Monday, 22 May 2017

Stranglewank Sunday

First there was death, then came taxes, and now life's third great inevitability is that North will beat us at every opportunity until the end of time. At least if we had to suffer a 16th consecutive loss dating back to when we were good, we got the steak knives of two thwarted comebacks and one of the most incoherent umpiring displays ever caught on tape.

There can't be anyone with a lower 'heart-attack inducing tension to disinterest in blaming the umpires' ratio than me, but this was an afternoon that had it all. While I'm prepared to concede that we carried half a dozen passengers and flubbed a golden chance to win, has there ever been a finer moment of umpiring insanity than Michael Hibberd being pinged for 'deliberate' in the middle of a frantic last quarter when his handball deflected straight off the hand of an opposition player? Perhaps whatever Salem was pinged for on the Olympic Stand wing in the last quarter, or Bugg being picked up and thrown to the ground after a mark for no reward, or Vince being punched in the guts right in front of an umpire, or (insert your favourites here).

It seems like more disaster tourist opposition fans read this than locals, so there is undoubtedly a triumphant North fan screaming in disgust that they got turned over on a couple of dodgy decisions. For the benefit of that person I hope somebody with even more spare time than me sits through the replay and creates a compilation of all the remarkable howlers and squibbed decisions. In the week where the first female umpire was appointed (providing a huge boost to people in the crowd who think they're funny, and commentators who patronisingly name female goal umpires but have no idea who any of the men are), maybe it was part of a gigantic conspiracy to make it clear that gender isn't important when it comes to standing where your vision is most impeded and making uneducated guesses.

One day we'll absorb four quarters of battery from the Wheel of Umpiring and deliver the sort of triumphant, backs to the wall win that leaves people hanging over the race yelling "TAKE THAT OFF US YOU BASTARDS!" as the umpires leave. This could have been that day, having given them one near five goal start and one near four goal start we were back to two points behind midway through the last quarter. Perhaps if we'd taken the lead we'd have merrily stomped away with it, but without the attacking power to take advantage when we had the momentum the Roos were able to steady a second time and hold on to win. The only consolation I took out of it was not having to watch in person as they beat us by a point for the fourth time since 1999.

The insanity of a dozen different decisions aside, it's wonderful that Goodwin seemingly has the nous to rescue a terrible start, but how about we stop getting ourselves into these cavernous holes in the first place? There's no suggestion or evidence that our senior coach is a deviant, but whoever's setting up these ridiculous near-death comebacks to get their rocks off is reaching levels of depravity not seen since the mid-90s when my mum discovered a naked man humping the bejesus out of the roof of her car.

Since Round 11 2014 that is now 12 times we have gone at least four goals down in a game, then dragged the margin back to under six points. That figure is not even counting days like Round 20 2015 when we won the third quarter against Footscray 33-2 and still lost by 98. It's still a low percentage of games played, but Ted Bundy didn't kill someone every day either. If you avoid the temptation to move the goalposts and nudge in games like St Kilda where we fell a point short of the strictest interpretation of the stranglewank, the only time we've won from that position until last week was Round 13, 2004 against Essendon. Ergo going four goals behind in a game is not a scenario that's going to lead to a wealth of success. It's now the third time it's happened against North, replacing one point wins as their key method of humiliating us.

My horror is not confined to the umpiring, or unnecessarily leaving ourselves with a mountain to climb yet again, or even just losing to North for the 11th consecutive year. It's that not even slightly deep down I knew there was a tremendous let-down coming after the great win in Adelaide. Now that we're mid-table mediocrities it's just what we do. Which is a step up from the past, but that's not much consolation now. We've become so famous for folding as favourites against incompetent hacks that Hillary Clinton should be invited to become #1 ticketholder.

As much as it feels like it, I refuse to believe that players consciously return from a win like that and go into the next game with their guard down. Like a fan of old time religion I can only go on by comforting myself with the belief that there are supernatural forces at play. For instance, when I saw a teaser for a major feature on Christian Petracca in the Sunday papers I knew he'd barely get a kick. What I couldn't predict was that it would come courtesy of a blanket job from some previously unknown player with a none-more-Melbourne name like Thurston Shitbag the Third.

We are developing a good side - if they can restrict themselves to minor injuries in the future - but it's still staggeringly star free. There's a few on the horizon, but for now too much is left to too few. Petracca was one of many who fell to earth after the highs of Adelaide, but at least in his case it wasn't due to being punched in the guts.

To their credit North weren't standing for any of the shit that got us going in the middle quarters last week, but we did plenty of damage to ourselves at the same time. For all his wizardry at masterminding three comebacks in three weeks Goodwin was off his chop starting Sizzle in the forward line at the first bounce. I can see where he was coming from in wanting another tall down there, and it worked a treat as a surprise move last week but doing it again was like Japan coming back for another shot at Pearl Harbour the next day. He bobbed around like a fish out of water for the first quarter while the rest of the defence were being flayed at the other end, and it was only when they stuck him back where he's supposed to be that we started playing properly.

