Tuesday, 20 April 2021

High five

Strange things are afoot at the MCG. A team that lost its forward line before Round 1 and has not yet hit anything near top gear sits 5-0. And they're called Melbourne. Not North, South or Port, but flat-out, first club off the rank, still waiting for it to go tits up in some fashion Melbourne. Remarkable stuff. Fans of good clubs probably wonder what the fuss is about, I’m left looking around in wonder like Crocodile Dundee visiting New York.

For the fifth game in succession - seven if you include last year - the experience was grim and gritty, but ended in victory. And when you follow us you can’t ask for much more. 

I'd rather see an unsolicited picture of Jonathon Patton’s dick than watch the first three quarters again, but the landslide finish made the slow start worthwhile. The bit where we played like Godzilla destroying Tokyo could have arrived about 90 minutes earlier, but being forced to earn wins every week must have some unseen long term benefits. I'm still satisfied to win under any circumstance.

Our best start since the same year as last week's best start may ultimately prove a mirage, but not for at least a few more days. Now we're unbeaten, second only on percentage to a side that has enjoyed a downhill draw (reminder: there is no such thing as 'equal first', no matter how much you want it to be real), and are left with a genuine ‘too many good players’ selection dilemma for the first time since about 1964. There's more than one letdown somewhere in our near future somewhere but I'm prepared to ride this mad run as far as it will take me.

The TL:DR review is that we sludged along for three quarters, before a tremendous blunder encouraged us to flip the switch and run riot in a fashion not seen since those wonderful few weeks of merrily kicking shit out of sides during 2018. For a game where the result remained in doubt at the last change you have to go back to the glamour clash against Gold Coast in Alice Springs four years ago for anything that turned so good, so quickly.

No offence to the 10 players left from that day - nine on our side, one with Hawthorn - but the stakes here were significantly greater, even if the opposition wasn't. The same people who'd pumped us up all week would have queued from Jolimont to Wodonga to rip the piss out of us if we'd lost as red-hot favourites. Somebody would have undoubtedly accused Melbourne fans of 'getting ahead of themselves', as if 96% of us didn't go into the game terrified about defeat. There's a difference between thinking you should win, and knowing you will. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in the second camp and wasn't ready to try it out here.

But first, a lengthy personal whinge that approaches Hawthorn fan levels of entitlement. If you're purely interested in the transfer of ball across grass by hand and/or foot, you may exercise your right to fast forward the next few paragraphs.

If you thought the process of Melbourne winning was laboured, you should have seen my path to the game. All it lacked was trains being replaced with a horse and cart running via Waverley Park. The first step was securing a ticket to attend, which shouldn't be a major drama home or away for premium members. Enter the famous Ticketek website, which runs on DOS0.0 via servers powered by somebody riding a bicycle. 

After the unnecessary struggle to get a seat against Freo I didn't anticipate a quick process against a Victorian club, but was prepared to believe that they might have refined their system over the last month. They had not. On the first go it got me all the way to the checkout with a ticket before refreshing the page and sending me back to the start. Until then it had been an easy enough process so I was happy to try again, only to discover that no tickets were available. Seemed strange, so I had a third go and was told that I could have a ticket, by paying anywhere between $25 and $70.

This process repeated a few more times until I was ready to give up and watch from home. They must have used cookies to track my likelihood of committing homicide because on the very last try before caving my monitor in with a peripheral it finally achieved the holy trinity of 1) assigning a seat, 2) not asking for payment, and 3) successfully confirming the transaction. It didn't put me anywhere near where I wanted to sit but the result was better than nothing. 

Everyone knows my seating preferences by now, but I'll probably sit anywhere without serious complaint as long as it's not from the middle of a crowd. Maybe it's delayed trauma from all the verbal stoushes with fans (both opposition and local) when I was young and stupid, but the idea of watching live sport amongst strangers horrifies me. In 2018 I was so high on finals that it didn't matter, but under normal circumstances I'm not interested in being stuck with unpredictable, often boozed up, people yelling stupid shit about footy. 

For this reason I had no interest in my assigned seat #8. There is no worse spot for me, stuck several person deep in an aisle and having to stand up four times a quarter for people who can’t hold a piss or their piss (delete as applicable). Forced into the Southern Stand, my plan was to head due upwards, find a quiet spot and wait for somebody to kick me out. This involved level four being open, so after they made people sit in pissing rain last week I was pleasantly surprised to see the top decks of both Olympic and Ponsford occupied. So, with a spring in my step I bounded up the stairs to level four, only to find:

Now the MCG has discovered how much they can save by shutting stands, does anyone think they’ll seriously go back to open slather seating once everyone's been vaccinated in 2031? By then they'll have replaced food sales with handing out bags of Soylent Green as you walk in, but you still won't be able to sit where you want. Even after social distancing is no longer required (though I would encourage you to be as socially distant from me as possible), forcing people together is going to neck one of the great pleasures of watching an unpopular team live. Let those who have a genuine love of chumming up with others have their spots, and provide safe spaces for the awkward and/or disinterested. 

I've got respect for the idea of contact tracing and would let Brett Sutton teabag me if required but conditions of entry be buggered, I still wanted to a top level by any means necessary. I didn't think they'd let me, but couldn't get morose about seating arrangements until I'd investigated the alternatives. First I tried to get into the Ponsford, hoping that the turnstiles wouldn't realise I was meant to be elsewhere. Sadly not. It came up with ‘WRONG GATE’, the people behind me heard all seven words you can’t say on TV and it was back to Gate 5. But not before a slapstick moment where I accidentally tried to get back in via Gate 6 and was turned back again. If anyone was enforcing the 'mandatory' QR code check-in at the gates I'd have done it four times.

The last remaining option was to sneak from Southern to Olympic stands. This Berlin Wall style death strip took that option off the agenda:

I was confident in outrunning the border guards, but wouldn't have got far before being identified and turfed out so reluctantly conceded defeat and took my assigned seat. Ironically, the first thing I saw on sitting down was an ad spruiking Hawthorn’s commitment to people with invisible disabilities. I'm certainly not claiming that status, but it is clear that nobody gives a fat rat's clacker about people with anxiety. For the first time, Ticketek's wafer-thin commitment to customer service saved me. By the time I finally got a seat it was located in the back row of the ground floor. This meant not having anyone behind me, and being able to clamber over the seats rather than having to be a public nuisance every time I wanted to move. 

Access to games isn't going to return to normal until next season at the earliest, and while I fluked the best option of a bad situation on Sunday there was an indication a few rows ahead of how you're going to be at the mercy of random seating for every away game. I can't imagine my mood would have held up as well if I'd been sat in front of the slaphead Hawthorn fan who leapt to his feet and yelled about every free like it was the biggest miscarriage of justice since Lindy Chamberlain.

Instead, they had me sitting right behind a kid, meaning no matter what happened on-field I had to restrain myself from throwing a tantrum. When nobodys within 20 rows I’ll swear, kick things and make indecipherable, animal-like noises of anguish, but at this stage of life I'm not going to ruin the experience for a kid by acting like a kent. Steven Hocking style fans of stuffing around with the game will note that said child went from diligently filling in the goalkickers in her Footy Record in the first quarter, to losing interest and playing games on a phone while we were pouring on scores in the last.

Depending on your company there aren't many bad places to watch from at the MCG, but the ground floor of the Southern Stand is almost the last place I’d willingly choose to watch from. I can't remember seeing a game from a similar angle since Queen's Birthday 2005. Turns out that day also featured issues with reserved seating, leading me to stand up the back and engage in the sort of verbals with opposition fans that would horrify me now. Standing is also banned in 2021, meaning many of those freaks are now occupying seats, which is another good reason to be as far away from large groups of people as possible.

At last, there was football to be played. Of sorts. In a week where average scoring fell even further behind every season between 1961-2018, this was a throwback to the days of sludging about in the hope of kicking two goals a quarter. At the end we started putting them through at one per minute, but not before causing a few spectacle fanatics to commit hari kari. Let us never return to the dull-by-necessity 60 points per game of 2014, but any total will do as long as it ends with us in front.

Fans of the theory that you can tell how things will go in the first 10 minutes would have been in their element here. The first quarter neatly predicted the next two, with heroic efforts around the ground covering up for the obliteration of our midfield at stoppages, leading to horrid forward play and the ball regularly tearing towards Hawthorn's goal with free men everywhere, where more often than not the backline had to get us out of trouble. Rinse and repeat for three quarters, with only the slightest ebb and flow in either direction.

We looked unstoppable with the ball anywhere between defence and the last kick at goal. The problem was a) getting it, b) converting chances into goals, and c) stopping them going forward so quickly it would catch an otherwise solid defence out. Their forwards were a far cry from Franklin/Roughead, so even without May I could handle them dumping kicks inside 50 and hoping for the best. What worried me were the lightning entries that found players standing on their own. There were a few of those, but not enough to do anything but give us a scare.

