Sunday 28 August 2016

Decade ends, era endures

What an appropriately Melbourne way to end a season which ever so briefly promised something amazing. Less than 10 days since overloading the AFL's ladder predictor to work out percentage based scenarios that would complete an amazing run to the finals we've suffered one shattering defeat as red hot favourites then been massacred by 111 points. If we couldn't deliver the cherished Mighty Ducks finish, the most on-brand alternative was going out being shelled like a heartless rabble. 

Where else could you get entertainment like that...

Until the first bounce I was so distraught about the events at the MCG last week that I was ready to subscribe to any sort of 'truther' style conspiracy theory to explain it. Every time I had to debrief with another Melbourne supporter or a concerned neutral I'd get angrier, then when we deselected Michie and Neal-Bullen after one game it was time to take a deep breath before doing something I might regret. It's not that I really cared if either was in the side this week, but what was the point of picking them then if you weren't going to have faith and back in at least one of them in again?

It was especially galling that after we flopped to the ground within sight of the finish line, letting North make the finals without having to sit through a tense Saturday afternoon they felt comfortable enough to sack four of their most senior players. They wouldn’t have been doing that if everything rested on them winning to stay in the eight. Imagine if we’d reacted to a string of fruitless finals appearances by dropping the bomb like that at the end of 2006? Things might have been so different that I didn't just polish off the last pages of a book about how shithouse the decade was. More likely it would have gone tits up anyway and we'd still be moaning about it like we do the demise of James McDonald.

The final blow came after we'd already made fools of ourselves. After Carlton's feelgood win last week, they learned one of the valid pieces of wisdom of the #fistedforever years - you can't play Melbourne every week. They lost to Essendon, allowing a side who had to find 12 ring-ins at the last minute to end the season with more wins than our 2013 team, who were allegedly playing properly.

The trip to Geelong was never going to end well, and I can't remember a game I wanted to be at less. In the same circumstances, reasonable people would stay home, eat chips on the couch then change channels when things started to become grim. Why couldn't I do the same? I did in 2012, unable to face that sewer again so soon after 186. Now it was just that I'd seen every minute of every Victorian game in person so had to complete the set. What a rotten idea. By the end I'd seen our ninth 100+ point defeat since 2008, argued with our own fans, had somebody's head in the way for our last two goals and travelled home in the most irritating carriage of people ever gathered in one train. All that for $50. I haven't had worse value at the footy since paying for a reserved seat then not using it once all year.

When the fixture is released your eyes go straight to the first game and last round (just in case...) and our seemingly annual trip to Kardinia Park (where we've played them seven of the last eight times. If it's any comfort we were rubbish at the MCG too) always had high potential for disaster. At least after a season where you'd never expected anything you could go, freeze half to death, and be reminded by the locals that you follow a shit team without having to cope with your feelings. Now I was a week off being so distressed by a defeat that it gave me the squirts and treated the excursion with all the excitement of shipping out to 'Nam. We got a late change seven days after there should have been one in the wet against the Blues, with our commitment to the honour system delivering a Matt Jones for Dean Kent swap that would have raised eyebrows if we were closer to the bottom of the ladder.

The AFL's great experiment in killing momentum with a bye between Round 23 and the finals gave us more to worry about, sides would no longer rest half their squad in the last round or make sure they won in the easiest and least damaging fashion. On the same afternoon our traditional loony bin chums Richmond benefited from Sydney taking it easy in the last quarter, but only when they were already 130 points in front. Good sides had the green light to viciously maim mediocrities and both thrashed sides got what they deserved. I'd flirted with the 666 finals system, but imagine teams like this playing off to get into the finals. It should be a final seven this season anyway, let alone introducing more slop into the mix.

For only the second time in history we've played 10 consecutive losing seasons (1977 - 1986, which turned out ok), and what better venue at which to close our decade of terror? Just over five years ago we went there two weeks removed from finals calculations thinking we were on the way up and left as a pile of rubble. This time the program was accelerated, it only took a week from contender to pretender. All I wanted was a battling performance to take us into the off-season with something to remember the last two weeks by, it was not to be and you might as well fade to the credits at the final siren of the Hawthorn game. At least we can be fairly sure 111 (that's the score - not 'Ill' in Courier font) won't leave us with the same side-effects as its older sibling.