For the first five minutes we barely looked likely to kick a goal, but fortunately neither did they. It was an opening of such a rock-bottom standard that I was hoping a banner reading 'GENERALLY TERRIBLE FOOTBALL' would unfurl from the roof of the Olympic Stand and both sides would be sent home with two points. They had a couple of shots, and so did we, but the sloppy kicking and careless handballing deserved nothing more than a few token singles. The shit kicking went both ways, but only we had the outrageous padding of stats via useless over-handballing. Not surprisingly when we found space and started kicking in the second quarter things got infinitely better.

What the Roos had that we didn't was chains of possessions that moved them forward in a positive direction, rarely leaving the guy with the ball pulling up, wondering what to do next and either desperately handballing it to anyone in the vicinity from either side or attempting a suicidal kick into the middle of the ground. We played a starring role in letting them do this, by often having the player who was on the guy next in the handball chain come off his man and towards the ball carrier while somebody else was already pressuring him, leaving the second guy goalside on his own and ready to thump the ball forward.

Other than McDonald Jr, who shed of his brother's support quickly developed a look of terror that Cale Morton would be proud of, our defence held up reasonably well considering how easily the ball was getting down there. Frost, Jetta and Hibberd all had their moments of untidyness, but people who expect defenders to operate at 100% disposal efficiency are weirder than the ones who yell "just kick it" at everything. There were plenty of opportunities for people to shout that while we were being pressured into a circle of handballs, but usually when somebody did accede to the crowd's request they missed the target or landed it straight on the head of a North defender. Handball is not the enemy, trying to play the game entirely within confined spaces is.

How could we be in this situation again just two weeks after the Hawthorn game? The more times you see Plan B working, the more it highlights how wonky Plan A has been. This time North had the Veil of Negativity thrown over us like a blanket, and we reverted to the usual panicked reaction to any sort of pressure. Theoretically we should come home like a freight train late in the season when we run into clubs that have given up and will let us rampage from one end to the other, but look how well that's worked for us at the end of the last two seasons.

You can't use it as an excuse for everything, but it's perfectly valid to say the injuries have killed us - we didn't even need another true forward yesterday, just to have Gawn floating through the forward 50 and unleashing aerial terror on their defenders would have been more than enough. For all the propaganda about the death of the ruckman he'd have come in handy there too. It's true that we turned Goldstein's 60+ hitouts into a win in the clearances, but if you went back and watched each tap I suggest the times he got a free hit to a midfielder had more impact than most of ours. Pedersen was excellent at battling away when he lost the taps, kicked goals and was handy around the ground, but once you remove any possibility of a dainty backhander straight into the arms of a charging midfielder you lose the chance of something magic happening. Last week we got away with it via a mean-spirited, brute force attack on their best midfielder, and did reasonably well in the middle again this time but were second rate by far around the ground - and effectively played without a forward line.

When they kicked their third goal in four minutes to go 21-3 in front I knew I'd seen this film before, and didn't like it any of the other times either. Every time they went forward they looked like scoring, while our best key defender was at the other end trying to make something of desperation bombs inside 50 with help from Weideman who looked about a likely to take a contested mark as me, Watts who was having one of those days where he's forced to be the focal point and doesn't think much of it, and Garlett who hasn't taken a hanger since his first game for us and was nowhere near it at ground level either. Any wonder players when they weren't blindly thumping it down there, players would often stream towards goal then stop and do anything other than kick it inside 50. If only there was an alternative method for forwards to receive the ball from their teammates:

[this is where I would embed a video on how to lead in Australian rules football - but there doesn't appear to be one so use your imagination. Melbourne fans, this may not be easy.]

Pedersen showed why he's got life in him as a forward even when Gawn/Spencer return by kicking the steadier, but like the Hawthorn game all over again it looked like we'd walked right into a trap and they knew everything we were going to do. The crowd were already getting antsy about the umpiring when we copped two more goals in two minutes towards the end of the quarter, and if there's anything that will cause fans to go more troppo than usual about frees it's when their team is playing like they've consumed rat poison.

Nobody was immune from the disease, but while the stat lines of Jones and Tyson are almost identical (right down to disposal efficiency) the impact of the captain was so much more important. I've had enough of Tyson, he racks up possessions galore so he'll be a protected species on Thursday night, but his attacking impact is next to none. Which would be fine if he was doing anything impressive defensively either. He has played a lot of good games, and even qualified for the votes two weeks ago, but if the team as a whole is going to pick and choose when to turn up it's time to drop the bomb and demonstrate that nobody is safe. At this point I would honestly prefer to give Jake Milkshake a go after two BOGs as a midfielder for Casey, and let Tyson battle his way back in via the gravel grounds of the VFL.

The only surprise of the first quarter was that we didn't concede a goal right at the end, but it wasn't without trying. Jarrad Waite - perhaps at a loss because he couldn't find Tom McDonald to headbutt again - missed a chance deep in Demon Time to extend the margin beyond 30 points and all but kill us off. He was about the only North tall not to prosper, and if we had to go down to anyone I'm secretly glad it was a guy with goofy hair wearing an obscure number and not Waite.

Despite that last miss I was already cursing myself for going to the effort of turning up when half the players hadn't. This is where I'll take up arms to defend a guy like Neville Jetta, or even Pedersen no matter what people at the club think of him, because they will run themselves into the ground every week to try and get the job done. God love Watts - and I long ago decided to take the rough with the smooth here - but he just didn't fancy it. To be fair he did have to contend with having a defender riding him so vigorously at every contest that he might get a wildcard to the Melbourne Cup.

