Monday 8 June 2015

Fear of a Black and White Planet

The foulest stench is in the air, the funk of forty thousand years. Welcome to Queen's Birthday, the day that no matter how furiously we try to deny it is our Grand Final. Pies fans couldn't give a shit.

As is now traditional before commencing chat on this game we acknowledge the traditional donors of the gate receipts, and I pay grudging respect to their president for his largesse. We mustn't have done anything threatening towards Collingwood recently because he hasn't let rip one of his annual FM radio outbursts about turfing us in favour of Richmond. Good thing too because if we lost this we'd probably have to sell a third home game to the Northern Territory and play for 37 people in the shadows of Uluru. I dream of a Hawthorn-esque financial revival where we can afford to double-cross them first but am not holding my breath.

In the absence of a remarkable win to talk about I'd like to discuss Neale Daniher instead. What a remarkable character. In the same situation I'd probably sit on my couch, feel sorry for myself and watch the first 11 seasons of The Simpsons on repeat until the end came but to see the way he's tackling what he knows will be the beginning of the end is an inspiration. During the week I was thinking that having missed Robert Flower entirely and being too young to properly appreciate Jim Stynes that the greatest times I've ever had with this club came under his watch.

There were dark times too, and in particular 2003 when I was suffering from delusions of grandeur and at times thought we should sack him, but we recovered and he became a much loved figure. By mid-2007 when the arse had fallen out I thought (and it's hard to deny given that the posts are still up) that his time had come and that we needed to start again. Of course in true Melbourne FC fashion we completely stuffed it up and instead of allowing him to roll through to the end of the year OR making a difficult decision and sacking him on the spot it ended with a farcical compromise that led him to tell them to get stuffed and quit.

Fortunately the illness isn't close to my family, but I do have connections to medical research so you know what to do. Good of the PM to show up, get his picture taken and not commit any extra funding. Surprised he didn't stay around for the game, Melbourne fans would surely be his core constituency and Pies fans are famous for their conservative views towards indigenous Australians.

How apt that Neale's last win in charge was also our last on Queen's Birthday. What a delightful afternoon it was too, capped off by some mutant in the crowd lobbing a can at Russell Robertson when he slotted his seventh at the end. Also the last time we had a player kick seven. Other than the draw (highlighted by Mark Jamar walking off on Andy Maher and me cracking onto my now-wife for the first time later that night from the back of a bus) the day has settled into a familiar pattern of brutality - capped off by the day we finally got rid of Mark Neeld. Though I think that had more to do with the AFL's cheque clearing rather than anything the lame duck coaching panel did put on.

Last year we were in it until early in the last quarter despite kicking three goals for the day - that was weird. Arguably this game was weirder. Some moments of high comedy aside it was played to a much higher standard and wouldn't have caused neutrals to duck outside and do the gardening midway through the second quarter - but much like last year it ended with a goalless last quarter and class eventually prevailing over industrial grit.

If Collingwood are a top four side I'll eat an oversized novelty hat but at this time they are far superior to us. It's easy to take this view, declare it an honourable loss and shower our team with flowers just for having a bash but stuff that. There are certainly some things that we should leave thrilled with - chief amongst them Angus Brayshaw's Rising Star winning performance - but significant question marks still remain. Whether it was just a bottom four side failing to match a finals contender or something deeper I suppose we'll discover over the next few weeks when we get a go against St Kilda (twice), Essendon and Brisbane as well as probable losses to Geelong and the Eagles.

The weirdness started early, Sizzle finally gave the All-Australian selectors the opportunity they need to scratch a Melbourne player off their shortlist when Travis Cloke ran riot on him. Fine time for the inconsistent bastard to decide to learn how to kick straight, usually he's missing from the square for fun and today decides to come out and boot seven straight. Thanks for that. Just when I thought it was starting to look a bit like our '88/'00 Grand Finals the late great Jeremy Howe bobbed up with two to give us a second chance - the first from a fantastic piece of forward pressure from Garlett when he knocked the ball from the Collingwood player's hands at the last minute before he took off down the middle of the ground into free space.

