Sunday, 16 May 2021

Standard 'post delayed' notification

Christ on a bike, we just can't stop winning. If you saw this coming you must have pre-season taking native American hallucinogens and/or huffing paint. Importantly, you were right and nervous types like me were not.

Now, I'm sure at this time you're just gagging to read a few thousand words about what happened, but as discussed last week I'm involved in an early morning baby extraction scenario so am currently not expecting the post to come out until Wednesday night at the earliest. Apologies for the delay but I'm sure you understand.

Speaking of people who once (less legally) extracted a child, here's a topical video from Channel 9... 

Keep an eye on Twitter or Facebook for a link. Send any thoughts on the game via the usual channels and I'll incorporate/shamelessly steal them.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Eight the hard way

In 1999, when The Footy Show was still essential viewing there was a classic running gag where Eddie McGuire's intro would be interrupted by an update on how many games Collingwood had lost in a row. You had to be there. Now that you know he had to be in on it and have spent years hearing him sook about jumper colours, it's not nearly as amusing. One of the number reveals was very influential on me, and for 22 years I've thought about streaks - occasionally good, usually not - being counted via banners dropping from the ceiling. In my head, all I can see now is the unfurling of a giant number eight. In lieu of anything else to unfurl, it will have to do for now.

Even their glory era never had to come up with a way to introduce the number eight, as the Pies pulled up just in time, before going back to losing the next week. We have temporarily forgotten what losing feels like. Let me clarify, for the benefit of future societies who will recover the contents of this website from the bottom of oceans which will no doubt rise en masse when we're about to win a Grand Final, the once tragic Melbourne Football Club has started the 2021 season 8-0. That's 8, eight, VIII, ٨, ፰, ൮, etc wins... and zero losses. I'm still struggling to come to terms with this run, god knows what 'the future' will make of it.

As much as I'd love some right now, this has not come from a string of thumping victories. We have been tested in various ways by the good, the bad, and the mediocre and found a way to come out on top each time. When will this madness end? After this introduction, almost certainly next week.

Dating back to last year we've now won 10 games in a row (good thing we didn't ruin it by making the finals eh?). There's not much to compare that to. Since the club's first official game in 1859 we have achieved this exactly 10 times. Blimey.

  • 19 - Round 15, 1955 to Round 13, 1956
  • 11 - Round 5, 1960 to Round 15, 1960
  • 10 - September 1892 to June 1893
  • 10 - September 1894 to July 1895
  • 11 - Round 5, 1964 to Round 15, 1964 (stay tuned for more on that delightful season...)
  • 10 - Round 17, 1927 to Round 8, 1928
  • 10 - Round 8, 1941 to Round 17, 1941
  • 10 - Round 1, 1955 to Round 10, 1955
  • 10 - Semi Final 1964 to Round 8, 1965
Those of a nervous disposition will note that we could still smash through our all-time record then go out of the finals in straight sets. Either way, no matter what happens from here we're living in extraordinary times. And like the St. Kilda and Geelong wins I wasn't there to see it. This time it's all my fault, I am officially a poltroon who should have a yellow streak painted down my back. I had a ticket, and had time to get from work to the first bounce but chickened out due to a combination of factors that would never have stopped me in the decade when we were complete piss. 

In no particular order, I gave up on my long held beliefs about having to be at the ground no matter what due to - in no particular order - having about four hours sleep, needing to get up again at 4.45am, living about as close as you get to the middle of nowhere while still being in the Melbourne metropolitan area and having a train line that was replaced by buses. How I used to laugh at people who used train replacements as an excuse, now I am one and it's undignified. 

Considering some of the unethical shit I did to watch us lose from 2007-2016 it gets me down that life has caught up to me in a time that - as the above table demonstrates - we may never see again. It almost feels disrespectful to the players, as if they give a fat rat's clacker what I do. However, there's every possible chance I would have risen above all these negatives and gone if you'd guaranteed being able to sit wherever I want. That's what has really done me in this year. Imagine having to sit in my assigned seat, four down a row, squashed in by people I'd never met, and going through the agony of a thrilling finish? Odds on I'd have accidentally delivered a Tom Hawkins style elbow to a neighbour.

Nevertheless, by 7.25 I was battling a tremendous sense of guilt about not being at the MCG. On the other hand, I spent the last few minutes before the bounce with my feet up on the couch eating dinner and knew that no matter the result I could be in bed 20 minutes after the final siren so it wasn't all bad. Not going to any games last year didn't entirely break the spell - my preference will always be to see the game live - but it helped. Much love to the boffins who worked out how to stream live sports over the internet.

My traumas were not all self-inflicted, a week alone atop the ladder to the general disinterest of everyone not aligned to Melbourne left me with raging imposter syndrome. There's just something NQR about seeing Melbourne on top of the ladder which made me expect an immediate 2004 style swan dive. If it's coming there has been a delay of at least a week. Any chance of putting it off until, say, March 2022?

The sense that things were going too well meant that by the first bounce I had mentally written this off as the loss we had to have. That didn't take much effort if you consider our recent record against the Swans. The disastrous last start in Cairns is the most relevant, but there have been plenty of unfortunate memories since that wonderful day when we steamrolled them at the MCG in 2010. We've had a win and draw since, but I'm still scarred by losing by 110 and electing Tommy Walsh as the first international Kingsley. Not to mention a bunch of other losses between 30 and 60 points and that cock-up in 2018 with finals on the line.

As you'd expect when you've beaten everyone for the first two months of the season, things are going much better now than any time we've played them recently. Based solely on consecutive wins we haven't been this good since they were South Melbourne. But if there's anything to complain about, it's that despite having the league's best ruckman and one of its best midfields we're regularly being battered at centre clearances. We're fine at stoppages around the ground where the action happens inside a phone booth, but in the wide-open spaces of a centre bounce there's mass agoraphobia, and no matter where the ball is tapped we generally let the other side get it first.

Some days this issue corrects mid-match (e.g the fourth quarter against Hawthorn), but on Saturday night we started badly and didn't get any better. Quick breaks from the centre often turn into the sort of hopeful long kicks that suit our defenders perfectly, but the less time the ball is at the other end the better. Also, now we've got a full forward who is good at leading and kicking straight, stick a few quick passes down his throat and he'll kick a bag. Still, it's nice to know there's still room for improvement after winning the first eight. It's not like we're winning these games playing out of our skin and have nowhere to go but backwards.

Of all the Sydney players I expected to dick us, second only to Lance (never Buddy) Franklin was our old mate Justin Trudeau, who was last seen taking time out from Prime Ministering Canada to run riot against us in Cairns. Since our first meeting, he's stuffed the lookalike up a bit by cultivating a mullet but otherwise carried on where he left off, kicking the first goal after 30 seconds.

This was almost the closest we came to stopping one of their centre clearances and still let it slip out, leading to a pained Tom Papley's saying "awwww fuck" on prime time TV after colliding with a teammate. I appreciate Tom as a heel on a similar scale to Toby Greene (albeit more blue-collar and without having belted a security guard), but to prove he's not all that bad he later did a Hawkeye Pierce impersonation to stem bleeding from James Harmes' head:

Bit of a strange thing to do but it takes all sorts. His kick ended in Justin T snatching a loose handball for the opener, and though our backline soon came very good they were purely responsible for a second not long after. A flat as a tack kick by Petty bamboozled Tom McDonald, who started a chain of pointless handballs that ended in a goal. After Richmond (and GWS, and St Kilda, and North) I wasn't going to write us off based on a 12 point deficit but early signs were not good. They looked, to use a technical term, up for it and we seemed tired. But were we really? It feels like a full team equivalent of Gawn 2015/2016 when he'd smash through four quarters despite looking like he was about to die halfway through the third.

When they nearly got a third a minute later I was was ready to declare us dead and start studying the draft. I didn't think much of our chances if they were going to continually ping the ball inside 50 at speed. Fortunately, the centre bounces were about the only scenario they converted into quick attack, and once we got the ball forward they were stuffed, left unsuccessfully trying to pick through a wall of players everywhere they looked.

But before we could lock them behind the Great Wall of Melbourne the ball had to get down our end. Enter Turbo Hunt, who charged through the middle to set up our first. I maintain that if you just get in his road he'll be stuffed, but allowed open space to run into here he turned defence into attack in an instant. We were, perhaps fortunate that McDonald was paid a kick that travelled about 10 metres at a time where umpires are being tight about distance, but considering it cosmic payback for the Jeremy Cameron debacle last week. 

Sizzle started the year playing like he was on death row, witness a rotten set shot from directly in front in the first quarter against Freo, but even after an off-day last week he is now playing with full swagger. And a mysterious sticky substance in the middle of his jumper all night. Maybe the goo was his version of Peter Brock's energy polarizer (quote: "it makes a shithouse car good") because after not going near it in Hobart he kicked goals from every angle here.

We all love McDonald (well on this page anyway) but the speed at which we give back his goals nearly constitutes workplace harassment. He must have been standing up the other end mouthing "here we go again" when they plowed straight out of the centre, Franklin got his only win all night against May by 'removing him' from a contest and lined up for a shot less than 20 seconds after the restart. Even with the option to basically run around the man on the mark, a move he practically invented, Franklin failed to make the distance. Coming back from injury or not, this was like watching a late Muhammad Ali fight where the opponent was just punching the piss out of him. Literally in Steven May's case, fined $2000 for allegedly biffing him during the first quarter.

By midway through the quarter we'd recovered the earlier deficit. For an insight into the genius of Christian Salem please review his kick to Melksham after being called to play on for no apparent reason. Even with an opponent charging him down he landed a perfect pass right on Jake's tit - as they say. There's panic "I've got to get rid of this" kicks, and there's knowing exactly what to do in a crisis. He is terrifically underrated by fans of other clubs but the coaches must be well aware of the threat he poses.

The entire night was spent with rules being ignored or selectively applied, which worked in our favour for the third goal, as holding the ball was temporarily suspended and Spargo put the ball on the exact sort of platter that best suits Ben Brown. His run up started in my backyard but you can't argue with results. After a nervy start last week he was very good this time. Got into good positions, worked hard to cover ground, not much chop when the ball rolled free but that's not why we got him. 

Between Brown, McDonald, and everything Fritsch has done until this week it's hard to see The Weid getting a game anytime soon. My earlier theories that Collingwood would be on the phone are hampered by the fact that they won't have a good draft pick for about five years once they get Daicos III. The obvious solution is to find a contender that needs a forward and go there, but all the money might be coming from Hawthorn and North, who will have a fortune in cap space but nobody to spend it on. The way they're going I'd almost rather play for Casey but you wouldn't begrudge him looking for opportunities and making shitloads of cash on the way. Who knows what nightmares the rest of the season holds, he could be playing full back by Queen's Birthday.

The question is how hard we try to convince him to stay. He has shown a bit without becoming essential but should still be playing long after Brown and McDonald are retired. I'm happy to go all-in on any system that works this year but if we don't go deep into the finals do you try and set up for the long-term instead? Mind you, I'm almost convinced that after restoring his reputation McDonald will stick two fingers up at Goodwin and go elsewhere. It would be very Melbourne to spend the year debating how to fit three players into two positions only to end up with two leaving. Also, even if Weideman gets back in the side, how the hell are we going to pay for him if his career takes off? I already thought the salary cap was heaving, this week's Petracca megadeal must have it fit to burst. 

While our forwards are doing enough to hold their position without kicking huge scores, the backline is operating as well as any that I can remember. They're so good at keeping scoring down that we should arrange to save one welfare check by having Steve Hocking and the Weid watch games together.

Last week I tempted fate by suggesting May would harass Franklin into retirement, confident that the theory would never be tested. Which led to a bit of tension when the Swans unexpectedly brought him back from injury, giving me visions of a Fantastic Franklin Flashback where he kicked 9.7. 