My enjoyment of the game wasn't helped by a persistent, suspect rumbling in the stomach that suggested bad tidings were on the way. Like so many other times where I've gone to a game thinking I'm about to become violently ill it turned out to be nothing more than sporting anxiety which disappeared not long after the final siren.

There was certainly no expectation of a blockbuster comeback, after all I've seen plenty more times where we've merrily wandered to our doom than ones where we've shown any sort of fighting spirit, but at least if we got our weekly disastrous quarter out of the way early there was time for our weekly good quarter to cancel it out. When a plane flew over the ground I was hoping the Royal Flying Doctors were going to parachute a psychologist towards our quarter time huddle in the spirit of somebody delivering the cup on Grand Final day. The anxiety runs so deep at this club that the only solution is to isolate the water supply for our part of AAMI Park and pump it full of lithium. If nobody's interested in the old-fashioned methods of players lying on a couch and pouring out their inner thoughts to a clipboard-wielding psychologist then some light bioterrorism might be the only way to get things done.

Whoever's in charge of the matchday entertainment must have hesitated for a second before playing the upbeat power ballad, but given that Hogan's Heroes had just featured a guy landing on his head while trying to take a screamer he probably thought nothing else could go wrong and followed the script. I wish they'd turned the LP over and played the power ballad's B-Side "It's Time To Raise A Yelp".

Surprisingly even without the speakers blaring out sarcastic lyrical encouragement - which from the time I was in the forward pocket of the Pink Lady's right foot I can tell you is impossible to hear from ground level - we did in fact have a tremendous bash in the second quarter. Quite literally in fact, during one of the most entertainingly spiteful 30 minutes of footy you'll see this decade. The widespread violence - which ended with only one suspension, and you can guess which team that player was from - didn't kick off immediately. We were first sparked by a pair of goals from the briefly super impressive Mitch Hannan, who played a golden pair of quarters in the middle of the game. He's done a few nice things this year, but this was the first time he really shook the life out of a game. Just to prove he could do more than one thing he also set up two goals. As did Tyson apparently, but I've made my decision there and I'm standing by it.

By the time Viney kicked the third goal in 10 minutes it was on. Quite literally, the quarter had already turned into a free-for-all where the umpires had not the slightest inclination to step in and wrest control back so everyone just went for it and left the MRP to mop things up. Christian Salem got a week for elbowing some bloke in the head, which was fair enough. Except when you hold it up against Ben Cunnington whacking Bernie Vince with a short one to the gut and only getting a $1000 fine. At least that's an admission it was the wrong thing to do, which must have come as a surprise to the umpire who was looking directly at the punch and let play go on. It was especially irritating that they wouldn't make a call of something that happened right in front of them, when an unsighted umpire clearly received a signal from the guy on the boundary before paying a free during the first quarter.

I bear no ill-will towards Cunnington, not only was it a ripper of a punch but he did it with such a gleeful look on his face that if a Melbourne player had done the same I'd have already put the picture on a t-shirt. Look at him, he's having the time of his life.

This incident highlighted the importance of listening to the radio, at first I thought Vince had taken to the spirit of the Acting Football League and gone down a little freely. Just as I was about to defame him through various mediums it was reported that he was on the bench going the old dry heave. I had to concede that it was unlikely he'd go to those lengths to put it on.

It was a great quarter of aggro, and in a rare moment of understanding what the public want to see nobody else was reported. This was a remarkable stuff up by the MRP when they could have used the quarter to fund the entire next trip to Shanghai - with everyone in business class instead of half the players up the back eating peanuts and dealing with the dickhead in front putting his seat back every five seconds. Good for them, for all the "won't somebody think of the children" mass moral panic it was all good fun where they all shook hands at the end instead of offering to settle it in a pub parking lot a'la Port and Adelaide at the Ramsgate.

This is what modern footy is lacking, intense personal feuds. I can't remember if I've written this in recent weeks or just thought it, but a search for 'demonblog Brent Staker' showing no results from 2017 suggests that the topic of people who should have held bloodlust for their opponents but got over it unnecessarily quickly hasn't be raised. We're trying to keep the game alive by feuding with $cully, but it's not the same if it doesn't happen on field and when the other party is too dignified to respond.

Things were going so well for us in the post-biff era that even when North seemingly killed us off again with two goals in the middle of the quarter we hit back with three in five minutes - including an absolute cannon job on the run from Sam Frost - to get within three points. In the grandest spirit of a Melbourne FC comeback that's where it stopped. With plenty of time left we were all over them but couldn't find another goal to get in front at the half. Still, we'd been given a second life so I was prepared to write off what happened in the first quarter and start again. Then for the first 15 minutes of the third quarter we were handed an even smellier version of what had happened at that end the first time around. Is there a gas leak in our rooms?

Unlike last week where we stormed back to get within touching distance at the break then rode a tactical masterstroke to keep rolling immediately after, this time there was another white flag job that gave North an almost uncontested 3.4 to nothing. It's a testament to how far we've come since Neeld and Early Roos that we made scoring look so impossible and still escaped with 13.12.90.