We might have even hit the lead had Watts not botched a mark in the square, which inevitably led to a goal at the other end, the start of the first avalanche and the people in my section all but taking up a collection to have him shot. In the end I thought he recovered to have a serviceable game, highlighted by that killer tackle and goal on Varcoe during the third quarter, but should probably still think about moving to a state where nobody cares about footy. We could do with somebody who can convincingly play forward and in the ruck, Charlie Dixon is often injured, can't follow team rules to save himself and commands a massive fee why not do a straight swap and start taking bets on which season Jack will win his first Brownlow on the Gold Coast in while Charlie's enjoying the frozen tundra of Casey Fields. Speaking of maligned players Toumpas did some nice stuff (especially defensively on Sidebottom) but continued to appear terrified for much of the day when he got the ball. We must persist with him though, there's a big difference between gifting games and trying to get somebody up for the future.

Recovery of player and team notwithstanding that missed mark in the square saw a violent momentum shift to the Pies even though their A-Graders weren't doing all that much. The problem being that their B, C and D graders had more than enough for our E and F graders. In the middle I enjoyed Gawn's taps more than anything seen in the ruck so far this season (how about the one over his head to Pedersen that set up Vince's goal in the second), and he took one screamer of a mark but was only ok around the ground. Still showed that he's worth persisting with for the next few weeks - The Spencil was serviceable over the last few weeks but Maximum is the future. He looked rooted by the end so hopefully more to come next week.

Even during the period where they were dominating us the midfield didn't do too badly, over the course of the day we were about -10 goals on scores from turnovers and I was pleasantly surprised at how often we either got the ball out of the centre or at least broke even. Vince and Jones were both fantastic, but so were Brayshaw and Viney. Jack in particular was an absolute warrior, crashing into every pack with the sort of reckless abandon that eventually saw him suffer a (thankfully minor) injury on the way to 14 contested possessions. I was also a big fan of Riley's work around the ball and was surprised to look at the stats and see that he only had 11 touches and three tackles - Champion Data must be some sort of 'crashing in' stat that can prove his worth better than the traditional numbers.

Some of the stuff we were doing was absolutely suicidal, and sides in our bracket on the ladder would do well to note how easy it is to make us turn in a series of fatal Melbourne-esque blunders. McDonald had already been blown out of the game, but alongside him Lumumba was clearly so intent on sticking it up Nathan Buckley that he was trying to take their entire team on solo. Which is not always unwarranted but he did seem to occasionally forget that he had team-mates. Dunn had been moved onto Cloke but we conceded two more, including one where they had three goes at getting it to one of several players on their own forward of the ball. Just a reminder that it's now been 646 days since we've had a player kick four full stop and it's just happened to us in a single quarter. Oh, the life of a Melbourne fan.

Our capability for rolling over and letting sides beat the shit out of us is world famous. Thank god then for the goal Hogan kicked right at the end of the quarter which calmed things down. It was probably his worst game of the season so far but certainly not for want of effort, just beaten by crap delivery and good defending.

Without that goal I'm not sure we could have launched such a blistering comeback. Sides continue to blow five goal leads for fun this season and here was another one. Nathan Jones and Angus Brayshaw - master and apprentice - were the driving forces behind getting us into. Jones kicked the goal on the run, but the younger model was amazing in this period. His chasing and tackling were one thing but the way he gets into space is mouth-watering. I know we've gone early on high draft picks in the past only for it to end in disaster but I really think we have a keeper here.

The thing was that going into the second quarter four goals down we started to play without fear, and look what happened. Good clubs can play like that from the first bounce without having to care about what the other side do or how they'd react. This was a lot like the Essendon and Bulldogs (second time) games last year where it took us going a mile down to throw off the shackles and play daring football.

