Sunday 26 February 2017

Chipping away at the glass ceiling

It didn't compare to any of our other great losing streaks, but finally winning a practice match at Casey Fields feels like a moderately symbolic way to begin our first proper tilt at a drought-breaking finals appearance in almost 30 years. Since debuting at the ground and losing to North Melbourne by 48 points in 2008, we were 0-5, with an average losing margin of 51.8. It felt like we'd played there many more times (and indeed most of our players have during the VFL season) which was probably because each trip felt like it took a year off my life. Even in the Demonblog Towers V era when I lived in Cheltenham and occasionally went to Scorpions games when at a very loose end it felt like an excessive travel distance to freeze my tits off.

If we'd never won a game there at least it meant we'd never lost to Carlton. Which is surprising because they seem to beat us everywhere else. I expected that Neil Craig would continue his almost flawless record of being involved in Melbourne losses, but in the end we were never seriously troubled. The signs were good, nobody was seriously hurt, let's bank the zero points and head towards the next battle.

Even after squashing them in what is undoubtedly a set-up for a shock Round 2 result it still didn't feel like footy season. Obviously the fire for Melbourne related topics is still burning out of control or I wouldn't have motored down to Cranbourne for a practice match, but maybe I am getting over the game in general because I've tried to watch every non-MFC game this weekend and found myself doing something/anything else within five minutes. I've watched more AFLW, and it's not in an attempt to be trendy it's because the games have something on the line whereas the men's pre-season might have been better kept in an era where nothing was on TV.

The first step to enjoying the game as a whole again is obviously to get some meaningful matches, but I'd also do well to stay away from the exhausting non-stop media wankfest about how shit the game is and why we desperately need to play the Grand Final at night etc.. etc.. If it's all rubbish and they're just going to change everything to engineer spectacle anyway then it makes watching a Port Adelaide vs St Kilda trial match seem even more useless than usual. I'll be there until the last dog dies for the Dees, but everyone except us can get stuffed.

Before we could tackle a trip to Casey and parking on a surface that resembled the moon there was a week of controversy over Jack Watts being sent into exile. He showed up after summer with hair like Eminem and was left out last week due to never fully explained reasons about his 'preparation'. He was on the sidelines this time as well, and after the team has put in two decent performances must be battling to get a start in Round 1. What would a pre-season be without rampant Watts coverage? Most years it was the coach telegraphing where he'd be played then putting him anywhere else, last year it was his contract and stomping grapes in a barrel with a fulsomely chested woman, and now this. Do you think our prospective second ruckman dropping out of favour is why future life member The Spencil has suddenly re-rocketed to prominence?

I'm not going to start panicking until he's seen wandering towards the half-back flank at a VFL venue. Hope he turns up at Etihad Stadium for Round 1 in his own brand of board shorts, looking like he's just woken up, parks sideways across three disabled parking spots, then kicks five. There's still very much a spot for him, either Weideman (who looks promising but could do with some extra seasoning in the twos) or vandenBerg (NB: not a vendetta) could make way. But unless he goes to Perth and plays a reasonable game they probably won't, because at footy clubs process trumps everything else. After all, we are the club who made Colin Sylvia wait until he'd recovered from a broken back to serve a one match ban for off-field shenanigans.

I'd hoped to arrive in time to see the last quarter of the women's match, until I drove past the Cranbourne exit on Eastlink and ended up taking a 20km detour through somewhere called Skye. Which was a nice name for what was effectively endless paddocks and a prick of a traffic jam. By the time I finally got to Casey the game was deep in the last quarter and the Dees were busy choking away a comfortable lead. If I got a decent park I could have made it inside for the last few minutes, but my penance for showing up late was to have to drive past the footy ground, the athletics complex, and three cricket ovals before eventually parking next to a rugby league arena. If Paris and Los Angeles drop out of the running for the 2024 Summer Olympics I'm sure the City of Casey would be able to step in at short notice.

