Sunday 10 August 2014

Long walk meets short pier

In the past it has been suggested by some that the AFL season is too long. I've never understood the idea, and would generally prefer that they chucked the pre-season and extended the number of premiership matches - but I'm pretty sure that yesterday after 1135 days of football being more of a chore than fun (dating back Friday 1 July 2011 when we went into the game against the 12th placed Bulldogs in eighth, lost by 11 goals and started to break up at a rapid rate) - I hit my limit.

For those of you who visit these pages for the rigorous, in-depth tactical analysis that we're famous for I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you. Never before have I sat there and watched a game for four quarters without interruption and taken so little out of it. The fugue state alluded to in last week's post . Even the day we played St Kilda in 2012 and I got so bored halfway through that I started making phone calls (and anybody who knows me in real life would understand that it's not something I do often) was enlivened by the great Sam Blease Junktime Rampage.

This time I don't know what I was thinking about most of the day, but whatever was happening in front of me was going in one ear and out the other. At one point Frawley was lining up for a shot on goal and I thought it was an error that they had him having already kicked one. Totally missed it. This is either what following this club is doing to me or I'm about to discover I've got some horrible terminal illness. In this case I'd actually prefer continual sporting disappointment to the alternative if at all possible.

Let's be clear that this distress is not necessarily the fault of the much improved but often dull-as-dishwater 2014 season, but more the accumulated build-up of bile from three straight years of toxic waste football where we've won 10 games out of 63 (14 of 76 if you want to count pre-season games) and have been outscored by a regal to 4191 to 6736. Yesterday wasn't even remotely the worst performance of this era, season or the current losing streak but I think it was the day the 'footy' valve in my brain popped and I lost the ability to take most of it in. It would have happened earlier if I hadn't missed seeing 350 odd points worth of MCG losses last year live. Sure, I got to enjoy them on television as if live but as every footy fan knows seeing a debacle live hurts more.

At least I'm not the only one who has reached terminal depression with this season. I often suspect that most of the people who read this are fans of other clubs checking in to say "thank god that isn't me", but for those of you amongst the rapidly thinning band of Demon loyalists I'm sure you understand the feeling of gravitating to random strangers because they also follow Melbourne and know your pain. After 25+ years of following the club and 10 of being an internet correspondent who hasn't climbed out of the pond scum category I think I've met about 75% of all adult, living MFC fans - and a frightening amount of them have folded up the card table and decided they (to quote almost all of them) "can't do it anymore".

I have no doubt that these people will continue to buy memberships and will be back for Round 1 next year, but the three year Demon Death March has finally taken a toll on them. I've heard it from a range of people from their mid 20's to mid 60's. Some of them pressed on through the late 70's and early 80's when they were my age and probably thought they'd go on forever like I did but have now realised that unless something worthy of making a movie out of happens they're never going to see a flag while they're still in a condition to appreciate it. For now the full range of ages have decided that they've had it with this year.

When I said last week that I'd accept any offers of charity to get through the rest of the year I didn't actually expect anybody to take me up on it - but one reader who fits neatly in the aforementioned category of people who have totally checked out on season 2014 was nice enough to get in touch and offer me a spot in his company's corporate box because he was given tickets in a desperate "will anybody go to watch Melbourne?" panic and didn't want to. In fact the mystery benefactor told me that for the last few weeks when we've been playing he stays home, turns off the TV, doesn't go near the radio or the internet and will only find out what happened well after the game ends. If it means he misses something amazing then so be it, but unless we're playing Essendon what are the chances of that happening?

His refusal to participate was my gain, and I found myself one of 10 people . It was like the set-up for a joke, there were two passionate Melbourne fans, one Hawthorn fan, one dickhead neutral who kept yelling "Go Demons" sarcastically but sadly didn't fall out the window, two ladies from the company itself who weren't all that concerned about the game and four visitors from India wined and dined for business purposes. At one point during the second quarter one of them fell asleep against the box window.

So at this point any sensible person would attempt to drink themselves into a coma before winding up getting kicked out for trying to drink wine directly from the bottle. I, on the hand, am an idiot and attempted to remain reasonably sober so I could watch disaster unfold in front of my very eyes. In the end I may as well have taken option A and ended up sleeping along Brunton Avenue for the night, because I'd have gotten about as much out of the game.