Unfortunately once we hit the lead the Pies reacted sensibly and clogged it up defensively with a man back. We failed to adapt quickly enough and it totally slowed us down. Even to that point most of the goals had come on the run but the rest of the day was spent aimlessly kicking to the loose man in defence instead of bringing the ball to ground for Garlett etc.. to scoot around and kick goals. A kick to a lead would have been nice as well but we've done that a couple of times in the last week so I don't expect to see any more of that until after the bye at least.

It was going so well for us that even after McDonald's unfortunate day out continued when he conceded a goal after being pinged for out on the full when it clearly came off the knee we got the ball out of the middle and the answering goal courtesy of Maximum's magic tap. It seemed more likely that if we couldn't spring an upset that we'd at least take them deep into the last quarter, but in a trial run for what would happen in the third quarter we went and conceded two goals late to undo plenty of the hard work.

At least by this point we had nullified Cloke (alas he'd be back), and Jesse White was a non-factor but goals were coming from alternative sources. Most notably Lumumba not paying attention on the mark and having Elliot run around him to kick a goal on the run. That hurt but not as much as the last one just before half time. We'd been reasonably good at getting through the last few minutes of the first half without conceding until last week, and given the morale boosting run at the start of the quarter it felt like such a waste to let two in just before half time but that's the life of a shit team. Didn't help that we also lost vandenBerg to injury because he had been extremely handy - some peg leg kicking is acceptable in return for bringing maximum physical brutality to the contest.

The third quarter was another baffling exhibition of ON/OFF football. The second collapse was precipitated by a shocking kick-in from Dunn, and next thing we found ourselves four goals behind again. I could accept one comeback, but the idea of overturning a 30 and 24 point lead in the same game seemed almost fanciful. That we did showed a lot of character but again it was because we just started playing like there was nothing left to lose, and that's where we started to look like an exciting team again. I was worried that we were going to leave half time on nine goals and kick 10 for the game but we actually managed to put up a decent score for once. That 12 of the 13 goals came in quick bursts is concerning but at least we managed to kick 13.

By the time Vince kicked his second after a fantastically poised pass from Garlett in the pocket I started to convince myself that we were a chance. This time it wasn't as much the way we played which cost us but one of the all-time great defensive blunders - if anybody knows what the hell Jack Fitzpatrick thought he was doing when he did an American Football style snap through the goals rather than just punching it or kicking it through send your answers on a postcard etc... For defensive goalsquare blunders it was up there with Simon Buckley trying to kick in to himself and falling flat on his face or Paul Wheatley failing to grasp the rules and running out of the square to play on against West Coast in Perth.

And pop went the momentum, we had the ball in hand with 40 seconds to go and a one goal difference but couldn't hold on and let them go forward where Cloke got a soft free from Dunn and kicked his sixth The free was offensive enough, but not being able to hold on after the Fitzpatrick calamity and get to three-quarter time without conceding another was a ball-breaker.

After that we finally ran out of gas. With ponderous play firmly back on the agenda there was no route to goal and though the Pies had to battle to get the first of the last quarter there would be no comeback once they pushed back past 20 points in front. Finally just as our defence started to hold them out we lost the ability to score, and kept kicking it to their spare man again and again. Fatigue and panic both set in simultaneously (panic is never far away) and in the circumstances we did well to stop them from rampaging over the top of us.

We tried throwing Harry O up front in the last quarter but as much as they were obviously hoping for a Queen's Birthday miracle where he won the game off his own boot and reported Nathan Buckley for harassment in the post match interview the experiment added little. Had Howe converted his shot it might have given us a chance (and snapped the famous no-four goal streak) but once that missed we were finished. In the end grit could only take us so far and we were carrying too many players that couldn't do enough damage with the ball or get it at all.