While this would have been undoubtedly shit, it would have been new to us, like Jack Riewoldt he holds a surprisingly average record against Melbourne, having played the same number of games against Carlton and Essendon for 30 goals more against each. Of all the clubs that existed at the start of his career, Fremantle is the only side he's got a worse record against than us. That's not surprising considering Ross Lyon was running a fetish club for low scores for most of that time. We, on the other hand, we prone to muntings for most of his glory era. Somehow we fared no worse than a haul of six in 2008 and five in 2011. It helps that Melbourne is the only club that a man who has kicked around 270 more goals than points has sub-50% accuracy against. I've heard the unlikely story that he was a Melbourne fan as a kid but this is ridiculous.

It's unlikely that he'll call a press conference on Monday, but the bit about May tormenting him certainly came true. In the twilight of his career, the greatest goalkicker of the modern era must have wondered if it was worth carrying on when a man who saw 15 goals go over his head in the first quarter of his debut was beating him in an endless stream of one-on-one contests. In the third quarter he was such a broken man that after a rare mark 50 metres out on angle he tried a pissy kick to the square instead of doing what we all expected by running around a mile and dropping the ball five rows over the fence. Out of respect to his legendary career I hope Lance gets to rip one last team to bits by the end of the year but I won't be fretting if we have to play him again.

We won't stop them forever, but over the last two months our backline has all but rendered opposition tall forwards extinct. The loss of Tomlinson, whose sideline misery was only touched on by Channel 7 after Fox Footy spent all last week sticking cameras in his face like a disaster victim, was not entirely covered by Petty, but he did well enough. I wouldn't want him kicking for my life but he's solid enough in the contest. And given we have bugger all other options (and after McDonald's performance I'm prepared to follow newly-minted Supercoach Goodwin's philosophies on which end he should play at) he'll never get a better opportunity to develop than with May/Lever as cover and Salem/Hibberd etc... at ground level. If he's still shinning clearing kicks in Round 23 I'll whinge about him. Alternatively, he'll do something wacky next week and I'll bring that timeframe forward.

Now, at three goals to two, things were looking up. The only problem was spending the next five minutes at half-forward without pressing home the advantage. Considering the conditions it was, surprisingly, a better night for tall forwards than small. Pickett started in long sleeves, played for frees with such ferocity that the umpires couldn't pay them without looking stupid, came back in short sleeves, and for the first time all year didn't kick a goal. Not concerned, given that we won anyway it's worth the odd reminder that life cannot always be this easy.

See also the man some call him 'Slick Fritsch'. On this occasion, he was so slick as to be nearly invisible. Happens to the best of players so no hard feelings, but ironic considering he was initially banned for a week after his high fend-off against North. Personally, I think it was a silly thing to do and he could have had no arguments if the week stood, but was simultaneously prepared to be morally outraged based on the fact that nobody was interested when Tom Hawkins caved Steven May's eye in.

After Michael Christian declined to accept six goals as a qualifier for the Famous Face Discount, we were forced to win Bayley's freedom via the (footy) courts.  Now that we can afford to hire from outside the Denis Denuto category on, this was successful, only for him to play arguably the worst game of his career. Maybe he was sacrificed to do coach-friendly things that plebs don't pick up on, maybe it was an OJ Simpson style guilty conscience, either way he did stuff all. But so did McDonald before going into defence last week before having the time of his life six days later so no point getting upset.

He's a proven performer now so will bounce back, but of the limited but varied list of players who have kicked six or more in a game in my time the only one who had a more disappointing follow up was James Cook. And that's because he was carried off half-dead after two kicks the next week, never to be seen again. (Stats fans, the rest of the post-1989 club are Bennett, Bruce, Cuthbertson, Farmer, Hogan, Jakovich, R.Jackson, Lovell, Lyon, T. McDonald, Neitz, Robertson, Schwarz, and Smith). 

All these wasted opportunities led - as you might expect - to Sydney going down the other end and nicking a goal. By the strictest definition of DemonTime it was a couple of seconds early but spiritually formed part of that great tradition. It shouldn't have happened in the first place, coming from Gawn dropping the sort of mark he usually eats, then May committing one of his few errors all night by blindly handballing to nobody. End result - a goal to Gawn's opposite number, the much-travelled Tom Hickey. Not fatal, but a huge waste at the end of several minutes where we might have built a lead. Or, more likely, we might have kicked a goal, lost the centre clearance and given it straight back.

There was much commentary box amazement at how Hickey has 'improved at his fourth club' as if the number of teams you've played for has any relation to career progression. Every game Mark Jamar played from 2009-2011 was better than the first 50 and he never went further than the rehab group. The Hickey miracle theory also ignores when he played 20 games for West Coast in a finals year. Not like he came to this point via a Spencil (I miss that guy) style career progression of 6, 2, 0, 0, 8, 8, 5, 7, 0, and 2 games. I'm more amazed that he hasn't lost the will to live after moving interstate four times, that would have driven me bonkers.

The coach was understandably frustrated at quarter time and got a good reaction from the same players 'pundits' would have said were 'not playing for him' if things were going badly. The surprise hit forward combination of McDonald and Brown combined for the first, with the Sizzle delivering a lovely pass for his new mate to reel in one-handed above a desperately trying to get out of the way Clayton Oliver with no Swans in sight. This, I would like to see more of.

By now it had started raining, which in my mind justified the decision to stay home. I'd have been exposed to it from where they wanted me to sit, and might have had a breakdown seeing all the non-MCC bits of Level 4 shut. Like a more slog-heavy version of the Richmond game, we were surprisingly good in the wet, while the Swans went to pieces trying to break out of their backline. McDonald played another brilliant part in the next goal, turning what would have been a front-on contact free 9/10 times into a perfect spoil that ended in a Petracca goal. This was followed by an awkward moment where Truck wanted the double high five, which Tom ignored and leapt on him instead.

We ended the quarter in similar style to the first, playing the better football without reward. Just as we've reached celebrity status, the lack of goals after the (Channel) seven minute mark will probably see us pushed back down the TV priority list behind the popular clubs. It's one thing being top of the ladder, but if you're not triggering ads you're useless to them. It wasn't for want of trying, we had several goes but were wasteful. So when the last few seconds were spent with the ball deep in the Sydney forward line I think we all suspected how it would end. In a surprise result, we escaped unscathed, not before Petracca got away with dropping/having the ball knocked from his hands. Still, considering we'd given the opposition their courtesy head start and have been good in second halves all year it was our game to lose.

The third term was all over the shop. First Sydney burst out of the blocks, jammed the ball down their end and kept it there for five minutes until kicking the first goal. Which was bad. But then original odd couple Brown and McDonald combined to restore a double digit lead. Which was good. It never happened without another pinpoint kick from Salem (*swoon*), and for once two of our players jumping at the same ball came off, with Sizzle inadvertently knocking the lone Sydney defender out of the way for Brown to mark. I've already grown accustomed to the run-up that gave me the shits so much when he played for North, and as he turned around after a few steps and went to casually chip it through I actually shouted "noooooo", thinking he was going to rush and miss. Watching the replay, the casual reaction of the crowd suggests half of them weren't looking either.

Striking back after being on the run at the start of the quarter was important. It led to, for about the only time all night, a goal from a centre clearance. Not, mind you, without first turning it over and benefiting from an off the ball free, but that goes to prove the blinding obvious that it's better in your direction than theirs. Remember a few years ago when Geelong would get battered in the middle but still win games and people wanted to tell you how centre clearances were irrelevant? You'll note that was not one of their premiership years. 

Like all stats except goals, centre clearances can only be properly valued by knowing what happened next. If you shank it to an opposition wingman or straight to a free defender who sends it the other way at warp speed you'd have been better with a stacks-on pile that led to a repeat stoppage. When you've got a shit hot defence you can get away with losing a few but unless we do address this it will cost us a game eventually.

Speaking of stats, I don't know how they dish out goal assists, but the Sydney player who unnecessarily bowled Jackson over for the free should get one, because once the kick came off the pack McSizzle intercepted a handball, bumped off one opponent (in that he ran into, not killed him), barged past another and snapped a goal that officially announced - as if you didn't already know - that he was back in form. After he and Fritsch traded shockers over the last two weeks, it's seemingly Brown's turn, but considering Carlton's ropey defence you'd be disappointed if he didn't kick [insert obvious exaggeration later used by Blues fans to 'prove' overconfidence].

If that created a much-needed break, McDonald's next rampant appearance helped us to an even better position. He tore a defender down with a tackle to win holding the ball, then converted the free from the boundary line. Cameron Ling sooked about Pickett playing on and missing, ignoring the fact that he's so fast that he kicked it before the free was even paid. You would have to be an absolute cove of an umpire to not bring that back.

At this time we were introduced to a man who was absolutely desperate to get on TV. Almost like he was doing some sort of self-promotion and will miraculously show up on Big Brother by Wednesday desperate. It would be hypocritical to point the finger (as it were) towards anybody doing wacky things in the crowd considering I once went to a game dressed like this...

... but I would note the difference between hiding your face on national television and being seen by a several hundred thousand people looking like this:

If it was some kind of swizz, a set shot occurring directly in front of him was a happy coincidence. He took full advantage, getting more screentime on Channel 7 than any paid advertiser for most of the second quarter. Sadly, after being offered free advice during his run-up, McSizzle didn't counter with a suggestion to jam the novelty implement up his chocbox. This led to a few awkward seconds where after drawing attention to himself, Captain Bollocks had to look magnanimous about conceding, including awkward attempts to clap with the novelty still attached. Hopefully he doesn't tire of jokes about his giant hand, because he may now be referenced in every Sydney-related post until the end of time.

I foolishly thought this goal, extending the gap to 22 with six minutes left, would be the gateway to a comfortable win. Even with all the trust built up from seven wins in a row you'd still be a fool to trust Melbourne. After nearly giving his first back and fighting all our natural instincts to avoid wasting the second, we finally stuffed up one of Tom's goals on the third go. It was not immediately out of the middle, but two minutes later on the first rebound 50. Near enough if you're actively seeking confirmation bias. 

Even worse it fell to somebody who had a) not kicked a goal all year, and b) came via hasty play on after not being paid a mark that was plenty longer than the one we were paid in the first quarter. The chance to not think about a set shot probably helped Jake Lloyd, who hasn't kicked a goal for a year, casually whack it through without worry. What a waste of a great finish at the other end. After an evening silently fuming about being thrashed in the middle I cracked the shits in a way that wouldn't have been possible at the ground. 

Oliver, Harmes and Jordon were all individually amongst our best players, but any time the game restarted with a bounce they were bamboozled. Did Brayshaw ever go in there? After all you hear about him being forced out of the middle by other players, this seemed like a good time to give him a chance to either extract the ball or at the very least lock the bloody thing in so we could have another go. 

Brayshaw has had a red-hot bash recently, risking having his already suspect block knocked off by running back into several contests, but his disposal lends itself to an inside player rather than what we've got him doing. He's contracted until the end of next year, but safe in the knowledge that we'll have bugger all money to spend anyway and are not going to play in a position that will maximise his value pre-contract he may want to go somewhere that can better fit him in. Let's be honest, if we keep playing like this somebody's going to get squeezed out eventually, and if it's mutually beneficial for all parties I wouldn't set fire to myself outside Gate 1. For now he can concentrate on helping us win silverware.

Of course, I still wouldn't have been confident at 16 points ahead to start the last quarter but it would have been a step closer to safety. Instead our old mate, Dr. Tom Papley crumbed the bejesus out of a loose ball after spending the night missing chances and the margin was back under two goals. There's a fair psychological boundary between a 10 and 16 point lead. Either can disappear in a couple of minutes but you feel much more relaxed with the extra goal. Every six points after that until the Sullivan Line is breached factors into my personal Duckworth Lewis Method of how relaxed I can get without actually being certain of winning. In this case it went from 'not very' to 'new undies please' very quickly.

We'd got there via a vastly different path, but our three quarter time position was reminiscent of the Hawthorn game. As was the opposition scooting straight out of the middle to kick a goal 20 seconds after the break. The comparisons ended there, this was not the sort of opposition to be wiped off the table in a 10 minute orgy of scoring.