Ironically this sudden mental collapse comes during the most exciting end to an AFL season in years. The premiership, top two, fourth and everywhere from 6th to 12th are still up for grabs and even the wooden spoon race would be exciting if you could be completely sure that the three teams involved are actually interested in avoiding it. Maybe the reason that my frustration with watching us play VAFA standard football is starting to boil over at last is because there are so many games going on at the moment that mean something while we've had the doors blow off the Reality Bus and are now watching it veer off towards a cliff in super slow motion. I expect despite this I'll be missing watching us play by Preliminary Final weekend.

At least the game meant something to Hawthorn, still a chance of missing the top two if they don't keep winning - and at the time still a chance of having to travel to Perth to play Fremantle in the first week. Not that you'd know it from the amount of their fans who turned up, but they still managed to hold an advantage amongst the crowd that wouldn't be far off the percentage you'd see in an Adelaide or Port game. I'm not sure I've ever seen our support so overwhelmingly outnumbered. Other than the cheersquad there weren't even pockets of the ground that would show the slightest interest when we kicked a goal - each of which was greeted with the sort of dead silence you'll hear 25 times next week as we're torn apart by GWS.

The funny thing was that, as mentioned, this wasn't actually a bad performance against a top side by our standards, even if the Hawks were in self-preservation mode from the first bounce knowing that they're not mentally weak enough to fall into a heap and throw the game away like the other sides we've beaten this year. They never got out of first gear, we dispelled tanking allegations for another week by actually going up a spot on the ladder despite losing by 50 points and Name A Game had another bye.

If you look at the stats alone we were actually quite reasonable, but only by watching the game itself could you see the way we played like headless chickens. I might not have focused enough to remember every individual incident of non-AFL standard play but I remember that there were sure a lot of them. The most misleading statistic of all is the 51-40 inside 50 count. The idea that you can in any way compare the surgical way Hawthorn players running free kicked the ball to leading teammates in acres of space to the Three Stooges routines that we put on going forward is comical.

Thank god then we did battle hard to restrict them to just 51, because once they got them a score was never too far away. By way of comparison Brisbane had 60 last week, though as you may remember bitterly half of them probably came in the last 15 minutes once we'd given up. Even though we conceded 100 points for just the fourth time this season it was another win for defensive football - and given that we both won the clearances AND finally got some hitouts to go to advantage coincidentally with the re-introduction of Maximum Gawn there's an argument to say that if we had one player who could get the ball and hit a target across half-back, forwards who lead inside 50 and players who could kick the ball to them that we've have gotten a lot closer.

Alternatively there's the view that we've got a lot of players who aren't up to it and the ultra-defensive style is just holding back the tide with no hope of putting up a decent enough score to beat a side like Hawthorn. If that's the case it's certainly better than the no defense/no attack tactics of last year but it's not going to make for pretty football next year when most of the players will be the same.

We did at least make them wait nine minutes and several fruitless attacking moves until they got their first goal. And we did kick two in a first quarter which has suddenly happened twice in a row. In true MFC 2012-2014 fashion the avalanche was confined to one quarter but it was enough to completely put us away.

One thing I won't fault from yesterday was the effort of most players. Neville Jetta played another fantastic game, and it wasn't just the way he was tackling to kill every time but his total destruction of Puopolo - who did nothing until taking the Mark That Should Have Been A Free For Hands In The Back Of The Year. The renaissance of his career has been one of my favourite parts of this season. Look at Gawn playing like a man who knows he'll probably get busted back down to Casey for the slightest infraction, or Daniel Cross still going balls and all at everything he does even though he's got nothing left to prove. Even Frawley battled hard for most of the day - until the time came to back into a pack and he pulled out rather than risk ruining his upcoming enormous payday by getting poleaxed. Fair enough I suppose.

The problem is that once you've scragged, tackled, chased and harassed to get the ball you've still got to do something with it. Take Aidan Riley as an example - I've got absolutely no idea why they picked a wrecking ball like him if he was only to play the second half of the game when we were already well behind but not long after he came on and kicked a goal there was a sequence of play where he laid two killer textbook tackles in the space of five seconds to win a free kick just inside Hawthorn's attacking 50. He then attempts a short pass over the top and puts it straight into the hands of an opposition player. The first bit was fantastic, but in the end we'd have been better served with him having forced the ball out of bounds than giving it straight to the opposition to thump straight towards goal.