There were signs but I've been seeing signs for years to no avail. We've got better in us against worse teams, and we battled hard but unless it's backed up next week what's the point? Brave losses be buggered, more wins please.

2015 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Bernie Vince
4 - Angus Brayshaw
3 - Nathan Jones
2 - Jack Viney
1 - Daniel Cross

Apologies to Pedersen, Jetta and vandenBerg (first half).

Sizzle fever has hit the skids but he still holds a commanding lead. Jones scored to close the gap, but Vince scored even more and moves into second place. Still plenty of time for a grandstand finish.

29 - Tom McDonald (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
17 - Bernie Vince
16 - Nathan Jones
13 - Angus Brayshaw (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Award)
12 - Jesse Hogan
11 - Cameron Pedersen
9 - Aaron vandenBerg
7 - Jeff Garlett
6 - Christian Salem, Jack Viney
4 - Daniel Cross, Jack Watts
3 - Colin Garland, Viv Michie, Dom Tyson
2 - Jack Fitzpatrick, Heritier Lumumba
1 - Mark Jamar (CO-LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Ben Newton, Jake Spencer (CO-LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)

First it should be noted that the Collingwood side dedicated to Neale was extremely well-produced but a shame that while one side was slick the run-through side was just dull sludge. They also lose points for failing to rotate it, but at least there was no curtain. It's like they got a professional designer and printer to do one side and let 'the people' have a go at the other.

On the other side I was a huge fan of the way ours went light on slogan but referenced a funky little newspaper design with an inset shot of the team singing the song. Good performance on the big stage, and that's 11-1-0 for the season.

Crowd Watch
Considering the charity angle and the fact that we're not totally toxic this year I thought 66,000 was a bit disappointing. You'd never turn that back in our position but it was 2000 less than last year. Both sides were in a similar position then as now so not sure which set of supporters to blame but let's point the finger at the Pies just because. Good thing they'd already counted the two Collingwood fans who were spotted under arrest in the ground level of the Southern Stand at half-time.

After championing the Ponsford Stand for so long I've suddenly come to appreciate the reserved area I'm into my fifth season of paying for but have barely ever used. If I have to be surrounded by people it may as well be other Melbourne Supporter Depression Syndrome sufferers, with headphones in so you can't hear them talking complete tripe and abusing Watts. The only 'issue' with that spot is having corporate boxes behind, and when I say 'issue' what I really mean is that I'm disappointed the box full of Pies fans behind didn't provoke a fight with us to deliver some real quality Crowd Watch material. Maybe they did, I can headphones and a hood on so I couldn't hear anything but if they were nobody was biting.

A special mention to the guy sitting in that area gladly supporting the Dees but with a kid in a Gold Coast jumper. I don't buy any of this "I'm not going to put my kid through the same pain I've had" rubbish. If that's the case get them into live theatre not football, I accuse him of being an underwhelming parent and say sucked in to the kid for jumping on what is currently the wrong bandwagon. Here's to him coming to his senses and burning that orange monstrosity with the over elongated FIAT logo before the AFL arranges for them to come good again.

The final word goes to the syphilitic simpleton who for no apparent reason decided to taunt a young Melbourne fan on exiting the train at Heidelberg. It must be fun to follow a club who wins a flag every 20 years and can afford to mock those of us with empty trophy cabinets, but sledging kids is the mark of somebody who should be thrown off a pier. Unfortunately he went with a sneering "Keep watching kid, you might win a flag in 10 years" and all Melbourne fans in the vicinity lit up in celebration that somebody thinks it'll only take a decade. Hope he fell down a manhole on the way home.

Matchday Experience Watch
Whoever designed the ice slide certainly had a sense of occasion when they put an extra bump in at the end to create carnage. It was good for a laugh even if some of the celebrities were trying to get themselves over to a shameful degree. As I always say do what you like as long as it's raising money for charity. Hopefully next year they have a lower division event for Z-Grade internet personalities where we can help raise money by belly flopping into rancid puddles somewhere out the back of the carpark.

