Saturday 27 February 2016

Building dreams from the ground up

[Why not multiply your waffle by reading our season preview while you're at it? Get in quick before I change the bits about vandenBerg to be written by "Staff Writers" - Editor]

In the pre-season everything's made up and the points don't matter, but as much as we rolled about on the floor in mirth when Eddie McGuire suggested giving the NAB Cup winner a bye into the finals (providing much welcomed ammunition to shoot down any suggestion he ever makes about anything ever again) it would be rude to treat our games in this 'competition' with total contempt.

It wasn't so long ago that most practice games were conducted in far off cities where the only reportage available would be from agency writers who filed a fictional list of 'best' players because they never left the pub.

Now thanks to the public's ravenous attitude for footy we get live coverage of every game no matter if they're played in a fictional location like Burpengary, Beaconsfield (not sure if the suburb near Pakenham or the collapsed mine) or the impoverished northern suburbs of Adelaide. This is a good thing. The downside of having to listen to Dwayne Russell screaming about a game at Mount Barker like it's the Grand Final, or Gerard Healy moaning about how terrible the game is these days can't even detract from this amazing advance in broadcasting. Give me Dwayne's childlike sense of over-enthusiasm over Healy's drizzling misery any day, but treat any appearance by either of them as a warm-up so they don't detract too much from the experience when the important stuff starts.

Just a few short years ago there'd be no making your own mind up about the under-strength Dees taking on near full-strength Port because you'd have to rely on the call from some goombah commentator on 5AA who was only interested in the local players and couldn't tell the difference between Jayden Hunt and James Harmes. Fox Sports couldn't tell the difference between Jetta and Garlett today, but that's another matter entirely.

What a fun afternoon it turned out to be, even if it does turn out to be completely inconsequential. I'd started by psychologically preparing myself for defeat by repeating the mantra that it didn't really matter what happened, but by halfway through the third quarter I rose from a casually reclined position on my couch to stand up, pacing the living room like it was an actual game and not a trial game played under needlessly Mickey Mouse rules. Signs were everywhere and most of them were dollar signs. Not quite time to drag a sleeping bag down to Bass (do they still do finals tickets?) and queue up with my credit card in hand but it further convinced me that both Port and us will be in the same area at the end of the year.

It took us a while to warm up, but it was football as I liked to watch it - involving the Melbourne Football Club. Once the real stuff starts the games involving other sides will provide the sort of comforting background noise that you get from listening to test cricket on the radio, but my eyeballs are only forcibly held open for one group of loveable losers.

Even if your key interest is in order a) nobody being seriously injured (I think we got away with this), b) the kids showing good signs and c) not getting thrashed the first bounce of a game you've got emotional investment in has a remarkable effect on heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. The difference in where the contests of my stomach sat watching in this game compared to any Grand Final 2001 and onwards was noticeable. I'd like to say no matter how close a pre-season game got I'd treat it in the right spirit, but previous experience suggests otherwise.

No matter how it goes, seeing our players chasing an irregularly shaped ball around any oval in Australia was enough to dismiss off-field malaise at the drop of hat, to shelve my orgasmic excitement at the introduction of a goalkicking countdown clock and stop worrying about Jesse Hogan travelling to Perth on a fake passport and staying there. At least for a few hours.

This sort of enthusiasm for the sport in any variety (as long as it involves the Dees) usually lasts until about Round 14 when we've hit the skids and I ended up spending half the game writing borderline defamatory content that will probably end with me eventually handing over the keys of my house to Tom Gillies or Isaac Weetra. Here's to this being the season where we finally spread our momentum evenly across the season rather than leaving large patches of hatred and self-loathing as we're beaten favourites against shite teams.

As for Hogan let us not waste away our season fruitlessly debating whether he's going to dick us in 18 months' time. Unless there's a significant development or a situation which presents unmatched comic value I write my only comments on his deferred contract talks with my head very much out of the oven. Surely even the most optimistic people didn't expect that he'd sign a major contract extension before getting the opportunity to travel the country slaughtering defenders in every major media market? If he signed a five year deal now I'd have a Sherman in public like that guy who was trying to catch Kony but it would be insane business.