While the midfield were being thumped at clearances, there were plenty of people doing good work when the ball came loose. Chief amongst them Max Gawn, whose contested marking is enough to bring tears to your eyes. We have previously discussed the premium I put on this stat above almost all others, and he got us out of jail several times courtesy of being a bucket-handed man of huge stature. He would end on eight for the day, equalling the record (only kept since 1999) he already shared with David Neitz.

Considering how often they led to Hawthorn attacks, the slow eradication of stoppages (both teams combined for just three hitouts more than Max's individual record) probably worked in our favour. It was also a fine demonstration that your career as a ruckman is stuffed unless you can do something other than tap the ball. For instance - getting your side out of jail by taking screaming pack marks and kicking vital last quarter goals.

Behind Maximum statistically, but always in our hearts, Tom McSizzle offered much of the same. Each had 10 marks, and while Tom’s weren't as exciting many of them were just as important. It can't be easy knowing you're only playing for a team that did everything possible to chuck you in the off-season because your replacement is injured. I wondered if that had been weighing on him over the last few weeks, but maybe now he was liberated by Weideman and Ben Brown kicking 10 between them in the Reserves and thought he may as well just go out, play hard and see what happens. Last week he would have been a dead certainty to be dropped for the other two, now we're (maybe just me?) doing furious maths on how to keep him in the side.

And in the AFL360 style spirit of having a Monday hero (on, as it turns out, Tuesday), a word for Michael Hibberd, who keeps coming back no matter how many times I write him off. Lever was the main event in defence, but Hibberd was great in the terrifying moments when the ball broke loose. If you're the sort of person who judges everything on stats he won't get much credit (and you'll vastly overrate Oliver’s 30 touches) but this was Classic Hibberd, albeit against a largely toothless attack. If he backs up in the main event next week I’ll believe that this year’s edition of the comeback is serious. 

Our opening score had every Melbourne aspect you could hope for, a flawless counter-attack from half-back line that ended with Jackson taking a strong mark and hoisting it forward to Gawn, who scared Sam Frost into giving away a free. It looked more like general jostling than a hold to me, and Sam's cracking of shits indicates he agreed. Sadly this didn't lead to a 50 because, much to the delight of dull commentators everywhere, Maximum sprayed his shot. Still, other than the bit where we had to fight out of defence and aim for a ruckman for want of other key forwards it was magnificent.

For the next 10 minutes either side could have had the first goal if anyone could kick straight. Which is very much on-brand for us, the least accurate side in the competition. Nice to get it down there so often and rediscover the joy of forward pressure but missing so many gettable shots will come back to haunt us eventually. It did, temporarily, here, when they found a free man 40 metres out directly in front and he resisted the temptation to join the fun and spray it.

Our reply was - surprise - generated from the back-half. For the benefit of people who like to feud with ex-players it via another free against Frost, this time for holding Brown. Mitch lost the opportunity at a goal when Langdon swooped in and rolled it through. Good team result, not helpful when you're trying to save your career. His reward came during the rampage at the end. He was largely unseen during the first half but I don't hold it against him, he had a genuine bash and wasn't leaning against a goalpost waiting for the ball to come to him.

After four behinds - and let’s appreciate how lucky Langdon was to get the ball past a defender from an obscure angle - I thought this might encourage us to get going. Apparently not. We continued to plug away without looking like breaking free, before the Hawks plucked one out of their back passage to retake the lead. Cue unsettled Melbourne fans everywhere shitting themselves that things were about to go terribly wrong.

As much as I prefer to be back at the ground, there are some things you miss not watching TV. Including our second goal coming as the result of another dubious free against Frost. He was probably starting to feel a bit persecuted, penalised after McDonald did everything he possibly could to let the umpire know that he'd received the slightest mid-air nudge. Before Frost had even finished denouncing the umpire, the ball was already over his head and into Pickett's arms. No wonder he got the red and blue mist and started trying to fight everyone, it was either risk a fine for going one of our players or a five year ban for toppling an umpire. Mr. MRP helped by fining him $2000.

Having finally landed a set shot at about the fifth attempt, I was content to ride out the last two minutes, get to quarter time with a narrow lead and hope things improved from there. This time one of our rare clearances worked against us, with Oliver juggling a lovely tap by Gawn, Lever and Petty being bamboozled by a bastard of a bounce and some bloke soccering through from point blank range. The complete absence of a midfield to take advantage of Gawn’s dominance cost us another goal immediately after, again from a player walking into the square unchallenged. This is where you start to get worried, after an understrength forward line spent half an hour trying to craft conventional opportunities the other lot nick a couple from unmissable range. In a game that looked headed for a 55-45 scoreline this could have been crucial.

While I was being family-friendly and silently mouthing all the filth that I'd usually mutter at a time like this, one Hawthorn fan obviously rated it on the same level as winning four flags, leaping to his feet and triumphantly pumping a fist into the air like the end of The Breakfast Club. Turns out that no matter how successful your club is, there's just as much entertainment value in stuffing up the expectations of other sides. 

Lever was partially at fault for both late goals, but it was only a minor quibble in what was another otherwise fantastic performance. I don't fancy him against Richmond without May as backup, but in this company he was great. Tomlinson wasn't bad either, again not sure it translates to a forward line with a minimum degree of potency but good enough on the day. Step one would be to stop the ball landing on their head within five seconds of any stoppage in the back half, but they coped well here. I still want May to return pronto.

Suffice to say I was on full red alert for a shambles after those two late goals, but Petracca's delightful no-look handball to Milkshake (not to be confused with recent controversial government advertising), and his bendy snap from the pocket shortly after the break calmed me. I'm not entirely off Melk, but other than this he didn't have much of an afternoon. Usually, a rising tide lifts all boats, but when applied to a footy team it can swamp a few people as well. He was excellent in 2018 but may be reduced to spare parts now. Pretty handy spare parts though, a step far above when we were told to play the kids and our side started to look like the cast of Oliver Twist.

The warm feelings lasted about 20 seconds, before our backline politely stood aside and let Hawthorn mark right in front of goal. It was not the last time that we'd immediately waste a goal, and I'm still waiting for Champion Data to confirm that no team in the league has, over the last decade, given so many back within a minute. If there's a team that's done it more often they should replaced in the AFL by the Aspley Hornets.

With stuff all goals to be had, Frost continued to provide entertainment. The highlight was when he grappled with a clearly disinterested Oliver, then pushed him over right in front of the umpire for no sanction. It made up, in some way, the questionable free to Langdon that got us back within a goal. Much was said about David Parkin doing his block on the radio and demanding that the umpire be sacked, but I'd been listening to the Tobins shortly before this and he sounded as if he needed oxygen just to be there so I don't know how much vitriol he'd have been able to summon without being carried out on a stretcher.

Suffice to say, at 31-33 there was a lot of improvement to come after half time. While the defence was coping alright against ordinary opponents, I was dying for a forward who could take advantage of how often we were getting the ball down there, reasoning that even a couple of consecutive goals might lead the Hawks to run up the white flag. Tom Mitchell did his best to get us going, trying to use his Brownlow Medal gold card privileges to carry the ball through a crowd and get away with it. Unfortunately nobody remembers that he won it, and he was duly pinged. Given how we'd been kicking at goal I wasn't going to assume Petracca - notoriously wonky but otherwise delightful - would be accurate from 20 metres out. But through it went, and we were ahead for the first time since the opening minutes.

The floodgates were still 30 odd game minutes away from flinging open, but the complexion of the game had certainly changed. After aiming at McDonald forward all day for one missed shot and one wild snap that ran wide it was nice that he got our next goal. Sadly, the team that has made wasting goals an art form save their best for him. I used to think we wasted Jesse Hogan goals at a rapid rate, but McDonald's usually disappear before you can register that they've happened. Nobody else other than Mason Cox remembers Queen's Birthday 2018, but I remain upset that he kicked six and we gave them back in an average of 112 seconds. I've got your back Sizzle, even if nobody else does.

I cherish Nathan Jones and his contributions to this club, so after looking a mile off the pace all day in his 299th game, when he marked 20 metres out directly in front my first thought was to worry he'd miss. And indeed he did. That Goodwin had to be asked if he'd play his 300th on Saturday (as if any club has ever dropped somebody on 299 games) was testament to his ordinary day. I'm usually suspicious of sentiment but will offer a full exemption in this case. He may be like an old car that you practically have to roll into the dealership to get full trade-in value before it falls apart, but if anyone has ever earned the right to an armchair ride into a milestone match it’s him. Here's to the occasion and crowd contributing to a last, glorious, swansong performance. I've been sitting on a Nathan Jonestown Massacre headline for about eight years, this would be the perfect time to deploy it.

Enter, instead, McDonald for his second. Another goal set up with a run from defence nearly ended in a shambles that even I wouldn't have been able to cover up. After Jackson was given a free in the square, Sizzle tried to play on and may very well have had his kick touched by Frost. Fortunately, not obviously enough for it to be picked up by the cameras and it stood. Still might have been a bit hasty in playing on. Even if Jackson has been a bit Earl Spalding with his set shots this year surely he wasn't going to miss from the square. When players began to set up for a kick-in I got a bit worried, before our very good friend in the video review booth conclusively decided that Frost had got no closer than touching the boot. Admirably decisive, when many would have gone for the easy way out and deferred to the umpire's call. Either way we'd have got the goal and poor old Frosty's shithouse day continued.