Relief came from the thinking man's footballer Charlie Spargo, a player whose contribution will never be explained by bog-standard statistics. Maybe even the top draw Champion Data stuff the clubs have access to would struggle to tell the story, but you can tell from the naked eye how important he is.

The joy of his pluck of a touched ball and quick kick through traffic was delayed by the most unnecessary goal review in history. When spectacle fanatics like Gerard Healy moan about the game going too long they might want to consider the time spent on a frame by frame analysis of this as if the video reviewer was trying to see up Sharon Stone's skirt in Basic Instinct. They weren't satisfied by the ball landing well over the line, even though nobody had suggested the ball was touched off the boot that was investigated as well.

Because I don't want to be sued like Matt Rendell, I just ask you to compare to the goal umpire in Hobart who correctly backed himself on multiple close calls. This meant the game could continue without having to wait a minute for somebody who knows they'll be sacked for making a mistake to make a judgement on vision that looks like it was recorded by Sega Megadrive.

That was, sadly, not the end of the Swans. Insert references to the fighting spirit of 'The Bloods' that didn't become a thing for about 30 years after they relocated and file next to 'Shinboner Spirit' in the Hall of Nonsense. We must be set for another catchphrase. Remember when we went continental in 2018 and rallied behind 'esprit de corps'? That turned into 'esprit de corpse' about five minutes into the Prelim and was never heard of again.

These club identities are almost as big a wank as community singing before the bounce, but if you've got a negative stereotype about Melbourne I'm probably happy to adopt it as a coping strategy. When Sydney dragged the margin back under a goal with 12 minutes left I was convinced - for about the 21st time in the last month - that we'd finally run out of petrol and were about to be swamped.

As a sweaty John Longmire turned a shade of beetroot, we got the decisive goal through who else by the Sizzle. This time it was Brown's turn to give him a hand in the contest, allowing McDonald to reach over the top of the pack and mark. When he opted for the wacky sideways kick from barely outside the square I suspected a humiliating miss was on the cards but he pretty much did the exact same thing he had from the boundary 30 minutes earlier, albeit without some glory-hunting poon yelling at him. 

Cue 10 minutes of nobody scoring, while my heart rate approached that of a skydiver whose first chute hasn't opened. I was convinced that after being ransacked all night, this was the bit where Franklin would come alive and win the game. He didn't go close, but that left 21 other players who were just as likely to do it as far as I was concerned. Time was ticking down, but if you're less than two kicks in front you can't relax until about the last 30 seconds. Maybe even less, remember Round 1, 2016 when GWS kicked a goal with nine seconds left, fanged inside 50 from the bounce and nearly got a shot off before the siren? If not, that's what I'm here for.

After eight games without losing, James Jordon is nearing the top shelf of novelty footy statistics. This AFL Tables page used to be the go-to for seeing how many of our players ranked amongst the worst win/loss records in the competition (rejoice, currently none), now we've got an eye on the 'most career games without a loss' category. It doesn't guarantee success - ask Geelong's Josh Cowan, who lost once in 16 starts and was last seen busting his leg in Daylesford - but means you've played in a decent side. Somewhere Jimmy Toumpas is kicking the metaphorical cat, wondering how his career might have been turned out if he hadn't been thrown to the wolves in dreadful company.

Our record is 14 straight by Bryan Kenneally, obviously aided by walking into a side that had more flags than the United Nations. Surely Double J isn't going to stretch his good fortune that far, but he certainly justified his spot in the side. I'm not getting over-excited about his 23 possessions because they included a fair bit of clang, but his pressure was fantastic. Like everyone else he was unsighted at centre bounces, but around the ground his tackling was great. He's no Jack Viney - for one thing, his foot works - but this was a reasonable cover version.

The last of his tackles proved crucial, mowing down some Ed Langdon-lite headband wearing blonde steaming towards Sydney's 50. You'd like to think our defenders would have mopped it up anyway but I was glad not to test the theory. They certainly dealt with the next threat. It was lucky the Swans were paid a mark just outside 50 because that man Franklin picked the ball up and was about to arc around and have a shot when the umpire called him back. The guy who was forced to take the kick displayed far less urgency, wasting another 15 seconds before gingerly kicking it to a pack and seeing the ball punched out of bounds.

This wasn't the worst result for the Swans, they were more likely to snatch a goal out of thin air than craft one anyway, but we survived long enough to drag the ball back into the centre square and waste another minute. There was final concern from the ball bouncing off Franklin's chest before he snapped straight up in the air. I yelped like a small dog when Mills had a shot that went out on the full, and with 90 seconds left that had to be it. One extraction from defence and a few kicks from side-to-side and it would be over. 

We achieved the first objective, before getting the ball forward almost too successfully. There was no natural break for a player to stop and do a dinky, time-wasting kick to a teammate, instead we went forward in a wave and heaved the ball at McDonald. Fair enough under the 'when you're hot, you're hot' rule, but in this case it would have been better if it bounced away from him and over the line. He gathered, and with too much room to do an 'oh dear, I appear to have been tackled over the line' move tried a high-risk pass to Brown, covered by two defenders in the middle of the 50. This opened the door for Syndey to rebound straight down the middle of the ground. In his defence, he would probably have been smothered if he tried to kick to the only player ahead of him (and yes, this would have been a better result but you can't hang somebody for not calculating every last permutation of a snap decision. Unless you've got it in for them and need a reason to prove they're no good) and would probably have been pinged for deliberate if he'd rolled a kick out of bounds in the pocket.

With less than a minute left it would have taken something spectacular to lose, but we still had to get through a couple of loose moments. Tom Papley MD dropped a mark, before a hurried kick from 50 fell short, leading to an even more hurried snap that barely snuck through for a point and we were home. Thank christ, my nerves couldn't take any more. And people want a count-up clock. Get stuffed.

Given how well Salem played after signing a bumper new contract, I was hopeful Petracca would celebrate his seven-year multi-million dollar extension by playing the greatest midfield game in the history of the VFL/AFL competition (get to shite interstate people, it's the same thing). No pressure though. Alas while he was solid and workmanlike it was far from his best, falling some way short of the projected 48 disposals and seven goals. 

In the spirit of nothing ever coming easy at Melbourne, he was also felled in a collision with about five seconds left, coming out with a corky (a word I'm not sure I've ever written before) after momentarily looking like he'd done something serious. Shouldn't stop him playing next week but might need another round of the cupping that left him looking like a medieval torture victim in the early rounds. He was jovial enough in the post-match interview before hobbling away like the elderly but importantly, like our unbeaten streak, he survived to go again next week. If things get any more exciting I may need to watch the second half of the year under heavy sedation.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Tom McDonald
4 - Steven May
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - James Harmes
1 - Christian Salem

Major apologies to Jordon. Other large scale apologies to Brown, Langdon, Neal-Bullen, Petracca and Spargo

Arise midfielder, take thy natural place at the head of the leaderboard. Any non-crippled player on the list can still win from here but after two years of letting others win the title, Oliver is now in the box seat to grab Jako #3.

There was only slight movement in the minors, with May making up ground on Salem in the Seecamp but still sitting almost a full BOG behind. The Stynes is interesting, you'd think Gawn's lead will be enough to ensure he wins for the eighth time, but Jackson's hitout average is still lurking just above the 10 per game qualifying mark so he remains a live chance. And James Jordon may be the unluckiest player of the week, barely missing the vote that would have kicked the Hilton race off two months late. Plenty of time left.

17 - Clayton Oliver
14 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
13 - Christian Petracca, Christian Salem (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
11 - Kysaiah Pickett
9 - Jake Lever, Steven May, Tom McDonald
6 - Bayley Fritsch, Luke Jackson
3 - Michael Hibberd, Ed Langdon
2 - James Harmes, Jayden Hunt, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It's got to be McDonald, continuing his rebirth by barnstorming through half of Sydney's defence before snapping the goal. In case he leaves, for the weekly prize he wins a framed selection of photos remembering all the great times we've had together. From narrowly avoiding debuting as a late inclusion for 186, to [whatever the hell happens this year] via underrated defence, a weekly howler turnover, mysterious goalkicking form, the 2019/2020 slump, a lot of complaining about umpiring decisions, and his much-appreciated return to form.

Pickett retains the overall lead for his spelunking effort against St. Kilda.

As much as TV commentary infuriates me it does mean you catch some of the zanier off the cuff shit they say. Like, for instance, Luke Darcy forgetting he was on TV rather than radio and saying the ball was 'on the AFL logo' when it was clearly smack in the middle of a Toyota Hilux ad. This is the reverse of the old Rex Hunt trick where he'd just flat-out make up fence signs that conveniently matched the AW sponsors.

In the commentator draft, I'd still have Darcy and Hamish McLachlan ahead of BT or Dwayne but they do talk some crap. I can understand botching names and referring to 'Jordan Jones', but the undoubted highlight was McLachlan telling us that the last time we'd started 8-0 "Ron Barassi was in his first year as coach". Which is correct. He was at Carlton, but whoever wrote that fun fact obviously failed to make it clear. Darcy chimed in with "in 1956..." then after a pause which suggested a correction coming through the earpiece he corrected himself to 1965. And this is the better of the Channel 7 call teams. 

Words With Fiends
You may have heard, and if you haven't you no doubt will, that I'm going pro with an honest to goodness, real life, proper book. You may remember some light sizzle for this project about a year ago, suffice to say it's taken a while to get to this point. The focus is the 1964 season, the characters involved, and the bonkers way we won our 12th flag but there's also plenty about the death spiral plummet that followed. I think it's pretty good, and hope you will too. 

This time a professional publisher is involved so not only can you buy it from actual stores from July 7, but you can contribute to Jeff Bezos' next divorce settlement by pre-ordering on Amazon now.

There are pre-order options on a bunch of other sites, but none that have ego-feeding bestseller charts. I had a brief stay at #1 in Amazon's eclectic selection of 'American Football' books (featuring Australian rules, Rugby League, Soccer, and even the odd one about actual American Football) on Sunday, and while that's hardly the New York Times bestseller list it's still a buzz for a rank amateur. Thanks for your ongoing support of my on and offline antics.  

(And yes, everyone except the publisher hopes the title will be rendered irrelevant by the end of September).

Next Week
We've got Carlton at the MCG next Sunday, and as if I don't already have enough on my plate flogging products there's the minor matter of the birth of Demonblog Jr. II about 18 hours later. So you'll forgive me if I sit this one out with no regrets. I'll be firing up the megawall and warming up for the miracle of life with a Sunday of slurry. This will also impact delivery time for the post, I'm sure you understand.

I'll cop starting as favourites given our lofty position but you'd be mad to think this will be a walk in the park. Other than absolutely mugging them in 2018, they have regularly pushed us in recent years. When they were seemingly cruising to victory against Footscray I was half scared and half glad that they might be set for a comedown the following week, now I'm 100% convinced they're going to start angry. Here's to treating that idea with contempt and shutting the game down ASAP. 

While I'm concerned about Eddie Betts' career best form and our vulnerability to small forwards, there's got to be something for us in their leaky backline. It may end in a Hocking-friendly shootout but if we turn up at 100% we should win. I'll take anything as long as it ends in a 9-0 record but get the sense that after so many tough games there's a letdown in our near future.

Jones not even making the sub this week doesn't bode well for his future prospects, but I can see him being restored to the job next week. Chandler has to play in the VFL, so why not park somebody on the bench who knows what he's doing and can deal with heading straight back into the fray (if required) without having played the previous week.

Otherwise, I can't see any need for changes unless there are injury issues. I've got concerns over Brayshaw and Melksham long-term but can't fault their contribution here. Apologies to all MFC listed players at Casey - who didn't get to play this week because some bloke in Sydney caught the big one - but you're just going to have to wait for somebody else to fall over.