Given that I'd already landed just in time to miss the end of the curtain raiser and instead stand around Casey for an hour waiting for the next game to start I thought I'd at least hang out in the car and listen to the end of the women's game. Once we'd won (and you'll be hearing more about that from our intrepid guest reporter soon) I tried to work out how to get to the footy ground. Usually you'd follow the people, but in this case they were all going the other way. For the second week running an impressive number of people were there just for AFLW and could not have given the fattest rat's clacker about the men. Could you blame them if they'd seen us there last time?

Having never parked any further away than the long jump pit this was like going beyond the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now. I was so far away from the ground that Phillip Island penguins might have wandered past at any minute, and the 15 minute odyssey to locate the Australian rules section of Sports City really helped waste time that would have otherwise been spent kicking dirt and questioning my life choices. All this would have been significantly more painful if the City of Casey hadn't insisted on letting everyone park for free. If you're a ratepayer in that area don't waste your time punching on at council meetings over houses of worship, go and ask why they left $20k on the table by not charging the 4000 cars $5 each. I bet it's because the place is so hard to get into that the financial transactions would cause traffic jams for miles. I know even less about local government than I do footy, so I'm not telling anyone how to run their council but there's being generous to visitors and there's this.

Via an oval where Springvale South were 0-15 off seven overs, chasing 120 for the win I eventually made it - with significant dirt kicking time left. With nothing else to do, no headphones and a mobile rapidly running out of battery I instead paid big money to eat popcorn chicken from the most disorganised food stand ever. The others had queues 40 people deep and this lot didn't bother to show up for another half an hour. Must have been run by the council too. By the time they opened and I got to the front to see them pouring generic homebrand Popcorn Chicken pellets into a vat it didn't matter - I suspended by disbelief in their claims of the chicken being "Southern" and went all in. How the Kaiser wasn't persuaded to attach the trailer and drag it down to Casey is beyond me.

Other than Watts, Jetta, Tyson and Kent we were effectively playing our best team, so for all the usual caveats and the extended squad it was a reasonable look at what we're going to see in the real stuff and I liked it. Not everyone played four sparkling quarters, but for the first time since White, Yze, Johnstone, Neitz etc... it feels like we're developing match-winners. And that's winners plural, because it's no good just having one. Here's to also finding the players at the other end of the scale that we never seemed to have 2004 - 2006, leaving us ready to plummet into greatest sporting abyss known to man.

Given the opposition it's a shame we gave Trengove and Garland the old Jamar 2016 'picked in the extended squad every week then not required' treatment. I'd be especially careful about throwing Garland on the scrap-heap, the brothers McDonald can crash a pack and punch effectively but they were at their wooden leg kicking worst today. What I did like in defence was Michael Hibberd, despite the year off and a moustache which suggests he performs dastardly deeds in his spare time he was excellent. If that's him rusty (though let's have another round of disclaimers about the opposition) we might have done a good deal here. I was less enthused about Milkshake, he wasn't terrible and there was one long bomb into the forward line in the last quarter that dropped perfectly to cause the maximum chaos in the Carlton defence but nothing to make me roll around on the floor in glee. Maybe it's because we've got higher expectations now, I would have jumped the fence to embrace him if he'd put that performance in a couple of years ago.

One of my main footy fetishes was ticked off at the first bounce, with Hogan right at Gawn's feet for the first bounce. I love when that happens, and when we've got a forward with the presence to pull it off. Remember when Mitch Clark did it a couple of times and we experienced simultaneous orgasm? Whatever happened to that guy? My all-time favourite example was Garry Lyon against North in Round 2, 1998 where he hit a blockbuster tackle to save us just as they were about to mow down our lead. At one point Hogan won the ball from the middle, and set up vandenBerg to thump a pass straight down Jay Kennedy-Harris' throat. For added degree of difficulty he took the mark one handed, and it was already starting to look like showtime in the south eastern suburbs.

