Friday 9 March 2018

The only thing we have to fear is The Fear itself

Never before have I needed an off-season to end like this one. Every new story about what novel/unique/shithouse 'innovations' the AFL is about to introduce has driven me a step closer to locking myself in the house, creating a little fort from couch cushions and watching the season on TV. Ironically, that is probably exactly what they want me to do. I'm waiting to find out that this is all just to distract us from somebody famous being revealed as a massive nonce

As a trial run for my future as a bitter and twisted shut-in, I declined the option of a three hour round trip to Casey and hovered over my television with emoji style 😍 eyes bursting out like a Warner Brothers cartoon character whenever Christian Petracca touched the ball. After another week being made to feel stupid for following a sport that is apparently no good in its current format (while simultaneously having the fourth largest average crowd of any league in the bloody world) his performance was a timely reminder that there are very good reasons to plaster on a fake smile and keep plowing through until the flag exit strategy pays off.

Wasn't life simpler before the football 'industry' became a 24/7/365 race to force everyone in Australia (and if you believe delusional fantasists, soon the world) to pay attention to the AFL? It's at least partially my fault for being sucked in, if I didn't follow the news I'd never know what they were proposing until it happened. Just like it used to be. One year I didn't even know we'd played our first pre-season game until after it happened. Now after 11 seasons of being emotionally all-in on the idea of Melbourne winning meaningful silverware I've got a sinking feeling that it won't happen until we're playing 11-a-side games on pontoons in the Bay of Bengal.

Instead of changing everything, what about looking at simple solutions to supposed problems. Here's a free idea on how to save a few seconds every week, make players give the ball back to the umpire when it's at their feet instead of treating them like servants. One mannerless shitbag Saints player ran across the line with the ball in his hand during the third quarter, then dropped it at the boundary umpire's feet and walked off. The counter suggestion would be to just abolish the throw-in entirely, and I was pleased that Paul Roos brought some much needed sanity to this discussion of that topic by pointing out how it would just create more congestion. The centre bounce itself can do one, but I'm willing to punch on (not sure with who) until the cows come home to save stoppages.

If you're hopelessly in love with a club that plays in it, the carnies in charge of the Australian Football League have got you over a barrel. Slaughtering the head of the league probably pre-dates Sir Kenneth Luke, but for all the abuse we used to pile on Demetriou at least he tried to turn a blind eye to outrageous tanking and cut us a massive rescue cheque before we ended up in deep financial shit. Somewhere along the line the AFL has become the neediest, most insecure sporting organisation in the world - not even trying to conceal their desperation to have anyone from overseas pat us on the head and tell us how good we are. Some argue that we have to get foreign money into the game, I say bring back the days where players lifted bricks until 5pm and played footy on the side.

Lots of people were prepared to go along with AFLX as a bit of pre-season fun, but how can you trust the motives of a competition where the CEO is spinning shit like this? Now they're using puppet media outlets to set up the idea of rewarding mid-table mediocrity with a wildcard round. Because the only criteria you need for AFL House to take an idea seriously is that they do it in America. Next they'll be supporting rampant gun crime. In the immortal words of legendary sports broadcaster Alan Partridge:

I'm not just tense about the ongoing threat of city hall committing cultural vandalism on a game that's not theirs to ruin, there are other factors contributing to my malaise. For one, The Fear is back. It's a different strain to the 2013 variety when I thought we were about to be wound up, now I'm terrorised by the prospect of what on paper could (COULD) be a golden generation not reaching their potential. I can't even picture winning a flag, so for now I'm willing to settle for one token finals appearance as part reward for the thousands of hours of unholy tripe I've watched since 2007. Anything else would be a welcome bonus.

That's why Round 23 - the new 186 - hurt me far more than I let on. It's why I was on the floor, throwing my dignity out the window and screaming at Adelaide to kick goals against West Coast like my life depended on it. Psychologists would have a field day with me at the best of times, but this was a special occasion. I just needed one monkey off my back before concentrating on the rest. Now we've got the wait another six months to even try and erase that stain. And if it doesn't work this time that's another year, and then another, and the next thing you know it's all over. There's a reason I have this hanging above my desk - it's my life story.

