When the Kangaroos were at their lowest ebb, the club’s leaders turned to Curtis Taylor and Cam Zurhaar.
Despite being just 22 and 24 years of age respectively, and despite neither yet being elevated into the club’s leadership group, they still held prominent roles – and prominent voices – within the team. Recently, the pair had been voted into the lofty title as ‘Co-Chairs of the North Melbourne Social Group’.
Having lost 11 consecutive matches heading into the club’s bye last month, the meeting between club leaders, Taylor, Zurhaar and a handful of others centered around how best to build chemistry and connection within a playing group that was struggling on the field but remained resolute away from it.
A question was asked – how can you take the effort and care that its developing list was forming on the training ground and ensure it translated to more competitive performances on game day? – and an idea was born.
It started with a ‘players-only’ camping trip to Katunga in the Goulburn Valley region of northern Victoria, continuing with weekly dinners at pubs and restaurants near the club’s home base at Arden Street. The primary objective was, quite simply, for teammates to bond and socialize in a stress-free environment during the week. But the end-goal was to form a more cohesive and resilient football team on the weekend.
“The leaders spoke to a few different guys and said that things weren’t working as we’d like. It was probably seven or eight weeks ago now. We were talking about needing to be a pro and getting around each other a lot more ,” Taylor told afl.com.au.
“We just said that things weren’t working the way we’d been doing them. We thought we needed to invest time into each other. On the field, we didn’t look like we were connecting as well as the better teams do That’s when we really started to drive that connection with each other and the want to play for each other.
“Obviously, you look at the other teams and you see what they want to do for each other. You see how much fun they’re having and how much care they have. I know we weren’t winning, but you can still build energy by having really close relationships and creating connections with each other.”
Both Taylor and Zurhaar were immediately proud of their efforts. Despite the run of 14 consecutive hefty defeats, they could sense a more unified mentality being cultivated among the playing group. An uplifting performance against Collingwood a fortnight ago, which resulted in a narrow seven-point loss, was followed by a drought-breaking and thrilling four-point win over Richmond last Saturday.
“I’m in that age bracket where I’m in charge of just trying to build a good culture and bond at the club. We do try and get a lot of the boys together when we can. When it is time to have a beer together and enjoy ourselves, hopefully I can try and drive it along with Cam. Both of us do enjoy putting that together,” Taylor said.
“I think that’s what you need at times like these and at a club like this. You’ve got to come together. It builds that on-field relationship where you want to do things for each other. You get to know each other on a deeper level, so socializing as much as we can is a massive part of that.
Despite the agonizing defeat to Collingwood – and the circumstances that followed, with coach David Noble relieved of his duties just three days later – that performance at the MCG was another sign for the club’s young leaders that things were turning. It had felt like a win was just around the corner. It was a feeling that proved correct.
Having thrown away a 28-point lead against the Pies a week earlier, the Kangas then surged into a 32-point buffer against the Tigers last Saturday. But that, too, was whittled away during a dramatic final quarter at Marvel Stadium.
However, a last-gasp Zurhaar goal resulted in the club’s 111-day winless streak being snapped emphatically and sparked scenes of celebration on the final siren. For the side’s ever-optimistic youngsters, those pictures were evidence of the growing bond that had been building since the long bus ride to Katunga a couple of months earlier.
“That last 15 minutes of the Collingwood game, it really hurt us. That’s what we used, that pain, to drive us on that extra mile over the weekend,” Taylor said.
“It was such a big weekend against Collingwood and we thought that might have been our moment, where we finally broke the ice and got a game and got some people off our backs. It wasn’t to be, but we stuck fat and put our heads down again last week.
“Even with the trying circumstances, obviously with ‘Nobes’ departing, it was a big week for the boys. For us to come together as a group and still play some good footy, I think that’s what made it extra special.
“It’s why you play footy. Coaches, staff, players … everyone rides the wave with you. We’ve been putting in a lot of hard work over the last 18 weeks. The feeling of finally getting that win, with the emotion of the week that we had, everyone was just so happy that we were able to respond and put a performance in like that.
“I think it showed the footy world that we actually can play good footy. We’ve shown glimpses, but we haven’t really put it together. So, to put that together and give a bit of faith to our members and supporters and staff, that’s why it was so emotional in the rooms after the game.”
After the win came another ‘players-only’ meeting. This time, a sterner message was sent to the group. With five games still remaining in its season, North Melbourne wants to continue chasing that feeling. There will be no let-up, starting with this Saturday’s trip to Hobart to face Hawthorn.
“We spoke about it after the game, just with the players,” Taylor said.
“We want to use that feeling of what it was like to win and be close. We had our moments that we needed to win. Now, we need to remember those times because, if we’re in this position again when we are winning late, then we need to familiarize ourselves with the feeling of winning and getting used to it.
“I don’t think the bubble will ever change around the club. We were picking ourselves back up and we were always having a crack on the training track and trying to get better, but to get some reward for the hard work that we put in was what topped it off.
“The motivation of now knowing what the hard work looked like, it’s worth it. We’ll continue to do that and the results will happen. It adds so much motivation, I think, for a lot of the boys. If we keep doing this, it’s going to eventually turn more often.”