This goal would never have happened without a flying save by Hibberd that stopped a near-certain goal at the other end. Hawthorn players had a whinge, and I've seen worse paid, but you can't exactly claim the player is making contact below the knees when he gets the ball and you fall over him. No doubt if the same thing happened at the other end I'd be cracking the sads and demanding the free be retrospectively added to our total, but morally you couldn't claim this with a straight face.

Given our record post-McDonald goals I was about to go off my nut when Hawthorn extracted what looked like a pure centre clearance from the bounce. Distracted by how easily it had come to him the player proceeded to turn it over immediately, allowing us to get to the last change 10 points in front. I thought we'd win from there, but if I'd gone into a coma and woken to the question of whether we won by 50 or lost I'd have definitely picked the latter. 

For now, it was heading towards the same sort of uninspiring win over Hawthorn as late 2004, another day where we papered over the cracks against an ordinary side (featuring the debut of comically named caretaker coach Donald McDonald) via a big last quarter. That day we reached the top of the ladder, the crowd went bananas when they showed it on the big screen and we proceeded to lose every game for the rest of the year. Will be a touch disappointing if that happens again, leaving us with a 5-17 record.

By the bounce, as the bloke who'd started the game six seats to my left was suddenly sitting right next door, I'd talked myself into winning (reasonably) comfortably. Turns out I was right, but when our midfield parted like the Red Sea and let them kick a goal after 13 seconds I was in some danger of finally openly yelling swear words with no consideration to who was sitting nearby.

The Fear used to be that we'd never win another game, now it's about not losing to lowly sides. When they went forward again and a player ducked out the back of the contest to mark in the square it went through my veins in every direction like I'd just rammed a fork into the toaster. Until the ball bounced off his hands, and far enough away that he couldn’t just soccer it through off the ground. Come Saturday night if the same situation ends in Jack Riewoldt taking the mark, kicking the goal, and beating us I will be upset, but not as much as I would have been if it cost us victory as heavy favourites.

For dropped marks in that part of the ground, it didn’t have the same fatal results at Ricky Petterd 2011, but indirectly led to their demise. Maybe losing the lead would have inspired us to come back and kick 11 goals instead of eight? I’m glad we didn’t find out. Just as our midfield was about to be referred to as the dreaded 'much vaunted', they roared to life. 

Appropriately, magnificent man flying machine Max Gawn presided over the opening ceremony. After several fruitless attempts to pay tribute to Bayley Fritsch with goals from the boundary line, a Melksham kick that was never in a million years meant to go where it landed, flopped right into his arms. Comfortably further inboard from where all the other kicks had missed from, Maximum unloaded what must be the most perfect set shot of his career. There have been missiles launched in times of war that didn't take off as well as this kick.

After much celebration, including Charlie Spargo nuzzling into his armpit due to the height differential, he didn't even have to go back to the middle to help set up another, providing handy cover in a marking contest for the ball to fall to Brown. Cometh the hour cometh the journeyman. A viewing of the highlights (NB: via Kayo Mini, never again the 'some of the goals' collection on the AFL website) reveals that Mr. Media Watch Brian Taylor suggested "now they can really penetrate deep". For once he was right.

Now I was as confident as you dare to be around this place. The margin was only three goals but I doubted Hawthorn's capability of kicking that many in the time remaining. When Langdon further enhanced his status as our greatest free player of the modern era 90 seconds later, I'd have been happy to pull the shutters down and accept the four points. Players who haven't got 32 years of trauma weighing them down like me were not as concerned with self-preservation, bless them they saw blood in the water and went for limb-from-limb destruction.

Turns out my theory about Langdon being the nicest person on the face of the planet is backed up by a storyline on the Gawn/Brayshaw podcast. I missed this as I'd rather exercise the Chopper Read option on my ears than listen to any podcast featuring footy players but am glad to finally be proven right about something after 16 seasons.

From there it was party time, procession mode and a dead-set rooting rolled into one. Things were going so well that we even followed a goal - to Petracca - with another straight out of the middle. Sadly we were denied the sort of insane Frostball run and turnover that would have brought the house down, but he did help a teammate reach the same conclusion via setting him up with a wonky handball. His mate showed him how it was done, thumping the ball straight into Melksham's hands in front of goal.

While nobody threatened to self-immolate when we traded Frost, I don’t think he left with any animosity. Quite the reverse in my case, while some expect defenders to be flawless and will crucify them for making mistakes, I prefer to remember his insane, ferret up the leg style gallops out of defence where nobody - much less him - knew what was going to happen next. It was still marvellous to see him get into the spirit of playing against his old club. In a WWF style 'we know this is made up but we’re getting into it' way, fans played along and everyone was happy. It was about a 5% on the Carnival of Hate scale compared to another ex-Hawthorn and GWS player, but that's how it should be. Let no ex-player ever give us a real reason to despite them again.

The last goal was not the best for quality, but considering how well won the game was it got bonus points for effort and commitment. Pickett had about eight goes at winning the ball before a player finally fell into his back for a free. Was a bit of a pissweak free but formed part of the carnival atmosphere. Even my mum, who has officially retired from sports and probably doesn't know anyone other than Gawn and Jones, sent a message about how impressed she was with his fight. He is a rare talent, who so far does not look like having the life force coached out of him. Last season the natural skills were obvious but he was clearly desperate for experience. One pre-season, interrupted as it was, and he's terrifying everyone we play. You do, as the kids say, love to see it.

And that, from christ only knows where from, was a 50 point win. It was our biggest win against Hawthorn since 2006, which was not all that surprising when you consider we lost every game to them for a decade. Hard to imagine us ever having the same wood over one club that Hawthorn, North and St Kilda all did at the same time against us during the #fistedforever years, but we're up to four in a row against them now. Long may it continue against Hawthorn and everyone else. What a time to - it seems - be alive.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Tom McDonald
3 - Jake Lever
2 - Christian Salem
1 - Michael Hibberd
Massive apologies to Langdon, Pickett and Petracca. Lesser apologies to Oliver and Hunt.

Given that this is always the first bit I do, there was no justification for the state of total disarray the leaderboard was in last week. Until a kind reader pointed it out I had Gawn on there twice and May leading the Seecamp with fewer votes than Lever. It's all sorted out this week, and I've even thrown in a complimentary audit to make sure the overall tallies are correct.

By virtue of running riot here, Maximum has shot into the lead. You'd still back the midfielders to catch him and Lever due to the fact that they can rack up tons of disposals in otherwise rubbish losses - and there's got to be some of those coming eventually.

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

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It's got to be Gawn. We'd only just avoided losing the lead again thanks to the dropped mark at the other end, and this squashed Hawthorn's spirits so flat that they instantly hung out the white flag. Delightful stuff. For the weekly prize he wins a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile to place in his garden as a reminder of the time he kicked one of the most thumping set shots in modern history. It’s not enough to topple Pickett vs St Kilda for the clubhouse lead but was a ripper in anyone's language. 

Matchday Experience Watch
This stuff is a disaster no matter who puts it on, but there's a big difference between chintzy segments conducted at a respectful volume, and the KFC jingle being pumped out at 110% volume while people are encouraged to win chicken by dancing. May as well just offer to inject paint thinner into their veins. This went on for what seemed like minutes, and actually was, before the cameras settled on some bloke who had swapped dignity for a Zinger. Later, the club that would rather fold than sell their pokies held a Dance Cam segment presented by the idea of responsible gambling, a message which may not have filtered down to the punters putting their houses through machines at Waverley Gardens.

Next Week
Considering Richmond’s recent record of winning flags, our current streak of winning games, and Jones' 300th, this is already our highest-profile home and away game in years. Throw in the Anzac stuff (even if Anzac ‘Eve’ is a bit of a fake thing) and things are set to go boffo. It doesn’t have the implications of some late-season home and away matches or (god forbid) finals, but hard to think of too many times recently where we’ve come into a match against a massive side in this position. Even Queen’s Birthday 2006 was only 3 vs 6, and the opposition hadn’t recently won a shitload of flags.

Shame, then, that even if the government is convinced to allow 100% capacity - and no sign of that at time of writing - we won’t get anywhere near it due to a) people losing the will to live dealing with Ticketek, and b) the fact that crowds will never get back to their peak (2019 by total numbers, 2008 by average) now that people are comfortable watching from home. My key concern is outdrawing Essendon/Collingwood and relegating them to second division blockbuster status. There was almost a disaster when I was so busy sneakily writing this post that I missed the start of the ticket sales, only luckily realising it was on 10 minutes in. To their credit, for once, Ticketek delivered the goods without a fuss this time. They've even landed me where my reserved seat would be located in normal times, which may indicate things will be back to normal soon. 

