team that won four finals across the 2014 and 2015 seasons or to tear it down and start again.
North Melbourne held the course, at least for the short term.
This promise saw the Kangaroos abandoning the early part of the 2019 draft. It was their first draft under the management of Luff, picking just three players in the 30s.
The most prominent acquisition in that off-season has been Josh Walker, a tall swingman now at his third club.
By the end of a disastrous 2020 season it was clear that a rebuild was in order at North Melbourne, with another new coach at the helm.
Since then, 21 new players have walked through the doors, the most of any club in the league.
While there have been some bright spots for the Kangaroos so far, a closer look at their progress reveals more troubling signs with respect to their list build.
ABC Sport has derived how well each pick is expected to perform, based on the performance of all players drafted since 2005 at each draft pick.
The players North Melbourne have drafted have performed at roughly the level expected of their draft positions over their careers to date, with a handful of clear successes and failures.
The Kangaroos have not drafted and developed their talent badly, but they have lacked sheer draft capital in this time.
This has also been the case this year. However, the club has not really dug into the top end of the draft in the same way the two most successful recent rebuilds — Melbourne and Brisbane — have done.
North Melbourne has added five first-round picks in the past five seasons. This time period coincides with when the recently departed Finnigan took over as recruiting manager.
All five first-rounders are primarily midfielders, competing for time with older, established players. Both Melbourne and Brisbane had three-year periods where they added at least five first-rounders, which laid a backbone for each club’s success.
Not every top-end pick will be a success, but maximising your chances at the top is key.
North Melbourne has clearly added some of the talent it needs to climb back up the ladder, but there is a fair way left to go. It is clear the club is early in its rebuild, with some hope on the horizon.
How long does a rebuild take?
Every club has spent time at the bottom of the ladder in the AFL era. It is a function of the evenness that the AFL HQ has desired for the league, with the ability for every fan to believe that their club is not far from the top.
Clubs that had never had the ignominy of holding the wooden spoon have felt its splintery touch. Recent dynasties have often been followed by a trip to the other end of the ladder.
Over half of the teams which have finished in the bottom four since 2000 have hit the finals within the following three seasons.
The journey up to the top four is a little harder, with just a third of teams going from the bottom four to the top four in four years.
These numbers are somewhat skewed by the introduction of GWS and the Gold Coast, which were designed to struggle at first.
Failed rebuilding projects at Brisbane, Melbourne and St Kilda account for much of the failure, with those three clubs now amongst the competition’s trendsetters.
Generally speaking, clubs at the bottom of the ladder should target a return to finals footy within a three-year period, with a decent chance of genuinely contending in that time.
For the Kangaroos, it means they can start to have an eye on the clubs above them — if they think they have the team and game style to compete.
North Melbourne fans and administrators have also been confronted by the news of continued talk of the relocation of the club to Tasmania, a mostly unrelated issue except for the presence of blue and white.
Many footy fans are still scarred by the merger and relocation battles of the 1980s and 1990s, when poor and unsuccessful teams were targeted for moves or eradication.
But footy — both on and off the field — has moved a long way in the past three decades.
It is important to remember that the Kangaroos are finally debt free and in possession of new facilities at Arden Street. Their ties to Tasmania are clear — through their Hobart home matches and sponsorship — but they are far from extinction financially. The AFL of 2022 is far different from that of 1995.
It is also clear that both existing North Melbourne fans and those lobbying for a Tasmanian team do not want to see North move south.
From a financial perspective, it also makes little sense. Clubs in the modern era are amply supported financially.
Small clubs find themselves deliberately limited in their commercial opportunities so big clubs can raise more broadcast revenue for everyone to share.
North Melbourne has an estimated fanbase of at least 200,000, according to Roy Morgan. Work undertaken by GEMBA in the 2019 Tasmanian Government AFL Licence Business Plan estimates there are about 137,600 football fans or fanatics in Tasmania as of 2018.
The report also estimates that the small market would mean that a Tasmanian team would be in the bottom quartile for supporters and attendance, and last for revenue.
A Tasmanian team might make sense for the AFL and its other teams, but it likely would not make financial sense for North Melbourne (or any established team) to relocate there permanently.
Given how the AFL is set up, it is highly likely that the Kangaroos will rise back up the ladder — sooner rather than later — if they make decent decisions in their football department. Recruitment is part skill, but also a fair chunk of luck.
North Melbourne may have lost a fair bit on and off the field in recent weeks, but patience is the name of the game.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC