Sunday 1 June 2014

A Town Called Malice

Welcome to an alternative universe, one where I'm legitimately broken hearted that we didn't manage to beat the best team in the competition. Not just thrilled that we were competitive, not saying "oh well, that's life" but actually distressed that we pushed them so far but couldn't finish it off.

This is the MFC I distantly remember. It's like I was run over by a bus immediately after we lost to Fremantle in the 2006 finals, woke up at 1.39pm AEST yesterday, asked "where in buggery is this game being played?" then expected to watch us play like a senior football team instead of an abject wreck in the process of being slowly restored by a team of skilled craftsmen. But here we are, having just blown a golden chance against the top side in the competition and like it would have in 2006 (or 2010 or the first half of 2011) it is still making me feel ill several hours later.

Had we won it would have been quite the upset. Don't be fooled that nobody's taking them seriously as a premiership threat (I picked them to finish 10th so that's a bit awkward now). Sludging to a victory over us today won't help their chances of getting some respect as a legitimate contender, but even if you've gone from writing Sydney off six weeks ago to deciding they're premiership certainties (you fickle bastard and.. wait, that's exactly what I've done with Port) you've got to concede that the Power are at a minimum a Preliminary Final calibre team. We are, at our best a 12th place calibre team. There have been bigger upsets in recent years, but after our momentum has slowly built through the season it would have caused an outbreak of Dee Fever even more contagious than the deadly Ebola virus. People would have been lining up for Queen's Birthday tickets from 10 minutes after the final siren.

But no, class showed in the end and personally I hope Port go on and win the whole thing. Without even having to invoke the "Kick a Vic" rule where I'd rather any interstate team except GWS to win the flag than a local side so I don't have to hear about it I've got a fondness for Port because a) they gave the world Choke Yourself With A Tie and b) the team that is now top of the ladder features roughly half the same players who in the two weeks following our 186 point capitulation managed to lose by 138 and 165. There's proof that any playing group can be turned around quickly if the dead wood is replaced smartly with the right people in charge.

Even taking my 2004 Grand Final celebration fetishism out of the conversation (now, and probably forever, my favourite non-Demon AFL moment), and admitting that for all their great work since the start of last year they still only finished "7th" thanks to Essendon's doping antics, their transformation both on and off-field should open everyone's eyes to what could (and that's a big could) happen to us. Somebody was having a pop at them the other day for suddenly having 30,000 fans jumping on the bandwagon. League leading team playing exciting football in a shiny new stadium is popular - what a shocker that is. I won't hear a word against them unless it's about their song.

And after all that we almost toppled them. Like the Footscray game a few cheap ones late in the game means that any cursory glance at the scores in the future won't show how close we got but we really were up to our eyeballs in it until the last three minutes - and while I'm still in a foul mood about the result the difference is that last year we felt like this when we lost against teams at the arse end of the ladder but just accepted being brutalised by top sides. You can now watch full matches against quality sides without having to peer through your fingers, and this is a good thing.

For all the angst about throwing it away in the end we might never have gotten close enough if Port had really put us away in the first quarter. It was looking seriously grim at 0-26, we didn't look any chance of kicking a goal and I was scurrying for the record books to see the last time we finished the first quarter on 0.0 (answer: not long enough ago), but I'm overjoyed with the way they absorbed the early kicking, regrouped and got back into it.

Midweek I was saying that I'd be thrilled to get a repeat of the Geelong NAB Challenge game in Alice Springs (expectations are always at their lowest midweek) where we stayed with them for most of the day, gave it a decent crack for most of the day then lost out late in the last quarter - but I didn't expect it to be similar in so many ways. Other than losing one of our most exciting youngsters to a long-term injury in an incident that nobody seems to have witnessed we wasted early chances, conceded a shitload of goals then came back to get in a position where we might have pulled off a shock win before the 'better' side won out in the end. And so it was, but unlike three months ago when we were still complete toilet I have now developed a greed for wins.