It has also been a long time since we've had such a serious selection conundrum. Considering how young Hawthorn was, who knows what randoms were playing for Box Hill but Casey still walloped them, with Weid kicking seven and Brown three. Add the fact that Fritsch may be ready to come back from his mystery mid-week wrist fracture and at last we've got more good players than available spots.

At the other end, as bad as May’s eye looked a week ago, he avoided surgery and may be alright to go, possibly while wearing a Phantom of the Opera style mask. Petty was not disgraced but it's a bit of a stretch to go from not playing as an AFL defender for two years, to one warm-up game against a nothing happening forward line, to taking on Jack Riewoldt in front of a shitload of people.

As convinced as I am that the Weid will be off to Collingwood at the end of the year, you have to reward his seven goals against Hawthorn Jnr. over Brown’s three. Him who looks like the lady from Arcade Fire has more experience and strikes me as a more consistent option, but you can’t say Weideman doesn’t have a bit of big game form after kicking four in front of 90,000 people two years ago. I think you can eventually fit bit both of them and Fritsch in, but where does that leave McDonald? If it's dry maybe you can play him as a half-forward/wing and fit them all in. Buggered if I know, but if I was playing Sim Selection Committee I’d say:

IN: Fritsch, May, Weideman
OUT: Melksham, M. Brown, Petty (omit)
UNLUCKY: B. Brown, Sparrow

As for the result, I have no faith that we can stretch this to 6-0. Part of that is natural Melbourne fan pessimism, part is the opposition. As long as the margin stays hygienic I can handle losing (he says now…) but I’m not completely writing off the prospect of a boilover. Either way, this would be a great opportunity to press our credentials as a legitimate finals side. You won't catch me saying the ‘p’ word at this stage, unless it's "piss off and stop sitting next to me".

Was it worth it?
Eventually, with a substantial assist to the random draw that left me in a seat that didn't cause a nervous breakdown, it certainly was. The tapes of the first three and a bit quarters should be incinerated then cleansed with acid and buried under concrete but it was an enjoyable experience when it got going.

Final Thoughts
You don’t win anything for being unbeaten after five, but it’s significantly better than the alternative. How we finish the year will determine how fondly this run - as long as it goes for - is remembered. For now, it feels like the fondly remembered five weeks in early 1998. Tellingly that streak ended against Richmond, and was followed by a mid-season slump that almost put us away, before we righted the ship and went as close to not winning a premiership as ever. Here's to doing all that again and more.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Standard 'post delayed' notification

Well bugger me we're 5-0. I bet nobody saw that coming. Alas I have to pay bills so I'm not expecting to have the post up until 17:00 Monday at the earliest. Maybe Tuesday, maybe the next time we lose a game in 2025? (Update from Monday, nah I'm stuffed here. Come back sometime Tuesday)

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.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Be still cat

The views of Bad Boy Bubby do not represent that of Demonblog.com or the Melbourne Football Club. No animals were hurt in the making of this post except Geelong.

When he met a youngster with ambitions to be an astronaut, the late Prince Philip allegedly said "you'll have to lose some weight". Were he introduced to the finals aspirant Melbourne Football Club, he might have said "you'll have to beat some good teams." 

We may not be there, but we're closer than ever. After three weeks of satisfying but questionable wins over the mediocre and inconsistent we have, in a way, gone one better. The "Who have they beaten?" faction, of which I consider myself an associate member, will point out that Geelong had already lost fair and square to Adelaide, got out of jail against Brisbane via an all-time umpire squib, barely beat Hawthorn and were without Dangerfield and Cameron. This is all true, but reputations still count for something so I'm warmly embracing our win.

Naturally, after so much hurt over the years, the first thought after the siren was how we were going to find a way to lose to Hawthorn next week, but if - unlike me - you could take a minute to savour the present before catastrophising the future, this was a very good win. Certainly a better result than the last time we were involved in major administrative change on the same day as a match against the Cats. The President is gone (long live the President), but whoever was officially in charge at 6pm Sunday afternoon fared 211 points better than poor old Don McLardy a decade ago. More coup chat later, we've got important 'Melbourne winning games' content to get through first.

This was another of the many games I'm going to miss seeing live this year, but stuffed it I won't find a way to watch. Even when my body gives way and I'm strapped into an iron lung I'll be insisting that they prop a screen over my head when Melbourne games are on. Just my luck we'll be five goals clear in a Grand Final and the TV will fall on my head. 

By the standards of the Big Wank about footy being good again (scoring currently .1 per team higher than 2018), the St Kilda game probably had more appeal to neutrals and broadcasters, but I felt much worse about missing this one. It was an impressive win against a side half full of champions (and to be fair, half full of randoms), where we built a lead, withstood a comeback, and came back to win comfortably. You didn't have to be there to enjoy it but I expect it would have added to the experience. Then again, unlike most of the MCG crowd I had a roof over my head, so it wasn't all bad news.

Now that the points are in the bank I can question why I was so worried about Geelong. Obviously the answer was 'because Melbourne are playing', but if I'd bothered to study Geelong's lineup it would have been obvious that half of them didn't deserve to contribute to the fearsome reputation the Cats have built up over the years. For instance, who knew until today that there was a second Guthrie? Apparently, he's been playing for five years and - surprise, surprise - had the game of his life against us in Round 1, 2018. Can't remember, too busy replaying Gawn's kick to win the game over and over in my head.

The only problem with writing them off based on fielding a bunch of people you've never heard of is that, as we're just starting to learn, having a few superstars can make up for shortcomings elsewhere. So the likes of Selwood, Hawkins, and Isaac Smith still remained every possible chance of dicking us. And who would bet against another debacle on the same level as the Zac Tuohy goal after the siren?  

Another reason for concern was our last start against the Cats, where they merrily played dinky keepings off football that restricted us to three goals in the first three quarters. That we almost won that day is still bizarre (would have officially been declared PISS FUNNY if we'd snatched it), but if that's what they did to us when players could still move on the mark who knew what Chris Scott had planned here? Who knows what he's up to full stop, especially now that he's looking like a cult leader. 

Channel 7 would have hoped for more from their big Sunday game, but it should have been obvious to anyone that this wasn't going to be an instant classic. Mostly due to not being played under a roof, it never threatened to be a repeat of that Footscray/Eagles game that everyone cranked it over a few weeks ago. We still lack the forwards to take advantage of the alleged return of the key forward - though in reality teams are averaging all of 0.1 more points per game than 2018 - and Scott tried to further restrict our scoring power by Clayton Oliver into the ground GWS style. That didn't work. 

We've gotten away with it somehow, but most teams are going to struggle when they lose one of their key forwards, so with Jeremy Cameron still crocked, Geelong's hopes of any half-decent score rested on either a) Tom Hawkins playing a blinder, or b) somebody you've never heard of being elevated to the Kingsleys. Hawkins holds a better record against us than any other club, nearly three goals a game, but for most of that time he hasn't had to put up with the attention of Steven May. It took him a while to find a way to combat that threat yesterday, but when he still only finished with two goals from nine the Cats had no viable path to victory.

Perhaps psychically aware that he was about to be assassinated, May looked uncharacteristically nervous early. He took two belting intercept marks but flubbed both kicks straight to the opposition. We got away with it because, for now, we had several defenders operating at their best, while Geelong had one forward target who must have been wondering when one of his teammates was going to have a crack.

The 'tag Oliver' campaign came unstuck almost immediately. It was his kick to the top of the square that allowed Jackson to effectively drop a mark into Petracca's hands as he ran past. Truck kicked the easy goal, then told his opponent all about it without breaking stride. No Melbourne player has deserved to be that arrogant for years, it's a lovely sight. It might have come back to haunt him, but given that at the moment he thinks he's unstoppable and actually is, everything kept coming up Christian. 36 disposals later we had confirmation, as if you needed it, that he is an unstoppable force.

May is in such hot form that even when his bad kicks came off, one that was half-smothered bounced straight to Oliver (tag not pictured) to go inside 50 again. Spargo may never be a superstar, but if you were playing some bullshit AFL video game he would have a tremendous 'vision' rating, because he has an amazing knack for finding teammates standing in obscure spots. Here he took advantage of the man on the mark being stuck in place to run around and pull a sideways kick to Viney, standing in a mile of space. Jack missed, but the construction was a thing of beauty.

This was all part of a hot but inaccurate start, one of three behinds surrounding the unmissable Petracca goal. We couldn't go on like that forever, and eventually conceded the reply to crazy name, crazy haircut Gryan Miers, who took time out from looking like he should be graffiting trains to kick one on the run. That was about the only way they were going to get them unless one of our best defenders did himself a mischief.

Everything BT has ever said except "GEE! GOD! BOY! WOW!" is rubbish, but his fact of the day, that Nathan Jones has never spent one single week of his 298 game career on top of the ladder did make me think about the trauma we've inflicted on Jones. I don't think the statue is going to get up, but we still have to clutch him to our collective bosom when he retires. The last couple of years have been varying degrees of rough but he is a first-ballot nominee, alongside Robbie Flower, to the MFC Commitment Hall of Fame.

