The MFC claims to be the oldest continuously existing professional sporting club in the world. But since a football club exists to play football against other clubs, it seems likely that Melbourne emerged at roughly the same time as other early Australian rules clubs, particularly Geelong.
The MFC was an offshoot of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC), occupiers of what many consider to be Australia's finest sporting arena the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MGC, known as "The G"). The group which became the MFC came together in 1858 and the club was formally established in 1859, playing in what became the Victorian Football Association. The MFC joined the new Victorian Football League at its formation in 1897, and has been a part of the competition ever since.
In 1889 the MFC was reincorporated into the MCC, and for many years the two organisations remained unhappily linked. The MFC's close association with the MCC allowed it to claim the MCG as its home ground and have it access to a wealthy membership base, but Melbourne's reputation as an "establishment" club has not always been an advantage. The MCC members' automatic right to attend all events at the ground, including Demons' games, also means that many potential members have no actual need to so do - thus, Melbourne's membership is currently amongst the lowest in the competition.
Melbourne's greatest player of these years was Ivor Warne-Smith, who in 1926 won the club's first Brownlow Medal (the League's annual award for the best and fairest player). In that year Melbourne won its second flag. Warne-Smith won the Brownlow again in 1928.
F V "Checker" Hughes became Melbourne's coach in 1933, and under his leadership the club entered its era of greatness. In 1939 Melbourne won its third flag, against traditional rivals Collingwood, and in 1940 and 1941 it went on to win two more.
In 1946 Melbourne finished second and Don Cordner became the second Demon to win the Brownlow. In 1947 Fred Fanning kicked a record 18 goals in the last game of the season. The following year Melbourne played in the first ever drawn Grand Final, against Essendon. The next week they came back and won the replay.
Norm Smith became Melbourne's coach in 1952, and the following year Ron Barassi played his first game. These two were to take Melbourne to new heights in the coming years. The Demons won the flag in 1955, 1956 and 1957, narrowly lost to Collongwood in 1958, and then won again in 1959 and 1960. With Smith as coach and Barassi as captain, Melbourne dominated the competition.
In 1964 Melbourne won its 12th flag, and seemed set for a new era of domination. But at the end of the season, in one of the greatest shocks in the history of the game, Barassi left the club to become capitain-coach of Carlton. The following year Norm Smith was sacked after a dispute with the club. Things were never the same again for the Demons.
Through the 1970s Melbourne, under coaches John Beckwith, Bob Skilton, Tiger Ridley and Carl Ditterich, Melbourne languished at the bottom of the League ladder. In 1980 the MFC finally legally separated from the MCC, becoming a public company, in an effort to attract more members and improve the club's finances.
In 1981, under the chairmanship of Sir Billy Snedden, Ron Barassi returned to Melbourne as coach. But although Brian Wilson won the Brownlow in 1982, and Peter Moore in 1984, Barassi was unable to get the club back into premiership contention. In 1986 he was replaced by John Northey.
Under Northey Melbourne made the finals in 1987, for the first time since 1964, losing the Preliminary Final to Hawthorn. The following year the Demons did even better, reaching the Grand Final, only to be defeated, again, by Hawthorn.
Thereafter things went downhill for Northey, although Jim Stynes won the Brownlow in 1991. In 1992 the club finished 11th, and Northey was replaced by Neil Balme as coach. Balme got Melbourne into the finals in 1994, but by 1997 Melbourne was at the bottom of the ladder. In 1998 they bounced back and reached the Preliminary Final. But the following year they finished 14th.
At this point the club was also in dire financial straits. The board decided on the desperate step of a merger with Hawthorn, but the Hawthorn members rejected the merger. This was the final straw for many of the MFC members, after years of continual failure. In 1999 an unlikely rebel leader, Orthodox rabbi and mining millionaire Joe Gutnick, seized the presidency, put $3 million of his own money into the club, and sacked Balme as coach.
In 2000 the new coach, Neal Daniher, took Melbourne to the Grand Final, where the Demons were soundly beaten by Essendon, but the members expected a new era of success. But in 2001 it was same old story: Melbourne finished 12th. In 2002, although Melbourne again made the finals, Gutnick's autocratic ways provoked another revolt, and he was voted out by the members.
In 2003 Melbourne plunged into a new crisis, winning only five games for the year and posting a $1 million loss. President Gabriel Szondy resigned and it seemed that Daniher's tenure as coach was under threat.
The underlying problem for Melbourne and the other older clubs is that the new Australian Football League, a 16-team national competition, has left too many clubs in Melbourne, a city which despite its great tradition of passionate support for Australian Rules football cannot financially support ten clubs competing against such wealthy interstate newcomers as Brisbane and Adelaide.
But in 2003, as they had done for 144 years, Demon fans' "Hearts beat true / for the Red and the Blue." The most profound truth about Australian football is that "there's always next year." As the Melbourne Football Club looked forward to 2004, the 40th anniversary of its last premiership, its supporters recalled the words of the club song: "keep your eye on the Red and the Blue."
More sober observers do however wonder about the long-term future of the club, with its thin membership and supporter base, political instability, and lack of consistent on-field success. The AFL's current TV deal requires a 16-team competition and thus it is highly unlikely a team will be allowed to fold in the next few years, but the longer term cannot be guaranteed and the Demons, along with the Bulldogs and Kangaroos, look the most financially vulnerable.