Sunday 14 August 2016

Talent plus attitude equals dollars

What a week it was for feeling like real people. A week where footy meant something other than being a placeholder for some distant tilt at respectability. The chances of us overhauling North for eighth spot are still only estimated at 3.9%, but before the Gold Coast game they were 0.1% so as long as the miracle finish is a chance of happening I reserve the right to embrace the prospect of us unexpectedly putting the #fistedforever era to bed. There is a minority theory that it's too early for us to make the finals, and I reject it entirely. We are not Richmond, slipping into eighth and losing in the first round will be the making of us not our doom. Even if you feel that way please admit that deep down you know Nathan Jones leading a team out for the national anthem - even at some irregular shithole like Skoda Stadium - will lead to a massive spike in the birth rate nine months later.

For the first time in recent history I spent a day hanging on the results of other games like my life depended on it - and this time it had nothing to do with equations of how we could get better draft picks. What a day to have to go to a kiddie birthday party. I nearly honked the car horn in traffic when Hawthorn went 40-0 up against North, then snuck into the toilet to check the progress score and nearly hurled my phone when I discovered the margin was back to 13. The Hawks did the right thing in the end, the first of three legs of the trifecta required to keep us afloat.

Then we needed St Kilda to lose. The score ticker in the bottom right of screen during our game showing updates from their battle with Sydney was routinely subject to foul abuse as I glanced at it continually, willing the Swans to bolt away to the victory which would eliminate the Saints from contention. By the time they started doing exactly what I'd screamed at a number in a box representing them to we were going backwards and I was back to tensing up at the prospect of a grand old reverse.

I know it's stupid getting this involved, but I haven't felt this alive since the last quarter of Round 20, 2010 against Hawthorn (look at the extremely early Twitter gag in the post title) where our path to the eight was still nearly impossible to achieve even if we won. Now there is a viable path, with dazzling lights illuminating the way to Round 23 and a date with destiny at Kardinia Park. I'm convinced North will climb off their deathbed to beat Sydney in Hobart next Saturday afternoon, but if they do the right thing and continue to play the second half of the season like they're blindfolded then we'll be at DEFCON1 the following Saturday - ready for the ultimate modern version of R22 1987. Ironically it was last minute shenanigans between Hawthorn and the Cats at Kardinia Park that helped us in that time, now we might have to do it ourselves then wait another two hours for North to play GWS.

Fancy a situation where I have to punt the Giants home, demanding my good mate Tom Scully rack up 48 touches before going back to calling him a mercenary prick a week later when we play them in an elimination final. If it doesn't happen I won't hear anything about the Essendon game being responsible. Mathematically yes, but assuming the rest of the season would have fallen the same way is like saying a side who kicked 1.6 should have kicked 6.1 - West Coast will be the real waste, and my outrageous claims in the last minute of that game about having no interest in a draw are probably going to come back to haunt me if we miss out on percentage.

Step one towards a golden future was winning three games in a row for the first time since we left ourselves on the verge of a miracle in 2010, and even then we only had 8.5 wins. We've come a long way this year, at the start of the season there was a general look of startled amazement when we beat lower mid-table mediocrities Richmond and Collingwood in consecutive weeks. Now we've gone from 'sludgy thriller' to 'win for the ages' then 'just good enough' to stay alive, and there must be more on the horizon against Carlton next week. Tackling a game without fear is what usually leads to ending the day curled in a ball sobbing, so I reserve the right to remain just a little bit worried until we've constructed an unbeatable margin against the Blues. A win might not even matter by then depending on results elsewhere, but I reserve the right to fret about it from now until Saturday afternoon anyway.

I thought we could beat Port, but given our dreadful record in South Australia and habit of blowing up the moment people expect us to start winning nothing could be taken for granted. The famous Media Curse has claimed so many players individually over the years, could the club rise above being front page news to win again? More importantly could they avoid another scenario like Alice Springs where Port play a half-decent game boosted by 15 piss easy goals scored by gently lobbing the ball over our defenders? Yes and yes - and even if it was in no way the sort of second half performance of a team that deserves to be near the finals I'm happy to embrace the rest and admit that when you let eight teams in that often some of them are going to be there be default. In this case the default will be courtesy of North Melbourne spiralling out of control in the second half of the year. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter one bit if we miss out this year, keep going like this with another pre-season into this group, hope for continuing luck with injuries and shoot for the stars but I just want to go to Geelong knowing we are a chance.

