Saturday 21 March 2015

The big top is back in town

After years of misery it was about time that a down-on-their-luck side with depressed supporters finally got an opportunity to take their frustrations out on an overwhelmed group of VFL standard players, and congratulations to the Essendon Football Club for embracing their opportunity.

It was another in a long line of disappointments for us, but what's the point in wasting the mental energy in getting upset about this result when there's 22 games left for us all to lose the will to live. After all, it was always going to end in disaster wasn't it? From the moment the Bombers replaced half their squad with off-cuts last night was a danger game. Much like last week had Footscray completed their comeback nobody would remember it in two months time, but as it's happening right in front of you it feels like death.

As I left the office on Friday afternoon for the short walk past Demonblog Towers II and into the most evil place on earth (via standing at the lights with Dwayne Russell and opting not to heckle in person because I'm ultimately a keyboard koward) an Essendon supporter started telling me about how easily we'd win. Oh really? After pointing out that Melbourne fans never take any win for granted it rapidly devolved into a "my team is worse than yours" competition. Neutrals take note, this is a game you should never contemplate taking a Melbourne fan on in because you won't win. Eventually the (good-natured I should point out) conversation took in several other Essendon fans who adamantly told the fellow office Demon and I that there was no possible way that they could win this game. In the end I had to drop the nuclear option and ask the room to raise their hand if they'd ever seen their side lose by 31 goals. Game over.

Having said all that I confidentially thought we were going to win, which was an odd position for me to be in and one I shant be repeating any time soon, Apparently it was the shortest price favourite we'd been for a game since 2000, and just to prove that even in a Grand Final season we could find a way to shame ourselves that day we almost cocked that up against the bottom of the table Saints.

Without appearing to be making excuses it should be noted that Essendon did have a significantly better side in than when they lost to St Kilda a couple of weeks ago. Sadly out went Magner and Clisby alongside most of the other nobodies, and they were left with just two players with numbers over 70. No doubt numbers 75-99 still have an open invitation to return in a few weeks if shit hits the fan at the doping tribunal, but I think we all know that's not going to be necessary once the penalties are tailored to suit all parties involved. Either way it was arguably a better side than we fielded at times during 2013 but one that should still not have gotten past 'brave in defeat'.

However, and it's a big however, while they were less reliant on ring-ins from Ringwood it's not like the players they'd got from Coates Hire were being replaced with the superstars of the competition either - whereas we were playing close to our top side, missing Vince, Howe, Kent, JFK and Pedersen at best and even then only the top two could be considered crucial. The question was whether our best side was better than a top eight side's reserves, and the answer is 'apparently not'. Though it doesn't help when the extended pre-season team allows you to field several players who have no business being near the Round 1 side just for the sake of it. Is there anybody who can honestly make a case for M. Jones, Bail or Toumpas being in that side, but here we were lured into playing them for four quarters each because somebody had to fill the extended bench. At least we're still waiting for the Toump to come of age, the other two are running up and down on the spot as others stream past them.

The good was in the first few minutes was that it seemed were going to do exactly as the bookmakers expected. We were dominant up and down the ground, kicked the first two goals, moved the ball well, were hitting targets and Essendon didn't look like they were a hope of scoring. God almighty we were even kicking to leads inside 50. They were all on the boundary line and came to nothing but it was a start. Sadly while good sides would have used their 15 minutes of domination to bang on five goals and crush the fragile spirit of a team with a player called Freezer who might have been recruited from Ganmain-Grong Grong Matong FC on Thursday afternoon we opted to waste chances liberally and let them get themselves back into the game.

We were getting the ball forward enough but the marks inside 50 usually led to a torturous process where whoever got it had to stuff their first instinct of having shot deep inside and instead try to work the ball to the goal square-by-square as if playing a dice game from the early 90's where we were continually rolling a one. At least at that point the midfield was on top and the backline was absolutely taking the piss out of Essendon's forwards. For a solid quarter of an hour the prospect of keeping a side to an MFC-esque score at the first break for a second week in a row was alive and well. You could tell we weren't going to get the morale boosting 105 point win that we'd dreamed of in our weaker moments, but it still seemed like we were a step ahead. Then in the blink of an eye Essendon were level and all that good work had gone to waste.