A Jetta goal - his third of the season, which is as many as he had in total dating back to 2012 - stemmed the bleeding. For about 90 seconds until they got forward and found Brown for his third of the quarter. Just to prove the earlier quarter antics were macho bullshit there wasn't a hint of nastiness here. Maybe that's why we started so badly, everyone was out looking for a punch-up and forgot to play footy. By the time they remembered that it was more important to win on the scoreboard than in the fine totals - or not as the MRP would have it. You have to feel for Bernie Vince, not only was he being punched in the breadbasket for no reward but he'd just paid $1000 for being propelled into an umpire and now it was open slather and do whatever you feel like.

There were two last chances to get something out of the quarter, and both fell to Bugg. He was already discovering what James Harmes now knew, that nobody succeeds as the defensive forward for long before their career flashes before their eyes, and he'd done little except act as agent provocateur during the fights before taking a mark practically right in front. In the ultimate curse/unnecessarily trying to appear knowledgeable I turned to somebody I barely knew and said "he's a reasonably good set shot" (because before this he was) only for him to miss that and three more before the end of the game.

Bugg should have kicked another after the siren, but it wasn't entirely his fault that he missed given that post-mark he'd practically been picked up and bodyslammed after a decent period that confirmed it was no way part of the marking contest. What should have been a 50 right to the line and a much needed freebie after being vigorously violated all day was instead deemed to be perfectly legal. At which point you were within your rights to ask if the North defender be penalised for garrotting him with a length of electrical cord. It left us 22 points behind and needing everything to go right to be a chance. After looking likely to concede every time the ball was quickly sent inside their 50 I didn't like our chances of restricting them to no more than one goal for the quarter AND piling on four or five of our own.

It was City of Casey day, where we furiously played up our commitment to their region while simultaneously doing everything we can to shift focus towards the eastern suburbs, and the lady who was wheeled out to give the crowd a pep talk about how it's great to go to Cranbourne should have been asked to address the huddle, because half of them will be reacquainting themselves with 160 Berwick-Cranbourne Rd, Cranbourne East VIC 3977 if they carry on like this. The only thing saving them from wholesale slaughter is that a) half our list are in traction, b) we mounted another spirited comeback for half a quarter and c) let's be fair they were pretty good last week.

After North missed a chance to finish us off in the first minute we came alive again. There must have been something about that end, because we played like numpties towards the city both times and twice launched comebacks towards Punt Road. A 10 minute period of domination, including two more Bugg behinds, capped off by a clutch goal by Lewis from the boundary reduced the margin to two and the fans were going right off their nut. Everyone around me was jumping in the air for goals and high-fiving each other while I sat there grim faced, knowing too well that history suggested that one way or the other we'd lose.

To ensure that nobody forgot the umpires were there, one of them went for the jackpot by paying this masterpiece of muppetry. Thrill to the vision of Salem's arm sliding moderately towards the shoulder of a player who is rugby tackling him without the ball and being pinged for a high tackle. Put this on replay for a few hours and see if you don't end up realising life is futile, giving all your possessions away and joining the Hare Krishnas.

Still, even with that absolute disgrace we were storming home - and it didn't stop us from kicking the next goal. The only question was whether we'd get in front first before a horrific turnover let them stroll unchallenged into an open goal. It was a timely goal for Lewis, his stats look alright but he didn't do much. He's good in patches, and the leadership when not hitting people cannot be denied, but I will be astonished if he lasts until the end of his three year contract.

The stranglewankist's day was done, we'd got close enough for him to achieve ecstasy so the result didn't matter. For me it was the most disappointing sexual transaction since Herman Rockefeller. The remnants of our forward line must belong to a good union, because after an hour's work they clocked off. Free of any concern about us running over the top North were able to kick two goals to put the game away, and sitting there like a joyless fuck instead of joining in the excitement of the comeback was justified.

Kent partially recovered another horrendous day post-internet frenzy with a goal to reduce the margin to eight, but I had no confidence. They had already all but broken us before that, so another two goals within a couple of minutes was too much to ask for. What a shithouse time for Richmond to steal North's mantle as the league's great choke artists, otherwise I can only assume Weideman would have somehow turned on the performance of his life to kick both and carry us over the line. Then a minute after Kent's goal we let one in at the other end, and even the most fertile imagination couldn't get us back from there. The second last goal had already prompted a flood of Demons to stand up and escape as one, and after this one the last few minutes looked like that GWS game at Docklands where nobody turned up.

They'd already long won before Brown took a mark on the edge of the 50 and found an innovative way of rorting the clock. After the guy who practically leaned on the fence and waited for time to expire last year, North are making an art out of this. Brown already takes long run-ups, and this had him back to the defensive side of the centre circle. Which in a close game is genius, because you get 30 seconds to walk back as far as you can, then you start your run-in and take another 20. If he'd got halfway through the 'run up' then turned around and kicked backwards to a teammate it would have provoked the fans around me into leaping the fence and punching on, but knowing the game was shot I'd have loved it. There's a reason that he's my second favourite non-MFC connected player behind Steven May (yes please).

