A FEW short years ago, Jake Melksham and Michael Hibberd were two members of the least desirable collective in footy.
Between 2013 and 2016, the pair were best known as part of the infamous ‘Essendon 34’, whose careers were plagued by the story that dominated the AFL for the best part of four years.
Now, Hibberd and Melksham are playing their roles in a potential fairytale at Melbourne, with the close friends lining up in a preliminary final as the Demons take on West Coast on Saturday afternoon.
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“A lot of things have happened for the both of us in the last four years I guess,” Hibberd tells foxfooty.com.au.
“We’ve both come into a new club and leaving Essendon and what happened there and you pinch yourself a little bit that we were able to do this together and play in a preliminary final.
“It’s pretty crazy and it’s going to be a lot of fun — I can’t wait.”
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The pair came together in unlikely circumstances.
Melksham was the precocious first-round draft pick, who graduated from Essendon breeding ground Penleigh and Essendon Grammar, then sealed his 2009 top-10 draft pick status with a best-on-ground performance in Calder’s winning TAC Cup grand final.
Hibberd, on the other hand, was a kid from Somerville who missed out in his draft year, then spent two years at VFL side Frankston, before joining the Bombers at the end of 2010 as a 20-year-old at Pick 4 in the pre-season draft.
But the pair became tight friends over their years at Essendon, sticking together through thick and thin.
And when Melksham joined Melbourne at the end of 2015, Hibberd joined him a year later — with the pair serving a season’s suspension in between their respective trades.
Despite the heartache of those tough years at Essendon, it was connections from the Bombers, including senior coach Simon Goodwin, that ultimately saw both players land at Melbourne.
Former Essendon assistant coach Goodwin was the first piece of that puzzle to hit AAMI Park, with Brendon McCartney joining in October 2014, and Craig Jennings landing in September 2015.
Then, Matthew Egan completed the quartet of coaches in September 2016.
Now, those four coaches — plus their two former banned Bombers — are right in the thick of things as the Demons bid for a spot in the grand final.
“It’s a bit weird when you say all the names that we’ve worked together so long ago at Essendon. Jennings, Egan as well, Goody, Macca, there’s obviously Jake and I,” Hibberd says. “It’s been good to be able to actually ride a few waves together and to be playing in a big week like this.
“I mean, I haven’t had too much to do with building the football club up the way they have but I’m just enjoying playing my role on the field.”
Melksham says having Goodwin, Jennings, McCartney and Egan at the club helped both he and Hibberd settle in to life at Melbourne.
“Even just the week-to-week, knowing how they coach and their philosophies on football and the game plan, it’s sort of, we already knew it once we got here — the way that they wanted us to play and the way that they’ve coached us,” he says.
“So that’s sort of helped us on the field as well but also some of the hardships off the field have brought us together as well.”
While Hibberd was an All-Australian in his first year at Melbourne, it took his good friend Melksham some time to settle in 2017.
A midfielder at Essendon, Melksham started his time at Melbourne on a half-back flank — and ended up spending time in the VFL.
But a late-season switch to the forward line proved promising — and the Demons made it permanent in 2018.
It’s paid dividends too, with Melksham able to use his damaging kick in the forward half, while also keeping the opposition’s best defender accountable.
“I love the role I’m playing. I think forward — playing forward — and Goody putting me forward’s allowed me to play with freedom and just put my skill set on show and just going out there each week trying to do what I have to do for the team,” Melksham says.
“Playing roles on someone or trying to negate them, btu also taking your opportunities and having fun with it when you’re out there.
“It makes sense really, like you want to work with players’ strengths to get the best outcome for the team but also to get them playing some good footy and good form and I think that’s what our coaching group’s done really well.”
Against Hawthorn, it was James Sicily who copped the clamps from Melksham. Now, a rematch against Jeremy McGovern looks likely for the Demons forward.
“I guess he’s really good at negating the oppositions best backman and he’s also good at scoring on the other end of that,” Hibberd says.
“So he’s a damaging forward but at the same time he can really take out a strength in the opposition’s back line like Sicily. He did a little bit of a role on McGovern last time as well, and did a pretty good job.”
Both former Bombers admit they’ve grown up a fair bit since their time at Essendon.
Melksham is a father, and is open about how the birth of daughter Frankie has changed him, while Hibberd, too, is more mature.
“I think he’s had a few birthdays between since he left Essendon and now,” Melksham says of Hibberd.
“He just got engaged the other week to his fiancee Anthea, so I’m super excited for those two and what they’ve got ahead of themselves.
“We’ve both grown up quite a bit over the past few years.”
Given the Demons’ young group, Hibberd has become a senior player almost by default.
While the dashing defender doesn’t feel old, he’s aware of his role in driving high standards.
“I guess as an older type, I don’t feel that old,” he says.
“But I guess being 28 and playing for eight, nine years, now, you are a leader by default and these guys rely on the older boys on game day and at training and I embrace that.”
That said, the 28-year-old, along with Melksham and retiring veteran Bernie Vince, prides himself on their role as club antagonists.
“(Myself), Melky and Bernie, we’re a little rat pack that (are) kind of just stirring up the other boys at times — that’s probably our role around the footy club,” Hibberd says.
“You still feel young and hopefully I’ll still feel young in five years and I’ve still got footy in me, so it’s good.”
Melksham, on the other hand, plays down the scallywag reputation.
“We try to feel as young as much as possible but I think there’ll be a bit of time for that at the end of the season, no doubt,” he says.
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work throughout the season so far to get to where we are now, so we’ll just stick to the plan for the next few weeks and have some fun afterwards.”
But as the pair’s younger teammates banter around the AAMI Park theatrette, it’s clear this hard-nosed bunch of Demons are ensuring their push deep into September is a fun one.
“I think since I got to the club, the environment’s changed completely,” Melksham says.
“Things were looking up when I got here but also it was still pretty dour and there was a bit of negativity — almost a bit of a dark cloud hanging over the place given the amount of success that we weren’t having on the field.
“So now that we’re winning games, it’s just a super environment to be around and everyone loves it.”
Now, one win away from a grand final, the pair are embracing the thrill of being in the AFL’s last four.
“It sits well with me. Obviously it’s something that everyone dreams of doing but — it’s a little bit cliche — you can’t really look too much further ahead than this week because we know West Coast over there in front of their crowd are going to be really hard to beat,” Hibberd says.
“But if things do fall our way, it’s going to be an unbelievable experience, going into a grand final — but we’re enjoying the experience of running into a prelim this week.
“Win (or) lose … I’m super proud of this group and what we’ve been able to achieve so far and hopefully the next few years are successful ones as well.”
Most of all, the pair are relishing the ride — especially with each other for company.
“We’ve sort of gone from one end of the spectrum to almost the other, the other being a grand final win,” Melksham says.
“But certainly … (I’m) really happy that he (Hibberd) came to the club with myself and he’s on this journey with me and a few of the other people that are here — the coaches from Essendon as well.
“So yeah, we’ve all shared in some sort of way a little bit of heart ache, but now times are looking up.”