I've identified what - for me at least - is so different about the experience of watching this club in 2014 compared to the previous two. It's not just having some semblance of pride and enjoyment of sport, but it's that opposition goals now mean so much that I'm terrified whenever we don't have the ball. Given that we spent so much time trying to keep it away from Port's it's obvious that I wasn't the only one who felt that way, but gone are the days (at least temporarily - one can never relax) where you just expect that no matter how well our defence plays that they'll eventually concede 20 goals through sheer weight of numbers.

Unfortunately for them even though we almost always lose the inside 50 count it makes their occasional hara-kiri style defensive errors stand out like dogs balls because now we don't just go "oh well" and get on with waiting for the midfield to bleed another 75 inside 50's a quarter. This is not great news for the King of Sizzle, Terlich and Grimes who are all prone to the odd comedy moment down back. I'm especially sad about the latter, because I'm sure he used to have such lovely disposal, and while he played a great game defensively today some of his options and disposals for shithouse. Admittedly Dom Tyson did the same, and not to spoil the votes he might have been one of our best players, but for some reason it seems so much more gruesome and memorable when it happens in the back line.

But amongst the bad there was so much good. Amidst the terror of a tight game and Tony Shaw on special comments I was actually having fun watching. Not that you'd have known this when I was pacing up and down my loungeroom swearing during the last quarter. It's a far cry from sitting back with feet up laughing as we got tonked thanks to a non-stop cavalcade of comedic errors. Not that I look back with any fondness at the post-186 era but it seemed like a much simpler time to write about the Melbourne Football Club. It was easy to spot the one or two good pieces of play in a game and hard to unjustly leave players out of the bests when there often weren't enough to fill five spots anyway. Now I sit here agonising over the five players to put in, what order to put them in and after pressing publish await the backlash from people whose favourites were left out. I think I like it better this way.

With the terror of losing suddenly flowing through my veins every week I feel as if I'm watching most of the game in a nervous fog, but even if I was in an induced coma I'd still be able to tell that Tyson and Salem are going to be quality players. I know we said that about Jurrah, Gysberts and god knows who else but this time I feel it's actually going to happen. Sam Edmund is still bravely soldiering on with his name attached to that article but the predicted staff writers switch can't be far away now. We all know about Tyson, but this week Salem joined in with easily his best game yet. I still think there's plenty of hope for Toumpas, and it must be easier to come into a team that is only half wank than to be rushed into an unfolding natural disaster like Jimmy was in 2013 but Salem's game was already better than anything JT has put together in a year and a half.

He even had the star quality to make sure that his one handed gather and set-up of the goal for Rohan Bail (who for all the shit I've hung on him over the years was fantastic again) late in the second quarter happened in perfect position so the poor camera man who was forced to contend with having a tree in his way all day could capture it perfectly. Christian will not require directions to Casey Fields any time soon.

Neither will Jay Kennedy-Harris (unless he falls victim to the modern curse of 'resting'), who had an almost unheard of (for Melbourne players anyway) 19 touches at 100% efficiency. The kids are alright, and if Jesse Hogan ever walks again he could be the most exciting of all of them.

As enjoyable as our slow burning comeback from midway through the first quarter was, I was almost as excited by the fact that we were paying tribute to ex-Demon Alistair Clarkson by playing unsociable football which was clearly frustrating the Port players - who would later respond by going the unnecessary biff. Unfortunately for Chris Dawes the AFL hates him so much that even when he's not out there the league are trying to get him suspended.

For the future record it was Jamar who took the fresh air shot, and the only thing the AFL's reporter got right about the incident was that if he had connected he wouldn't be playing next week - and that would hurt considering he's been at 2010 vintage since coming back. Our depth isn't great, so as much as I love pressure, niggle, gamesmanship, kidology and barely concealed cheating let's keep the actual violence at a 'reprimand' level or cloak it in enough doubt so that it stands up in a tribunal appeal.

Unfortunately while the latest outbreak of unprovoked Russian aggression was followed by our second goal in a row (courtesy of a sweet dummy and handball by Watts to Buddy Frawley) we then went and did the most cliched Melbourne FC move in the playbook and handed them the goal back straight out of the centre 45 seconds later. Bad enough that it was to Kane Mitchell who looks like a disco pimp from 1981, but what a momentum killer. Just as I'd started to think we were going to actually avoid getting flogged that happens and the idea getting whacked by 99 points comes becomes a sensible one again.