It doesn't mean he won't demand a trade at the end of the year (in which case the blow of officially turning into a feeder club should be slightly softened by blockbuster value coming the other way, but you can never be sure) or will play out his contract before entering Fremantle Harbour straddling the cannon of a battleship a'la Cher while locals throw rose petals into the water but I'll wait until this time next year when talks are 'on hold' or 'stalled' before I get down to the toaster shop in bare feet while clutching the most metallic fork I can find.

There's no doubting the lure of home, but what I don't understand is why anybody would willingly sign up for six hours of air travel every fortnight, much less if you were the sort of size that airline seats would disagree with. That the sort of ambition that has got me where I am today (e.g. nowhere), but those time and effort savings seem worth having to do hook turns for. The next time we do a presentation to him we should include this as the closing credits:

That's not to tell you how to feel about it, if you want to gnaw your fingernails off worrying about his impending departure that's your right as a footy fan but I'm resolving to sit back and enjoy the show for at least the rest of this year before becoming noticeably nervous.

If you were expecting him to start his million dollar world tour by tearing Port to shreds you might be disappointed, but you were probably expecting too much. What today showed is that all we need to feed him a metric shitload of goals will be supply and another convincing forward option to provide some mystery for opposition sides about who we're going to kick to. Once we get that right then you have my blessing to right over the top with whichever emotion of hope, glee or fear suits you best.

Considering Port had already played once, and had closer to a full-strength side on the park and everyone except me has decided they're going to storm back into the finals I went in with an open mind expecting defeat but determined to look for the good rather than the bad. We were perhaps overplaying the missing players a bit, Jones and Vince yes but otherwise Lumumba and Neal-Bullen were the only other members of my chosen 'best' 22 who were absent. Still, any signs we could misinterpret for the future would be welcomed.

We couldn't have had a more Melbourne-esque start to the 10th (and my god we hope last) year of the #fistedforever era, with Max Gawn leaping high to whack a perfect hit-out straight into the hands of Angus Brayshaw only for Gus to dumped into the turf and stay down clutching his knee. Before we'd had the opportunity to fully process how such a thing could happen at the first bounce of the first game Tyson was down too, decked by a stray elbow on our first attack. So we'd had one hit out, one kick, one inside 50 and two injuries - what a way to kick off the season.

Tyson quickly recovered, but we didn't see Brayshaw again for the rest of the day. It was impossible to get anything out of Fox Footy boundary rider Mark Ricciuto who was too busy giving us unwanted updates on Jake Neade to provide any actual insight on whether Angus was going to be back in one week, one month or 2019. Turns out he has a "low grade medial ligament sprain", which sounds harmless enough but I remember Colin Garland walking off after Round 1, 2008 then missing the whole year so I'll breathe again after he returns to training.

Other than the cosmic connection of Gawn/Viney acting like they were Jamar/Moloney in 2010/11 there was very little to recommend the opening minutes. Our record at Subiaco demonstrates how well we go on huge grounds, and for the first half we looked all at sea on this unnecessarily massive ground which was ironically referred to as Playford Alive Oval when Playford himself is very much dead.

It wasn't our first visit to the ground, previously trading under Elizabeth, and though not many of us would have seen it in the dark ages of footy broadcasting who will ever remember the day when we went there to play Adelaide in 2010 with Liam Jurrah about to become the next big thing and leaving with his shoulder in pieces? We lost Daniel Bell and Juice Newton to shoulder damage the same day, an odd-spate of injuries but one taken much worse than the community than the other two. It was our first visit to the ground since it had been named after a nine-time election winning state premier who maintained power via a shamelessly rigged electoral system, and the way the car industry is abandoning the northern suburbs of Adelaide at a rapid rate it might be our last before tumbleweeds start blowing through the place.