I'm struggling to blame the players because they were obviously physically and mentally shot last week (and considering how far off crucial players like Vince, Garlett and Hogan were in the second half of the season we did well to get as close to relative glory as we did) but unless you could suspend disbelief and imagine a Melbourne side playing with the same sort of ruthless precision as Geelong, the slaughterhouse made for unpleasant viewing.

Forcing us to judge the direction of the wind via premiership flags was novel and hurtful, and as it seemed to keep changing directions I won't hang Nathan Jones for his choice after winning the toss, but as they started piling goals on early it was clearly in their favour. Then, as the second quarter started it turned around to be in their favour again. 

Still had chances and did nothing with them, blaming atmospheric conditions for a 111 point loss is like blaming the umpires. The way we were playing it could have been a Casey Fields style 10 goal hurricane and it wouldn't have saved us, our forward structure remained in total disarray. How come Hogan can take any mark you like up the ground but he's got this obsession with having the ball kicked over his head inside 50? We love when he manhandles a defender but you can't rely on one trick all season. Can somebody point out that everyone in the league knows what he's up to and has since halfway through the year? It works alright on fast breaks, but when you're left in the situation we have been the last couple of weeks since play on was been abolished it's an open invitation for opposition defenders to pick off kicks.

If you can tell whether we're going to have a good day or not in the first couple of minutes the farce detector was spinning out of control from the first bounce. We had fun toppling them last season while they were having a gap year outside the eight, only for Patrick Dangerfield to roll into town and help shoot them straight back to the top again. What a luxury, and what a demolition job he did on us. We probably didn't have anyone capable of stopping him, but earlier in the season he might have been quelled. Now against an exhausted, demoralised outfit all but pointing at their wrists as if to indicate 'get this over with' he was dashing around swatting attempted tackles out of the way with contempt. When he went down clutching his shoulder I thought "well, at least we've found one way to influence the finals" only to completely forget about the 'injury' the moment the ball arrived in his vicinity then carry on slaughtering us.

With Gawn's taps completely useless for the second week in a row due to our midfield shuddering to a halt we didn't have much hope. Hawkins was getting such silver platter delivery that he was dashing off on leads and leaving Sizzle in his wake on the way to four first quarter goals. McDonald was pretty good (by our standard) for the rest of the game but he had no chance here. The only indignities we've avoided since 2007 have been failing to kick a goal and conceding 10 goals to one player. The first one was covered when we shambled forward against the run of play for vandenBerg to tie it at one goal each, the other looked in serious trouble when the Cats went straight down the other end for Hawkins' second - and by the end of the quarter he'd only just missed a fifth.

By then we were already in the middle of an evacuation. Since AVB's first goal we'd conceded five more and were playing with a 2013 style level of terror. Like the night we'd tied the scores at 6-6 against Essendon then lost by 148, an early goal was no indication of competitiveness. At least this time it was Round 23, not Round 2 so you could blame physical and mental fatigue - then not watch another game you really care about until late February. 

Physical issues aside you could also blame our lack of superstars, now stretching to more years than I care to remember. We've got the All-Australian ruckman (though if they need any reason to screw us the last fortnight will help), several promising kids and a couple of reliable midfielders, but what chance we ever get a player dominating at a level that scares the bejesus out of opponents before they even turn up? In the first half the season I thought Jack Viney was going to win the Brownlow, so that's something for the future. At the risk of going off half-cocked based on two weeks I bet Christian Petracca will be Melbourned before he can reach anything approaching this level of explosiveness.