The Gentlemania trend of trying to give your teammates a goal would continue throughout the first half where they'd pick up the ball from a pack inside 50 and instead of just having a blind shot on goal they'd try and handball their way to somebody in a 'better' position who turned out to a worse option entirely when no score was recorded. There's team play, there's an understanding that they can't always just 'kick it' but this was ridiculous - team orders probably trump all but somebody just have a ping. If only Marcus Bontempelli had looked up from the Etihad Stadium pocket deep in the last quarter of that Bulldogs game last year and thought "shit, I'd better try and find Jarrad Grant in the interests of team play". Of course if your only option was actually Grant you would try and kick goal of the year from the pocket instead.

It's not like Essendon were playing that badly, but we certainly had an advantage and you felt that one well-timed Michael Hurley vs Taxi Driver style blow might have killed them off. A portent of the evil to come with the score at 15-0 when a small child on level one (let the historical record show that level three was closed or that's where I would have been) was practically carried up the stairs by two adults looking like he had no chance of getting past me let alone to a safe area before unleashing an all-time power spew. I missed Essendon's first goal because I was too busy concentrating on them getting him past me before he heaved, and that was the point the tide turned. The kid was later carried back to his seat to resume watching the game, which I feel was exceedingly cruel. I won't judge until I've taken my own kid to a game and turned a blind eye to Chicken Pox until the final siren but they could have sat up the back out of what remained of the sun and nearer to a bathroom if the NAB Challenge meant so much to them that they had to be there.

By half time I felt sick too, because it had become blindingly obvious that not only was a thrashing off the table but that we would struggle to beat a side would be in the battle for 17th if it played during the regular season. Then again we lost to St Kilda in Round 1 last year and they turned out to be marginally worse than us, so if you were a fair and reasonable fan you'd put it down as a bump in the road and blame Docklands for the evil hold it has over us. Unfortunately I'm not a fair and reasonable fan, I'm a member of the Internet Melbourne Community and it's either deepression or an insurance job on the MCG. Hold fire (literally) on the second one and I'll tell you if we need it in a few weeks.

It's not all bad news though, our recruits continue to be in the best - Frost is a tackling and chasing machine, and while I'm still not convinced he's going anywhere as a forward at least it's a throw back to the glory days of the Stefan Martin Experience being able to fill three roles in an emergency. Newton was handy without being flashy again, and Jeff Garlett is officially the crumber of my dreams. Throw in his chasing, tackling and handball-intercepting and on a cost/benefit analysis giving up picks 61 (Clem Smith?) and 79 (PASS) for him could be the greatest get since we turned Troy Longmuir into pick 19 (20th century Freo were total crackpots) which delivered us 254 games and 350 goals of Brad Green. Tyson/Salem vs Kelly could be up there as well, but that will be a win for everyone instead of a side necking themselves with culpable trading.

Up and down the wing the Harry O Show kept rolling on, despite the efforts of Ballbag Barrett to harpoon his Buckley free start with pissweak 'scandal' involving him hanging out with people who like to wake up with a breakfast bong for religious purposes. You know an article's a winner when they even italicise the weasel words like 'it is understood' and includes a paragraph that includes a dictionary definition. The only thing that stopped it from achieving the Denham Award for Landfill Journalism was the lack of "Fans have taken to Twitter to voice their frustration" and some embedded whinging by Pies fans. At least it was the perfect game to play immediately post-'scandal', because no Essendon fan's going to hang shit on somebody for being inadvertently caught up in drug use are they? Personally I have similar views about him (Lumumba, not Barrett) to David Brent's views about Ian Botham.

Of the non-recycled players vandenBerg - the most thrillingly spelt Demon since Yze - all but sealed his Round 1 start by kicking goals as well as being a big bastard, and while Hogan's overall performance fell somewhere between Daniel Hughes and Juice Newton on the MFC key-forward scale at least he worked hard for the whole game and we didn't have to sub him off as a precaution against a mystery injury. I will not be held responsible if he slips on a banana peel in the next two weeks but I'm confident that we can at least get him on the ground for Round 1 before he's buried under the weight of our expectations.

Those who expected a fade-out in the second half were disappointed - Essendon and Melbourne fans alike - and even though the standard was completely toxic the eight or nine neutrals in the undisclosed crowd that the AFL won't even admit to (no more than 10,000 without massive rorts) would have enjoyed it. Not sure flashing LED lights and TV screens that go GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! whenever anyone kicks one would convince them to come back but at least it stayed close. For our games they should also load up one that goes LOL! LOL! LOL!