For the first time in a long time I had a genuine jealousy towards Essendon, who had just poleaxed West Coast over the other side of town. Everyone knows the Eagles are as wobbly in Melbourne as we are outside of it, so you might have expected the Bombers to win - but did you expect them to cartwheel to a comfortable win where the game was over at half time? Have we done that against a team even remotely in contention for the finals since Sydney 2010? The real goal is to win consistently, but along the way could we please create happy memories that involve wrecking teams? On ladder position North probably only ranked alongside Gold Coast or Collingwood last year, so even if we'd won by 10 goals it wouldn't have been an epoch making victory, but I'm dying to unexpectedly destroy somebody. Or in the case of games against North win by any sort of margin from 1 up.

The good news is that it's not all over yet - at least for another couple of weeks - the ladder is packed tighter than the anus of a drug smuggler, to the point where we're two games from the top four and one game from 17th. If we stay afloat long enough to get Gawn and Hogan back (or even Spencer/Tim Smith), and avoid anyone else being carted off in pieces, we can still get somewhere this year. Last year we were a game closer to the eight at this stage, but with competition off its face and everyone from 1st to 17th beating each other there is plenty of scope to stay in the race even if we only win one of the next two. Two would be preferable, none will be the sign to pull the shades down, play any remaining kids on the list and hope for better luck in 2018.

2017 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Michael Hibberd
4 - Mitch Hannan
3 - Sam Frost
2 - Cameron Pedersen
1 - Neville Jetta

Apologies to Jones, Salem, Wagner and Oliver who might have snuck in to the last spot.

Not a cracker at the top of the table this week, with none of the top six scoring a vote. Hibberd's BOG gives us a new co-leader in the Seecamp, $15 chance Hannan has knocked NO ELIGIBLE PLAYER out of the Hilton race, and despite one of the all-time great statistical thumpings Pedersen draws level in the Stynes. It should be noted that Watts remains in the running for the Stynes, but will need to double his current average of 5.4 hitouts per game.

20 - Clayton Oliver
13 - Jack Viney
12 - Jack Watts
11 - Michael Hibberd (CO-LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Jayden Hunt (CO-LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
9 - Jeff Garlett
8 - Sam Frost
7 - Neville Jetta, Christian Petracca
6 - James Harmes, Nathan Jones
5 - Christian Salem
4 - Mitch Hannan (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Medal for Rookie of the Year)
3 - Dom Tyson, Bernie Vince
2 – Max Gawn (CO-LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Cameron Pedersen (CO-LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jordan Lewis, Dean Kent
1 – Jesse Hogan, Jake Spencer

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Arise Sam Frost, unlucky not to get a nomination for his snatch 'n grab goal against the Pies last year, he's finally on the honour roll courtesy of a artillery like finish from outside 50. It's not just that he converted from long distance, but the height the ball got off the boot and his Brian Wilson-esque arms aloft celebration. Also helped that it capped off the original comeback.
Despite a week of killjoys and dull humans trying to falsely claim that Oliver hit the post in Adelaide he still leads overall, but for the weekly prize Sam wins an awkward dinner date with his namesake off The Bachelor. Is there any evidence in recorded history of people with the exact same name marrying? Even better, when you've got a name like Sam that can go male or female you could have a boy and a girl both called Sam Jr.

In another blow to this already under the pump segment I arrived too late to see the traditional rotation of banner, and sat on the wrong side to see the messages on the front. Not for the first time this year Twitter has saved the day, revealing ours to have a message that initially reads like something the Lionheart Lisa doll would say before you spot the #1 and realise that it's an inspirational message for Jesse Hogan.

The view of the horrific North effort came courtesy of that bloke who does the Bulldogs banners, risking the ultimate pot/kettle scenario by accusing somebody else of not being able to concisely sell their message. We are thankful that it was captured for posterity, because it must be one of the worst slogans ever committed to crepe paper. Would anyone seriously put their name to this? Even the sort of person to write a 'humorous' slogan about themselves.

Here we are at the mighty MCG. 
Let's go out and kick snags like Har-Vey 

Thank god they separated Har and Vey so we knew how it was supposed to work. It's good to know that even in retirement, and with only the faintest grasp of how to rhyme, Har-Vey still stalks us at every step. Dees 8-1-0 for the season.

Crowd Watch
As a ruthless individualist it's not often that anyone else gets a mention on here, but regular readers will remember The Optimist from several posts over the years (as opposed to The Mystery Benefactor, who is a totally different character). I went with him to the AFL Members area, which is risky because it practically guarantees you'll have to put up with opposition supporters. He was nice enough to arrange a guest pass for me, which would have come in handy if the lady supervising the entrance had the remotest interest in checking your ticket as you went through. In the end the only benefit was scanning in on my membership and the extra ticket to rort the attendance figure and stay eligible for the Nathan Jones bobblehead doll - which has now been built up to such a level that it cannot possibly meet expectations. The least it can do is save us some money by providing a model for the 'LOYALTY' statue that will be built for him when he retires.

Speaking of membership rewards, I was going to pick up the footy cards at the membership shack (and what a structure it is, screw the tents of old, this thing is bigger than the first place I lived in when I moved out of home) before the game, but the line was stretching out the door and the clock was ticking uncomfortably close to the bounce. Either a lot of people have ticked off three home games and were collecting the cards, or they were all claiming to have lost their card after putting it in the blender after the Hawthorn game.