At the other end of the pressure scale I'm not sure Watts isn't already mentally drinking Pina Coladas and being caught in the rain somewhere. Again whenever he got the ball he used it beautifully, but didn't seem to the naked eye like he was all that keen on getting it unless somebody else did the hard work first. Or defending. He also did the footy of equivalent of stapling a KICK ME sign on his own back by first conceding a goal via the pissiest attempt at a tackle ever then falling over and allowing a Hawthorn player to run into an open goal. Earlier this year I said I was going to stop complaining about him and just take the good (the third quarter against Port) with the bad (most of the last few weeks), and I stand by that but he's not making it hard. Watts is the ultimate expression of what this club is about - promising so much and teasing us with flashes of brilliance before throwing it all in the too hard basket and giving up.

Pretty much the only other thing I remember all day (was my drink spiked?) was seeing the American International Cup team outside at half-time and thinking how embarrassing it was that even foreign players get to see us play like gibbons and suddenly coming to life when the King of Sizzle ended up with a set shot 40m out and a chance to snap his 57 game goalless streak. Sadly for him he flubbed the kick and missed everything, but it does keep his pursuit of Bernie Massey's record of 99 alive and well.

In an attempt to regain some feel for what happened in this game and attempt to provide some service to readers I did something that I'd never usually do after a loss and watched the 'highlights'. Sadly what they consider highlights (i.e Hawthorn goals) and what I consider highlights (i.e kicks over 20 metres which hit the target, hitouts to advantage and Neville Jetta marks) differ - but you could tell even the AFL's video editor had struggled to make something out of this when the first one was of an allegedly blatant free kick not being paid. If every one of those is going to be highlighted they may as well just put the full replays of some games up.

Things that I either discovered via the highlights or suddenly remembered while watching them:

  • Dawes tried hard again for stuff all reward, but am confident that with some decent help he will finally be acknowledged for the good work he does - and at least Watts took the whipping boy bullet for him this week. 
  • Barry played his best game yet and is still way out of his depth, but how good was his quick kick around the corner to Gawn in the 3rd quarter? Which Maximum almost stuffed up before regaining composure and booting it through. Max also proved himself as the master of making the most out of a difficult situation by firing off a beautiful handball to Dawes in the last quarter after he took a strong mark and the dickhead umpire failed to pay it
  • Viney's disposal was way better than in previous weeks but he didn't get much of it so the two sort of cancelled each other out
  • Frawley's goal which I completely forgot about during the game was actually set up by a top shelf flying Cross handball. There is every possible chance that Cross is going to be remembered more fondly in future years than about 50% of his teammates.
  • What's the highest proportion of goals a side has ever conceded from within 20m, and is the record holder Melbourne vs Hawthorn in R20 2014?
  • Brad Johnson delivered the ultimate mozz after Riley's big tackle in the last quarter by saying "Riley is earning a spot in the starting lineup next week". The highlights package mercifully does not show him turning it straight over.
  • Even in the bite sized highlights packages Dermott Brereton's shrieking special comments annoyed me.
  • There were really not all that many highlights.

2014 Allen Jakovich Medal
5 - Neville Jetta
4 - Dom Tyson
3 - Max Gawn
2 - Nathan Jones
1 - Daniel Cross

High level apologies to Vince, who lost out to Cross at the last minute.

We're down to 15 votes maximum on offer to any one player, and that's unfortunate news for Dunn and the fact that he hasn't scored a vote since the night he tore Essendon to shreds. Nathan Jones continues to do enough to defend his lead against Tyson. He was 12 in front after our last win, down to six with three to play. He's still red-hot favourite for his fourth Jakovich, but there's still the chance of a grandstand finish. And unlike Banner Watch if somebody gave me a lie-detector test and asked if this competition was rigged I'd be able to pass it.

In the other awards it's not all bad news for Dunn, despite Nifty Neville J storming up the rankings to pass Howe for second place in the Seecamp he's still 12 up and an almost certain winner. Some interest has been re-injected into the Stynes due to Gawn's first votes of the season, and we may as well throw the Hilton into the sea at the moment.