JFK's mark and finish were great, but I was more impressed with him up the ground. Ever since he turned up people have tried to pigeonhole him as a crumber for reasons possibly no better than the fact that he's an indigenous player, but I reckon he's got heaps to offer in the midfield and our traditionally wonky half-forward line. It's one thing to float through for marks and a few goals here and there, but if anyone acts like he's the second coming of Jeff Farmer again I suggest you treat them like that Nazi fellow and punch them in the chops. Remember, his best game yet was when he had 25 touches against the Crows on the day we snapped the South Australia losing streak. I don't know if he's in serious contention for Round 1 just yet - and what shithouse timing to be unfit when we had a rudimentary midfield then return just in time for it to look relatively star-studded - but I'm glad I listed him as a 'hold' rather than 'sell' in the pre-season preview.

I'm still reasonably confident on my other sells, other than Bernie Vince who was very good today and can feel free to continue sticking it up me for suggesting his best is past him. Which it probably is, but that doesn't mean he can't contribute for a while yet. We can certainly do with somebody in defence who can kick, especially now that it looks as if Salem is being groomed to become a full-time midfielder. God bless the draft for eventually landing us a bounty of mids. Morton and Toumpas must be looking on in anger and wondering where this was to give them cover. You could bring either of them back in their pre-Melbourned state today and Oliver, Brayshaw, Jones and Viney would protect them like a shark cage.

It wasn't just the midfield (INSERT DISCLAIMER HERE), how far have we come in the world that we can honestly say our forward line was light years ahead of the opposition? The 21 marks from 48 inside 50s to six from 36 hints towards that, and that's not even counting the number of times (probably about 27) that we just aimlessly roosted it into attack in the hope of catching the Blues out. It led to intercept mark numbers going through the roof, but it wasn't a bad tactic considering how shaky they were. Certainly generated a few goals, and if we could bring the ball to ground they all stood around looking each other with a confused expression.

It was unnecessary to greet each goal with cuts from Now That's What I Call Hits albums 1985-1995 like we were at an NBL game, but at least we were keeping the CD changer busy. Nobody would be blamed for bringing a limited selection to a Melbourne vs Carlton game, but by the end we'd kicked so many goals they had to spin 'This Is How We Do It' by Montell Jordan twice in a row while I had uncomfortable flashbacks to Year 8. Though it did feel appropriate when Jack Viney's first goal, featuring him gathering inside 50 and having all the time he wanted to get onto his preferred foot before snapping the goal, to be followed by a quick burst of 'Walking On Sunshine'. Later in the day when the DJ had lost interest they'd forget to hit play until the ball was almost back in the middle, meaning you'd get a sliver of the song and had to guess what it was like you were at a pub trivia night.

You had to be realistic and tell yourself it was only the first quarter of a practice game. I'd have added "against Carlton" if we didn't have such a disappointing recent record against them. And who better to teach us about the folly of taking pre-season results seriously than the two time pre-season cup winners? Still, even adjusted for the opposition and the prospect of the latest Round 2 disaster (2008 - lost by 95, 2009 - lost by 53, 2010 - Petterd mark game, 2011 - turned 19 point HT lead into a 45 point loss, 2012 - lost by 108, 2013 - lost by 148, 2014 - lost by 93, 2015 - turned five goal lead into 56 point loss, 2016 - lost to post-ban Essendon) we looked very good. Christian Petracca is about to go absolutely supernova, every morning I suggest waking up and cursing that knee injury for putting him back a season because he's a year away from something spectacular. Remember when we used to play without a half-forward line? He carried on like two HFFs and a CHF at the same time.

It was another day for the Spencil Truthers, those of us who believe he's heading for a first round start. Him giving Gawn a hand in the ruck instead of running Maximum into the ground like a draft horse looks like our only concession to managing players through these games. Otherwise everyone who's anyone is playing out the game as normal rather than being put on ice in the last quarter - and we've got one more week for this to backfire on us when Hogan gets hurt in junk time. Spencer has declared his intention to form a tandem with Max, which you may mock now but remember how dismissive people were when Gawn said he wanted to be the best ruckman in the game? The conclusion is obvious, Spencil for All-Australian.