With Brayshaw in the rooms and Tyson seeing stars our midfield didn't have much to it early other than Gawn/Viney 2016 but we did get a super impressive debut from Clayton Oliver. Let's see it in the real stuff, but there were times today where he gathered the ball in traffic and gave himself all the time in the world before effectively disposing of it. He only had two kicks so it's hard to make any snap judgements, but if Brayshaw isn't back for Round 1 I don't think the next couple of weeks are going to change my mind that he should get a start instead. The winner of the Hamburglar lookalike contest 2015/16 also hit a vicious tackle for a holding the ball that should have gotten everyone excited no matter what time of the year it happened.

We were just ok while Port opened a lead early, there was nothing to worry about (much less in a practice game) and our ball movement from defence was ok but we still looked lost going inside 50 without another option other than Hogan. Later in the afternoon Pedersen did some nice work down there, and I think he can still do more damage as the second banana forward and 5% ruckman than either Dawes or Frost.

It took us 10 minutes to get a goal, which is in front of our usual average, but when it came it involved a lightning transition from one end to the other and a handball over the top to a player running into an open goal that Dean Bailey would have loved. The first quarter was a great one for people who are obsessed with changing the rules of soccer so it was more like the very popular international sport of Australian rules football, with association football style tap-in goals from directly in front flowing like a river.

People who like the nine point goal (1. Dwayne Russell, 2. Paul Wheatley 3. Certainly not me) got one via Port, while as usual we declined to participate. Which makes perfect sense because what's a howitzer from the centre square going to do for you in the regular season? "You don't see teams setting up for NINE!!" yelled Dwayne, with his voice actually going up an octave every time he said NINE!!, and of course you don't because any sane individual would rather take a higher percentage chance at six than the off-chance of nine in a game that doesn't actually mean anything. Before our game I saw the final 90 seconds of Collingwood/Geelong and he was so firm about the prospect of the Cats snatching victory at the death with a NINE!! that I'm surprised he didn't demand its introduction to the regular season.

We were dominant from stoppages, and not bad with the ball in hand in open play, but when Port got it we were as loose as a goose. Especially in defence where the first couple of their goals came from us being stretched to breaking point. Maybe it was because the forward 50 was bigger than the entire MCG but we were like Bourke and Wills in the open spaces. Salem got a well-taken goal on the run to keep us in it, and we weren't necessarily playing badly so there was nothing at all to become nervous about. Even John Butcher putting in an application to join the Kent Kingsley Klub for otherwise ordinary players who had a day out against the Dees (charter members include: Beau Wilkes, Marcus Baldwin and Brad Dick) wasn't too worrying, firstly because it doesn't count in a pre-season game and secondly because he kicks like a post-amputation Ben Holland.

It was the sort of pre-season quarter where you already wanted to skip ahead a week and see the next part of the puzzle in place. Fortunately I didn't decide to pull off a betting style cash-out there because we'd have missed an exciting second half. Before we got to that we had to wade through some waist-deep sludge as well.

Just in case you thought we could get through the season without a confusing rule we got our first taste of the all-new stricter interpretation of deliberate out of bounds in the second quarter when Sizzle was pinched in the forward pocket after picking the ball up a foot before the line and running over. No problem with them pinching the really obvious ones but this was ridiculous, and it's hard to take seriously when you know it's the sort of rule that will be flogged to death in the first few weeks of the season before being forgotten mid-year, then getting a surprise second wind when the league demands a crackdown in Round 17 before all rules are shelved before the finals.

Worse than the interpretation of itself, and the umpire will cut that out after he's been slagged off from the other side of the fence a few times, was the general consensus in the commentary box that if only he'd feigned a handball or kick as he crossed the line then he would have had no case to answer. What has this noble sport come to when we're having straight-faced discussions about how a player should act to provide an umpire with enough of an excuse not to pinch him for something he knows full well the player has done deliberately. Perhaps we just accept that boundary throw-ins are a fact of life and work on pinching people for the really obvious ones. The subsequent miss by Butcher was justice, and if you're ever disappointed about us drafting Watts look up articles from halfway through the next year where it was suggested we were going to take the Butch with one of our top picks.