Thankfully we managed to hold them for the rest of the quarter, and actually played some decent football to end it. More accurately we forced them to play badly, and what more can you ask for in a match like this? We held Schultz well after he'd wrecked several dud teams already this year, and Wingard could barely get near it before Schultz registered his biggest hit all day by knocking him out so that was two of the better ones looked after. Why couldn't we do the same against the Pies? And why won't there be some bullshit medal awarded to Dom Tyson for best on ground on Queen's Birthday?

The first quarter was played under the recent theme of umpires refusing to pay kicks that travelled anywhere between 13 and 20 metres. Eventually even they gave up and started paying anything, so that's consistency out the window. The conspiracy theorist in me says that it's a directive to try and get everyone used to 20m kicks before next year's round of unnecessary stuffing around attempts to engineer somebody's vision of 'attractive football'. And if that doesn't help enhance crowds and viewing figures what's next? 16-a-side? Supergoals? Merging with the NBL?

There were more bizarre decisions throughout the day  but I'm not sure why we expect any more from the officials when one of them was looking directly at Wingard collapsing to the ground motionless and decided to let play go on for another minute. Fair enough if there's no break in play and the other team is belting down the other end at speed (also known as 'playing against Melbourne') but he had every opportunity to hold things up and get the poor bastard off the ground and into the hands of the doctors. Talk about duty of care, if we hadn't graciously conceded a free just outside 50 it's possible that the umpires would have let play go on for as long enough that Wingard would have come to and started playing again as if nothing had happened.

Despite kicking the first goal thanks to the constantly resurgent Pedo we still didn't look up to a comeback until halfway through the quarter when Port went completely to water and began playing like us. They couldn't get the ball out of defence while we constantly battered the door down and eventually got three goals in a row. Of course anybody who has watched us play for more than five minutes knew that eventually we were going to get a huge team lifting goal then concede one straight out of the middle, and just as we got close that's exactly what we did. But this side is made of sterner stuff than previous incarnations and the Salem/Bail goal got us back into it at half time. Being in games at half time against top teams? Outrageous!

So much the better in the third quarter when we continued to stop them from running up and down the ground at will and that man Pedo did it again, marking despite receiving a touch up from the Port player that **** ****** (name removed pending the outcome of a legal hearing) would be proud of delivering then kicking it from a ludicrous angle without even trying to run around. The man can do no wrong at the moment. All hail the three year contract.

We got another goal to extend the margin to 10 after Wingard was KO'ed, but not for the first time this year we actually went backwards after a player was forced from the field. It happened against Adelaide, Carlton and Richmond (where we got away it) and the Bulldogs (where we didn't). We were absolutely battering them at this point, but even with Wingard off (or possibly because of it considering he'd done nothing) we managed to give away the lead within a couple of minutes. Such is the life of a mediocre team.

With an injury free team and a fresh Toumpas on for Gawn I still held out the usual childlike hope of victory going into the last quarter, and who knows what would have happened if we'd taken a couple of chances early on. We still looked like we had more gas in the tank than Port at this point, and I foolishly allowed myself to believe when Toumpas and Salem combined for the goal which put us back in front. How good was Salem's shepherd to give Jimmy the time to pick up the ball and equally how good was it that he kept running to receive the pass? What a difference from the dark days of last year when Jake Spencer was the only person in the side even remotely interested in running to put a block on for a teammate. Amazing what happens when you create an atmosphere where players don't feel as if they're trapped in a North Korean labour camp.

Then just as Mark Neeld was turning his phone on for the first time since June last year and getting ready to answer questions for a Herald Sun clickbait article about how he had "laid for the foundation for our stunning upset", Port thwarted those plans by running over the top of us. It shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise given that they've been cleaning teams up in last quarters all year but they looked half dead in the third quarter so I did hold out some hope that we could run them into the ground. Sadly we blew too many chances in the first few minutes of the last and when the time came to actually win the game we were as stuffed as they were.