I expect to die unfulfilled, but with the usual caveats and exemptions about the pre-season, watching this made me believe in a life-altering season more than any time since momentarily hitting the top of the ladder in late 2005. Ironically just as this happens I'm suffering a midlife crisis over no longer being young, carefree and fantastic, and am seriously considering grabbing at money like somebody in one of these and returning to shift work. As I watched us carve the Saints like a Christmas ham in the first quarter I had second thoughts about this approach. Imagine going through every fluctuating emotion since Brock McLean's R1 2007 broken leg and becoming unavailable for anywhere between one and all games in the (potential) glory years? If we could just storm to a surprise Footscray/Richmond style flag immediately that would be wonderful.

That I can even stretch to dream of a shock premiership run is enough to have me breaking out in lumps. To ensure not getting too far ahead of myself, I read encouraging season previews like this and try to remember that the perceived great leap forward is being judged on keeping the most important players upright for 22 games. Our depth has improved beyond fish pond levels, but we're still as vulnerable as anyone to an injury assisted crash. If the casualty list is short like 2016 then I think we can overcome the death march run home to make the finals. If players drop like flies like last year we'd want to be deeply ensconced (!) inside the eight on return from the Darwin game against Fremantle.

Even nearly 24 hours later I'm still confused at how much notice to take of what happened. St Kilda has more no name products than Aldi, including several who look like they'd be right at home in an 80s pub brawl, but it still can't have been anywhere near their best 22. Not that it was our top side either (sans Viney, Anal-Bullet and Sizzle Sr at a minimum + Harmes and Lewis if you're generous), but close enough to. Besides, I'm not worried about beating fellow middle of the road teams, it's the top sides and the shitboxes that concern me. Viney might miss Round 1 due to his dicky foot, but for now we can cover him to a reasonable level. Corey Maynard is not Jack Viney, and never will be, but nor is he flotsam that we have to play because there's nobody else available.

The most important thing about the second match of a series sponsored by a company nobody's any the wiser about two years later, is that nobody got seriously hurt. The second most important was the occasional lightning flash of brilliant football that makes you throw your arms in the air and ask where this has been for the last decade of your life. And because I'm always looking for an out to explain why we won't succeed, I hope we don't look back at the way our defence fell to bits when Sizzle Jr went off with a sore back and go "ahh, we missed that hint". The saving grace here was St Kilda kicking into the forward 50 like they were all drunk.

It was practically a re-run of our much higher stakes game against them in Round 21. We dashed off to a solid lead by quarter time, then slowed down, unexpectedly died in the arse during the third quarter, and recovered to win reasonably comfortably. The key difference is that only 4500 people turned up to see it, some of whom are probably still trying to recover their car from a cavernous pothole in the 'car park'.

Those of you who remember Chris Dawes winning our goalkicking with 20 - each of them harder fought than a World War I trench battle - will understand just how important it was to see multiple players providing goalkicking options. There was a bit of that last year, but we couldn't maintain it long enough to build a thumping percentage to insulate against a shock final round collapse. Now we must take advantage of our increasing power to merrily kick the shit out of a few plankton sides, and ensure that in the event of a tie after 22 games we're not reliant on other teams to win or lose by certain margins.

I can't get across how much I enjoyed Petracca's game without being arrested for public indecency, but everything you need to know about him as a super-weapon was demonstrated in our first goal. We flipped the script by torching another team on a quick break, but it still might not have turned into anything if Truck hadn't strong-armed his opponent out of the way to set up an open goal. Then after ripping the Saints from arsehole to breakfast in the first quarter he went into the middle and did them over there as well. What. A. Man.