After Essendon looked like they were going to be the ones running away early in the third quarter while we resorted to dinky little 11 metre kicks to forwards 60 metres out hard on the boundary line, we rescued the situation late in the third quarter but even when we got back to two goals in front midway through the last quarter it still seemed like it was going to go horribly wrong at some point. It was another opportunity to put them away but impotent as ever that was the end of the scoring at our end.

By this stage Essendon were plodding around without much spark themselves and we might have held on, but just when you thought you'd seen the last humiliating defeat masterminded by a coaches box containing Mark Neeld and Neil Craig up pops Jack Viney with an incredible howler to gift them the winning goal. Easy enough for people to complain about how you never kick across goal but you might want to have a closer look at what we've done 72 times a game in the last three weeks if you think the coach subscribes to that philosophy. In stark contrast to both Jamar (who was actually kicking rather than handballing and having some success) and McDonald who have looked much better by foot in the last couple of games this was just flat out ugly. Certainly not the type of guy I want doing tricky stuff in the backline. He'll be fine, and I know being a average kick didn't hold his dad back but if his name was Jack McGee he'd cop a lot more shit for his wonky accuracy than he does now

At the risk of another round of excuses I'm not entirely convinced that Roos cares about winning these games. Gawn came on at three quarter time but Frost spent as much time as him in the ruck, and in another moment of MFC innovation Jordie McKenzie became the first unused substitute/interchange player since about 1978. I know it was a meaningless match but what's the point of picking a tagger as the sub if you're not going to give him a decent run? It looks as if they were saving him for a full game at Casey the next day, but surely a half in a nothing AFL game at a real stadium is about as good as a full VFL match on the frozen tundra of Casey Fields? The question is whether they never intended to play him and only had him trotting up and down the boundary line at the 22 minute mark of the last quarter so we wouldn't get investigated for match fixing.

Aside from the chance for him to lose for Casey instead of Melbourne (which naturally he did), why not start him then bring on somebody like Michie (Kennedy-Harris apparently injured at training. Of course he was) who can add a bit of jazz to the side. It's like when they used Riley as the sub last year, any danger of the proverbial impact player getting a go? We've now officially been abysmal at using the sub for impact across five different senior coaches. It's a shit rule but it's not going anywhere, no need to launch a dirty protest by bringing on taggers when we're six goals behind. Speaking of useless rules I note that North Melbourne kicked three 'Supergoals' in the first quarter the next day while we've kicked none in two years. I'm happy enough when we kick three regulation goals in a first quarter.

You can tell yourself that the game meant nothing until the cows come home, and I can make Tankquiry style assumptions about what the coaching staff really wanted out of the match, but the fact remains that it's growing increasingly difficult to imagine a time where we're not a national joke. I just want one week where somebody doesn't have a suggested addition to the #fistedforever list.

So good luck to Essendon. Their fans who aren't so insane that they want to ransack the contents of James Hird's toilet bowl for their own personal use deserve some good times no matter how pointless the match is in the grand scheme of things. Much like the Bulldogs last week it also continues a run of good close games between the sides (with the unfortunate exception of one cricket score on a Saturday night in 2013) and gives us something to look forward to when we play them in Round 15 when they're peaking (not like that) because 90% of their squad only started playing two months before and we're doing our traditional second half of the year impersonation of a floating goldfish.

I'm usually fairly openly to ridicule (well you'd have to be wouldn't you?), but now that I've retired from being a half-kit wanker due to old age and public outrage (from the same people who think nothing of 80% of a soccer crowd wearing the shirt) it was easy to casually slip the scarf off at the final siren and slide into anonymity. As I sat down on the train the girl opposite asked "who won?" and when I said "not Melbourne" she was unable to work out what that meant for the result and sat there like a dog being shown a card trick. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she didn't know who was playing and said Essendon only to get the old fist pump and "yeah go the Bombers!" back. Always great to see loyal fans rewarded with victory.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Jeff Garlett
4 - Heritier Lumumba
3 - Aaron vandenBerg
2 - Ben Newton
1 - Dom Tyson

Apologies to Dawes, Salem, Jamar, Dunn, Watts, Jetta and N Jones.


Congratulations to H. Lumumba - winning gongs, not ripping bongs - for etching his name on to the lengthy Demonblog honour roll as the first award winner of our 11th season.