IN: Jones (to sub)
OUT: Chandler (to VFL)
UNLUCKY: Chandler, Weideman

Final Thoughts
The good news is that we're all but sure to avoid the wooden spoon, and it's been a while since you could say that after Round 8. More importantly, from 8-0 a side would have to be either desperately unlucky or negligent to miss finals. I'm still not allowing myself to look any further than how many wins we are ahead of 9th. Once we cannot mathematically be dislodged from the top eight I'll brew up a top four Bradbury Plan, until then sitting four wins clear of the 6th-12th battle royale will do me quite nicely.

Monday, 3 May 2021

The last shall be first

Given how many time we've opened our account in an otherwise putrid season by springing a wacky upset, it's only fair that somebody would do it to us eventually. This was not the day, even if I was tempted to drink Domestos during the second quarter.

It was an appropriate week to stumble upon this match preview from 1993, when all we had to do was beat a Sydney side that had lost its last 26 games. Replace 'Sydney' with 'North Melbourne' (just the mere 21 losses of their last 22), 'Balme' with 'Goodwin' and this could have gone out Sunday morning without anyone noticing the difference.

That day the alarm bells rang correctly, ending in the biggest upset loss of my supporting life. Like the famous Essendon comeback a year earlier, it's a result that has scarred me for life. So, while everything turned out for the best, you will forgive me for spending the week on high alert for a five alarm shambles.

The weekend of Kangaroo related festivities began with Casey stomping their reserves into dust on Thursday night. All you need to know about that result is that bookies sent North B in with a +99.5 point start and they failed to cover it. Even the oft-forgotten Casey VFLW side dismantled their Arden Street equivalent. Our record against them this week was so strong that if football clubs still did eSports, M(ario)FC would have rescued the Princess while they were still splashing around in World 2-2.

All that would have counted for nought if the seniors lost. The general public and most North fans refused to accept the possibility but long-term Demon enthusiasts were on guard. The concept that we would never be allowed nice things - even temporary ones - was further reinforced when Footscray lost on Friday night, meaning a win by any margin (or, less desirably, a draw) would leave us sitting alone at the top of the ladder as the AFL's only undefeated team. What could possibly etc...

There was an optimistic group that still spoke of percentage boosting landslide wins, and I respect their efforts to try and will the 'new' Melbourne to show up, even if I thought they should be locked up under the Mental Health Act. I was just happy to win a banana skin game, which shows that my head is still in "when is this going to turn bad?" territory.  

I was worried on so many levels, including the addition of Ben Brown to a forward line that may not have been kicking huge scores but had been doing enough to win. I was excited about him playing, just fearful that altering the balance of our attack would cause everything to go haywire. I won't relax until I see a flag, but ask Bayley Fritsch how he enjoyed having somebody take the focus off him.

Another reason for concern was the best defence in the league coming up against a side averaging seven goals a game. If it were two neutral teams you'd expect it to end with the lesser one kicking 4.8.32 and losing comfortably, but I was still terrified of a reverse. They did kick their highest score since August, ultimately to no avail but concerning for the first three quarters before they died in the arse. Our record in last quarters proves that Burgessball survived the pandemic, but you can't expect it to work every time. On this occasion it did and everyone is happy. North fans less so, but hopefully we've warmed them up for a hilarious win over Collingwood next week.

Now that I'm a master of not accidentally clicking the 'watch live' button on Kayo, my plan was to maximise sleep by getting up at 3pm and hooking straight into the game on a laptop without even getting up. In Bed With Mercado would have worked flawlessly if I hadn't woken up at about 1.40 and not been able to sleep again for wondering how the game was going. Years ago when you knew we were going to lose interstate games by up to 110 points it would have been much easier to doze off and catch up later.

I don't know how many others go to such ridiculous lengths to watch games on delay, but you always know in the back of your mind that it's not real viewing because you could just skip forward and find out the score/result at the touch of a button. I was certainly tempted for much of the first half here, correctly deducing that things could only get better. If I'd landed anywhere after time it would have been ok, but at the break we were 19 points down and heading for catastrophe.

When you're trying to pack a full game into the smallest possible viewing window, including hitting the +15 second button at least three times between every goal, there's no time to relax, it is just two hours of non-stop feelings. One quarter ends, a few button presses later the next one starts. 

This means missing the pre-match news, such as the latest chapter in Jack Viney's long list of toe related mishaps. The trouble started in 2017, carried into 2018, and was declared over just in time to play a ripping finals series. And indeed that seemed to be the end of it, playing almost all of the next two seasons. This pre-season he tried something different by having surgery on the other end of his foot, before this latest little piggy related setback. They say he'll be out 2-3 weeks, to which I'm sure everyone almost said "yeah right". Sadly we believe the injury was not suffered while kicking the person who stole his car last Saturday night to death.

He was replaced by Oskar Baker, which is almost the least like-for-like substitution on the face of the planet. Other than them both looking like the kind of person who might kick a car thief to death, they are nothing alike. Viney's injury must have cropped up sometime after Tom Sparrow played for Casey on Thursday night, as you'd have thought he'd be the closest thing to replicating our winning formula. Viney's form has been up and down but we already struggled to win clearances. I didn't like losing him, but by the time I realised he was gone we were already well on our way to being thrashed at stoppages. 

Sadly, it's clear that Nathan Jones is no longer seen as an option, failing to win a reprieve from being demoted to substitute. It was a fair enough selection decision but seemed a bit harsh to submit the paperwork as flat out 'omitted' without covering up via weasel-words like 'rested' or 'managed'. It would have been the most obvious swizz in history but if anyone's earned the right to have their omission covered up - no matter how unconvincingly - it's him. 

It seemed obvious that he'd be the substitute, so I wondered if there was some obscure rule that says you can't play somebody in any capacity if they've been declared 'managed', but as the substitute rule was invented out 24 hours before the season started that seems unlikely . If he runs down Neitz's 306 record via a few Kade Chandler-esque 100% tracksuit time it will feel a bit cheap, but in the short term he's probably a good option for the sub role.

In the end, Jones almost played a full game, and while I'll cherish any time left with the great man it was a bit grim that his good fortune came from Adam Tomlinson blowing his knee. There's bad luck (ask three time knee victim Aaron Nietschke), then there's finding yourself playing a blinder in a role that you weren't recruited to do, then losing 12 months of your career in the blink of an eye. I don't know if you'd have said it halfway through last year, but his absence will leave a big hole in our side.

Short of life-threatening injuries, there is genuinely nothing more tragic in footy than the victim of a serious knee injury. I've never done a knee or been a professional sportsman (and I suppose the latter is out of the question now), but I can only imagine the psychological trauma you go through in those moments. You could see the difference between him hobbling into the medical room then coming out near tears, obviously having been told that the knee looks cactus. And it's not like he's an 18-year-old with all the time in the world, while he'll only be 29-years-old when he returns and will get every opportunity to break back into the team you'd have to go to bed that night thinking 'is this it?' Am I ever going to be able to play the same way?' Will it happen again?' 'will I come back to a team that has moved on without me" etc...

We have, fingers crossed, been lucky with knees in recent years. Other than Petracca in his first pre-season and Lever in 2018 our top players have escaped unscathed (NB: I will not be held responsible if there's a raft of knee injuries from here). Tomlinson was understandably emotion under the circumstances, and I almost had a tear at one point where he looked particularly shattered, but Fox went a bit over the top showing him on the verge of breaking down every few minutes for the rest of the afternoon. And god knows how many shots I missed skipping the breaks. It was like when planes crash and news crews head straight to the airport for footage of wailing relatives. We hope for a medical miracle that means the injury isn't as bad as it looks, but if worst comes to worst we'll always have his valuable contribution to this mad winning streak.

Part of the 'fun' of playing teams at the bottom of the ladder is that they usually bring about 17 different Kingsley kontenders and you've got to work out which one is going to give us the most trouble. Nobody did enough to earn an official nomination here, but it was almost a Team Kingsley, considering how many times players that only North enthusiasts would have ever heard of were left dashing about without an opponent.

If there's anything to quibble about going 7-0, it's that we haven't delivered a bell-to-bell thrashing yet. We've only grabbed a lead and held it all day against Freo and Geelong, and had to withstand challenges both times. Every other week we've had to clamber out of a Stranglewank Lite hole, coming back from 16 down against St Kilda, 18 against GWS, 10 against Hawthorn, 15 against Richmond and 19 here. It's a credit to our fighting capabilities that we've come back to win all four games comfortably but you wouldn't want to be trying this every week.

After absorbing 15 minutes of pressure last week before coming back like Muhammad Ali in Zaire to knock the reigning premiers out, I vowed not to get excited by a slow start this time. Then the worst stoppage side in the competition effortlessly created two goals from stoppages and I was swearing like a wharfie. When Tomlinson went down as if shot shortly after, I was looking for some sort of assistance line to call. Fritsch crumbed a steadier, but after a bump left him clutching his head like he was dead too I thought this was the cosmic payback for when GWS collapsed due to bulk injuries. It was only a temporary setback, and he got the second as well.

This was more like it. You didn't need a fancy/randomly generated 'pressure gauge' to see that we weren't going at it full pelt but had drawn level anyway. We looked dangerous going inside 50 but were terrifyingly vulnerable when they got the ball, dinking their way down the ground via a series of uncontested marks, setting up last kicks inside 50 that were going towards their players rather than straight down the throats of May and Lever. It's no surprise that teams, even the ones who can't win a game, have worked out the insanity of continually bombing it to our defenders. 

Now that we'd belatedly got going I hoped that our third goal, as lucky as it was to be punched over a pack and into the path of Jackson, would be enough to crush North's fragile spirit. Alas no, first they added another to our significant catalogue of goals immediately wasted out of the centre, then some rookie who looked about 14-years-old smashed through a set shot from distance. It was worrying that they were finding so much space. Having the best defence in the league isn't going to help if the other side has time to pick and choose their targets. What was worrying this time was that this particular opposition was averaging about 50 points a game until now and their best full forward was standing down the other end in our colours.

Fans with a long memory will remember the Gawn vs Goldstein heavyweight clash on the same ground in 2016. Max had been good in the second half of the previous year but that was the day he officially qualified as next big thing. Jackson couldn't get near Goldstein in the ruck duels here, but around the grounds he was eye-wateringly good for a 19-year-old. In his six games last year he did well when he got the ball but was still learning how to find it in senior company, now we're comfortable giving him more responsibility and he is - quite frankly - kicking arse. In this testimonial season for former two time Rising Star nominee Nathan Jones, it would be appropriate if Jackson was not only nominated twice but won the whole thing thing. Given what the award did to the careers of Jared Rivers (injury-plagued) and Jesse Hogan (generally ordinary luck in all facets of life) we might want to sabotage his campaign.

Like last week the quarter time margin, this time five points, seemed simultaneously generous and unfair to us. We'd looked dangerous going inside 50, even if Brown was struggling to come to terms with playing against non-VFL defenders. There was one moment that pointed to the possibility of great things when he gets going, a long-distance set shot from an angle where he infringed on Hawthorn's territory by starting the run up from Launceston and went within millimetres of clearing the defender on the line. 

It was very much the Ben Brown experience advertised when he arrived, find a way to get the ball into his hands and reap the benefits. We didn't do it enough here but, in the famous words of Goodwin during his unpopular years, the connection will improve. As much as I refused to believe we'd win this by any sort of margin I did harbour sick fantasies about him wiping out the all-time record for most goals in #50 (seven) in one afternoon. Not quite, but to the delight of people who love unusual numbers he's almost a third of the way there.

While I didn't expect the same sort of blistering second quarter as last week, conceding the first goal had me ready to punch on again. Appropriately it was set up by Ben Cunnington, famous for actually punching on with Bernie Vince's guts a few years ago while wearing grinning maniacally. He would be one of only a handful of North players left who remember not losing to us for 4248 days. Now that we've extended our streak against them to... err... two wins, let's go for the 20 in a row between 1953 and 1965 that only ended after we sacked Norm Smith at 8pm the night before the game.