At one point he found himself deep in the forward pocket and hit some weird, inverted torp that centered directly to an unguarded Bernie Vince. I can only think he was really having a shot and it accidentally found a free player, but am willing to entertain the prospect that like a quick Hamburglar handball off the deck he actually has sixth sense vision and meant it. He is my football fantasy - I'm even keen on his bullshit novelty NBA celebration routines with Oliver. If you're going to do anything that annoys opposition fans, make it something that only happens after a goal.

It was quite a night for players from the Petracca draft - McCartin and Brayshaw both played promising games after a shocking run with injury, and avoided the instant 000 scenario of crashing into each other. Gus is behind because of all the footy he's missed, but has the general building blocks of an excellent player. On the other side McCartin played the game of his life to earn a nomination in the Kingsley Klub pre-season XVIII.

We temporarily conceded the lead via two quick goals, one from an absurdly random free kick directly in front of goal, but that was effectively the last anyone saw of the Saints until the siren went. The rest of the quarter was a Harlem Globetrotters style exhibition of effortless, funky ball movement that made you fall in love with the sport all over again. When we didn't score instantly, St Kilda defenders would be tormented by a much welcome torrent of forward pressure.

Every once in a while they'd get a break from us clobbering them and escape the 50, only to blow their chance with horrible service to the forwards. We would then bounce down the other end, where a rotating cast of characters would thump through a goal. It's hard to fault an eight goal quarter, but when it happens in the first there is a nagging sense that you're never going to have it as good again for the rest of the day. Unless you were playing us when we were total wank. After goals from Garlett and Melksham x2, Tyson, Vince from Petracca's mystery ball and Fritsch people started to forget Jack Watts ever played for us.

If you were watching any other club you'd think a landslide was on, but with Melbourne you knew the inevitable correction couldn't be too far away. When they kicked the goal right at the end of the quarter I had that familiar "oh here we go" feeling. Realistically in a trial game it shouldn't have mattered if we did throw away a good start, but after going 6-1 in the last three pre-seasons (+3 if you consider AFLX legitimate) I've become accustomed to the good life. Before Round 1 starts at least.

To nobody's surprise we didn't carry on after quarter time, but even with the game slowed down and the opposition finally deciding to turn up the margin kept going up. They were a much tougher proposition, now but were still attacking like it was the first time they'd ever played the sport. If you've been paying close attention to our AFLW side you'd have recognised the 'hit it and hope' method, which was about as successful for them as it has been for our women in 2018. We chucked in a bit of that as well, but it was balanced by well worked goals and Oliver effortlessly fanging them through.

The brakes went on the outright rampage of the first quarter, but we still extended the lead into half time. I'm still not comfortable writing about us like we're a good side, which is why the third quarter was a handy reality check. First there was a half time interview between Simon Goodwin, and Garry Lyon wearing an implausible barnet that looked like fibre optic cabling. No AFL coach has said anything important in public since Mick Malthouse berated Mark Stevens so we were never going to learn anything remarkable. The only thing I got from it, other than the National Broadband Network running across Gaz's fringe, was that as much as Goodwin put a brave face on talk about the cancelled camp debacle he was still filthy about it.

Instead of matey Dorothy Dixers, Garry should have known the interview would be played at half time and asked - no matter how long ago it was recorded - why there's always one quarter where we roll over and die with scant resistance. He would have looked like an oracle. Given that our backline was practically at full strength it's concerning that they burst like a squashed bug the moment McDonald was packed away. It wasn't entirely their fault, we lost what had been complete dominance of the stoppages and the Saints decided to take their time looking for targets instead of panic bombing to a contest. Result - several players in red and blue standing around like traffic cones while St Kilda forwards roamed free as a bird.

Before you had time to breathe we'd copped six goals and had blown a 39 point lead. This is the point where somebody will bemoan the absence of Lewis under the assumption that he'd have applied some sick leadership shit to stop it. If that's the case he must have been distracted when Collingwood were fisting us in the first quarter last year. For many years the task of trying to calm everyone down would have fallen to Nathan Jones, but he was barely seen all night. The idea of becoming a good side without him suffering another crushing neck injury from carrying everyone on his shoulders is alien to me, but for the first time I really suspected that the rising tide might sink him. In the meantime I'm sure he welcomes the opportunity to become just a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink.