In the end it wasn't to be. Lazy kicks and half-arsed fatigued attempts at tackling put us away. If somebody had pressured Polec, doing his first good thing all day after being tagged to buggery by Cross, instead of letting him walk into goal we might have still been a chance but as it was all effort had been expended and we ended up rolling over and dying with dignity - but not before we gave a good side a shake without the benefit of them committing suicide with their kicking at goal first (see Essendon 2012. In fact see it as many times as you can), and as a supporter you can be prouder of that than about 95% of the landfill football served up last season.

Uniform Watch
Our Indigenous Round jumper looked good, but let's be honest that was more because of the red MFC monogram on the blue guernsey rather than the actual indigenous content which was nice enough if you got it in the right light and could actually see it. At least it was a step above Essendon's which despite playing in the showcase game of the whole round appeared to feature one dinky little patch under the armpit which you had to strain to see.

Commentator's Corner
A few weeks ago I heard 'Derm' (or Mr. Indigenous Round as he's also known) lamenting how terrible the game is these days and that he's got less interest in it now than at any time in his life. Which is comforting considering he must be getting paid a fortune to commentate on something he's lost the passion for. He cited stoppages as one of the reasons why we need widespread alterations to the rules. Which is hardly compatible with the fact that he spent four quarters of this game demanding players either kick down the line or take the ball out of bounds.

I'd say that it could have been worse and Dwayne might have been involved but there's no doubt that BT has stormed into the lead as the commentator most likely to make you kick your TV in. Thankfully we never play interstate games on a Thursday, Saturday or Monday night so if he's calling our game I'm either not there or watching it on a replay but those of you who are interstate/overseas/infirm have my sympathies at having to listen to him do our games. The other night he was speculating that we might have flown to Sydney for a game in 1903. I don't expect him to be an authority on world history, but given that the Wright Brothers didn't even fire up until December of that year I'm not entirely convinced that any sane person could think commercial aviation had been invented.

2014 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
Relatively difficult one here, with plenty of entrants in the battle royale for the top five. DT had some high profile cock-ups - especially in the last quarter - but what he did well was jaw-droppingly good. Dunn might not have achieved jaw-drop status but my god has he chosen a great time to come good just as he's a free agent. He also had some nervy moments late on (i.e that horrid attempt at a torp from the kick-in) but was otherwise great down back again. As for Nathan Jones what else needs to be said? Safe as houses.

5 - Dom Tyson
4 - Lynden Dunn
3 - Nathan Jones
2 - Rohan Bail
1 - Cameron Pedersen

Apologies to Cross, Frawley, Howe, Jamar, Jetta, Kennedy-Harris Salem, Vince and Viney who were unlucky not to pocket at least one vote.

I might have been a bit hasty in declaring that it was all over as Tyson starts to chip away at the three-time champion's lead but with one more round before the halfway mark of the season it would take a Jakovich-esque second half of the year for anybody to challenge these two. Dunn has extended his lead on Howe in the Seecamp to 12, JFK has a shaky lead in the Hilton with Salem threatening to swamp him and Jamar can consider himself unlucky to still be grappling with The Spencil in Stynes voting thanks to ending up in the apologies almost every week.

The traditional mid-season audit will also be conducted on the votes next week, and this is usually where I realised that I've ripped somebody off out of a couple so expect to see a couple of unexplained alterations in the chart after next week.

31 - Nathan Jones
24 - Dom Tyson
17 - Lynden Dunn (Leader: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
12 - Daniel Cross
9 - Cameron Pedersen, Jack Viney
8 - Chris Dawes, James Frawley
5 - Jeremy Howe, Bernie Vince, Jack Watts
3 - Matt Jones, Tom McDonald, Dean Terlich
2 - Rohan Bail, Jay Kennedy-Harris (Leader: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)
1 - Jack Grimes, Mark Jamar (Co-Leader: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Neville Jetta, Jake Spencer (Co-Leader: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
There's plenty of public support for Dom Tyson's tackle, turn, feign handball and hoof from distance combination move that put us in front during the third quarter, but while I'm pleased to say that it narrowly won the weekly prize (a night at the Dromana Drive-In with Heath Neville, Andre Gianfagna and Brendan Van Schaik. BYO car) it also lacked the sheer oomph of the goal against Carlton that kicked off the Pedolution. It also lost style points from the ball dribbling through the square. Runner up - Salem's one handed gather and kick to Bail.