Lengthy streaks were the furthest thing from my mind as they lobbed through their fifth set shot, while down the other end we were struggling to create chances from of chaos. Both methods are valid, but it stands to reason that the team finding uncontested marks amongst what is purported to be the league's best backline are having an easier time of things. I did not like how this was going. Can't say I've seen this script before, because even the 1993 Sydney fiasco came when we were a bog ordinary side trying to get back into the finals race, not playing to go top of the league a respectable way through the season. That is was a new experience made it no less distressing.

It's not that we were playing particularly badly, just not keeping the ball out of their hands for long enough or going forward to any structure. It took another Pickett turbo run to get us going. He plucked a loose ball out of the air while running felt pelt towards the boundary, turned inside 50, resisted his natural urge to have a low percentage shot and instead set the ball up for Langdon to mark. Draft coverage is so tedious that I don't really want to watch them the first time, but between him, Jackson and Rivers I could almost be convinced to see this one again while breathing into a paper bag to stay calm.

If I hadn't spent years sarcastically referring to boring people as Mr. Electricity, the moniker would suit Pickett perfectly. Admittedly, I did let out an exasperated, almost cliched 'just have a shot!' when it came off his boot, because unlike Kysaiah (who finally had his real name used on commentary, just so the otherwise sensible Anthony Hudson could rhyme it with 'fire') I am not a visionary. Langdon still had to win a one-on-one marking contest and kick the goal but he could not have been provided any better opportunity by the pass.

For the second time we kicked goals in a burst to - seemingly - get back in the contest. Straight out of the middle a ball squirmed over the top for Brown to soccer through, a method for his first goal that you'd have got offered long odds on before the bounce. As the nicest man since Ed Langdon I thought he might do the old soccer style 'don't celebrate when scoring against your own side' but couldn't help getting excited. He soon discovered the harsh realities of playing forward for Melbourne when his good work was cancelled out at the other end. Unlike previous spearhead incumbents McDonald and Hogan, we were kind enough to wait two minutes instead of standing back and letting them walk the reply through from the middle.

The same class of Richmond fans who can't win enough premierships to get over Tom Bugg 'shhhing' them would have been fanging for us to lose this so they could retrospectively hang shit on Pickett for inviting A.N Other to review the scoreboard last week. He was doing everything possible to guard against shenanigans blowback, following his earlier pinpoint goal assist by getting on the end of a chain of handballs to bring the margin back under a goal. Christ knows how we'd ended up being the team hanging around like an unflushable nugget against 0-6 strugglers but I was just glad to be in a position for when North - I hoped - ran out of youthful enthusiasm. How many times in our total wank years were we in the same scenario, holding on against better teams until you were sucked in by hope before crumbling. To be fair, probably not nearly as often as the times we were demolished straight out of the blocks but it did happen occasionally.

We responded to this good fortune by conceding from the square to a forward who'd kicked 0.2 in five games. Back to being the AFL's equivalent of the Make A Wish Foundation. In my twisted, damaged mind it was starting to look like we were never going to get on top. Either of the game or the ladder.

As excited as I am by obscure MFC related topics, I've never paid attention to Bayley Fritsch's clapping style, but from the footage of Brown being presented his jumper (sadly not by a great #50 like Kevin Dyson) and his applause of the crowd while coming off at the end, Fritsch's wrist cannot be anywhere near 100%. Declaring players in less than prime fitness is a long-term hobby of mine, and I'll throw Gawn into the same mix, but that Nintendo Power Glove must be carrying a heavy load because once it was off he was basically doing hand/forearm claps instead of the standard method. 

Maybe it was the arm concerns that caused him to fend a North player off with a forearm to the face. The good news is that the precedent set by Tom Hawkins avoiding sanction for accidentally caving in Steven May's face with a swinging elbow means there's no possible way they can suspend Fritsch. Even if he'd gotten a token fine it would be hard to argue Fritsch getting the same, but if he's cited for this it will prove that Hawkins benefited from a 100% Famous Face discount. 

Whatever he might have done to this poor, anonymous North player, his wrist issues (please, let's retain some decorum here) didn't affect him where it mattered. He helped win the game off his own boot with four second half goals, shattering his personal best. And what a lovely set of goals they were too, a perfect mixture of crumb and set shots.

Then, just as it looked like we might get to half time a few points down and be set up to charge home in the second half, came the mini-collapse that had me turning the air blue. Sure, the first should have been halted by a free kick for some bastard sitting on Lever in the forward pocket but conceding a second DemonTime special straight after had me ready to denounce everyone. I was so upset that I didn't bother to watch the last 30 seconds of the quarter, rage forwarding straight to the start of the second half.

A 19 point margin was hardly fatal, but I was bleeding from every orifice at our carelessness in letting the two late goals in. Sure, the free kick that should have stopped the first would have probably meant the second wasn't kicked either but you'll go mad relying on umpires to look after you. Their impossible job works in your favour sometimes (e.g. May getting away with a blatant push when the game was still on the line early in the last quarter) but you can't blame them for not beating a side that is at its lowest ebb since before Barassi took over.

Speaking of umpires, as scores continued to slide further towards the historic lows of 2019, further chaos came from a random war on players moving on the mark, and from an even more arbitrary approach to judging distance than usual. If the new rules are meant to do what I think they are, it seems better to err on the side of caution and pay any kick that looks like it's gone 15 metres in order to create a mark and keep the play going. Instead, going the other way and assuming line-ball kicks hadn't gone the distance (hello Jeremy Cameron) just caused more hasty kicks to contests and stoppages. I'm as shocked as you are that the AFL's 'rule of the week' would directly conflict with their 'rule of the season'. The only consolation is that these crackdowns usually only last a week.

Still on a long delay and very keen to see the end of what I expected to be another sub-six point Bellerive thriller live (if only to share my disappointment with others), there was no opportunity for half-time reflection. Watching like this isn't good for your mental health, half time is too long but you need some sort of break. Imagine how much more stressed I'd have been if I'd gotten out of bed yet? It had a touch of the John Lennon and Yoko Ono about it, except that I was in there on my own. Incidentally, a recent look at the Yoko discography reveals that she's probably a Melbourne fan. Song titles like I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass WindowWhat A Bastard The World IsIt's Been Very Hard, and Walking On Thin Ice betray the sort of understanding of life's misfortunes that you only get from following the Dees.

Had we lost here there's every chance that What A Bastard The World Is would have been the title of the post. Just because you're expecting something bad to happen doesn't make it any easier when it does. The most frustrating thing, for now anyway, was that we were constantly on the verge of breaking through before letting them back into it. This will no more determine the course of our season than the rampage against Richmond, but you would hope lessons were learnt for next week.

The emergency circumstances of Tomlinson's injury and the prospect for North's collection of forward randoms to win the game off their own booth finally prompted Goodwin to put McDonald into defence. The last few weeks saw his best form since late 2018, this time he couldn't get near it. Given how much work he does up the ground I can't think the dip was purely because Brown was picked, but under the circumstances I was happy to see how he went back in his natural habitat. Doesn't look like we'll ever get to have the piss-on for him reaching a goal a game average. 

I'll leave it to assistant coaches and game analysis experts to decide how much McSizzle going back contributed, but the switch coincided with North's forward line clocking off. After looking like combining for a group Kingsley in the first half they only got two more goals. I would suggest it was more down to supply being cut off by decent pressure for the first time all day but McDonald did look comfortable down there. At the moment I certainly trust him as third tall more than Petty. This may change rapidly if he unloads a couple old school howlers while trying to pinpoint unnecessarily precise 40 metre passes.

It was obvious soon after the break - 20 minutes for you, about 20 seconds for me - that we had finally turned up. The only problem was that the more goals you are behind the less room there is for error, there was still scope to smash the door down in front of goal for the next hour and still fall a few points short. Like last time in Hobart, and the time before that, and the time before that

Kicking a goal barely a minute after the restart was a nice settler. While Brown was still trying hard to get on the end of everything, the main event on this day were Pickett and Fritsch, who combined again. Whether the ball remained in play or not is up for debate but Pickett's gather on the boundary and turn to get free was already a thing of beauty, before a wonderfully solid handball into the ground that pitched perfectly into Fritsch's hands to turn and kick a close-range banana. That was more like it. Letting them get it back two minutes later was not. Nobody does it better.

That was probably the peak of my frustration. It was also our prompt - for about the fourth time, but permanent at last - to try and win it. We plowed out of the middle for Spargo to get another before a tremendous cockup in the North backline ended in Fritsch toe-poking his fourth to reduce the margin to seven.

More Pickett action followed shortly after, lifting the nation's spirits in these divided times by contributing to a move on the wing, then running on to pluck the ball out of the air after Brown was spoiled, charging into an open goal at a million miles an hour and never looking like missing. You might have noticed I'm into text and plenty of it, but words don't do the Kysaiah experience justice. I wish North no ill will and hope they get as much enjoyment out of the players acquired with the picks we traded for him but I bet the three combined won't have a highlights package 10% as good as what Pickett's going to deliver by the time he's finished. Added bonus - annoys opposition fans.

This was all much appreciated, but we were still behind. Enter, from the conventional route at last, Ben Brown. Wasn't much in the free kick, but the setup was sublime. Jackson turning in traffic and dropping a perfect pass on Melksham, who instantly turned and smashed a bullet towards Brown. I've got trust issues, so even the graphic that showed he was about 20/25 from the the same spot during his career didn't convince me. But the Cliff Young style run-up delivered the goods and at last we were ahead. His excessive technique will also come in handy when we're trying to waste time late in games. 

Turns out we were never to give up the lead but I wouldn't have had $20 on it at the time. Fritsch's fifth extended the margin beyond a kick, but multiple missed opportunities in the next few minutes made me feel like we were being set up for a stooging. All the key factors were in our favour and North had slowed to a crawl but we were 36 points from the Chris Sullivan Line so it was all still to play for.

Last week we started the last quarter way further in front and I was ticking off two minute blocks to get to the point of no return when Petracca kicked the sealer. This time the clock was running down rapidly, but with nobody kicking goals it left us vulnerable. Enter Ben Cunnington, the man most likely to lead his young and in some cases no good teammates to a famous victory that would be talked about long after his retirement. Extra fear points from the novelty way he got the first goal, with a kick over the top nearly rolling out of bounds, before gathering at the last minute and running around a wank-handed tackle like he his name was K. Pickett.

At the time goals from unusual sources who were shaping up to carry 21 men over the line were cause for elevated blood pressure. Once the game was over and the points in the bank a purely rational view is that it's part of the process that helped us win the game. What if they got a goal from the next inside 50, then the next seven? You never know with us. Sorry, force of habit, I forgot we're good now. 

After being walloped at clearances most of the day we finally got on top in the last, mainly through Oliver finally busting the shackles on the bloke who'd been niggling him all day. The crucial goal from a stoppage, however, came from the newly re-signed Double J James Jordon, who burst onto a loose ball and sliced it over the head of a defender at the Large Mysterious Windows end. After the shock revelation last week that it had only been three years since we'd have a 6-0 player, he has gone beyond Spargo and extended his unbeaten streak to seven. We might not have had anyone do that since Tom Wills.

That created breathing space. Still not enough to get comfortable about but by now North was kicking against the metaphorical wind, and we walked the ball out of the middle against scant resistance for the Hamburglar to cap off a great quarter with the sealer. The floodgates were finally open, and barely a minute later Petracca being called to play on for taking a step led to him just lobbing a casual kick to a pack, and because everything was going our way Fritsch marked it. I thought this one, from right in the 3131 district would trip him up on the verge of an era adjusted bag but through it went. My theory about his tender hand flew straight out the window when he celebrated by high fiving everyone. Maybe he does just have an NQR clapping style? Please review vision of him on and off field since his debut and work out whether he used that method pre-injury. Answers on a postcard to 'Does It Really Matter?' c/o Demonblog Towers.

It was hardly a furious rampage like the end of the Hawthorn game but enjoyable nonetheless. Pickett gave us one to go on with in the dying minutes, featuring some more hot shoe shuffle action, albeit this time through defenders who'd lost the will to live.  They're all important for percentage, but more important for our players getting up the bloodlust to kick more in the future. It was far from our best performance of the year - seems we save them for the likes of Geelong and Richmond - but under the circumstances it was just fine. I'd hate to try and rope-a-dope our way from three goals down in the opening quarter of a final, but for Round 7 at Bellerive Oval it did the trick.