Speaking of Watts he was also doing his tribute to the Baileyball era by randomly turning up in defence, but it seemed more like an exhibition of total football than a deliberate attempt to have him playing across the half-back line. He was pretty good, did a couple of nice things and had a couple of shockers but as long as he's available in attack more often than not I've got no problem with him drifting into defence. He set up Hogan's goal with a mark at centre-half forward and a perfect long kick to Hulk's advantage, and that is my dream attacking combination. No doubt by Round 4 he'll have been played in four different positions and everyone will have lost faith in him again but I feel like as long as they put him in one damn role and stick to it for a while he can have a career year.

Other than Oliver and his ability to slow time down while weaving through traffic it wasn't a huge day for the kids, Oscar McDonald didn't do much but at least it gave him the opportunity to get experience against big bastards like Schultz, we never saw any of the supposed trademark dashes from Hunt, Harmes was battling along and neither Josh Wagner or Billy Stretch hadn't been seen at this point. Doesn't matter, none of them except perhaps Harmes is in the frame for Round 1 so it's all about the run.

As for the recruits neither Bugg or Kennedy provided much in the first half, though both rose on the tide in the second half and did some nice things. Kennedy especially looked like a sure starter for Round 1, especially if we're going to be playing the game where everyone bolts forward on a turnover to try and kick goals on the run. Sam Frost was near enough to a recruit considering he'd missed 19 weeks with a frostbitten toe but he didn't show much, I'd have him behind Pedersen for now but he's got the rest of the pre-season to stake his claim.

Three goals in a row nearly put us away, the first from Schultz teaching Sizzle Jr a lesson by marking over the top and the next two from crumb inside our loose defensive 50. That might have been it if the umpire hadn't given us a huge leg up shortly before half time, Pedersen was paid a free kick directly in front of goal but despite Jeff (never under any circumstances Jeffy) Garlett hungrily gathering and missing a snap on goal we were given another opportunity which the man with the most socially unacceptable nickname in the competition duly converted. It's easy to say that you should sit down and shut up for pre-season games but if that had happened against us I'm not sure I could have restrained myself from throwing a shoe at the TV.

We might have had another one shortly after, but as Dean Kent led out and dropped a mark over the boundary line it was fortunate that he ran straight at an effects mic because when he screamed "FUCK!" straight into it his profanity was broadcast across the country. Forget the kids watching, it's what the rest of us (and plenty of the kids) want.

Pedersen's ill-gotten goal left us hope going into the second half, but my key learning was that if Max Gawn gets hurt we are as Dean Kent might put it "fucked". Talk about having all your eggs in one basket, he was absolutely immense and his taps were going exactly where we wanted them to - and he was helpful around the ground too. There's no replacing what he's delivered since he came back into the side last year with anybody else on the list, and we might get away with for a week or two at a time but over the course of a season we'd be cactus with any of the known ruckmen and must likely worse off with the unknowns.

We'll also have to guard against running him into the ground, it was alright to rely on Pedersen and Frost for most of the last quarter today when the game was won but you can't rely on OTHER in a tight game. Fortunately he has an amazing capability of being able to push on even when he looked physically shot - today he was sucking wind so hard in the second quarter that the front row was in danger of passing out but kept jumping to our advantage and running around the ground. Remember the Collingwood win last year when he looked like he was about to die 20 minutes into the third quarter then played a major part in our victory? In the nicest possible he is a freak and I am a little bit in love with him hobo beard and all.