Now he's an absolute certainty to play 300, and presumably a few more, giving us extra motivation to beat Hawthorn next week. Imagine going into a holiday (eve) blockbuster against the defending premier unbeaten after five, and with the most popular figure of the last 15 years reaching one of the great milestones. Forget the government returning stadium capacities to 100%, the MCG should bring in temporary seating if that happens. Knowing our luck, COVID will seep out of the hotels just in time for the game to be played behind closed doors.

Maybe Bayley Fritsch was paying respect to the legend when he set up Jones for the second goal. More likely somebody had a word to him during the week (and it bet it was the great Choke Yourself With A Tie), about his ordinary record at shots from the boundary and encouraged him to look for options. Against all odds, Bayley's record for shots from Fritschville actually improved by the final siren. 

Considering how we usually play the wet like all our players were involved in childhood nautical traumas I expected a few dropped marks, but for a few minutes balls were flying off chests and hands at a record rate. The man who, thanks to Kelli Underwood's spur of the moment claims will forever be remembered as 'Slick Fritsch' showed his teammates how to do it, taking a mark that was reminiscent of the glory days of Jeremy Howe. Nothing to do with the elevation, just he immediately turned it over.

In a week where scoring plunged back to pre-COVID levels and Gil was forced to arrange a welfare check at Steve Hocking's house, we survived intense DemonTime pressure to get out of the quarter two goals to one up. It ended in slapstick fashion, with Oliver finding himself on the end of a 50 that took him to the middle of the ground after the siren. Made sense that he at least feigned to take it, after all somebody might have had a brain fade and given away the rare double 50. Once that was off the table he made a bit of a kent of himself by trying to recreate Ben Graham's 105 metre kick only to get absolutely none of it, leaving the ball rolling sadly along the turf.

No harm done, boosting your disposal tally always comes in handy for both winning awards and renegotiating contracts. 

It was a promising opening, though we should have had at least one more goal. You can never demand more than that, no matter how well you've played, because you don't know what happens when the ball goes back to the middle after the first one, but considering Gawn was unbeatable, Petracca untacklable and Oliver untaggable, I'm sure we'd have had it forward again before long. Having survived his first game at Casey, Ben Brown must have been rubbing his hands together in glee at the prospect of getting involved. No pressure or anything but we have been waiting since 1897 for somebody to kick the ton...

For everything that had gone right we weren't far enough in front to be comfortable, and I almost rage quit the game, the season, and my commitment to Australian rules football when May emerged from a contest with Hawkins suffering what looked like a severe case of death. Turns out he'd been caught by an errant elbow in a tackle which had quite frankly, fucked him right up. I felt a bit better once we knew he hadn't done a knee or broken his neck, but he was still left staggering off the ground and straight into an ambulance, with blood pissing from his eye.

The elbow wasn't aimed to hit May in the face, but it also wasn't a necessary thing to do, making it a test case for whether we're still more worried about the consequence than the action. If Dangerfield got three weeks for clubbing somebody out of the game via a bump that was deemed careless, severe impact, high contact this couldn't be far off. But apparently it was, and he got away scot free. I'm not calling for him to crucified out the front of AFL House but you can't just go around swinging elbows and plead accident when one connects.

While Brisbane fans were probably thrilled to see him go down as if hit with a billiard ball in a sock, the commentators didn't notice for about 30 seconds. I take it they're calling the game off the TV like Foxtel. It's the only way you could have missed him lying on the ground for so long. Hawkins went over to apologise, shame the victim couldn't see him due to his fractured eye socket. At least he said sorry for brutalising May, unlike the All-Australian selectors.

After three weeks when Chandler, Baker and Melksham had more chance of getting a blood clot sitting on their arse than from the AstraZeneca vaccine, we became the last club in the competition to use a medical sub. Hardly the ideal circumstances but unlike the other three, Tom Sparrow earned the game he's now credited with. Looking for any excuse as to why we'd lose, I was more concerned by losing our best defender just as we were about to keep Geelong to a Laws of the Game committee killing 4.4.28. Now we had a backline consisting of two talls who have played well this year but you wouldn't trust in one-on-one contests. Turned out alright.

There's no need for a specific media watch segment when BT is calling a game because he'll just talk through his ringpiece all the game, but I enjoyed (as much as possible under the circumstances) his Dr. Dickhead updates on whether May had been ruled out. "We've just heard that Sparrow has come on so there may be a ruling," he cried, as if Sparrow might have just decided to seize the opportunity to activate (*spew*) himself. Soon after, this most unusual fellow described the state of the game like a "bag of sand hanging in the sky", ready to "be split wide open", causing the sand to "spill everywhere". No wonder the mad bastard didn't ponder if one horse-sized duck could beat 100 duck-sized horses. You almost have to admire how he gets paid several dozen times the average national wage to do something he's so bad at.

At first, when the injury report just listed May's condition as purely 'eye' I thought we might be able to fiddle the books and play him next week without having to wait out the 12 day concussion countdown. Once his enormously blown up eye was found to be covering a fractured socket it was confirmed that he'll be out for a month. Confirmation that he was concussed also not great, this being his second in a few weeks. That used to be par for the course for most players, but these days it's almost the trigger to donate your brain to science. On a positive note, if he comes back wearing a helmet it would be the funniest visual since Jason Dunstall did it. Possibly going one step further by wearing a pirate style eye-patch.

May was gone, but still in our favour were conditions that didn't favour talls, Geelong's one-dimensional attack, and Chris Scott's willingness to turn the game into trench warfare even though the best ruckman in the game and one of the better midfielders were giving his lot a bath.

I might have been flying the flag at half-mast for the loss of a key player, but if there was anything that was going to lift the spirits of Melbourne fans again it was Joel Selwood having a whinge after Spargo won a free by ducking into his tackle. Sadly Charleston missed his kick and the chance to rub it in even further. Noticeably, Selwood failed to display the same moral objections when he milked one in similar circumstances a few minutes later.

Tomlinson has vastly exceeded expectations as a defender, but conceding a free to Hawkins at their first meeting left me nervously adjusting my collar at the prospect of another big bag. If mediocre forwards can do it, the good ones are going to join in at some stage. He missed but it still didn't bode well. Instead, some guy with the sort of mullet that you should see you sent to a penal colony got away with dropping a mark, before narrowly sneaking his kick through against a fierce sideways breeze. 

After spending almost two full quarters on top without landing a knockout blow, it was wasteful for the margin to be back under two goals. We didn't have anyone else to blame for not taking better advantage, but looking back from the safety of having won, there was a bit of 2018 Elimination Final about it. That night we jumped to a far greater lead, courtesy of their zero impact forward line torching multiple early chances, but that night their mid-game comeback was also thwarted by a lack of potency.

The steadying influence came from Lachie Henderson, who went into full "you can take the boy out of Carlton..." mode by needlessly pushing Fritsch over after a mark, conceding a 50 that moved the kick from a questionable position in the 3131 district to the square. If Brad Scott was moved to call Brisbane players [censored on legal advice] a few weeks earlier, he'd have had 'words' for Henderson after this. Even more so when Fritsch got another straight out of the middle. It was another delightfully constructed goal, starting with a masterful tap from Gawn into the path of Petracca and Oliver, and a delightful gather by Pickett at half-forward. I love this shit.

While Channel 7 resisted the urge to join the Slick Fritsch phenomenon, there was an on-screen graphic advertising McDonalds (the 'restaurant', not the brothers) advising us that he was 'On The Fritsch'. His named has been misused so much in the last couple of weeks that he may as well change it to Trengove.

We were temporarily back on top, until Geelong got going again via what was deemed a dangerous tackle by Jetta. On the scale of 0 to Neal-Bullen bouncing the Adelaide bloke off the ground like a basketball last year, it was barely a 1 but still cost him $2000. Like the government putting a speed camera in a 40 zone, this must be how the AFL is getting their finances back on track. People love the pub test, and it doesn't pass that Nifty is writing a cheque (and how do they pay the fines? Do you get a penalty notice in the mail?) two grand more expensive than what Hawkins paid for throwing elbows in the vicinity of an opponent's face. 

As the free was being paid, Lever went ballistic in a way that made that it sound like he was about to assault the umpire Phil Carman style. The ump was so concerned for his safety that he had to repeatedly assure Jake that he hadn't done anything wrong. Turns out he was talking to his teammates, and rightly so. He was very good in the absence of May. They don't play anything near the same role but he did well cutting off promising attacks and marshalling his teammates. Nobody who looks like the 13th Duke of Wimborne should be allowed near a club leadership group, even at a traditionally poncy club like Melbourne, but he could force his way in despite the ludicrous bumfluff. 

The Jetta free not only stopped us storming forward with free players everywhere, it kicked off a period where the rules of deliberate out of bounds and holding the ball were not applied to Geelong. Remember when you used to play Daytona USA in the arcade and it would artificially make you go faster if you were too far behind the leader? I think the same technology was on trial here. 