As much as I'm trying to play down being top of the ladder due to it ultimately meaning bugger all at this stage of the season, I still wanted to see proof that we were the last unbeaten side in the competition. Considering how hard we'd made it look, Fox Footy showed admirable restraint in not displaying a live ladder until after the siren. It is a good thing, and an achievement considering many of us though the coach would be filling in Centrelink forms by now, but let's not go too far over the top. The famous Round 18, 2004 game against Hawthorn has been discussed at length in recent posts, and I will never forget people going boonta for going top via an uninspiring win against a lowly team only to lose the last six games of the season, dumping us to fifth and out of finals at the first hurdle.

Nobody should be comfortable, or satisfied, by the fact that we're mathematically better than 17 other sides after seven games, but one thing you can say in our favour is that we've won against a wide-variety of opposition. Two against top four contenders, two against also-rans, and three against flaky mid-table mediocrities. You literally don't get platforms like this to build a season on every year. Indeed, we could go 6-9 from here (note: please don't go 6-9) and still be guaranteed a finals berth.

By the end, I felt like Ben Brown. Battered, bruised and bleeding but ultimately happy at the result. He looked more like an escaped mental patient than the lady from Arcade Fire but playing for Melbourne will do that for you. I think we like him. I certainly do. 

Everyone got what they came for. Brown went for medical treatment before bleeding to death, I got up and ate toast, Melbourne fans and their sympathisers saw another win. I'm growing quite accustomed to it.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Bayley Fritsch
4 - Kysaiah Pickett
3 - Luke Jackson
2 - Clayton Oliver
1 - Christian Petracca

Major apologies to Lever, May or Salem, any of who could have had the last vote. Many others very good, despite the overall flat performance.

As Oliver rides his last quarter heroics to grab a share of the overall lead, it's becoming crowded at the top of the leaderboard, with four players within one BOG of the top two. No movement in the minors, with Salem retaining his narrow lead in the Seecamp and the Hilton still looking headed down the 'no eligible player' route for the first time in 15 years.

14 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Clayton Oliver
13 - Christian Petracca
12 - Christian Salem (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
11 - Kysaiah Pickett
9 - Jake Lever
6 - Bayley Fritsch, Luke Jackson
5 - Steven May
4 - Tom McDonald
3 - Michael Hibberd, Ed Langdon
2 - Jayden Hunt, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Not an easy week, with a lot of well taken crumbs and goals on the run but nothing even remotely challenging for the overall lead. I'm going for the Fritsch one that he snapped after Pickett did not in any way carry the ball over the boundary line. For the weekly prize Bayley wins a new trophy cabinet in which to hang his Coleman Medal. How they laughed with Gawn tipped him to win it last year, now there's an outside chance it could happen. Blimey.

The clubhouse leader remains Pickett's rapid fire spelunking through the pack and snap against St Kilda.

Next Week
It's Sydney on Saturday night at the MCG, in another opportunity to put away a top eight contender. A couple of weeks ago they were charter members of the Unbeaten Club Superleague, before losing the expansion doomsday double. Though there would be nothing more Sydney than style triumphing over substance, their win over Geelong (albeit with the aid of faulty measurement) has put them back in the mix for the top four.

I don't know how seriously you can compare this season to last, but I'm keen to see what we've learnt from that season-slaughtering loss in Cairns. Not to mention nine of our other last 10 games against them. They've had our measure for years so this is a high alert danger scenario, especially if we allow them as much space as North got in the first half. There simply has to be a letdown at some point and I suspect it's going to be here. Probably better than losing to Carlton the week after, not as good as getting to Round 11 unbeaten and playing the Bulldogs in our highest profile home and away match since god only knows when.

Shame Franklin isn't playing, it would have been good to appear one last time at the MCG before Lever and May tormented him into retiring. On the other hand, last time they didn't need the stars to clean us up, with some bloke who looked like Justin Trudeau and has presumably never had a kick since running riot.

For once we've got an unfriendly selection dilemma, needing to replace both Viney and Tomlinson for an extended period/the rest of the season respectively. Baker is the obvious out in favour of an actual inside midfielder, and as much as I like Harmes he could do with a more competitive VFL run. Sparrow has done enough for me this year to come straight in. The good news for romantics is that after Jones played effectively a full game here there's nothing to stop us from starting him on the bench again.

The Tomlinson replacement is the hard one. I know full well that Goodwin hates playing McDonald in defence but surely it's the way to go, and least to start with. Petty was alright against Hawthorn's insignificant forward line and should get a go at some point but should have to fight his way back in via the 2s.

Weideman remains unlucky. On one hand, if McDonald plays in defence that creates a space for him to come back, on the other the Jackson/McSizzle/Brown combo didn't do much against North so can we trust them against better sides? I wouldn't scream the house down if we picked him but I'd rather somebody smaller. So, after sitting on his arse for 100% of two games already this season Chandler gets a go. While Brown is finding his way there's going to be a lot of ground ball, I know he's not a classic crumber but feels like there will be more benefit than another tall - especially when it's projecting to be damp on Saturday night.

IN: Chandler, Sparrow
OUT: Jones (to sub), Baker (omit), Tomlinson (inj)
UNLUCKY: Petty, Weideman

I thought we'd win this week and was tormented for three quarters. Going back to assuming the worst and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Final Thoughts

Confucius say those who stumble into the lead of a marathon a third of the way through usually go home under a sheet, but for now you won't find me complaining. It was, for the seventh week in a row, certainly better than the alternative.

Monday, 26 April 2021

The Nathan Jonestown Massacre

Over the last 16 seasons, I've covered so many varieties of defeat by margins between 1 and 186 points that there weren't many ways left to describe them. Now that we may never lose another game it's refreshing having to come up with ways to cover positive unusual scenarios.

This week it's an achievement that pre-dates this blog, my life, colour television and about a third of the world's countries. For the first time since 1965, we're unbeaten after six games. Unlike tennis, you don't get anything for going 6-0, and the less said about what happened in '65 after the streak ended the better, but it's one hell of a base to launch a campaign from.

Since 2005 we've done familiar things that have already happened in my time as a fan. There have been a handful of big wins, but never by more than the 121 of Round 21, 1993, played a finals series that fell short of our achievements in 1988 or 2000, and nobody has gone close to Jakovich's 11 goal haul in 1991. In fact, about the only unique thing we've done that anyone enjoyed was the dramatically out of character 12 goal rampage in the last quarter against GWS eight years ago. One win from the next 18 was less welcome.

That day, when Mark Neeld unexpectedly coached our highest scoring fourth quarter ever, was Nathan Jones' 139th game. We'd already been squeezing the life out of him for years so three Brownlow votes and a win were temporary respite from the crushing futility of being at the coalface of a #fistedforever club. Eight seasons after starting his career in a finals side he had lost 75% of his matches and was a regular fixture in the famous table of worst career records. Despite being the only experienced player on our list to improve between 2012 and 2014, his win/loss total somehow got even worse. From the week after the GWS landslide to the end of his first season as captain Jones won five times from 40 starts. Compared to others who took the easy way out, he would have been well within his rights to shuffle off to any one of the 16 clubs whose fans hadn't previously belted his dad.

In his 161 appearances since April 2013, Jones has seen more downs, limited ups, and a lot of hanging around in the middle waiting for his teammates to catch up and eventually pass him. Excluding injuries, personal tragedy etc... I'll punch on with anyone who tries to tell me there's a player who's had it worse. He has just won his 99th game, less than Shaun Atley, Brodie Smith, David Zaharakis or Jack Ziebell. All fine players in their own right, most of who will never win a flag either but none who have endured anywhere near the same trauma. I never updated the famous list beyond 2014 because I didn't want to be responsible for anybody setting themselves on fire in the street. Can't imagine what it was like to live it in person. But there he was, fronting up every week no matter how insurmountable the odds.

For this reason, it was appropriate that for all he's been through, Jones' 300th game landed on the same night that may have heralded a momentum shift which will ensure we don't need another figure for people to rally around while the joint burns to the ground. For a few years anyway. I say 'may have', because nothing is certain yet. We've had a fine victory, are sitting on our best start since The Beatles were a going concern, and appear to have a side that could genuinely contend for... well let's just say top four for now. Take it without question, but don't clear your calendar for September just yet. 

Even going into this game expecting an honourable loss, I should have known everything would be alright when Ticketek finally achieved 'you had one job' certification by delivering me the seat I'm entitled to on the first go without asking for $33. Like Skynet, they are slowly becoming self-aware, placing me in the same area that my membership would normally allow me access to. Compare to the Freo game where it seems like they plucked spots out of a hat.

Acquiring somewhere to sit was one thing, but I didn't think much of being placed five deep down an aisle in an area that you could guarantee would be packed to the rafters. When I discovered this meant sitting in the middle of two unconnected groups with zero spare seats on either side it was clear these arrangements weren't going to work. When the backup plan of sitting on the end of the aisle was harpooned by the actual seatholders turning up (how dare they), I could justify another go at the plan that failed so spectacularly last week.

The difference was that level four of the Southern Stand was open this time, allowing me to escape battery hen conditions and roam free. While it is comfortably the worst of the three top deck options and smelt vaguely of faeces, row DD was as close to total freedom as I'll get until the pandemic is quashed. It may have also been the first time I've ever seen a game from that angle. While it wasn't ideal I'm not sure I can go back to sitting amongst people now. Unless there's a massive crowd (and if we couldn't pull one last night...) there's no reason ever again that crucial goals can't be celebrated by running a few paces to either side while gently pumping the fist. Makes a change from the less-subtle way the fist has been deployed on us over the years.

Like the top of the old Ponsford where people used to openly drink smuggled cans and smoke dope, you can pretty much do what you want up the back. So I don't know why so many people walked towards me, with 85% of the seats free, glaring at their phone to work out the exact seat they were supposed to be in. I'm the sort of softcock who wears a mask on the train just because I'm told to but my respect for law and order comes to a screaming halt when it comes to footy seating. I promise you that once you've reached a certain altitude The Man isn't going to hassle you about being in Q3 seat 1 instead of Q2 seat 7, stretch out and get comfortable. Several rows from me if possible.

It's a bit hypocritical considering my refusal to sit where I was meant to (and admitting this will probably end in a life ban from the MCG just in time for us to be good) but the COVID comeback in Perth and subsequent empty stadium match between Freo and North shows how lucky we were to be there in the first place. Imagine if it had got loose here a few days earlier and the much-anticipated celebration of all things Nathan Jones was played for the benefit of disinterested security guards and bemused seagulls? What an unpleasant thought.

While the end result was a fitting tribute to the never say die attitude of Jones, the first 10 minutes were more like the years when he'd battle against the side while we were battered from the first bounce. This after a clean Max/Pickett clearance from the first centre bounce that temporarily made you sit up and take notice, shortly before Fritsch kicked out on the full, and Richmond whisked the ball down the other end for half a quarter.

You can't blame the forwards when the ball doesn't get down there, but for a while it looked like the newly popular Goodwin might have erred in not picking one of Weideman or Brown. Given how they ripped the VFL a new ringpiece last week, and it took us three quarters to overcome the might of Hawthorn, most assumed one was going to be included, no matter how forcefully they had to be jammed into the structure. By full time it looked even more unlikely that either of them will be picked next week, leaving Goodwin to walk into training on Monday like that old Bill Hicks routine: "Scuse me, scuse me, man with big balls has just been acquitted. I'm off to a victory party."

Once they'd had two missed shots and we were unable to get the ball back over halfway it was starting to feel like being promoted to the Premier League and feeling good about yourself before running into Manchester City. If you're superstitious you'd have noted ruefully that nothing more could have gone in our favour before their first goal, the umpire accidentally laid a block in our favour, their kick into 50 missed its target, May did everything in his power to remove Lynch from the contest and Riewoldt fumbled trying to pick the ball up, only to inadvertently nutmeg Tomlinson and boot it through off the ground from an obscure angle. If that's the sort of novelty goal we were going to concede after doing everything in our power to stop them having a shot it was going to be a long night.