With nobody able to find space - due to fatigue, Geelong's tactics, or a high degree of CBF - we were left hopefully kicking the ball down the ground just in case it landed with the right person. Gawn played like Jonathan Brown at Kardinia Park last year, but while he never gave in this time you can't tell me he wasn't feeling the toll of 25 straight games as the 95% ruckman. If Hogan stays our forward line will be overbalanced by adding a forward/ruckman, but we've got to try and find one. The kicks usually didn't land with one of ours, and often when they did that player would turn it over - leading to triumphant columns of Cats steaming towards goal while our defenders turned to each other as if to say "oh shit". In another unwelcome flashback to the Neeld Years, the backmen did reasonably well to keep the score down considering how much and how often the ball was going down there but we were still flattened.

By quarter time it was 38 points the difference and the already minimal enthusiasm I'd entered with was flat-lining. No need for anybody to apply a defibrillator and shout "clear!", we should have negotiated a 100 point loss and moved on. We've been known to throw caution to the wind and bolt back from such hopeless positions, but not in Round 23 against a premiership contender with the entire side grasping through flames and smoke for an emergency exit. If I'd driven there would have been serious consideration for writing-off my investment and listening to the rest on the way home. Like a total mug I stayed and watched us be ruthlessly humped like a small dog, but every time I turned around to look outside the ground during the last three quarters there was a steady stream of red and blue clad deserters doing the smart thing and pushing off.

It's cruel to put too many expectations on our players in the last round after a long season - I am still 1000% angrier about their capitulation last week - but they weren't even close to making a statement for the future. Everyone just wanted to get rid of the ball and make it somebody else's problem. In the first half we weren't too far behind in the traditionally useless inside 50 count, but the difference in delivery was astronomical. When it went down our end the forwards had no idea what they were doing. Playing Weideman was a worthwhile development opportunity in a bullshit game but other than being gifted a goal he struggled. At least now they've got an entire pre-season to work out who the forwards will be and get them working together. Then no doubt half of them will get injured two weeks in and we'll be back to scrambling for 30 goals a year between several makeshift options.

The Hogan saga continued in the second quarter. Since violently dismissing Zac Dawson in Darwin he's kicked 3.11 and I've got suspicions something unusual is going on behind the scenes. There were moments reminiscent of when he and Garlett teamed up torment Watts in the first game against Hawthorn as he was running around inside 50 demanding the ball and nobody would kick it to him. Eventually the frustration became too much and he was either yelling at people in the crowd or spewing venom at himself that made it look that way. We remain, as always, a mentally tormented outfit. Here's to Goodwin being less interested in meditation sessions and sensory deprivation tanks than hypnotism, sports psychology and men in white coats.

We got the first goal of the second quarter and kept them quiet for 10 minutes, but after Petracca won a free with one of his famous bearhug tackles then blew the kick with one of his equally famous shithouse set shots the word must have gone out from Chris Scott that one fringe player would be executed at half time if they didn't get on with it. They only got three more goals before half time, but it was at the expense of keeping us to a point. After already kicking three goals once this year we were staring at a dry weather version of the Sydney debacle. Even when we went to Kardinia Park at the depths of our despair in 2013 and played in pissing rain we kicked four - it was like a Heritage Round had been declared and we were the only ones who'd read the email.

There were chances, but like last week players couldn't find the middle ground between trying to work the ball to the line and thumping it into the arms of a defender. There's nothing wrong with having a speculative punt inside 30 metres, not from 60 out without looking to see where the forwards were. Then there were the struggles of Jeff Garlett. He's done well to pad his stats during junk time in his last two appearances, but has anyone ever suffered a bigger drop in form since signing a mid-year contract? During the second quarter he had one of the worst attempts at goal ever, trying to do a tricky roller from a ridiculous angle on the boundary and instead shinning it straight out on the full. We saw what he could do last year so I'm not writing him off, but whatever's wrong with him physically or mentally (and if it's the latter I don't expect he'll get much of a hand considering our track record with psychology) I hope it's cured in the off-season because while 29 goals would have won you the award a few years ago, he's finished the year in free-fall.