All the elements for a great night were present - North had already lost, we were underdogs, Dwayne Russell was unavailable to shatter his ringpiece vigorously calling our game and GWS had just lost a game with eight seconds to go. What more could you ask for except for eight goals in a row and a match-winning half time lead? Looking back to the dying minutes of the Gold Coast game it's impossible to understand how we ended up in this position.

Further assistance was provided by Port kicking like escaped mental patients in the first quarter, opening the door for us to get the match winning run on. After they converted our miss with the first shot (appropriately from a horror turnover) into a goal a minute later the weight of expectation was crushing me. They were doing everything possible to feed us but the midfield wasn't initially taking advantage of Maximum's domination of their ruck division of nobodies. While I swore openly at the score ticker showing that St Kilda were a goal in front of Sydney it still felt like we'd win but get screwed by another side.

I should have known things were looking up when Tomas Bugg - who hadn't had a set shot all year until last week - thumped through a perfect kick like he was Jack Watts. That was mercifully the cue for the floodgates to swing open - two dashing runs by Jayden Hunt set up Brayshaw then Kent and we were away. Turns out it was practically the same game as against Freo in Darwin, conceding the first, riding a violent burst of goals to create a near-unassailable half time lead before going back into our shell and riding out a comeback that was one goal away from causing us some real difficulties.

The sick and twisted psychology of my supporting life was on show when the rain started falling at three goals to one and I thought "this will be excellent for keeping the score down", as if we were going to keep them under 10 until the final siren. Even with the spluttering comeback they didn't get much further - 42 was the third lowest score we've held a side to during the decade of doom - and much of that was thanks to our defence. Neville Jetta has reached the point where he's been so good that outsiders are starting to realise he's alive, and the brothers Sizzle celebrated jointly signing new contracts by playing great games. It helped that Port's delivery into the forward line in the first half was horrendous, but it must be noted that McDonald Sr is now on a two week run without any jaw-droppingly outrageous turnovers. Hopefully the new deal has cut out the clause that says he has to flub at least one in spectacular fashion per game.

I lose track of which umpires we're supposed to identify and hate (Razor Ray? The bald one? That guy who allegedly rorted Adelaide? Terry Wallace's kid? Darren Goldspink?), but other than the one who cannot for the life of him bounce the ball to a decent height we got a cracker of a run from them in the first half. Would have been nice if they'd created a few more certain goals, but you take what you can get before the inevitable second half eveners like Garlett becoming the first man in five years not to be paid an overhead mark when holding the ball that long. The brief spell of rain was also great news for the guy with the weak bounces, giving him the opportunity to disguise his issues by throwing it up instead. He must have been cursing when it cleared up.

When Jetta and Vince combined for the old Paul Wheatley nine pointer we were three goals in front and being set up for glory or a massive screwjob. It was going so well that we could afford to have Garlett do everything right to run into an open goal then hit the post. That's the sort of thing I used to say was ok because we'd be repaid with the ones he mysteriously snapped out of his arse, but he's stopped doing that recently so this would have been a nice reminder that he was still alive and lurking dangerously. I'd almost rather Ben Kennedy at the moment, but now that we've found one it's best not mess too much with a winning combination. Besides, after having an ultimate 'mare against the Blues last year he owes them the traditional 'play well against your old side' performance.

The concern was that Port couldn't have played any worse if they tried. They were going at it like we used to when visiting Football Park, the difference was that we would rarely get back into the game in the second half and usually came home in disgrace. I knew that they had improvement in them which would make sure they weren't thrashed, and that even in the bizarre situation where percentage mattered we weren't capable of killing a moderate side. We've already announced our arrival by beating Hawthorn, kicking the living shit out of an interstate side on their home ground (even if the crowd was stacked to the brim with our fans) would have been like buying an ad on the front page of the paper. We did enough for now, from here it's time to start ripping sides to bits.

Not everything was going our way - Viney was squashed like a bug by Port for the second time this year (but didn't react by punching somebody this time), Garlett has been anonymous for the second half of the year and Hogan was playing in a manner that makes you think "well we should at least find out what Freo are offering..." Next week would be an excellent time for him to get back into form by thumping a side down on their luck.

After the first two goals of the second quarter I started to believe, having spent all of quarter time watching the Swans game and calling them every name under the sun for not doing their duty. Everything was trending towards us to the point where a horrible attempt in the first minute by Garlett to kick to vandenBerg in the pocket became a goal, after AVB kept it in and set up a loose ball at the top of square for Oliver to casually soccer through. Port were rattled, and they didn't kick as badly as the first quarter but nor did they look particularly likely to crack a defence which was dealing with everything in the air or on the ground.