We're lucky not to be raising money for the first Howie's Hangers contestant who nearly broke his neck trying to take a screamer. Could somebody who reads this please put their hand up when the club puts the call out for contestants before the next home game because I would like to confirm that you have to sign the mother of all waivers and that we're not going to end up bankrupted when somebody shatters their spine.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
This award belongs to Garlett, and his contribution this week was that one where he ran through the middle of the ground, then slid to the ground when under pressure, gathered and snapped the goal. Can't put it in front of the casual set shot against the Bulldogs but in the context of the grand comeback it was fantastic stuff.

Stat My Bitch Up
We're up to 72.19ppg, which is not terrible compared to last year but is still only four points above the hapless Gold Coast for lowest scoring side in the competition. And our percentage is four points worse than at the same time last year, so that's a concern. On the upside we haven't played most of our fellow dud teams yet so I won't hit the panic button until we score 5.8.38 against Brisbane

At last, after he received a push on this page like no other except The Kaiser we've had celebrity endorsement from the other A. Riley.
This time I won't mention any of his film titles because apparently it led to a spate of blockings in workplaces across Australia.

From the Archives
During the week I went back and looked at my post from Daniher's last game. The two things that struck me were that a) before browsers had in-built spell checks I was botching every second word and b) somehow I managed to totally ignore the post-match antics where I walked into Melbourne Central to find a man clambering back on the platform having just been assailed by thugs then b) got into a fearsome argument with an Essendon fan on the train. The fact that Crowd Watch claims that I'd avoided insane Essendon fans (at the time) I must have been off my face when writing that. Rest assured friends that such major details will never be left out again even if it means ignoring 97% of the game in question.

Matters Elsewhere
Judd should have joined us at the end of 2007 and he wouldn't have done his knee on Saturday. Because as a Demon he'd have done it in Round 1 2008, 2009 and 2010 then retired on three games for us with a significantly lighter wallet.

Next Week
St Kilda at Docklands on the back of a decent performance against a reasonable club. Even allowing for not having won at the joint since it was called Telstra Dome and the Saints being in front of us on percentage we'll probably start favourites. What could possibly go wrong?

I'm hoping vandenBerg is ok and I don't have to activate my third in because we're really at the end of the line when it comes to depth. Tyson is an absolute certainty given that it seems he only narrowly missed this week and was best on ground at Casey, but I'm lost on the other two. I'm going to opt for ANB to replace AVB on the back of 35 touches in the seconds but completely lost on the other spot.

Not prepared to bring back Billy Stretch if Neal-Bullen is going to play and the only other senior player in the Casey bests was Jamar who is holding firm in the face of concerted attempts to get him to quit. Back to Michie for a third time? Just keep Newton? If you discount Dawes, Jamar, Sizzle Jr and Spencer your options who can play something resembling midfield are (in order of likelihood) Grimes, Bail, McKenzie and Harmes. Deep. Possibly bust Newton down to sub, maybe spin a wheel with everyone's name on it and pick whoever it lands on even if it's Trengove or Petracca.

IN: Tyson, Neal-Bullen, ?
OUT: vandenBerg (inj), M. Jones, Newton (omit)
LUCKY: Fitzpatrick (I could beat Jesse White, winning the battle does not make up for the rushed behind fiasco)

Was it worth it?
Shame it had to be provoked by going five goals behind but the fearless way we played during that six goal burst in the second quarter was something to remember. God forbid we'd gone on to win that would have been on repeat in all our households for the next six days, but instead when talk turns to memorable Queen's Birthday moments in years to come we're probably more likely to remember The Great Fitzpatrick Fuck Up.

Final Thoughts
We'll try to get these pricks again next year, but in preparation for next week I am building an ice water slide in my garden, borrowing a fork from the posh cutlery set and buying an extension cord for the toaster.

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