When Riewoldt got a second I was gently shitting it. He has an inexplicably bad record against us (now 32.45 from 20 starts - compare to 60.15 vs Port and 58.35 against St Kilda) and I didn't like the idea of him getting his confidence up. However, in a year where strange players are booting bags up and down the league, this acknowledged bulk goalkicker was barely seen again. This was a credit to both the midfielders who kept the ball away from him, and to the defenders who blanketed both him and Lynch. 

For now, those two goals might have been enough to win, as we looked like playing the first scoreless opening quarter since the amazing rule changes that saved footy from merging with Rugby Union. At 0-15 down, I was picturing all those "do North Melbourne deserve to be playing in a marquee game?" articles being repurposed to cover us disgracing this infinitely more special occasion. The moment that best summed up how it looked to be going was McSizzle taking a lovely mark in the pocket, then kicking it into the man on the mark, before Melksham had a flying shot that went out on the full, leaving us still scoreless.

Before Gil could ask Steve Hocking to resign in shame, Salem added to what had already been a monster start by dropping a perfect kick over the head of a defender to run our first goal through. The midweek signing of a bumper new deal is usually the only thing more like to ruin our players than being featured in the media, but he played with Big Contract Energy, generally unfazed amongst chaos, safe as houses by foot, and getting us out of jail multiple times while the game was still on the line. Like everyone else these days he's only signed to the point where he can make enormous free agent money but that'll do me nicely if this is what we've got to look forward to for the next five years.

Knowing full well that we didn't deserve to be back in the game, we did our level best to give the goal back as soon as possible. It's not easy to get comfortable with big games when you don't play any, but there was a high level of shitting self under Richmond's early pressure. It was the highest-profile match May has ever played (even if Queen's Birthday 2018 had 18k more through the gate, the implications were minor in comparison), and while he wasn't alone in fumbling a pre-downpour ball that he should have taken, it left the Tigers running into what should have been a certain goal. They gave us a sporting chance by dropping a mark, before Tomlinson hacked a hopeful kick out of a pack straight to one of their forwards and restored the two goal margin. Both May and Tomlinson got it out of their system and were almost flawless for the rest of the night, while Lever got a bit excited and caused a couple of mid-air collisions but was otherwise very good.

Less concerned about playing in front of a large audience was Luke Jackson, who debuted in an empty stadium, played two of his next three games in front of sub-1000 crowds, and reacted to his first big game by having 18 possessions and 100% efficiency in the wet. Whoever the Suns got with their priority pick might be good, but if it led to us picking Jackson then best of luck to them I think we'll go alright here. I can already hear dump trucks full of money rumbling across the Nullabor. No idea how we're going to pay all these players but if he can resist the lure of a big money return home we're set for years of enjoyment.

In an un-Melbournelike twist we got the goal back quickly. Due to Pickett's sixth sense he was able to pull a kick to Fritsch that reduced the margin to seven at quarter time. Under the circumstances that was positively generous. While we were technically right back in it you failed to see how we'd do any better than stringing them along for a couple of quarters before losing comfortably. Turns out our now traditional weekly lapse was done and everything after that was going to be great. I'd never have believed it at the time.

It wasn't that we'd played all that badly in the first quarter, just that to nobody's surprise the three time recent premiers weren't letting us run around doing what we liked. On the positive side, Dustin (never Dusty) Martin was being walloped in a tag by Michael Hibberd, which removed one of their key weapons to bludgeon us with. There was post-match talk about him being bothered by injuries, even before going off concussed. Boo hoo, you're breaking my heart.

At this stage, the idea of kicking the next seven goals would have been laughable. Turns out our mastery of the wet against Geelong was no fluke, and after years of tipping over like the Costa Concordia whenever it got a bit damp we've morphed into the Mark McGough XVIII. This burst of rain didn't last long but made things slippery enough to halt all goalkicking for 10 minutes. Given that I was still hoping to hang around until the last quarter and maybe run over the top of them this was welcome.

The carnival atmosphere kicked off when Richmond conceded a suicidally obvious deliberate. I hate how often they pay these, but this was like stabbing somebody then standing outside the police station with a blood-soaked knife protesting your innocence. "What do you want me to do?" shouted the Richmond player, to which the umpire should have responded "Not tap it straight over the line you dickhead". It still left the Anal-Bullet with a difficult kick, from 30 metres out hard on the boundary but he absolutely launched it through. If he tried the same shot 99 more times he would never hit it as well, the around the corner equivalent of Gawn's nuclear missile launch last week. Given how many shots we miss from right in front maybe kicking the cover off them from distance is the answer?

Then just like that, we were not only in front but comfortably so. First McDonald took the sort of inside 50 mark that is keeping Casey's star-studded forward line afloat, then copped a big old fashioned shove in the numbers in a ruck contest, converting both kicks from almost exactly the same position. Considering how damp it was, both were superb kicks, and I for one am delighted at this career revival, even if it does end in him being traded at the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, having just beaten Gawn at a centre bounce, Marlion Pickett's indiscretion demonstrated that there's no more dangerous place for a makeshift ruckman than the defensive 50. Between Gawn, Jackson and McDonald I'm confident we've got this risk covered. Far cry from the pre-Jackson days of playing anyone who could jump off the ground as a second ruck, leading to the triumph of James Harmes setting up a goal out of the middle, and the tragedy of Weideman being beaten all ends up at a boundary throw-in that led directly to a goal.

Back at the present day MCG, things were getting a bit silly, and you expected them to launch a fightback at any moment. Apparently not, and with their best players practically anonymous we voted to ignore the conditions by starting and finishing the next goal via ruckmen. Jackson put the ball through the goal but the majesty of 208cm Gawn being used as a link player through the middle of a night game where it had been absolutely pissing down 20 minutes earlier was a sight to behold.

From the cavernous hole we were in early, a 17 point lead at the half was scarcely believable. As was the idea that we'd keep the boot on their throat after the break. Sadly some bullshit ruck infringement at the first bounce of the third quarter robbed us of one of the great centre clearances, where Gawn put it down Pickett's throat and he was about to royally screw the otherwise unseen Trent Cotchin by ducking out of his tackle and heading forward when the whistle intervened. You've got to put in a few more years at the top before umpires start going out of their way to make life easy for you (isn't that right Geelong fans?) but depriving us of Pickett doing spinny things at the bounce is un-Australian.

In a roundabout way, via half a dozen contests, random handballs and kicks off the ground, whatever infraction Gawn supposedly committed led to his understudy kicking a goal. After shambling it from the back pocket to the wing, Petracca first soccered around an opponent, then took a handball and set up Spargo one-on-one inside 50. It didn't sit perfectly for Charleston but he made a wonderful contest that allowed Jackson time to size up one of the most casual off the ground goals ever, like he was deciding which corner to aim at in a penalty shootout.

Now things were veering from "I hope they don't come back from this" to "gee we're going to look stupid if we lose from here" territory. Which is a dangerous position to be in a minute into the third quarter. Via a missed opportunity when McDonald clouted an opponent in the head (cue Ben Brown and Weideman ringing SEN under assumed names demanding he be suspended), the same man set up Fritsch's second to extend the margin to 30. Nothing seemed real anymore. In the period where the game was won our pressure had been unreal. A team that has become famous for scaring the bejesus out of opponents was on the run from little old Melbourne and it was magnificent.

That was, effectively, the game. There was plenty more action but only four more points added to the final margin. Of course, just when it looked like we might kick away and win by a shitload we almost immediately conceded down the other end. When they went forward and were only foiled by the most desperate of spoils I was having all sorts of inner turmoil, before it was our turn to profit from wacky umpiring. After a fine escape from defence, and flowing move forward, featuring Hunt (who, contrary to earlier opinions is getting better in defence every week) taking a high-risk bounce into the soggy turf, Anal-Bullet got a free right in front for the most innocuous clash possible.

The good news for visiting fans was that they hadn't even stopped complaining about that before their side responded, as much to my distress the game temporarily became a high scoring shootout. Significantly less to my distress we instantly carved them up from the centre and cancelled their cancelling goal, via McDonald's third. It was all getting a bit complicated but the end result was our five goal margin holding against their last gasp attempts at making things interesting.

On a night where tribute was paid to great figures who served both Melbourne and Richmond, it would have been a fine time to crash through the Chris Sullivan Line and let us enjoy the last quarter. We were still far enough in front that I could fear a classic collapse. On the three quarter time siren I started shaking like a leaf at the prospect of blowing it from there. The benefits of being up the back were on show again as I spent the break regaining composure by pacing back and forth like the criminally insane. That wouldn't have gone down well in Bay N3, Row F, Seat 5. Those people were probably salt of earth Dees fans with loves, hates, and passions just like mine but my absence was a better result for everyone, I got space to go troppo, they got an extra spot between seats 4 and 6 and we all got to float home on cloud nine after a monumental win.

Even after Richmond lost two players I wasn't going to claim victory, even reasoning with myself that the departure of Dustin Martin with injury was a bad thing because he'd been squashed so flat by the surprise tag that it might create space for other players to run riot. The coping strategy - and it seems ridiculous to admit this now - was to break the quarter up into two minute blocks. Every glance at the scoreboard showing 2.00, 4.00, 6.00 etc... while we were still in control would be another two minutes closer to winning.

We hadn't even reached the end of the first two minute block between Petracca plowed through a pack  like an out of control train and forced through what was realistically the sealer. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but he is a freak. For all our alleged draft blunders, and with respect to the other guy being concussed into retirement, let us face Moorabbin and pay our respects for them letting us take Truck with pick 2. He doesn't have to be the best player every week, but there will be games like this where he's practically unstoppable. Stop comparing him to other players and start comparing other players to him.

By the time May and Lever did their best Tenerife Airport impression and allowed Richmond to run the ball through from the line it was too late to make a difference. I won't deny that something inside me thought "what if..." but it was well over by then. All we had left was the sort of incident that will ensure extra spice for future clashes between the sides. 

I desperately want to be involved in a version of GWS vs Footscray (as long as we're not the ones who lose a prelim) where there is genuine hatred between the sides. And as much as they have to pretend that animosity is bad, the AFL should want it to. The sign that the old wrestling promoter used to have on his wall is true in every field of entertainment - 'personal issues draw money'. Nobody wants a Giants/Dogs game if there's no chance of Toby Greene sticking his studs up the Bont's nostrils, we're in it for potential fireworks. I thought we were heading that way against Richmond after 2016 (featuring the Tom Bugg "shhh" incident and Alex Rance playing Whack-A-Mole on Jack Watts' head) but they soon forgot us after discovering the joy of winning flags. Hope this kicks it off again. 

What I didn't notice on the night is that Pickett got his downfield free by flummoxing his opponent with about eight leads in 10 seconds. No wonder the bloke lost his mind and dragged him down like Jaws. This prompted some good old fashioned wrestling that will help fill the league's empty coffers, including a cameo from Nathan Jones, who stopped getting fined every 10 seconds a couple of years ago but thought he may as well dive in and write a cheque for old times' sake.

Pickett kicked the goal and celebrated his good fortune by yelling in his opponent's face. You've got to admire Damien Hardwick's record, but hopefully it caused a brief flashback to this great moment of MFC arrogance. Of course, since then Hardwick has won two flags as a player, three as a coach, and had the leg over in lockdown while we've won FUCK ALL so he's still ahead on points for now.

In a controversial twist, Kysaiah got excited by the street fight atmosphere and referred his man to the scoreboard. Jeff Farmer also did that once, unfortunately it was while playing for Freo shortly before we reeled in a 51 point deficit. No hard feelings.

Usually, I'd be against scoreboard pointing antics against opposition that has recently won three flags, but if you didn't play in any of them you're just a bloke with famous friends. This restarted the skirmish, as the league's Chief Financial Officer leapt for joy, causing Oliver to do a slapstick Three Stooges pratfall to milk another free.