44 - Nathan Jones
38 - Dom Tyson
27 - Lynden Dunn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
21 - Daniel Cross
16 - Chris Dawes, Jack Viney
15 - Neville Jetta
14 - Bernie Vince
13 - Jeremy Howe
12 - James Frawley, Tom McDonald
9 - Mark Jamar (Leader: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Cameron Pedersen
7 - Matt Jones
6 - Jack Watts
5 - Aidan Riley
4 - Dean Kent
3 - Max Gawn, Dean Terlich
2 - Rohan Bail, Colin Garland, Jack Grimes, Jay Kennedy-Harris (Leader: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)
1 - Jordie McKenzie, Jake Spencer

Crowd Watch
For a group of fans who have been delivered a fantastic amount of premierships in the last 30 years there are sure a lot of tightwad Hawthorn fans getting about in Reject Shop scarves and beanies. Not that the Hawks need the money, but maybe they should take up my idea to go around offering amnesty and discounts on the real thing if people agree to drop their $2 shop version into a bin.

Speaking of Hawthorn, and this has nothing to do with the crowd but whatever, why does their post goal animation on the scoreboard feature the Hawk dropping an egg in the goalsquare? Somebody has confused the process in which birds lay eggs and take a dump. Is this the sort of rubbish we're going to be subjected to more as part of the AFL's new 'focus' on 'fan experience'. That'll get people streaming into the grounds.

At one point they flashed the Coleman Medal ladder on the screen and the crowd went nuts seeing that Roughead had hit the top. I'd love to mock them for this, but one of my fondest memories was the roar of the crowd the day we beat them in 2004 to go top of the ladder and it got put up on the big screen. We failed to win another game for the year and they've had two premierships since, so go nuts at whatever cheesy stat you like.

Isn't it a bit weird how they're using the Adelaide Oval 'experience' as the template for how the MCG and Etihad Stadium should 'entertain' the fans. There's no doubt that Adelaide and Port fans are having a great time at their shiny new stadium (when yellow bellied Crows fans aren't sneaking out with five minutes to go), but has anybody considered that this is because they have 95% of the crowd. Anything seems like fun when you're in the vast majority, imagine the original Carnival of Hate had Turncoat Tom gone to Collingwood? It would have been more memorable for the amount of punch-ups between opposing fans than for the anti-human filth sentiment.

Stat My Bitch Up
We narrowly beat our season average to drag our points-per-game back +0.23 to 60.84 - still less than it was before the Brisbane game but surely we're now safe from any danger of 'beating' GWS 2012's 'record' of 57.72ppg. Even if we score an average of 40 over the next three weeks we'd still get 58. Hooray. However our own club record low of 66.13 is surely out of range now. Having not scored over a hundred in more than a year we'd need to average it for the next three weeks to get about that mark. Fat chance considering we'll score nil at Subiaco in two weeks.

Interestingly before this week we were sitting on our best points against average since 1971 (stat courtesy Rogers Results), a figure which is unfortunately going to unravel at breakneck speed over the next few weeks.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
For a game where we kicked our (admittedly pitiful) average of goals not many of them were memorable. I'm going to have to go for the front and centre crumb of Riley shortly after he came on, which he's obviously better suited to than set shots 15m out. Aidan wins a copy of Aiden Riley's Viewer Discretion is Advised signed by ex-Demon Todd McHardy. James Frawley wins a badly copied version bought from a car boot at the Carribean Gardens Market for his assist.

The film (obviously NSFW you perverts) has several things in commons with the experience of supporting the Melbourne Football Club - including the cover quotes "I'm speechless", "Shocking" and "What the hell did I just watch?" and the fact that it's probably 120 consecutive minutes of people getting cornholed.

Obviously nothing's going to beat the Big 10 from the Essendon game unless Allen Jakovich himself drops down from the Etihad Stadium ceiling and does another mid-air bicycle kick against North in Round 23. If anybody's keen on challenging they'd better have a go next week, because there's every possible chance we're not going to kick any goals at Subiaco in a fortnight.

A correspondent has provided this picture of the banner where you can see everything that we do right compared to everyone else:

Note the league leading font, excellent spacing, perfect centering of text and no use of a curtain. Unfortunately as much as I'd like to continue the trend of this not-at-all-rigged segment to find a way for Melbourne to win I have hated that song with a passion since about 3.34 after I first heard it. The only those words could possibly have been declared the winner was if the Hawks banner contained a gigantic Carlton style curtain - but no curtain penalty applied and it's the loss we had to have. 19-1 Demons. I don't want to prejudge next week but if GWS use any 0's instead of 0's they're automatically disqualified no matter what else they do.