After two minutes of this nonsense we responded in the least Melbourne way possible, kicking the ultimate Reverse DemonTime goal. With 10 seconds left the ball was thumped inside 50, and as players flung it around trying to find somebody with the space to take a shot, I was panicking that they'd run out of time and we'd come up scoreless. Enter spelunking legend Christian Petracca, who barged through so forcefully that the defenders backed off and smacked it through right on the siren. Our salary cap is full now, imagine what it's going to look like when we've got to re-sign him in a couple of years? I predict the buzzword 'godfather offer' will be used liberally (even though 90% of players linked to one recent have found it was an offer they could refuse), North will offer him $4 million a year, and that no matter who he ends up playing for it won't be them.

That goal made the margin 23 points, prompting Oliver to give Joel Selwood a celebratory shove. He adopted an air of "don't you know who I am?" and wandered around for a few seconds looking for somebody to argue with. I'm sure they'd heard of him but didn't seem to care. Whether they've got the right to be up themselves at this stage is questionable, but I still like to know there's no fear left from big names. Personally, I've never been as worried about famous players as much as the nobodies who bob up and wreck us.

Things started to get a bit ridiculous when Pickett crumbed the bejesus out of a Fritsch contest for another just after half time. Melbourne Classic re-emerged when we battled to give it back as fast as possible, Gawn clotheslined a sliding Selwood in the middle, and while he was trapped on the mark Rhys Stanley took the opportunity to sneak forward and mark for a goal. It made up ever so slightly for the hands-down battering he'd endured from Maximum since the first bounce.

But as things were going reasonably well for us, the Anal-Bullet quickly pulled the goal back. Whether he plucked the ball out of Pickett's hand mid-tackle a few seconds earlier or it was thrown to him was of no concern to the umpire. Based on the first half even if they'd been standing over the contest it would have been called play on.

We haven't had it easy once this season, and it got complicated again here. After five minutes of stalemate Geelong finally came to life, kicking three of the next four. Isaac Smith got two, which is coincidentally also many years are left on his contract with Geelong. Not to detract from him still being a handy player but thank christ he didn't take the three years we were offering him. I'm still scarred from the law of diminishing returns with Lewis and can't imagine he'd have been cheap, which would have left us in even more of a financial squeeze in a couple of years. No doubt he'll prove me wrong with a best on ground, 40 touch, seven goal performance that puts us out of the finals in Round 23.

The second of their goals was born from Viney setting Sparrow up with a hospital handball, but it was one of his few errors. Like his dad he's missed the boat on winning Brownlows and being a media darling but is such an important part of our lineup. Imagine how shit it would have been if he were playing on the other side? Helps when good players develop around you rather than being expected to carry the place on your own shoulders. Nathan Jones must be a bit upset at being a couple of years too early to enjoy the same benefit.

My buttocks were clenching at a rapid rate when Gawn added the arsiest captain's goal of all time to his stoppage domination, hoisting a hopeful long bomb towards the square, where Jackson contested enough to allow the ball to roll through untouched. I thought that might have been good enough to get us to three quarter time with the lead intact, before Salem was blocked a mile off the ball to set up Smith's second.

Having been five goals up midway through the quarter, we were now just 12 points up at the last change. No worries as it turns out, but at the time I was reaching for the brown undies. An early goal was much appreciated. It also had a bit of novelty about it, with the Geelong player rushing the ball out of bounds instead of through the points and being rolled for deliberate. As much as I'm an advocate for letting people rush behinds openly - especially now that it's never been easier to clear the ball out of defence - and think the bar for a deliberate should be much higher, but this was just blatant. Hamish McLachlan tried to be nice and suggest he'd missed rushing a point because it was a wet ball, but from the look on his face he knew he'd stuffed up.  

Lovely Ed Langdon, who comes across as the world's nicest man, had to contend with pelting rain and three Geelong players sprinting at him like an NFL defensive line but still converted. A certain commentator was momentarily confused about whether the kick was to cut the gap to six or extend it to 18. The red and blue player kicking for the red and blue team that was leading 63-51 was clearly not enough of a clue.

Runner Shannon Byrnes was so happy about this that he dropped any pretence of being on the field to give messages and joined the world's nicest man for a hug. Bit early to get this excited but if they're happy I'm happy.

Now, with heavy rain coming down I was happy just to waste as much time as possible. Can't tell you how upset I'd have been at them forcing me to sit in the wet when Row MM was empty.

Bayley Fritsch does not worry about small things such as rain. His aerodynamic hairdo remained upright through four quarters, and he even kicked one from the spot he's made famous with his misses to give us further breathing space. Turns out this was the fatal blow, but I was not yet ready to declare victory. On the other hand, Chris Scott looked like he was about to rip open a vat of cyanide and end it all.

We ran 10 vital minutes off the clock without conceding but that doesn't mean I wasn't still sweating up profusely when Hawkins - after being fixed up by Tomlinson for most of the half - finally had one land perfectly to soccer through from the square. 

In comparison to that final this lacked about 60,000 people and 85% of the frenzy, but did feature the continuing adventures of Melbourne players treating Joel Selwood with disrespect. There's never been a better time to remember Sam Frost (who we could now do with courtesy of Damien Hardwick's bonkers player loan scheme, which surely nobody takes seriously and.. oh shit) telling him this...

... the contemporary version was Pickett flattering him in a tackle then offering maximum verbal abuse. Selwood has won as many premierships as Melbourne since 1959, but what does a 19-year-old care? Imagine how much angrier he'd been if he was old enough to be subjected to that shithouse ad with Joel and a taxi driver in every bloody ad break for two years?

I've got nothing personal against Geelong, even considering some of the demolition jobs they've done on us over the years, but it would be nice if they suffered for a while. Since I've been alive they've never won less than seven games in a season. I know life is about winners and losers but it would help their fans develop some perspective lost since winning multiple flags and seeing more investment in their home ground than some other parts of regional Victoria combined. Writing them off is risky, but nice to see them under a bit of pressure for once. 

Pickett's tackle led directly to the goal that really did put it away, with Spargo, Oliver and Melksham doing a bit of "you first sir, no you first sir" before the Milkshake finally booted it as high as he possibly could from a metre out. And that was, pretty much, it. Instead of security guards ringing the ground for the last few minutes they should have sent out garbagemen, because interest across the board dropped to none. We knew we were going to win, so did they, everyone just wanted to get it over with and move on to next week.

And, confounding pre-season predictions that Adem Yze would be our senior coach by now, our first 4-0 start since 1994 was complete. It wasn't quite as exciting as the milestone game that year, which featured Allen Jakovich single-handedly outscoring the Brisbane Bears by 10 points, but when something hasn't happened for 27 years you're dutybound to appreciate it no matter what the circumstances. If you want to be pedantic and refuse to accept the 1994 edition because there was a bye in the middle you'll have to go back to 1990, when we won the first five then did a Melbourne and lost to a 1-4 Sydney.

It's all going well. Maybe a bit too well, but doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. At the same time, I don't want to hear anything about the statistical unlikelihood of missing the finals from this position. We are prone to mysterious dips in form, so if anyone can cock it up from here it's us. Even '94 required a last round win just to finish 7th. I'd love to issue an earth-shattering statement by thrashing somebody, beating a confirmed top four team, or preferably both, but compared to where I thought we would be at this stage I reserve the right to just be satisfied with what we've got..

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Max Gawn
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Jake Lever
1 - Bayley Fritsch

Serious apologies to Langdon and Viney. Normal level apologies to Brayshaw, McDonald, Pickett, Tomlinson, Salem and Hunt.

11 - Clayton Oliver
9 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
8 - Christian Petracca
7 - Kysaiah Pickett
6 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
5 - Steven May, Christian Salem
3 - Ed Langdon,
2 - Jayden Hunt, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Bayley Fritsch, Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
After a couple of weeks of Pickett doing Pickett things, he settled down and just kicked a bog ordinary snap this week, without any fancy steps or backwards running. I'm going to recognise the player who exceeded expectations the most by awarding the weekly prize to Fritsch for the goal in the last quarter. Given the conditions and the state of the game it was a great time to find his range. Like Pickett a few weeks ago, he wins a truckload of hair products to keep his impressive barnet going. Kysaiah remains the clubhouse leader for the St Kilda goal.  

There are some commentators who you secretly enjoy hearing talk shite. Not BT or Dwayne, where the bad drastically outweighs the good, but I secretly love hearing Eddie shoehorn in unnecessary Collingwood references, or Derm going off onto odd tangents that make him sound like he's having a stroke.

The rising star of this world is Jobe Watson, who obviously knows everything about footy - except when it comes to declining mystery injections - but could do with a couple of years honing his special comments craft in the VFL because he's well out of his depth at the moment. Thrillingly, on Friday night he wanted to said something was Sydney's 'standis operatis', when he meant 'modus operandi', so when I saw him doing our game hopes were high for a repeat. Sadly he must have left his Pig Latin phrasebook at home, because his role was reduced to fluffing for 'expert commentator' Nic Natanui, who didn't say a word unless he was specifically asked a question.

