As delisted veterans Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo reservedly walked off the Adelaide Oval turf on Saturday night, it served as a symbolic closure to a North Melbourne era devoid of any meaningful ambition, aspirations and purpose.
What looked, at least superficially, poised to become a team that could realistically become a premiership threat never truly materialised, and as the ageing stalwarts gave their final salutes to the North Melbourne faithful, any optimism and hope for the immediate future appeared to evaporate with them down the tunnel.
Under coach Brad Scott, the Kangaroos have appeared to exist in a state of permanent languor, satisfied with the adequacy of making finals, but never posing such a threat where they could stake legitimate claims to being a flag favourite.
Of course, favouritism is often reserved for a revered minority, yet North Melbourne’s age profile is strikingly similar to that of reigning premiers Hawthorn, yet the discrepancy in ambition could not be further apart.
Even this year, when North won nine consecutive games to start the season (mostly by virtue of playing the bottom five teams), there was a sense of inevitability that they would eventually plummet down the ladder to the more comfortable confines of mid-table, where the finals stakes are lower, and the pressure less pronounced.
The Scott era, which began in 2010 with a 14-point loss to Port Adelaide, has been characterised by such stable mediocrity.
Whilst throughout the early 2000s the Kangaroos would fluctuate between the top four, to the lower echelons of the ladder over the space of 12 months, under Scott, North have never finished lower than tenth, yet never higher than sixth.
If ninth place is the quintessential habitat for Richmond in AFL folklore, North have made eighth their own domain under Scott, a team happy to make up the numbers in September, without ever really questioning their relevance in the AFL landscape.
As a result, North Melbourne seems to have existed in limbo for the past seven years, never suffering an accumulation of demoralising defeats and turmoil that would necessitate a rebuild or reshaping of the team, yet never reaching the stage at which they would truly pose as a premiership threat.
Although “rebuild” can be a taboo, and sometimes dangerous word (just ask Mick Malthouse), it at least establishes a long-term perspective and purpose for a fan base and a playing group, rather than selling the false reality that a team are genuine premiership competitors.
Whilst it might be harder to sell memberships on the prospect of a rebuild than a finals campaign (albeit, a brief one), Saturday night’s elimination final against the Adelaide Crows was a clear reflection of the disparity, in both motivation and talent, between North Melbourne and the remaining finals sides.
Even recruitment over the last seven years has been symbolic of a club satisfied with mediocrity: Nick Dal Santo was recruited having already passed the peak of his powers, Shaun Higgins had never kicked more than 32 goals in a season, and Jarrad Waite’s best output was in 2005, and has since been perpetually injured.
Tellingly, North also sit in the middle of the pack in terms of every key statistical indicator, and whilst teams such as the Bulldogs are defined by their rapid-fire handball, the Swans by their rebounding and contested prowess, and the Hawks by their skill, a clear football identity and philosophy is absent from the Kangaroos.
North now hang on a precipice, and having given only 10 combined games to their last eight picks in the national draft and encumbered with an ageing team, they bear an eerie resemblance to Fremantle at the end of 2015.
The fate which befell the Dockers is well known, and if North are to avoid a similar destiny, they must act sooner rather than later, at the risk of another season devoid of purpose passing them by.
Written by Sean Nunan