13 - Heritier Lumumba
11 - Jeff Garlett
8 - Christian Salem
5 - Daniel Cross, Jesse Hogan
4 - Nathan Jones, Dom Tyson
3 - Aaron vandenBerg
2 - Sam Frost, Ben Newton,
1 - Dean Kent, Tom McDonald, Billy Stretch

Crowd watch
There didn't seem to be all that many Essendon fans present (though they'll all claim they were there now), but the ones who did show up seemed to have an absurd level of love for Paul Chapman. You'd almost think he'd won three premierships for them instead of nipping in at the death of his career to sneak a few more games in. Admittedly I will probably provide either Lumumba or Garlett with the same rockstar reception if we start winning, but poor old Brendan Goddard is the guy that's wheeled out every second week to pretend that everything is ok and he's happy to have chosen Essendon so maybe give him something even if he did almost get rubbed out for six weeks when an elbow swipe missed Viney's head by about 1mm.

Best on ground was the guy I sat behind during the third quarter who was threatening to go absolutely insane every time we did something stupid. There's a man with more fire left in his belly than me. A lone Bombers fan sitting within close proximity threatened to escalate the situation by celebrating every good thing they did in an inappropriately loud fashion because he had the biggest pair of headphones you'll ever see on and obviously had no idea what volume he was blathering on at. Can't confirm if he was the same person who spent the entire first quarter walking back and forth along the level one concourse yelling "ESS-E-DON" as if the letter N had never been invented.

Was it worth it?
Not bloody likely, but at least members didn't have to pay for it. I did, however, risk grievous bodily harm by foolishly paying $6 for what probably ranks as the #1 worst 'hot dog' I've ever had at a footy game. There's a lot of contenders (e.g. every single one I've ever had that wasn't made by the Kaiser), but while the following anecdote may as well be archived by the National Library under "first world problems" I'm going to put it on the record anyway.

Not only did the 'hot dog' go down like swallowing like a lump of cement but as part of their continued  commitment to 'fan experience' they won't even give you little packets of condiments now and you're expected to get your sauces from a giant pump action dispenser. Which has been done before, and wouldn't be so bad if it were located in the concourse outside but being the people moving experts that Etihad Stadium management are they've decided to put it in the middle of the queuing area, leaving people to filter around some poor bastard (me) desperately trying to sauce their ropey hot dog while simultaneously hating themselves for buying it in the first place.

I should have put it back and walked out at this point but when it comes to unhealthy food I am a weak, weak individual who will wind up having a weak, weak heart. While people attempted to get around me to the register I ended up having to practically elbow drop the bloody thing just to get a sliver of tomato sauce out, then a slight tap of the 'mustard' caused it to carpet bomb half my hand with a substance that ended up tasting more like Mustard Gas. You can connect to free wi-fi at the stadium if you're keen, but stiff shit if you want to apply sauce with dignity.

At this point I still hadn't even got my wallet out to pay, and when I did - precariously balancing this oversauced 'dog' on its flimsy packaging - the guy on the counter excused himself and went off to do something or other in the drinks cabinet. If I wasn't such a law-abiding citizen who still harboured ambitions to become prime minister I'd have just wandered off.

What a horrible place it is in all aspects, and I am entering a self-exclusion program to ensure that I never spend another cent than is absolutely necessary inside it. At least the MCG has recognised that they sell gutter slop and have slashed prices accordingly. Take me home.

Next week
Nothing for the senior side but Howe and Vince are supposedly going to play in a VFL practice match to try and make it for Round 1. Good, we can use them both. Still not going to help us make the top 15 though.

The week after
Rumour has it half the Gold Coast side are either injured or recovering from surgery. Lucky we've got a demonstrated track record of taking care of weakened sides eh? Based on the practice matches, and availability for Round 1 of those who didn't get rubbed out needlessly in the last game of 2014 here's what I want against the Suns. I have a feeling the only time I got close to my preferred side last year we were thrashed so take it as a serving suggestion only. Actual positions are - as always - a guide only because no team ever lines up like this these days.

B: Dunn, Garland, Jetta
HB: Lumumba, McDonald, Salem
C: Tyson, Jones, Vince
HF: Howe, Pedersen, Watts
F: Garlett, Hogan, Kennedy-Harris
Foll: Jamar, Cross, Viney
Int: Grimes, Frost, vandenBerg, Newton

Apologies to Kent who only drops behind JFK because he missed the last two games. Newton or vandenBerg can be the sub.

Final thoughts
It's 1-0 Neeld, but at least he was classy enough not to do a lap of the boundary making offensive gestures towards us.

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