After only going a couple of goals further behind by half time I was happier to stay around in the hope that we might break even with a few cheap goals to give us something to take away and ponder through summer. We got the cheap goals, but not until the last quarter when the Cats were thrashing them in at 186 pace down the other end. That certainly did give us something to think about for the next few months while Jake Melksham is furiously demanding a trade back to Essendon. Ironically, kicking three last quarter goals made it one of our best since Queen's Birthday. Shame we were shipping 10 at the other end and rapidly losing our percentage of over 100 that we'd guarded since Round 4. Goodbye four and a half months of enjoying the minor victory of scoring more than we'd conceded.

We could put out a DVD called The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Footy Teams, and one of them is coming out after half time playing like everyone had just been forced to run across hot coals while being sprayed with sewage. Three goals in the opening minutes showed that there was no brave defensive effort to be had, we were going to fold like an umbrella and end the season in disgrace. It was no way to send Roos off, but he and the coaching team weren't entirely blameless. He said players like Brayshaw and Salem who'd had a break didn't look as tired as the rest. Well shit, really? Good guy, enjoyed his reign better than the last one but I'm not judging how effective it was until I see where we go next.

After it looked like the score was heading towards triple figures at three quarter time the Cats settled down again, and while we only scored four points we didn't concede another goal. This caused the locals to get bored and start pissfarting around like they were in a nightclub. At least they didn't bring shame to themselves by doing the wave like Sydney fans the same afternoon. 

If they'd pulled the pin in the last term we might have escaped with 'just' a 60 point loss with a lengthy list of excuses. Instead, they threw decency out the window by kicking 10 goals. Best of luck to them I wasn't expecting and didn't want any favours. Do you ever dream at night about following a team that ruthlessly crushes a side like that? The first thing our players should do when they come back from their break is watch a version of this game that deletes every possession we had and solely concentrates on how the Cats went about unpicking us. Either that or watch a Sydney highlights package to determine how a side with such a gigantic cast of randoms can win the minor premiership. I'm sure this is a good side in the making, time to teach them how to play like one.

I've seen a lot of 100 point losses over the years, but can't think of one that moved me less. When you've been 75 points worse off at the same ground (and there is still nothing that can explain how we were as far behind at half time in 2011 as full time here) it's hard to get truly upset. For the entire second half I stood there not saying a word, no yelping in anxiety or nervously making irrational demands of players that they couldn't hear from 100 metres away. I clapped a few intercept marks and remained unmoved by our goals. I'm not comparing my lot to the players who trudge up and down the country, but having started my live viewing in Craigieburn on Sunday 6 March I was mentally broken by last week. This was attendance by obligation only.

As the margin rapidly pressed towards triple figures I started to feel some anxiety for the first time since the first quarter, a thumping defeat was one thing but 100+ point defeats carry a much higher psychological weight than those that just miss. I didn't think there was much hope for us when the famous margin was breached, but we briefly got it back to 99 for a couple of minutes before normal service resumed. Defenders started queuing up to kick goals, and if a train had blown its horn on the way past it would have been good to shut the game down and go home early. We had to sit through more goals as the locals went off as if they were winning a meaningful game instead of raining punches down on a cadaver. Once I'd come to terms with us losing by the ton it just washed over me, no anger or sadness just the comfortably numb state of late 2013 where all you want to do is get this shit over with and find out what comes next.

We've been terrible in the second half of the season for years, but after the three consecutive wins I thought that things had progressed far enough that we wouldn't go into the off-season soul searching. This is a highly accurate summation of the situation:
I moved on quickly. After an hour on the train grinding my teeth with anxiety about what's going to happen next year if a) we suffer injuries, b) Goodwin has NFI, or c) players we think are the future go backwards, the scope of our Icarus style collapse hit home when I got off the train to see North fans looking like they were going to a funeral. They know they're wasting everybody's time in September, but after meekly threatening them we're now going to finish below both St Kilda and Port in 11th. At least Gold Coast only get pick eight from us after we'd all stressed that we'd end up finishing last and getting nothing for it.