Their momentum was finally halted by accident, with Jake Melksham sliding through a perfectly legitimate attempt to gather the ball and straight into Jack Steven's ankle. Jeff Garlett steadied the ship not long after, and we were back in front at the last change. Any rational human could understand that Steven's injury was a racing accident, which is why David "What have you got to worry about Melbourne fans?" King suggested it was the perfect example of why the sliding rule was so important. There was not a hint of irony about it, nor did any of the umpires feel strongly enough to pay a free at the time. He was not as vocal about an incident earlier in the game where Mitch Hannan was pinged for desperately lunging onto the ball and having a Saints player run into his head.

Speaking of people who've had their head run into, the last quarter opened with a fortuitous bullshit free to Brayshaw right in front of goal. Josh Wagner must have felt guilty about it, because the first time the ball went down the other end he tackled somebody in the face to give it back. That was St Kilda's lot, Gus got a second, Hannan another as a direct result of a nervy fumble, then Bugg turned up his own in the square for a third.

Other than a rancid miss in the first quarter I was happy with Bugg, his forward pressure was excellent. Doesn't mean he's a Round 1 starter, but it makes a change to have capable players waiting in the wings. I enjoy how now every time he goes near it they have to talk about him punching that Sydney bloke in the head as if he committed a human rights violation. Bad luck getting six weeks for a badly aimed jumper punch, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the victim played 84% of the next game when painting Bugg as the second coming of Jack the Ripper.

To add to the general fiasco that is my personal year 2018 to date, I missed the next five minutes when the excitement of the JLT Community Series caused our electricity to lose the plot. I don't know if you've ever tried to restart a Foxtel box after a quick power outage, but it's like waiting for paint to dry. If it happened in the fourth quarter of a real game I'd punch on, so that's a great advertisement for why I have to keep going to live matches. I half expected to come back and find we'd conceded five, or that everyone had done a knee. Fortunately no. The most disastrous thing I saw as it returned was Billy Stretch buggering up a shot from the pocket.

As everyone went into self-preservation mode there was a quick Gawn injury scare, before it was revealed to be nothing more than cramp. Maybe it's because our performance had calmed my nerves, maybe it was because I was dying to go to bed and couldn't face the prospect of fretting about it, but I had a gut feeling when the injury was alleged that everything was going to be alright. And indeed it was, he gingerly went to the sidelines for some stretching and all was right with the world.

The last came courtesy of Hogan, whose two goal total didn't go near telling you how well he played. His work pushing up the ground was glorious. We don't need one man to kick 70 when he can play a part in setting up 100 for his teammates. I'm more than happy for him to go to CHF and kick as McDonald's lead. Even the idea is starting to make me sweat, I think I need to sit down and watch some 2013 'highlights' as the footy equivalent of a cold shower.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Max Gawn
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Jesse Hogan
1 - Dom Tyson

Apologies to Brayshaw, Garlett, Lever and Bugg.

Surprise Leaderboard
The award that would not die. I said it would only be awarded if two or less players were tied at the top, and here we are. Congratulations to Maximum Truck on their win.

7 - Max Gawn, Christian Petracca
5 - Alex Neal-Bullen
4 - James Harmes
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Jesse Hogan
1 - Bayley Fritsch, Dom Tyson

Banner Watch
St Kilda made the contest easy by not bringing one. 2-0 Dees for the pre-season.

The week after next
Via a Casey vs Box Hill practice match next week it's off to Round 1, and god may have mercy on our souls. Notwithstanding Geelong sending out a reserves team and being thrashed by Gold Coast I'm not entirely convinced by them as premiership contenders. However, I'm less convinced about us on that front so I'm still assuming defeat. The obvious Melbourne thing to do is to beat them, then lose to Brisbane and North.

Final Thoughts
I'm riding an unprecedented wave of MFC-related positivity. If it all goes tits up from here I may end up bouncing off the walls of a rubber room.

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