I was pleased with Port's effort, the letters were nicely spaced, there was no punce curtain and a nice, thick font. However ours was up to its normal excellent standard and was wider. Considering it had to be hauled a longer distance to get there that's the winning show of commitment for a game in the middle of nowhere. Once again the Dees are tested but come out on top to extend their record to 10-0 for the season.

Crowd Watch
Well there wasn't much of one, but the ones who were there seemed to enjoy themselves. Unlike Skoda Stadium it's harder to rort the figures when there's only 25,000 people who live in the city, so unfortunately we're now involved in the lowest drawing AFL premiership match for 20 years (yeah, but what about paying patrons vs free tickets?) Thankfully you can put an asterix next to it in the record books, because even if 120 people had turned up we'd have pocketed over half a mil just for being there.

I admit that even though a second game in the Northern Territory was flagged at the start of last year when we were at our skintest, I still got a bit silly when it was officially announced and decided that it was part of a conspiracy to at least partially relocate the club as payback for the millions of dollars that the AFL gave us.

Somebody from the club who shall remain nameless was very nice to point out to me that there's a contract with the league for two games to be played in the Territory every year, so instead of making a fortune for playing one game in Darwin we may as well host both and double the payout while we so desperately need the cash. Furthermore there's no plans to sell any more than two games and would I please stop complaining? (They didn't say the last bit out loud). It still remains a fact that the club constitution doesn't have any prohibition on relocating and the club/league could quite easily play two home games in Darwin and five on Norfolk Island if they liked but I'll take their word for it for now that there's no shenanigans afoot.

I can't remember how long this two game a year deal was supposed to last, and I'm not sure if the tiny population of Alice Springs is going to be all that much use to us in the long run but as long as their government are prepared to keep writing cheques then we may as well accept the commercial reality of where we're at and take them gleefully - but if anybody suggests a third game outside of Melbourne I will actually set up a picket line outside AAMI Park.

Meanwhile I see the NT government has deleted this press release. Possibly because everyone involved with it (including the Chief Minister himself) has been sacked since?

Next Week
Unless there's mysterious injuries or Match Review Panel bullshit on the horizon I can't see any enforced changes on the way, so as much as his taps when he does play in the centre make me go moist unfortunately Gawn makes way for Dawes to come back and smack his old side around. As much as I enjoyed Riley against Richmond I'd rather Toumpas stay on as sub and we can give The Pornographer another run later in the year. So:

IN: Dawes
OUT: Gawn (omit)

Apparently Watts had 'ankle soreness', so if he misses out on the chance to have 25,000 questioning his parentage (1000 will be Melbourne fans) next week perhaps Maximum survives? It's not really like for like but based on form this year I'd rather Max than Puttin' On The Fitz. I've also got a morbid fear that if we don't start playing Gawn regularly soon he'll start looking for somebody who will.

Even with the Pies shedding players via suspension and injury I'm not suggesting we're going to win but it's so important that we at least give them a scare. They're on fire at the moment but so were Port and we dragged them down to our level successfully enough. Either way I'm looking forward to that one time a year where even if you sit in Row MM you've got to put up with some filth at their one game a year yelling out nonsense. Also Collingwood fans.

Final Thoughts
Expectations are growing. At the start I was happy enough at losing a close one to St Kilda, then kicking five goals against Sydney seemed ok because we didn't lose by that much, but today I was kicking things and turning the air blue with filthy language. There will still be ugly days to come, as there are for every team, but I think we're finally putting the nightmares of 2012 and 2013 behind us. Even as I continue to lose interest in the league as a whole (NB: nothing to do with the game style on offer) my love for this club continues to grow.

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