In the end, we finished exactly where you might have expected midway through the year, only with sky high expectations from beating the Hawks instead of what would have been gentle fist-pumping for a battling win over the Blues. All I wanted was mid-table mediocrity (9th - 12th) so it's unfair to move the goalposts based on the Hawthorn win, but the last two weeks have left a sour taste that I hope is just late season anxiety and not a sign of things to come. Obviously, I care if we win a flag, but understanding that it's extremely hard all I ask for is to give it at least one massive bash.

It was a fitting end for a long, strange, often depraved and completely stupid decade. From the waning days of the Daniher glory era, to the ill-feted Baileyball revolution which met its demise at the hands of office politics and Neeld and Craig going around like they were a 70s cop duo called Plunge & Plummet. It ended with Roos giving us the same benefits as plastic surgery – it cost a fortune, was moderately painful at times, and nobody knows if it'll backfire in the future but it made us feel a little better about ourselves.

Stat My Bitch Up
Since first going to Kardinia Park in 1999 I'm now 2-10 (Not including two pre-season games, one abandoned and one where we lost by heaps and Trent Zomer played) for a total score of difference of minus 561.

Geelong 210.161.1421 defeated Melbourne 124.116.860

Now I know how South and West Australians feel watching us every year.

2016 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Jayden Hunt
4 - Christian Salem
3 - Nathan Jones
2 - Angus Brayshaw
1 - Tom McDonald

Apologies to Stretch, vandenBerg and Viney who were in the melange for one vote. They didn't deserve it, but neither did most of the names above them.

Heartbreak for Maximum, pipped at the last minute by the twin factors of fatigue kicking him in the face and Geelong's midfield hoovering up all his taps. Nathan Jones confirms his status as king of the decade (and of this being yet another midfielders award) by winning his 5th Jakovich. In the minors, there's a boilover in the Hilton as Jayden Hunt flies home at the last opportunity to snatch a share of the award - the first tie in any award since Nathan Carroll and Ryan Ferguson shared the 2005 Seecamp.

Congratulations to all the winners (including Jack Watts, winner of the Paul Prymke Plate for Pre Season Performance) and to everyone who pocketed a vote. To those who didn't - try harder next time.

47 - Nathan Jones
46 - Max Gawn (WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
43 - Jack Viney
32 - Jack Watts
22 - Bernie Vince
19 - Neville Jetta (WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Dom Tyson
14 - Jesse Hogan
12 - Jayden Hunt, Christian Petracca (CO-WINNERS: Jeff Hilton Medal for Rookie of the Year)
11 - Tom McDonald
10 - Clayton Oliver
8 - Christian Salem, Billy Stretch
4 - Ben Kennedy, Dean Kent
3 - Sam Frost, Aaron vandenBerg
2 - Angus Brayshaw, Tomas Bugg, Jeff Garlett, James Harmes, Matt Jones, Heritier Lumumba
1 - Cameron Pedersen

The perfect season is complete (no finals in this competition), our Roos heavy effort heaved in the breeze and looked like it was about to burst before the players could run through it (as opposed to the players running through it then bursting) but survived and won a comfortable victory over a home town effort that had about four different fonts and the most bizarre & symbol you'll ever see. Why not just write 'and'? Dees 26-1-0 for the season.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I expect either of the last quarter Garlett goals would be popular, but stuff both of them I want Angus Brayshaw in the second, refusing to give up in a contest for 15 metres while grappling with an opponent right up his ginger, before soccering through with a dainty touch. Like a Jeremy Howe screamer, the impact was lessened by us being miles behind at the time, but it's a well-deserved nomination. For the weekly prize he wins a trip to Pizza Land - the holders of Geelong's worst corporate logo.

That means it's congratulations to Jack Watts for taking the overall award for his set shot against Gold Coast. For degree of difficulty it was average, for execution it was a perfect 10 - and without it we wouldn't have even been able to dream about the great finish that was eventually left splattered across the 77.2km from the MCG to Kardinia Park.