I don't recall too many times since the Ponsford and Olympic rebuilds that I've sat so low to the ground at the MCG, and I didn't think much of it. There was one lone nutter sitting at the top of the Ponsford, and I kept glancing longingly towards him. For the 2005 Elimination Final I was a couple of rows from the Punt Road end goals, and the night we tried to neck ourselves in the last quarter against the Bulldogs in 2013 I was smuggled into the ground floor reserved seats in the Olympic. Was also in that spot for the Carnival Of Hate, but that was not a day for paying close interest to the play. I can't rule it out entirely, but I don't ever remember watching a Melbourne game from this spot in the Southern Stand. The only memory of being in that spot or near to it was taking advantage of free last quarter entry to go to the end of either this or this Richmond/Adelaide game in the early 90s. What an era of youthful exuberance, now I wouldn't cross the road to watch a game not involving us.

For a game where they were a near certainty of springing an upset, North fans didn't show up in any great numbers. I did see this all-time legend, as first mentioned in these parts during the 2008 pre-season:

He didn't look any different to when he stormed out in disgust on the day Colin Sylvia debuted without having a touch, right down to some weird, stringy dreadlock type hair. His post-match carpark BBQ would have been a much happier - albeit darker - experience this time. I expect he would be a riot to sit around, but around us it was an overwhelming majority to the Dees. Apparently it was the fourth biggest home and away crowd ever against North, no thanks to their fans.

The solitary exception was some mouthy hillbilly behind us who probably had his horse and cart tied to a pillar on Brunton Avenue. As he sparred with our supporters in the first quarter I was looking for my Crowd Watch Bingo card to tick off 'fist fight between spectators', but ironically as the game went feral in the second quarter he disappeared. It was bad news for those of us trying to hit a five figure word count for the first time, and caused me to make an idiot of myself by losing track of who was saying what and accidentally heckling a Melbourne fan for yelling a joke that was so mystifying it's likely to end up on a Carlton banner.

Once he disappeared, best on ground was the lady behind us who tried desperately to stop people from swearing at the height of umpiring and folding like a house of cards anxiety in the third quarter. At least people waited after half time when the kids in front of us were moved before going right off. Even while the players were bashing the suitcase out of each other - some more overtly than others - people were reasonably well behaved, but once the children went it was no holds barred abuse that she had no hope of holding back. Mainly because the punters were too busy spewing world class invective to hear her complaining. The word 'fuck' was very much trending within the MCG yesterday.

Accident and Emergency
In all the excitement of blowing comebacks left, right and centre I forgot to mention Jesse Hogan. Talk about having a shithouse run, nobody should go through what he has within a decade let alone a few weeks. When my mum of all people called me to break the news my mind instantly went to the worse case scenario, and I'm glad somebody told me what the story was instead of seeing the cavalcade of "oh Jesse" and "fuck no, Jesse" context-free posts on Twitter that made it sound like he'd died, but it sounds like the best possible scenario in the circumstances. Apparently they're counting on having him back in a few weeks, and may I say that even if he returns with only one ball that will be more than many players we've fielded over the years.

Matchday Experience Watch
This is an important community service message. When you are at an away game and wearing the colours of another club, you are never going to win anything on the big screen. Middle aged women are especially guilty of this, including the pair of North fanatics standing on the fence who vigorously got into the spirit of Run Like A Demon without realising the subtle hint in its name. They lost their dignity and won nothing, which is a lot like following Melbourne.

Wildcard Wankfest
I'm there for the Melbourne Football Club until the last dog dies, but at last the Australian Football League may have invented a way to maximise my free time by killing off all interest in the remainder of the competition. Very soon - possibly this year considering their record of making things up on the spot - we'll have a Spectacle Week between the end of the home and away and the finals where ordinary teams will play sudden death games for the right to make the 'finals'. It was heartwarming when the Bulldogs won the flag from 7th, this makes me want to get down to Harbour Esplanade and spew across the AFL's foyer.

Change does not necessarily frighten me. When I was a kid people saying things like "this is not the game I grew up with" related to interstate teams. A great Demon fan who has spent almost 50 years watching us lose regularly had the job of driving a tram adorned in West Coast collateral during the 1991 Grand Final Parade. He reports that the crowd were so hostile towards anything in the colours of a non-Victorian side that he was spat at and had shit thrown at him while the crowd vigorously suggested he piss off 'home' as if he'd been imported from Perth just to make one trip across Princes Bridge. I could never understand what everyone was so concerned about, even at 10-years-old I could see that foreigners winning flags was preferable to anyone I knew being happy.

Since then there's been much change - more umpires, the finals expanding to six, then eight teams and various interpretations of how it would work, killing Fitzroy, introducing two real clubs and two plastic franchises. There's also been about 4200 rule changes in the last 15 years, as the AFL continually tinker with the game like a clueless home handyman who eventually blows himself up by digging through cables.
Now the venerable 22 game fixture is nearly dead, and in its place we're either going to get the 666 system where everyone plays once (or laughably, plays once unless you've got a blockbuster rival who you get a second go against) then splits off into groups to do whatever - or an arguably even worse idea, letting 1-6 in on merit then having a Razzle Dazzle Weekend where 7th to 10th go to town for the last two finals spots. A situation that last year would have led to the 15-7 Western Bulldogs putting their season on the line against a 10-12 Port Adelaide - who nudged us out on percentage. That's what we're talking about here, making changes to allow sides who can't even win half the games they play a chance at winning a premiership. Jesus Fucking Christ, Australian Football League how do I hate you, let me count the ways. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but was the great pre-finals bye just a set-up to establish a week in the calendar for these games?