Orderly transfer of power watch
Strange how these things work. One week you mention JFK, the next you lose a president. With about 16 hours notice, Glenn Bartlett ended his term as our 21st president with slightly more dignity than POTUS 35, but not without some controversy. 

I thought he might have quit on a 3-0 start just so he could technically go out as an unbeaten president, but because we can't have the slightest bit of success without self-destructive urges kicking in, his departure reportedly involves falling out with the board, and interestingly Simon Goodwin, who has obviously firmed up his position from three weeks ago when he was halfway down the Green Mile. There are forum posts that hint at some sort of scandal but you can find them yourself, I'm not brave enough to annoy a lawyer. He is staying on the board, which suggests he hasn't exactly been caught running guns to Nairobi.

While Bartlett's reign can't be called an unqualified success due to only playing finals once and not delivering the famous training venue, he can point to a more stable financial position than any time since we were the 'rich' ones in the Hawthorn merger. Seems a lot of that is riding on the value of the Bentleigh Club land but no matter what voodoo economics are at work, the heat is certainly off us in the backwards race to be the next defunct Victorian side. 

He was involved in the odd fiasco, like the New York Yankees fiasco, but while he didn't inspire you to take up weapons and fight, his tenure ends with the club in a far better state than many of his predecessors. 

Taking the poison chalice is Kate Roffey, who must have seen nearly everything there is to see after serving on our board since 2013. People who think you can't do anything of importance without a knob will probably complain, but it's telling that she has previous experience working on one of the last 27 rebuilds of Melbourne Park. If all else goes wrong, and she can't convince her tennis friends to bulldoze show court 54 and let us build there, it's time to go for Plan B, white-ant North out of Victoria so and steal Arden Street.

Next Week
A decidedly average Hawthorn in a game I can go to. What could possibly etc...? Like Chris Scott, outside of a couple of random wins and one glorious finals campaign, Clarko has had us on a leash for years. It took until last year, when they had the highest number of unknowns in their side since the Josh Thurgood era, for us to finally treat them with contempt. I don't think they're any better now but am still on high alert for an earth-shattering letdown and not taking anything for granted.

After years of complaining about the time they played Viney and Jones in Round 1 off the back of one VFL practice match, I'm happy to include Ben Brown off the back of one VFL practice match. Aside from having the longest run-up since Cliff Young, he shouldn't have too many conditioning issues as a forward.

Brace for a Kingsley style performance, but given that Hawthorn's forward line is bereft of talls do we even need to replace May? I know Goodwin would rather die than play McDonald in defence, but what about starting him forward, then swinging him down there if required? Gawn can look after McEvoy when he goes forward, and we can see if having another tall next to him helps McDonald get some goals. If not the Weid is looming, where we'll be able to boost his value before he requests a trade to Collingwood at the end of the year.

I thought Sparrow did well when he came on, so he can swap as the sub with Jordon and Double J can put the feet up for a week. My controversial plan to go with Lever/Tomlinson and hope for the best is bad news for Petty. He was reportedly safe as houses in the VFL last week but if you can't just play a raft of tall defenders if not required because they're there. Maybe go for something in the middle and pick Hibberd?

Anyway, no matter who we pick and how good our start has been I reserve the right to sook up in Selwood fashion if we don't win. Suddenly expectations are sky high and my nerves are shredding at a million miles an hour. 

IN: B. Brown. Sparrow
OUT: May (inj), Jordon (to the sub)
LUCKY: Melksham
UNLUCKY: Hibberd, Petty, Sparrow

Self-indulgent content updates section
In retrospect, if I was going to write a TL:DR review of an old game I probably should have chosen something from 1994. Instead, fast-forward 10 years to another season when we were half decent but went home empty-handed, and enjoy this look back at walloping Carlton in 2004. Featuring Cameron Bruce running riot, Tipstar losing millions, and Fev with a haircut that looks sensible in comparison to old fictional first name Gryan.

Final Thoughts
Half the country is talking us up so they can pour shit later for 'getting ahead' of ourselves, the rest refuse to take as seriously because we haven't beaten the Brisbane Lions 2001, 2002 and 2003 premiership sides in consecutive weeks. Nobody can honestly say they know which way this is going, so for now I'm content to lie back and think of September.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Interstate of Disaster

A Melbourne side riding a wave of momentum into an interstate Preliminary Final then running out of gas and kicking no goals in the first half against a side they'd beaten a few weeks earlier. Where have I seen that before? Yes, it's all over for Melbourne AFLW in 2021, our best season yet, featuring a stirring five weeks of brave performances but ultimately ending the same way as every other senior Demon side since 1964.

Only the most demanding of fan would be rude enough to get upset about the women stacking it with a Grand Final on the horizon. Mostly because they gave us so much joy in the lead-up to the fizz-out, but also because unlike the men they didn't concede the first 10 goals. 

In a special, none-more-Melbourne AFLW twist we were played off the park and lucky to only lose by three goals but still registered more scoring shots. Other than the golden run to the finals, I'll remember this season best for turning bulk forward opportunities into minimal goals. This has been a problem for years, but after 25.10 in the first three weeks it looked like we'd cracked the accuracy code. Then we came home with 35.66. Which is a bit disappointing, but considering we made it work between the Collingwood game and yesterday, who am I to argue? 

Though the game was originally announced for Norwood, it turns out nobody had bothered to ask Adelaide Oval if they were free and the game was relocated. This was talked up as good for us because the AO is closer to the dimensions of Fortress Casey. Forget width, our problem was playing on a ground that was enclosed rather than a glorified public park.

Another area where Norwood might have had the advantage was in producing an Australian flag that didn't look like it had been dragged through the Battle of Okinawa. They might have misunderstood the order to fly the flag at half-mast for Phil the Greek and instead sent up something that could only be described as tattered. The only people who get really angry about the flag are the same ones who refer to themselves as 'patriots' and do racism on Facebook, but even I thought this was a bit NQR. May as well have sacked the Julie Anthony tape and invited Roseanne to sing the national anthem while they were at it.

Maybe I was just looking for a controversy to take my mind off what I suspected to be impending disaster. After the last few weeks you'd be bonkers to bet against this side doing something special but the idea of Melbourne qualifying for any typ of Grand Final is so preposterous that I could only see the result going one way. And it did. Not as violently as our prelim in Perth, but both ending with players watching the Grand Final from the couch the next week after never seriously threatening to make a game of it.

We got our season rolling a month ago by applying a fearsome level of pressure to the Crows. This time they adopted the old "let's get them before they get us" philosophy, pouncing on us from the first bounce and not letting the pressure up until the game was well won. Who knows if our players went in tired after five weeks playing out of their skins or just had their life force squeezed out on the day but it didn't take long to see that we were in all sorts of trouble.

While they had almost all the ball in the opening minutes we still chipped in for the first behind. Didn't fancy our chances of defending a 1-0 lead until the siren though. Not that you'd know that from the commentator who yelled "they've got nobody forward" shortly before the ball landed with an Adelaide player on her own inside 50. A backline that spent the day under siege got away with that one but it wasn't long before the Crows were threatening again.

From a purely ruthless view, we should have benefited from the collision that put both Eliza McNamara and Adelaide's captain out of the game with concussion. Eliza came off worse, carried off by trainers looking like she'd just gone 10 rounds with Ronda Rousey. She's had a very good first season and should have many years of improvement ahead of her but those of us looking for any reason why we might win thought there had to be some effect on a team from losing their captain. Apparently not. Probably helps that their side is full of premiership players, and they carried on like nothing was wrong.

The new 12 day rest concussion protocol means Chelsea Randall - former MFC exhibition game star gone on to bigger things - will miss the Grand Final. Here Daisy unsuccessfully trying to cheer her up by saying "oh well, at least now we've both got next week off." Which, as you can see, has gone down like a fart in an elevator.

After a few minutes of scrap where we never went close to scoring, red flags, danger signs, alarms and distress flares were all simultaneously deployed when Adelaide got their first. Cunningham has found second life playing on the ball after her goals dried up, but the dangers of allowing non-defenders into the backline were exposed when her arm dragged across celebrity supplement spokesperson Erin Phillips' shoulder for a free and goal.

In retrospect, after that we may as well have shaken hands and booked an earlier flight, but as strange as it sounds when we only kicked one goal for the day there was a golden chance to equalise shortly long after. That we missed is not so surprising when you consider our final score of 1.9. The ball bounced for Tarrant in the square, but she was off balance when gathering it, and in trying to get past the opponent standing in the way she whomped it into the post. It was probably touched as well, but after the alleged goal umpiring howler in the last Adelaide game we may very well have gotten away with it.

This kicked off a brief period where we looked in the game, and weren't being piled on by a dozen opposition players at every turn, but a series of inside 50s came to nothing. With our forwards pushing up the ground we were left without targets, and responded by just endlessly stuffing the ball down the throat of Crows defenders. For fans of comparisons to the men's game, this was May/Lever vs Freo all over again. 