Goodwin had originally been slated to coach the team, but nobody bothered to mention it for the whole day so I'm wondering if the idea was shelved. The layout of the coaches' box seemed to indicate he was, perhaps I was just being stupid to rely on the commentary team to do anything other than fondle themselves over the prospect of a Supergoal. Both would have been pointing at the other one at half time, and by the end both would have been claiming credit for the comeback.

None of the defenders had great days, but they hardly got the chance to redeem themselves in the second half where Port barely went inside 50. The comeback was built on a manic pressure that isn't as sexy as Hogan taking grabs and kicking goals by the truckload but will bring a tear to the eye of this correspondent if it starts winning us games when they actually count. Soon enough our pressure brought the game to the nexus where our momentum met them feeling it, and they imploded.

Forward pressure was also a highlight. Garlett didn't do much with the ball except when he was kicking goals, but off the ball he was running and chasing like a greyhound. It was a good combination with Kent, and Kennedy also contributed in the second half as we started to shut them down. The combination of midfield and forward pressure meant they couldn't get the ball down there enough to take advantage of the wide open spaces of the massive ground. Practice match or not it was a rare example of a game where we completely strangled the opposition and stopped them playing like they wanted to. How good is it to do that to somebody else for once?

Kent's goal was followed by one to Kennedy shortly after, set up by Garlett's vicious tackle. This is where if you're a Port fan you start complaining about the umpiring, Matt Jones got a goal from a 50 and Garlett did likewise from a set shot (!). Some of the decisions might have been arguable but the reason we were getting them is because Port were unable to get the ball clear due to our pressure.

The tide had certainly turned in our favour, before the best of all the shonky free kicks. It was probably even better than the McDonald deliberate, with Kent being handed a free shot on goal after a Port player managed to give away a ball in the middle of mutual off-the-ball wrestle. What an overreaction it is to pay a free in that situation. If it's at a stoppage or impacts the play fair enough, but when the ball is five metres away and two or more men are grappling the umpire shouldn't be able to decide that one of them is worse than the other unless they openly commit a capital crime a'la Barry Hall vs Brent Staker. If you're going to pay frees in that situation pay it against the first person to grab another player who doesn't have the ball, otherwise report them all for wrestling if you must and let play continue.

Kent did the right thing and missed the kick, but it was one of only a handful of blips in an otherwise near flawless quarter. vandenBerg made up for the miss not long after when he converted a super novelty checkside set shot from the boundary. If that's what he'll be serving up for the rest of the year - and it did look like the sort of kick that a player would be too scared to do in a real game - then I will hopefully violently live to regret suggesting he'd peaked in his first season. It wasn't just his two goals, he was immense around the ball and I look forward to sending him a ham at the end of the year to say sorry for doubting him.

As that goal went in and I realised that Port hadn't been inside 50 for god knows how long or scored for the quarter I had the traditional sinking feeling that we were going to concede in the last minute. I've developed a sixth sense for this sort of thing over the years, and with Gawn out of the middle Port went forward for a mark in the dying seconds. To cap off one of the great pre-season quarters the muppet who marked it decided to play on just as the siren went and his kick stood for nothing. It's a shame it wasn't the Port player who was sporting the same haircut as Tom Cruise in Magnolia so there could be endless references to 'respect the clock and tame the punt'.

It was another example of why kids and mentally deficient people counting along to a goalkicking clock isn't so bad in the grand scheme of things but players should never, even be allowed to see how much time there is left in a quarter. Some would argue it would be better in situations like this, I say bad luck. The lack of a countdown clock probably cost us the game against St Kilda last year, but stiff shit to us that's what you get for being a disorganised rabble.

As a long term suffered of Melbourne Supporter Depression Syndrome it seemed like a great set up for us to suffer a heartbreaking loss. When we copped a goal in the first minute after Clayton Oliver did his tribute to Trengove vs Dangerfield 2011 by lobbing an opponent to ground and Port went straight forward and kicked a goal it made up for their thwarted attempt at goal at the end of the third. If Oliver gets reported for it I might punch on.