Next Week
Our lowest crowd at the MCG since 1987 is 10,307 against the Brisbane Bears in 1987, and at 3.20pm next Sunday there is every possible chance that is going down. The perfect storm is brewing:
  • Many of our fans have had enough this year
  • Half of the ones who are left want us to lose to maximise our drafting, the other half are terrorised by the prospect of handing another franchise their first ever win at the MCG
  • They never had any fans to start with
  • Both teams are so shit that neutrals won't bother turning up to see it
  • The 1.10pm and 4.40pm games have some bearing on the top 4/8 equation so people who prefer quality will probably stay in and watch one or both on TV
  • The timeslot isn't quite as ruinous as 4.40pm but mid-afternoon Sunday will still cost us, especially because even people without Foxtel will be able to watch live on Channel 7
  • $cully isn't involved so people won't even turn up just for the opportunity to abuse him 
At the moment there's no rain forecast for next Sunday, but if even one drop falls you can knock another few thousand of the list. Not sure even we can challenge the post-war low of 6396 between the Bears and North Melbourne in 1992, but nevertheless anything offensive you yell from the stands will probably be heard by everybody else so give it both barrels. Given that the only people who are going to be there will be kids, idiots dressed as orange monks and Melbourne fans who have reached the end of their tether Jack Watts may wish to chuck a sickie to avoid the third group.

There's not much to be gained from making wholesale changes considering the loose Casey Scorpions alliance of nine MFC players and 15 kids got humped by 108 points, but I note James Harmes was in their best players again so we might as well reward form. Odds on he'd start as sub anyway, so what harm could it do? I assume we can promote him for the last three weeks considering we've got four rookies, two players who have suffered long term injuries and two who have retired. And Salem plays because we may as well get games into him now.

IN: Harmes, Salem
OUT: Barry, Bail (omit)
LUCKY: M. Jones, Kennedy-Harris
UNLUCKY: Would like to give Fitzpatrick another go but I've only just managed to get Gawn back in the side so I'm not doing anything to jeopardise that.

Apparently Jetta had calf soreness in the last quarter. If he's out I give up. Clisby? Remember him? Strauss? Nobody remembers him.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the other players who have been in the side most of the year start to get packed away for the season. I'd even consider Jamar out to give Fitz a go at full-forward with Maximum as the starting ruck. You could call it tanking but GWS have done the same so whoever wants to lose this is going to have to go above and beyond in the field of ineptitude.

Next year
I don't want this page to come off as the Roos Bashing Hour because I still think he's done a good job this year but while he can talk about axing players if they don't perform to standard unfortunately unless there's a lot of payouts on the horizon the only three players he had in the side yesterday who are out of contract are Jetta, Frawley and Bail. One must stay, one is probably going to go and I'd get rid of several others before Bail.

Of the players not in the team he's saddled with Evans, Fitzpatrick and McKenzie until the end of next year. All of them are worth having around as depth for another year (and because as much as everybody jizzes over the idea you can't axe 20 players off your list and expect to replace them with anybody good), but they're hardly going to be at the forefront of a great revival.

Meanwhile Matt Jones did play and was not much better than average but for some unknown bloody reason has a contract extension to the end of 2016. Can't even blame the Crazy Neeld House of Contracts for this one considering he signed it on January 9 this year. I fail to understand how that deal is offered before he played a single game under the new coach. No wonder he signed it on January 9, if I was him I'd have killed anyone in between me and the piece of paper in a rush to sign for an extra two years two months before playing in one Roos coached game.

I don't pretend to be an expert on anything much less contracts but did they think that even with him tailing off in the second half of last year and all of Cross, Tyson and Vince coming in that he was going to improve to the point where they had to rush to add another two years in case he decided to walk out on us and go into this year's pre-season draft. At this point I'd probably have kept him around for next year anyway just for midfield depth in a mature bodied player but it was weird to give him a two year extension before the start of the season and looks even sillier now that we're at Round 20 and he's had one top shelf game all year. Ironically he's actually averaging more possessions a game than last year but I will take some convincing that more than a handful of them have been damaging.

Was it worth it
Only for the surroundings.

Final Thoughts
Three weeks left to fight to the death or fold like umbrellas. Next week will be huge for the mental well-being of people like me who are sick to death of the bloody draft and just want to win. If we get thrashed there could actually be self-harm.

Today I saw St Kilda play a defender who has kicked two goals in four years up front and 'almost win', so mission accomplished there. Next week we'll see what ridiculous length GWS go to in order to drop back below us and into second last. Of course this is not something we would get involved with, so you can watch next week with your head held high - in the oven.

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