At odds of $1.01, Karen Paxman was our best player by the length of the straight. It was nowhere near her best individual game, but with teammates going missing as if they'd wandered through the Bermuda Triangle her performance stood out. While others hit their physical and/or emotional limit she plowed on, racking up 10 touches in the first quarter. 

Paxman may be one of the greatest players in the history of the competition but can't do it all, and was caught in front of goal to gift the Crows another chance. They missed, but the manure truck had already reversed into place and was busy burying us neck deep in sheet. Which makes it outrageous that early in the second quarter, despite our All-Australian ruck being thrashed and half the side struggling to get a touch, we could have had the margin back under a kick. Zanker took our first mark inside 50, but her darting eyes betrayed a lack of confidence in converting which was duly proven correct. It left her on 2.8 for the year, the only knock on an otherwise career-best season. She can take heart from the fact that Kate Hore kicked 1.7 in 2019 and has bounced back to be an All Australian who makes TV ads.

Of course, after five minutes of the ball down our end for nothing but points, Adelaide went the other way and kicked their second. We'd done well to restrict them to two goals for the half, but looked so unlikely to get any of our own that even a 10 point margin looked insurmountable. For those with long memories it was better than the last time we played them in a must-win game, when we went to the break behind 5.4 to stuff all. 

In this case there was hope. It was to prove misguided. If the plane home lost gas at the same rate as the players we'd have to recruit a new team next season. Probably better the comedown here with only enthusiasts watching rather than in a standalone Grand Final - especially at the MCG against Collingwood. If nothing else we can take out of this weekend that they lost their prelim in even more heartbreaking circumstances.

When the Crows kicked two goals to put us away midway through the third quarter I was tempted to change my Kayo channel to this:

... but couldn't be mad. This team has given us plenty of enjoyment over the last few weeks, and while you don't want any season to end in shambles you have to fondly remember some of the hard as nails performances they've delivered over the last few weeks. Though there was no lack of effort here they were several steps behind their opponents and were in grave danger of being wiped off the table. Once the result was beyond doubt it was time to activate Operation Save Dignity and ensure the margin didn't get too unsavoury. In a way it worked, we didn't concede any more goals, but nor did we kick any.

The best chance came to Kate Hore, who had battled up the ground all day with nary a sideways look at an opportunity in the forward line. She got a chance when an Adelaide defender was so shocked at having to do some work that she kicked out on the full. A point didn't help much. Nor did one from Shelley Scott, whose tremendous mark was followed by a less tremendous kick that left us on a sad-looking 0.5 at the last change. 

If nothing else we narrowly won the last quarter, albeit against players who were in self-preservation mode to make sure they'd be right for the Grand Final. There was never any chance of a miracle comeback, and shortly after Nigel Carmody called Paxman 'Pacman', the Crows activated party time mode by rolling a novelty goal through from the boundary.

Now that Adelaide knew there was no earthly way they could be beaten they turned off and let us make the margin look far more respectable than we deserved. The last remaining question was whether we'd kick a token goal or be left alongside expansion luminaries like Richmond 2020 and Gold Coast 2021 as sides to finish a game on 0.? We were saved from this added humiliation when Zanker's kick dropped over Hore's head and allowed her to run onto it from the square. It also lifted us above our previous record low score, the 1.0 registered during that 2019 Adelaide fiasco. 

This prompted a too little/too late rally. When Scott was having another go, special commentator Abbey Holmes deviated from cheering on her old club to offer some hope. "Never say never" she said. "Never" replied Scott, as her kick fell short and was touched through. Neither she or Hore got to Cunningham's goal record, both falling one short to end the year. As well as her midweek win in the Colac Sportsmens Club 'Sports Star of the Year' award, Shelley's consolation prize is to now hold our record for most behinds kicked. Which is not something people are going to run on the ground to celebrate a'la Plugger's 1300th goal.

There's no junktime like a finals junktime, and with Adelaide practically standing back and waving us through, Hanks and Parry also added points, extending the score to 1.8. If the game carried on until Wednesday we might have kicked 1.28.34 and won. Time ran out a couple of days early, with another point on the siren somehow leaving us just 18 points behind. 

While any chance of winning flew out the window during the second quarter, I was both confused that we'd got so close and a bit deflated that we hadn't got a few points closer. Which is an appropriate way for a Melbourne season to end. 

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Karen Paxman
--- Daylight ---
4 - Tyla Hanks
--- Moonlight---
3 - Shelley Scott
2 - Gabrielle Colvin
1 - Lily Mithen

Apologies to Gay, Heath, and Zanker, who might have got anything from 3 to 1 but ended up with none.

Final Leaderboard
The four-peat is complete, with Paxy crossing the line with more than a game in hand. Other than Gawn's six year streak in the closed-shop Stynes, this makes her the first player ever to take home four consecutive awards - beating 2012-2014 Jones in the Jakovich and 2009-2011 Frawley in the Seecamp. I reject the idea that any particular player 'deserves' a premiership, but like Daisy it will be tragic if she never gets a red-hot crack at an AFLW flag. Good thing they've got about 15 between them at state level.

Tyla Hanks' challenge petered out in the last few weeks, but it would be rude not to mention her going from five votes over the last two seasons combined to a strong second place here. Also good to see her Bunnings ad make a comeback just in time for it to stop being relevant again.

In the minors, Eliza McNamara will be pleased to wake up and discover that she's pocketed the Rising Star Award. In addition to the 2022 rookies, Krstel Petrevski, Megan Fitzsimon and anyone else who didn't play this year remains eligible under the new four game or less qualifying rule. 

Finally, Sinead Goldrick will be even more surprised to be named Defender of the Year considering it didn't exist until about two minutes before I typed this. I'm pleased to correct this oversight, and will be retrospectively awarding medals for previous seasons. It was not a highly competitive field, with Libby Birch dropping from 20 votes last year to none, but we did very much enjoy Sinead's Salem-esque runs out of defence.

36 - Karen Paxman (WINNER: Daisy Pearce Medal for Player of the Year)
27 - Tyla Hanks
21 - Lauren Pearce
20 - Lily Mithen
10 - Kate Hore, Shelley Scott
8 - Maddie Gay
6 - Tegan Cunningham, Eden Zanker
5 - Sinead Goldrick (WINNER: Defender of the Year Award)
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Eliza McNamara (WINNER: Rising Star Award)
2 - Gabrielle Colvin, Sarah Lampard, Jackie Parry, Casey Sherriff
1 - Alyssa Bannan

Next Year
Now that Zanker is a confirmed midfield ball-winner and Cunningham has gone two years without looking like a dangerous goalkicker, you'd think our key recruiting focus would a tall forward who is ready to go in Round 1, 2022. Scott is always welcome, and Bannan has years of development ahead of her, but we're still lacking somebody who can take contested marks. With limited teams to trade with I don't know where we're going to find one. Any mature age key forwards left in local competitions that fancy a go? 

While we could also use another good ball user in defence, if we can keep all our star players I'd expect to be deep in the finals mix again. Whether we're good enough to win a flag will depend on how much use our fish-pond depth gets, and how the fringe players and kids go.

For fans of drafting for fun names rather than need, I've assessed the potential draft crop (e.g. Googled '2021 AFLW draft prospects' and clicked on this article) and my wishlist includes Makaylah Appleby, Jorja Livingstone, and Peppa Poultney. Fortunately, Gypsy Schirmer will only be available in the SA portion of the draft, reducing any temptation to end up in controversy for referring to her teammates as tramps and thieves.

I don't know if what his contractual status is, but surely after five years of relatively successful coaching, surely Mick Stinear is going to want to have a crack in the men's system. Maybe not, he might think head coaching in a national competition > coaching in the VFL or Under 18s. And he's probably right, but I bet AFL teams don't see it the same way. Either way, he's got every right to be pleased about what he got this year from an inexperienced that has regularly been clobbered by injuries. The mid-season switcheroos with Pearce, Zanker, Cunningham etc... were a big hit, and should form part of any application he puts in for another job.

If he does go I'm sure there will be a huge romantic Daisy For Coach push, but let's not rush into anything. I'm sure as far as much-loved individuals rushed into the top job it won't go a bit James Hird and end in people being injected with Mexican harness racing drugs but you wouldn't want to rush into anything.

Final Thoughts
All things must pass, but it's been an enjoyable ride. The competition still has a way to go but despite adding new teams that have offered two-thirds of bugger the better teams are improving all the time. Must be about time to dilute the talent pool by expanding to 18 sides. May as well follow the Eddie McGuire plan and add sides in Darwin and Tasmania, thinning out the available players to the point where your grandmother has a shot at getting a game.

Anyway, until they get the dud teams going and the era of death, taxes and Melbourne being competitive ends I'm going to have fun watching them. And when they finally drop their bundle and plunge towards the bottom of the ladder, I might not enjoy it as much but will still be watching. Hopefully that's a few years away and we can have a genuine crack at the big one (the AFLW premiership, not COVID-19) again next year. Let's reconvene for another go in 2022.