I'm not the best character witness for why the idea of a wildcard weekend - not to be confused with a Wide World of Sports Wild Winter Weekend - is such a stupid idea. The game itself is still going alright - in spite of constant meddling, not because of it - but after my interest in the competition itself bobbed up and down (like this) over the years, the pressure of following Melbourne eventually became too much and I had no emotion left for anyone else. Now Port Adelaide vs Gold Coast in Outer Mongolia means as much to me as test cricket, it's nice background noise and I'm interested in the end result, but couldn't give a rats how they got there.

Nobody can clearly articulate what splitting teams into three groups of six after 17 rounds is supposed to achieve other than vague promises of 'excitement', but it doesn't offend me nearly as much as the wildcard. Maybe because the teams involved would still have to win their way through across five games instead of rewarding numerous confirmed mid-table mediocrities for being exceedingly ordinary. The alternative is a dead set abortion of an idea, thought up in a boardroom to lure the sort of people who have changed teams during their adult life. Some of you are enthusiastically for it - and god knows after what we've been through I should be clutching at any opportunity to perform a Steven Bradbury style flop into the 'eight' - and I'm sure you're good people, but you're wrong.

Of course they know we'll watch anyway, so they may as well take a punt on selling to the latent market of people ready to burst from behind the bushes and declare an interest in the game if they could just get one more week of excitement. Meanwhile when Brisbane plays Carlton in Round 23 the entire country will still duck out to the shops. They could be playing for draft picks, giving us the unique scenario of 44 players going hell for leather to try and get their teams better players with which to replace them.

The worst thing about any tinkering with the fixture is the suggestion that we have to do it to make things fair. Some stooge journalist on the AFL website said the only way to make it 'fair' would be to have a 17 game season where you play everyone once. Even though some teams will play more home games than away. Which can be corrected the next year, but it still doesn't make each season 'fair'. The current situation is not 'fair', but can anyone deny that more often than not the Grand Final is played between deserving clubs. Besides, who are the nutters trying to impose fairness on a game where people hold their breath as the ball bounces towards goal, not knowing whether it's going to roll straight through for a goal, or take an obscure bounce and end with the kicker being pinged for deliberate?

Supporters of the concept can't decide whether it's for fairness, excitement or both. That's not important, the reasoning will no doubt change every few weeks to suit the narrative. Like when the substitute was either supposed to be to stop teams being disadvantaged through an early injury or to slow players down late in games depending on which way the wind was blowing. What a contradictory organisation, trying as hard as they can to deliver artificial spectacle while also deliberately trying to tire the competitors out. Why don't we invite the Harlem Globetrotters to be an expansion team, relocate somebody to the Great Moscow Circus and play the Grand Final in the whale enclosure at Sea World? If all that and a night Grand Final doesn't attract a million new viewers from the northern states we can go back to the 1900 format that discarded the results after 14 weeks and allowed us to win the flag from sixth.

Even a top eight was suspect when half the league were getting in, one of the few sensible things the league has done since expanding to 18 teams (other than writing us enormous cheques) was to leave the finals alone. Now even a top nine doesn't seem so bad - at least that's keeping it to one extra side and protecting 7th - and that's probably what they're buttering us up for. The place is run by slimy characters who look like politicians, where better to pinch an idea from than Canberra and float the idea of something jaw-droppingly moronic, only to give something slightly better and watch people call it ice cream. May as well just let the whole league in and play a Wizard Cup style September knockout. What would be more exciting than a 3-19 team getting the chance to fluke their way to the Grand Final?

Our fearless leader Gil, who I initially thought was better than Demetriou even though he's never covered up our tanking, says he's surprised at how much support there was from clubs. Well golly gee whizz, I wonder why clubs would do whatever they're told when two are owned by the league, and about five others who'd be forced to hock their box for cash on Grey Street if equalisation payments ended. To be fair, the way this is being reported is like a whole bunch of CEOs are for it (and if the world's greatest bald head is one of them then I'd like to hear from him) when it might simply be a case that he expected nobody to be into it but found a quarter of clubs pulling his chair out and saying "what a good idea sir".

The catch 22 is that while on one hand I want this to fail so spectacularly that the AFL becomes a rolling administrative farce like the A-League, we'd be towards the head of the queue for the electric chair if the arse dropped out of the industry so you have to at least hope things remain at the same level. Which will no doubt be taken as an overwhelming endorsement of wildcards, night grand finals, shorter games, removing draws and any other stupid shit they come up in the endless journey towards making the game 'better' in some undefined way. While we're at it we may as well introduce NRL style mid-season Origin and International games so the best players spend five weeks a season away playing exhibition games.

There's no point saying "we must fight this", because we are plankton and they'll do whatever they like anyway. Until now I was ambivalent about making the finals this year, especially after all the injuries/general misfortune, but now I cannot wait another season. We must make the pure version of the finals one more time before this abortion of an idea is introduced. If we finish seventh next year and lose to 10th I'll punch on.