On the topic of ruckmen, apparently recalled bounces are now almost officially dead. They eventually had to admit some were ridiculously off-centre, but several skewed completely one way or the other and were allowed to go on. As previously discussed I'd just abolish the bounce, but if you're going to keep it then let's just deal with wherever it ends up. If somebody gets screwed bad luck, it's better than some coming back and others being let go. One was so ridiculously out of place that it flew away from the two ruckmen and Gawn crumbed it after it hit the ground.

The more I see of us this year - e.g. two games - the more it looks like Goodwin's fingerprints were all over our style last year. They are playing on like madmen, and most of the time it's coming off a treat. There was one moment in the second quarter that was a masterclass (us - putting on a masterclass for god's sake) in quick ball movement, when Petracca leapt for a high ball and spiked it down into the hands of Harmes as he ran past. I'm not going to know what to do with myself if we start pulling out Harlem Globetrotters shit like this in the real stuff, but suffice to say it's fortunate that I'll be way up the back in Row MM and nobody will be able to see me.

We were clearly the better team from the first bounce, and kicked five goals to one for the quarter from nine scoring shots. Even Carlton's goal came via a sick banana from the pocket rather than anything particularly well crafted - and are you as upset as I am that we didn't draft somebody who can do that AND has a name that is practically "Ladyboys"?

Otherwise their attack was toothless, Levi Casboult can mark alright but I'd rather have Juice Newton back than give this bloke shots on goal. He ended up kicking two, and I can only presume they were from the square because he wouldn't have beaten Earl Spalding, Ben Holland and Jamie Shanahan in a set shot kicking contest.

It's only etc.. etc.. but for once handballing everything paid off, as we split Carlton apart running up the ground for end to end goals. Now Hogan is not only kicking set shots but he's finding space to run into open goals as well. If it unexpectedly all goes wrong it's possible that this might be the peak of my positivity about 2017. Weideman showed a few good touches in combo with him, I think they're going to complement each other perfectly when Sam really gets going.

By the time Hogan set up Salem midway through the second quarter we were five goals in front and flying. Oliver was doing the old Time Splitter routine in packs, Hunt was dashing about at light speed, Lewis and Vince were mopping up everything that came near them in defence and presumably Tomas Bugg was telling somebody he'd rooted their mum. As we continually switched play into acres of space the only downside of the first half was when the Carlton bloke played on from a kick-in with Petracca just metres away but just managed to avoid one of CP5's bear trap tackles. It was about the only thing that didn't go right for him all day. Somebody's even taught him how to kick set shots, put the champers on ice we're going to Disneyland.

While we were running away from them - quite literally most of the time - I was having a grand old time. It was only during the long break that the old doubts about being there surfaced. My mind has been destroyed by on-demand entertainment, there's no time for quiet contemplation anymore. I was like an alcoholic who's quite happy on the gas but bored to death while sober, when the game was on I was fully engaged but the breaks were torture. That's when I really started wondering if it wasn't just better to stay home and watch on TV. The real reason to traipse across town for games like this are the little things you see off the ball, like Dion Johnstone demonstrating an admirably Bugg-esque level of niggle. He'll be spending a lot more time at Casey this year because he could barely get a touch, but I loved his attempts to be irritable by nudging and bumping into Carlton players.

Part of it was probably because I just wanted to keep playing, half time was wasted minutes where I could be enjoying a Melbourne side smashing long passes to targets in a mile of space or gathering the ball in the pocket and centring for a teammate in a better position. It doesn't matter that it was against the team I expect to finish last, and I'm not saying we're going to do this every week but I've got renewed confidence that we're going to eke out some revenge for what we've been through on other miserable teams this year.