Crowd Watch
I didn't expect a cultural afternoon on the stairs at Kardinia Park but what odds the most offensive characters being Melbourne fans? I thought our lot were a bit more cultured than hurling a stream of homophobic slurs at an opposition player in the same way people used to do in regards to race before that was banned. After telling a kid to fuck off last week I'm not going to take the moral high ground on swearing at the footy but if somebody had called me out on that I'd have taken my right whack. Thumbs down to the locals for being so casual about our challenge that they couldn't even be bothered to suggest the dickheads involve look directly up to where the three premiership flags won by that particular player were fluttering.

Bonus points to the guy who sent up outside South Geelong station after the game trying to sell bootleg Geelong hoodies off a blanket. He must have been desperate to his remaining inventory before the end of the year because he tried to foist one on me even though by that point I quite clearly had no interest in a) Geelong or b) life. If he'd had memorabilia celebrating great GFC/MFC thrashings at the place I'd have probably bought one.

After an hour of hearing the blandest supporter chat ever on the way there, I had the poor luck to wind up with one of them sitting behind me on the way home too. This involved another Forest Gump style run through of his life story to a stranger, before passing on the same slanderous allegations about what James Hird's been up to in France that one of the other randoms had told him the first time. I'd have moved, except the rest of the carriage was loaded with people randomly yelling things like "Teabagging!" as I contemplated getting out at Lara Station and walking.

Next Week (incorporating off-season watch)
Today begins that traditional nightmare six months where I repay all the time I've spent away from my family watching footy by doing whatever my wife wants every single weekend. At least whatever I do it'll come with a significantly lower blood pressure. Now that we're in the end game for the book - complete with its appropriately sad ending - I'll be spending the next month or so banging away on edits but will also be back for our traditional End of Year Spectacular sometime before (or possibly during) the Grand Final. Then there will be the traditional posting lull between October and early February when Demonbracket kicks off.

Next Year
The list situation is becoming clearer now. Speculating on retirements/delistings only rather than random trades (say, with Freo?) I'm predicting the following departures.

Senior: Dawes, Grimes, Terlich
Rookie: King, Michie, White

So that's new contracts for M. Jones, Newton, Pedersen, and Wagner. In comes old mate from Essendon (unless he decides to stay there based on what he saw on Saturday) which requires at least one more to go from the senior list so we can have three picks in the national draft. I'm not ruling out Garland retiring/asking for a trade and am convinced ANB will be going elsewhere. Of the new contact players above I could see Jones or Newton getting the chop/re-rookie treatment that relaunched Neville Jetta's Seecamp Medal winning career.

The last two weeks haven't shaken my confidence in our overall direction (other than a high suspicion that no matter what players we have the veil of negativity is never far away) but I'm worried about treading water next year if we suffer a spate of injuries. Let's all vow not to go right over the top and make idiots of ourselves if Goodwin's reign doesn't instantly propel us into the eight.

I'm not usually one to muckrake or to post hot gossip, but after seeing the slurry served up today I'm going to petulantly give you my best Ballbag Barrett style exclusive. Remember when The Hamburglar got dumped for six weeks in the middle of the season? A good source suggests it was because he fell out with Roos due to an overly cocky attitude. More important there was a moment early in that exile where some mid-week locker room antics at AAMI Park grated on a more experienced player so much that Mr X slapped the piss out of him. That was one moment where his Matrix style moves failed him. We hope he took something out the experience, like when I was being a little shit and mum give me a backhander then threw my Ravishing Rick Rude action figure out the window of the car in 1992.

Was it worth it?
No, no, no and a thousand times now. Last week felt like a horrible waste of time, but at least I willingly went to the ground with hope (before it was squeezed out) then walked in my front door 45 minutes after it was over. This time I had no interest in going, had a shit day once I got there and took two hours to get home. It was a horrid, hateful waste of time and I never want to hear about it again.

Final thoughts
For me, a few hours ago this decade came to an end.... but in the words of Ted Kennedy - the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Regrets? I've had a few.

1 comment:

  1. Jack Fitzpatrick. Can we have him back now that he's had a year under Clarkson?


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