Next Week
We're going to the NT to get paid, and if we're lucky also keep our head above water in the great mid-table battle royale by beating the Suns. They'll be coming off a Shanghai - Gold Coast - Alice Springs journey, which sounds more like the path of an cocaine shipment than a footy fixture. You would think that even with a week off to recover from their international ordeal that we should win, but you have to assume that we won't. If you're a gambler you'd at least have a bit on them as security against us losing there for the fourth consecutive time.

God only knows how low the crowd will get. Even when Port Adelaide attracted as many tourists as we did the crowd only averaged 5222. Now we've lost all the aura of being the great entertainers from the last three quarters of the Crows game, and the Suns will bring about 30 people (an impressive 10% of their fanbase) so this could challenge 2015's record low of 4866. That's not our concern, on a crowd of 5000 we're being paid $120 a head to appear. Given the competitors and the 4.30 Saturday afternoon timeslot it remains a shocking waste of taxpayer money which can't have much more life in it, but for now who are we to complain while the cheques are still rolling in?

Even though Casey finally broke the shackles of taking on our nickname and beat the top team (is there side that was relegated from the VFA in 1987 that they can lose to next week to really get that MFC feeling? No, because there's a state game that about 45 people care about - where for some unclear reason there are still two games being played. In further proof that the VFL is the worst puppet competition ever, the Northern Blues aren't one of them, then have the bye the week after) I've got no confidence in our depth, so it's hard to decide on widespread changes. So with nothing more to go on than a match report and some arbitrarily selected 'best' players I'm going to take a punt on a couple of novelty selections:

In the sensible choices Harmes gets another shot in the defensive forward graveyard at the expense of Bugg and Kennedy replaces Kent. Then it gets silly - Trengove wasn't even in the VFL bests but I'm willing to give him one last spin, and if it doesn't work out then we can all shake hands and part ways before he joins the Gysberts/Cook/Toumpas/Grimes class action (headed up by their lawyer Thomas J. Scully III) for ruining his promising career. I'm also prepared to give King a go (even if I'm not yet confident whether his first name is Max or Mitch), because with due respect to Weideman's inexperience and the whole-hearted ruck effort of Pedersen/Watts/McDonald we couldn't do any worse with an inexperienced player in the middle - and it will free the three backups to do what they're specifically trained for. At the risk of dropping him under the 10 hitout average required for eligibility in the Stynes, Pedersen showed more forward yesterday than the Weid has all year so better to rely on the midfield to keep us afloat at the taps and play a forward (and not a converted defender) as a target.

Two weeks ago I nailed the changes to the letter (which was easy because it was one in, one out) but this time there's about a 100-1 chance of that happening.

IN: Harmes, King, Kennedy, Stretch, Trengove
OUT: Bugg, Kent, Weideman, Tyson (omit), Salem (susp)
LUCKY: O. McDonald, Vince
UNLUCKY: Melksham (two BOGs in a row in the VFL when not suspended - but if you're not going to play him as a midfielder in the 1s what's the point in picking him?)

Was it worth it?
For the first time this century a new Simpsons episode spoke to me. It was perfect timing, because in my emotional state I'd have seen anything as a sign from a higher power, but it was an apt time for the suggestion that in life everyone finds "their Homer", something that consumes their life and derails them from achieving their potential. Here I am 10.5 years into going out of my way to watch this club, and now I'm so far down the path of insanity that I can't think of any other way to live. It's like playing the same Tattslotto numbers more than once, and being locked into having to do it every week for the rest of your life just in case.

I've dodged social engagements from family reunions, to engagements and birthdays, and can never again seriously consider jobs that involve the weekend. And for what? The odd fleeting moment of all-consuming excitement, and the vague promise of future success. What more have I got than those of you who freely give into real life don't? In a way wouldn't it be more exciting to work weekends, and spend 22 weeks a year trying to dodge spoilers so I can watch late on replay? Or more sensibly, just accept that sometimes you're going to see a final score and have to work out how we got there later.

Can I please just have one flag before retirement age/inevitable mid 40s fatal heart attack so I can let go a bit? Probably not. However I go it had better not be so sudden that I miss out on the chance to pass the final "was it worth it" verdict on my time with the MFC. Then when it's all over take my ashes to Row MM of the Ponsford Stand and hurl them down the stairs around sections Q32-Q33. Preferably while there's a game on so the handful of assembled punters up there are forced to take some of me home with them.

Final thoughts
After escaping the demolition derby of the MCG carpark, where use of turn indicators and common courtesy are both optional, I was in the middle of Hate Driving home when I got a reminder of how some things are more serious than whether or not your football team is a flaky mess. You know when you see a train stopped and there's a fire engine next to it that it's not for positive reasons, but what I didn't expect to see as I went past the truck was a tarp covering the poor bastard who had been hit by the train accidentally or otherwise. It seemed rude to think about footy for the rest of the trip...

... then I woke up this morning, threw perspective out the window and wrote one of the longest posts ever. The scars run deep.

1 comment:

  1. Melbourne supporter? Too soon? Too obvious? No laughing matter?