As we pushed past the Chris Sullivan Line I felt comfortable enough to accept that we'd finally see a win at Casey, and not for the first time that provoked the other side to pile on a run of goals. Three in a row cut the margin to within striking range if they were good enough. Which they most certainly were not. God knows who most of them were, but sending out sides that can only be identified by the Bluest enthusiasts hasn't stopped them in either of their last two starts against us. My favourite bit was when Charlie Curnow met Clayton Oliver, presumably telling him that the best way to avoid being pinged for driving over 0.00 on your Ps is to just not stop at the booze bus in the first place.

We didn't really need a steadier at 34 points up in the last minute of the term, but I wasn't going to say no. Another long distance kick by Melksham found the Carlton backline in total disarray, leading to first Gawn marking unopposed, then lobbing it over the top for Weideman and Viney to raffle. They were so far in the clear running into the square together that I had a moment of panic about them stuffing it up with a bit of Warner Brothers style "You first", "no you first" hesitation. I note on the replay that Dwayne being the shit bloke he is tries to make out that Viney demanded the ball rather than it actually being pure Gentlemania by Weideman.

They got a couple of token goals in the last quarter to briefly make it tolerable for their fans, those who weren't already filing out the door, before deciding that they'd done enough and rolling over in the last few minutes while we racked up a near 10 goal margin. There was even an unexpected highlight of Joel Smith trying to contribute to the family business with an attempt at a massive screamer. I'd already forgotten Jeremy Howe existed until I heard him doing a radio ad on the way down, but if Smith can start holding those then we won't have lost anything. The guy standing next to me was very keen to tell anyone he could find that Joel's dad used to do that. I just avoided eye-contact to stop from being roped in.

With 7000 people in the ground - less all the ones who'd racked off after the women's game or during the last quarter - I trudged back to the car expecting a minimum 60 minutes spent puttering along at 3kmh, not fast enough to feel you're achieving anything but too quick to amuse yourself by browsing your phone. I was lucky to get into the queue to begin with, first the guy in front of me jammed his 4WD into reverse unexpectedly, and if I didn't have clear space behind me to do the same would have copped the old sandwich job. Then once that was cleared up the bottom of my car was nearly ripped out attempting to traverse a dinky little 'ramp' set up to bridge kerb and road.

By now I was starting to stress, and having heard *CLUNK* *THUD! THUD!* as my trusty Toyota Yaris (bought immediately after the 2006 season, it has hosted hundreds of one-man post-match debriefs since) bounced over the concrete I thought I could hear 'a noise' and smell something sinister. The last thing I needed was to sit in a queue wondering when it was going to die and leave me stranded. Against all odds not only did the car make it out of the Casey Fields precinct and all the way back to the Towers but since the last time I was there they've opened a second exit back to the main road. Apologies to the poor traffic management person I made snarky faces at when he directed me towards "South Gippsland Highway", which sounded more likely to land me in Leongatha than Lower Plenty but eventually via several dozen residential streets put me back on the main road and on my way within 15 minutes. What a feat of modern engineering.

While I was finding my way out I enjoyed a masterclass in radio broadcasting by SEN special comments man and former Tankquiry scapegoat Chris Connolly. In the space of a couple of minutes he praised the performance of "Christian Slalom", referenced St Kilda's Paddy "McCartney", wondered if Jeff "Gartlett" would be returning and suggested vandenBerg provides much needed "angro" to the team.

And so, we exited Casey Fields with one real win in an AFLW game and one fake win in a practice match. How did this club suddenly become the pre-season form team? We should get some sort of tawdry shield for our contributions over the last two years. In lieu I'll take 10 boxes of whatever JLT sell.

2017 Paul Prmyke Plate for Pre Season Performance votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Jesse Hogan
3 - Bernie Vince
2 - Christian Salem
1 - Jordan Lewis

Apologies to Gawn, Jones, Viney, Oliver, Hunt, Brayshaw, Kennedy-Harris and Hibberd.

With one voting scoring opportunity left the ball is in Jesse's court, and perhaps he will finally receive a life-changing bounty in Western Australia after all? Personally I'd take him, let him chum around with friends and family then not pick him to play. What's left to prove now?