This is the sort of thing that you denounce opposition players for but secretly enjoy from your side. Outwardly you have to tut tut and wonder what's happening to the game but deep down you're proud of them for trying to win by any means necessary. Suffice to say, the Richmond fans who hadn't tested the MCG's structural integrity by standing up to leave as the first free was paid were baying for blood. I don't know why after three flags anybody would care enough to get upset about such things but I'm willing to learn.

The seas (of Tigers fans) were indeed angry. At that point ski season would have been the hottest topic at the G, the last (ski) resort of the terminally dull and people who weren't smart enough to jump on the cheese joke bandwagon. Due to being rich many of our fans celebrated victory by getting on the white stuff without leaving the CBD.

By now the people in the cheap seats around me were almost entirely Melbourne, and curiously most of them stood up to watch Oliver's kick. I had no idea why, but joined in anyway. I think they were preparing to go off at 5x volume as it went through before seeking out opposition fans for acts of violent retribution. For once Oliver was the peacemaker, calming down the potential riot by missing. And that did it, with the siren narrowly costing Jones the chance for an on-brand selfless act, setting up a teammate to walk inside 50 on his own and presumably kick another goal. 

It started badly and it ended with a bang, but the middle was a thing of beauty. State of the game wankers wouldn't have thought much of it, but if you appreciate pressure and a team having a whole-hearted 110% bash against superior opposition this was for you. Some would argue that they no longer count as superior but I'd caution you to hold off for a bit before writing them off. In far lower key ways we already thought we'd rocketed past them in 2011 and 2016, so let's just see what happens at the end of the year then reassess. Certainly don't throw your dignity out the window like this guy:

Apparently that's not the ex-Essendon player, but somebody needs to send that guy a new version of this classic letter. If I was a Richmond fan I'd buy that NFT rights to the tweet for $3.50 and print out copies to leave on every seat in the MCG.

Anyway, other teams be buggered, let's talk more about Melbourne. These days I'm content to celebrate the final siren with a round of applause then piss off sharpish, but the prospect of 30,000 people going bananas for Nathan Jones was not to be missed. This inadvertently, and fortuitously, led me to the presentation of the inaugural Checker Hughes Medal, a new best on ground award for this fixture. 

I can do without cups and medals being handed out willy nilly, but was happy to get into the spirit as we'd won. Also, Checker is a fine figure to be celebrated considering he served with distinction during World War I, legged it from Punt Road after winning a flag, gave us the nickname 'Demons', coached a shitload of flags, then stayed around while Norm Smith won even more. Presumably Emo Maric was the second choice if the Hughes family weren't interested.

History does not record if Checker was into comedy, but he would surely have appreciated the fiasco that led to Christian Petracca accepting the medal. The poor old announcer won't achieve Sandy Roberts at Mt. Gambier style lifelong fame for her part in this, but is probably regretting not asking who she was meant to be revealing as the winner before starting the reveal...

... but on a night where people would have gone ballistic for anything, the dead silence after "Will you join me in... well I actually don't know who the winner is..." is wonderful.

What you miss on the TV coverage was a Channel 7 bloke trying to point out who the winner was from about 20 metres away, which wasn't much help considering he was just pointing at 23 Melbourne players. I'd argue that Salem was marginally better, but when offered two outstanding performances as if any voting panel (and was there even one?) isn't going to take the populist option.

Then, once the comedy routine had concluded, it was time to stand up and make a lot of noise for Nathan Jones as he was chaired off. It seems odd that Melksham took the opposite wing to Gawn, but in looking for a picture of the chairing it turns out Bernie Vince was the support act for his 250th so maybe it's a tradition. We won that day too, and though this picture makes it look like no bastard was there, 28,000 saw it. At the start anyway, for a club that had won a premiership 12 games earlier you've never seen people scurry out the door so quickly. Even Richmond fans, having to come to terms with the unfamiliar feeling of losing, didn't storm the exits as quickly as Dogs fans did that afternoon.

The frenzy over Jones was a beautiful thing. Much deserved, capped off by a great win. Still doesn't feel right that we've only had two 300 game players since 1897, or that both came so late that they could be played on Friday night while I watched live. With concussion protocols and fatigue management who knows if we'll ever have a third. If not, this is a good player to stop with.

If they'd kept celebrating I'd probably have stayed all night, but finally once Jones was gone it was time to leave the G before being forcibly evicted. The lid was only finally declared off near the end of my train trip when a man tried to take a piss between the carriages and returned to announce that "most of it went down my leg". For once this was not a metaphor for following Melbourne.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
It's... not Petracca. Though he would have been a worthy winner, I loved Salem's control of the game when it was looking ropey. Five more years of this and only the willfully ignorant will still think we got that trade wrong. Could it be, just maybe, that both we and GWS be happy with what they got out of the deal? I'm bloody overjoyed.

5 - Christian Salem
4 - Christian Petracca
-- a substantial distance --
3 - Luke Jackson
2 - Michael Hibberd
1 - Clayton Oliver

Apologies to almost everybody, but especially Brayshaw, Lever and Tomlinson, all of who could have snuck in for a vote at the end.

It's a fiesta at the top, with five players within one BOG of the lead. By virtue of being squeezed out of the votes by quality opposition - and the literally flawless performance of his understudy - Maximum fails to add to his lead, and with Oliver also pushed down the order, Salem and Petracca jump headfirst into the mix. Salem also goes ahead of Lever in the race for the Seecamp, the third different leader of the season.

No takers so far in the Hilton, as we continue to look towards a repeat of 2005 when no eligible player scored a vote. Bad news for your Laurie, Bowey, Rosman etc... class, but a (potential) testament to us keeping our best side on the park. Maybe if Kade Chandler is ever required off the bench he might nick it?

14 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
12 - Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca, Christian Salem (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
9 - Jake Lever
7 - Kysaiah Pickett
5 - Steven May
4 - Tom McDonald
3 - Michael Hibberd, Luke Jackson, Ed Langdon
2 - Jayden Hunt, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Bayley Fritsch, Charlie Spargo

Statistical Anomaly Corner
Speaking of Chandler, after being unused substitute for the second time he has now 'played' more games where he hasn't spent a minute on the ground than real ones. This further demonstrates what a farce it is to give senior games under those circumstances, but as long as we keep winning here's to him pocketing a premiership medal after sitting on his arse for four quarters. He should have walked up and claimed the Checker Hughes Medal when things got confusing.

Also, as somebody who froths at the mouth for unusual historic moments I thought it would be enlightening to trawl the archives and find out who the last player was to win his first six games as a Melbourne player before James Jordon. The drama lasted all of about 18 seconds before it turned out to be Charlie Spargo in 2018. For another week at least it's advantage Charleston, who must have thought he'd walked into the easiest racket in world sports when his wins came by an average of 11 goals.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Petracca's sealer was not without its charms, and there were a couple of nice team goals, but I'm going to opt for Neal-Bullen from the boundary line. It was a beautiful finish, and important in the context of the game. Under the radar he is having a very good season and now that we know he can kick rippers we'll be demanding one a week. For the weekly prize, he gets to be called by his real name at the start of this paragraph. Pickett vs St Kilda still leads the overall count.

Crowd Watch
Blame Ticketek, the weather, Richmond fans, or some of ours not getting the memo that this has screamed past Queen's Birthday, but I thought the 56k crowd was a bit weak. There goes another chance to relegate Essendon/Collingwood to secondary importance. It was a bit NQR when the crowd erupted on being told they were in the world's biggest sporting crowd post-pandemic when everyone knew that wasn't going to last a day, much less with half the stadium empty.

And, if this is going to be where I end up watching most games from for the rest of the year, can anyone explain why the portholes have a handle? Have these been opened once since 1992, and if so what were the circumstances?

Next Week
It's North in Hobart next Sunday, and by Christ surely even we couldn't stuff this up? There's no recent evidence to suggest a letdown (if you ignore three quarters of the Hawthorn game), but you've still got every right to be worried about an Essendon 2012 style (almost) top vs rock bottom mystery reverse.

I'd be much more confident if the game wasn't being played on Mt. Variable Weather. Given how much time how players spend at Casey you'd think wacky winds wouldn't be an issue, but having lost there by under a goal three times I'm understandably spooked about something zany happening. Google tells me the fear of wind is 'Ancraophobia', a condition I've got out the yin yang at the moment. 

Let's hope the Tasmanian government overreact to North coming back from Perth and ban them from entering the state, then we can play at Fortress Docklands instead. Even I could be convinced we'd win in a canter there. Just our luck that they'll be banned and the game will be postponed to one of the bye weeks, simultaneously necking our momentum, still forcing us to travel and giving them time to get things together after a rubbish start.

It's hard to get your head around changes at 6-0 (that is, just to remind you, six wins and zero losses). Going on statistics alone is silly, for a six touch, three tackle game I thought Spargo was very good so I'm not prepared to lose him. I'm a bit off Melksham, but half-forward is one of the few places we don't have ready-made replacements champing at the bit for a crack. You could push Fritsch up the ground and create a spot for Weideman or B. Brown but I'm terrified at messing with a winning formula, even if much of the formula relates to what's going on at the other end of the ground.

Maybe you give Mr 100% Jordon a rest and bring Sparrow in? Alternatively, just keep going with what got us this far and hope there's no riding high in April/shot down in May style lapse. I think that's the way I'll go - weird training ground injuries notwithstanding - leaving the VFL glamour team of Brown/Weid waiting in the wings for another week. Imagine we take the horses for courses option and bring Brown back for his Hobart experience, Weideman will be touring the facilities at Collingwood by 9am the next morning. 

Anyway, I think we win after a few moments of nerve-shattering terror.

IN/OUT: No change
LUCKY: Jordon, Melksham
UNLUCKY: B. Brown, Sparrow, Weideman

Was it worth it?
Yes, yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. I want more of it. Nobody seriously cares about the Collingwood rivalry anymore but I'm willing to show interest just for another blockbuster.

Final Thoughts
It was a bit over the top for the train carriage to follow the lead of a drunkard - not the same one who whizzed on himself - and sing the song somewhere north of Keon Park, but good luck dampening down people's excitement at a time like this. He had another go a few stops later and everyone was sick of him by then but I secretly wanted to join in and make a grand old scene. This result doesn't change anything other than confirming we won't finish 5-17, but the Nathan Jones implications are almost as important to me as the effect on our season.

Even when I was giving him awards as fast as they could be dished out - including three straight Jakos in our worst years - I'd never have called him my favourite player, because he never lent himself to doing the sort of fancy shit that leads to somebody taking that status. It's why we still wallop ourselves over Jakovich (47 games) more than Neitz (308), despite the enormous gulf between their overall careers. It might have also been because I was terrified at jinxing him when his unifying presence was, at times, all that stood between us and total anarchy. 

After being very good/not great under Bailey, the way he took over as all hell broke loose around him during the Neeld debacle made me respect him more than anyone else who I've ever seen play for us. Other than that goal in the 2018 Elimination Final, the club's highlights video didn't capture Jones' true essence. Because showing a selection of his 141 goals doesn't explain why he's held in such high regard. There are a couple of belters in there - including against Brisbane 2010 when he jumped over a bloke lying on the ground before kicking it - but most of the important action either takes place in a pack or behind the scenes.

Nothing that happened on Saturday tonight changes my mind that his career is rapidly drawing to a close, and now the question is whether he goes past Neitz's total, but what a ride. As I said around the time Frawley arrived at Hawthorn just in time to pocket a flag, it's personally brilliant for you to go elsewhere and taste ultimate success, but their fans will consider you a footnote and ours will, at best, politely acknowledge your contribution. Nathan Jones - on the other hand - will never be able to walk down the street again without Melbourne fans who lived through the worst times wanting to break out into spontaneous bursts of applause. In the unlikely event that we do ever win a flag, no matter how far in the future, I want him to present the cup.

Go well you great man, for however much longer you can. And when it's over legend status, the sort fans of other clubs could never understand, awaits.