What about during the week when some high ranking AFL official was asked why players who are suspended in the pre-season have to serve the ban in the regular season he said it was because back in the day some sides would progress in the tournament and some didn't. Which is fine if it's 2008, but they change every other rule at the drop of a hat so if that's the best excuse they've got I'm not buying it. Maybe let them serve it in the pre-season with extra carry-over points, I don't know. It just seemed like a comical answer, maybe he was caught out never having thought about it before and just plucked the answer from nowhere. Either way it's another classic piece of administration from the people who bought us a bailout of several million dollars so I suppose it's alright with me.

Port's comeback didn't stretch beyond that first goal, shortly after vandenBerg continued to make a mockery of my pre-season predictions by taking a huge contested grab in front of goal. Port's defence started to break down then, allowing Pedersen a big mark in front of goal as well. I inadvertently found myself pumping my fist when he kicked it, having to take a moment to remind myself that it didn't mean anything. To prove everything was flowing in our favour there was a moment shortly after where James Harmes dropped the ball when tackled like no player ever had before, he even swung and missed at the ball with his free hand on the way down and still got away with it. If it was a real game Port fans would have burnt the place down after that.

When the Power defender decided to go off on a run with Kent standing right behind him, was dragged to the floor and caught holding the ball it was all but over. Our old mate Butcher had one last chance to put his side back in the game but continued to kick like he had a wooden leg and we were home. Garlett ran into another open goal, Tyson kicked the sealer and we'd unexpectedly enjoyed an excellent trial for the real stuff.

One of the main caveats on our storming second half performance is that we were one of the few sides so far this year to completely ignore the pending interchange cap and keep rotating players like it was going out of fashion. At one point in the last quarter we were 'in front' 130-80, so damn right we should have finished better. Smashing through the cap for this year doesn't provide much for us to look at for the regular season but we've got another fortnight to start working on that, I'm happy enough to go for a morale boosting win no matter what the circumstances were. We started the process of running Gawn into the ground last year and can concentrate on doing similar to the rest of our players over the next fortnight.

In the last few minutes we packed Maximum away and relied of Pedersen to play his role. He did an ok job, but who could live up to the dominant standards that Gawn had set to that point? Port got a couple of late goals to make the margin look better but we'd already done the damage. Take it and run with it.

Not sure I needed the commentators talking about how we could start the season 2-0 on the back of this, but considering some of the pre-season abortions we'd been involved in over the years it was better than the alternative. Nevertheless I'm writing this from atop the lid I'm sitting on it to make sure we don't go and do anything stupid just yet like deciding we're going to play finals. It's a first tentative step, let's wait two weeks and see how we go on a real ground before making any rash decisions.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Jack Viney
3 - Aaron vandenBerg
2 - Jack Watts
1 - Clayton Oliver

Major apologies to Garlett, Jones, Kennedy and Kent. Minor apologies to many others.

7 - Jack Watts
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Jesse Hogan, Jack Viney
3 - Lynden Dunn, Aaron vandenBerg
3 - Clayton Oliver
1 - Christian Salem

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It's the only award that can broach the gap between the Prymke Plate and the Jakovich Medal, and for the first time all goals are eligible from the first competitive game. Never fear, even if somebody kicks goal over their head from the centre square after backflipping over four opposition players there's no way I'm giving an award this prestigious to a nine pointer because they're heresy and should be burnt at the stake.

Having said that vandenBerg from the boundary line would be a fair contender for the overall prize, if I wasn't suspect that he'd never have done it in a normal game. It just came off the boot so perfectly, that I bet he couldn't have hit it as well if he'd done it another 99 times from the same spot.

Stat My Bitch Up
We're now 55-2-178 in all games since the #fistedforever era began in 2007. With two wins in a row it's clear that the tide is turning.

Final Thoughts
If this is the dawn of the era of hardcore Gawnography sign me up for a life membership. Find me an election somewhere this year when I can vote GAWN/VINEY 2016.

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