9 - Jesse Hogan
7 - Max Gawn
5 - Jayden Hunt, Christian Petracca
4 - Clayton Oliver
3 - Bernie Vince, Jack Viney
2 - Dion Johnstone, Nathan Jones, Christian Salem
1 - Jay Kennedy-Harris, Jordan Lewis, Joel Smith

After last week's controversy where our banner fell to bits before the players could get to it there was a shock repeat. This time it couldn't have been better timed, with the players about to run through it. If it was a few years ago it would have come down just as they were running underneath and half our team would have suffocated.

The good news for the cheersquad is that as Carlton couldn't even be arse to put a token effort together we still win just for turning up with one. Here's to the same banner being wheeled out every week for the rest of the season until it finally stays upright. 1-1 for the Dees in what is already promising to be an exciting season for this feature.
Crowd Watch
If you're going to have to be rammed shoulder-to-shoulder against other people with nowhere to escape it was the perfect combination of teams. We're still not confident enough to get chippy and Carlton fans know they're in for a shithouse season, so everyone around me generally kept quiet. For some reason I always seem to be near horny couples at footy games, and my key concern was about the two in front of me during the second half who looked quite a bit alike and were standing with an older male who was presumably one (or both) of their dads. The guy effectively dry humped his female companion for the entire third quarter without the responsible adult batting an eyelid. I expect the Casey carpark is a dogging hotspot on non-matchdays but this was a shameless exhibition of lust. By three quarter time I had to move away because it was becoming embarrassing. We wish them well in their future fornications.

When a female umpire turned up I was bracing for 'terrace humour', but in a further demonstration that the corner might have been turned on gender issues the only mentions she got were the usual crowd moaning about decisions. Imagine the hypocrisy of somebody arguing against a female umpire being used, as if they sit there every week praising the work of the whistleblowers and are concerned that the standard's going to drop if ladies are admitted.

And we assume that the kid wielding an inflatable banana in a Carlton jumper was trying to bring some summer feeling to the game rather than preparing to be involved in a race hate scandal. These days it's not easy to tell which way things are going to go.

Cash Money Brothers
The rear of our jumper remains without a sponsor, and for god's sake surely somebody with a few dollars behind them must realise it's the right time to get involved. If like that guy from Kaspersky you work for a foreign company with endless supplies of wonga, why not suggest your to your boss that he also rings the membership hotline and asks who he can write a check to. If you're lucky you won't be on the first flight home or end up floating down the Ganges River.

Random House
In case you missed our expansive promotional campaign, a revised version of the Demonblog book is now available. Here I was in mid-October thinking that it was safe to close off a Unabomber length manifesto about the #fistedforever decade. Then Harry O retired with concussion, the Hamburglar was picked up drink driving and Christian Salem dropped a brick on his head. Ironically the new version is likely to end up even rarer than the original, but if you haven't got a copy yet now would be an excellent time to start. If nothing else you'll be able to assault a St Kilda fan with it at Round 1.

Next Week (+1)
We've got the pre-season bye, then with our form in nothing games approaching certified world standards where better to end it all (figuratively speaking) than at Subiaco? Also if you're into omens, the last time we played St Kilda in Round 1 we lost our last warm-up game by 110 points. At one point there was a suggestion players would strike over the new pay deal negotiations instead of playing the third pre-season match, and I say there's still time for them to convene a union meeting and save us from another of our traditional disasters in the west.

Was it worth it?
With the unexpectedly speedy exit and the bottom of my car not dropping out on the Monash Freeway I'd have to say yes. The place shits me to tears, and if I move even one street further north there's every possible chance that I'd stay home and suffer Dwayne next time, but you can't argue with seeing further signs of recovery.

Final thoughts
We're 2-0 for the immediate post-#fistedforever decade. This is either setting us up for the time of our life or a royal screwjob that will send the whole place under.

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