Slim resistance was being offered by a first game called Palmer who I nervously yelled "FUCK OFF CLIVE!" at every time he got the ball, and Charlie Dixon who had tonked us last time but couldn't kick straight to save himself now. He was one of several Port players to be injured during the night, and to any other side the opposition replacing interchange rotations with players handing over their Medicare cards as they ran off would be a great excuse to shoot off into the distance. But how many times have we had that opportunity over the years and failed to take it? Nothing sets up an MFC Omnishambles like the opposition losing multiple players. We took advantage of the initial carnage, including Chad Wingard gingerly walking the boundary with a watermelon sized bag of ice attached to his hamstring, but the fatigue assisted whooping didn't come until the dying minutes after we'd already crushed their feeble uprising. Port's injury crisis was fair karmic payback for their attempts to put us off with cheapshots and general attempts at violence which were effectively laughed at.

As Tyson and Brayshaw combined for the sort of fast-break move that Port had bashed us unmercifully with earlier this year we were nearly 40 points up halfway through the quarter. Then after Pedersen did his bit for Port's burgeoning medical crisis by forcing Jimpey into on vandenBerg's knees with a textbook bump, Tyson chucked a goal in as well and we were flying. That's when things started to get too cute, and immediately after the commentators told us how horrible Port's forward line was they snuck through a lucky goal which just carried over four McDonald arms in the square. For the last seven minutes of the quarter our fearless, free-running play went out the window and we reverted to sitting back and waiting for them to come at us. With Watts in defence for the last few minutes we nearly pulled one off on the counter when Pedersen had an eternity to make something of another Hunt sprint but missed.

Even after Pedersen stuffed up the chance it was hard to complain given that it was our biggest lead in an interstate game since Gold Coast in 2011 about 15 minutes after they entered the competition. I was still ridiculously nervous. To me this was just another stat pointing towards complete and utter disaster. When we lost to Port in the last game of that weird season the same couch that I was viciously setting upon now had taken quite the beating. I am at one with that couch, we have both taken untold punishment in the last few seasons without completely collapsing and ending up in the tip.

We were further ahead than the Swans but I was 1000% more convinced that they'd win, because for all their players called 'Toby' and floppy blonde haired teen idols they are a ruthlessly efficient machine while we're an experimental product likely to leave people blind during the clinical trials. Both leads survived without major drama, but watching the score in the other game quickly escalate while we were struggling to avoid the one more goal which might have worried us was a less than subtle reminder that we are still only pretenders.

Watching on TV brings out the worst in me, and most of the second half was spent hovering over the television, hurling things at the poor battered couch and swearing at almost anybody with half a connection to AFL football. It was a lot like our very good friend...

... but with a happy ending.

Conceding the first goal within a minute was one of the few things about us reminiscent of 2013 - a year where we won less games in 22 weeks than we have in the last three - but no matter how well we'd played until then I was still wracked with tension about throwing it away from a winning position. As much as Port fans want to follow that proud South Australian tradition of killing Ken Hinkley it was another excellent night for an opposition coach adjusting their style to stop us in our tracks. Instead of constantly trying to bomb to a rubbish forward line they started aiming at players - including Nathan Krakoeur who I had absolutely no idea was still playing, let alone back at Port.

After they stopped letting us sprint out of defence and set up attacks uncontested we didn't know what to do, and when Port added party tricks like handballing over the head to create goals it felt like bad times were just over the horizon. Lucky that just like the Freo game we'd built such a strong buffer that we could afford to go to sleep for a quarter and still emerge with a handy lead. After conceding the first two goals we might have kicked the old steadier with either of two good chances for Hogan. He missed with what were almost his only contributions all night, and as half our fans speculated over the legitimacy of the injury that kept Weideman out after his red hot debut, the other half were wondering if Hogan is absolutely necessary for our future success. I'd still say yes, but I'm increasingly suspect about paying him $cully money. I'm not going to try and read his body language, because I think he's one of those people who always wears an expression that makes people think something's wrong, but let's stick him next to the Weid against Carlton and hopefully clear some space for him to provide a demonstration of his powers.

Most of the quarter passed in a haze of standing over the TV making indecent statements about both teams and wondering if the tingling sensation was nerves or whether I was about to drop dead from a major stroke. They still only got as close as 21 points, but that was enough to convince we were stuffed. The surprising new goalkicking option Bugg provided the steadier 10 minutes after Hogan's misses, continuing to promote himself as one of the most off-beat thinkers on our list by seemingly hiding behind an umpire as Dean Kent - the half forward we've needed for five years - kicked inside 50. He popped up from behind the ump, probably after contemplating how much fun it would to push him over instead, to finish on the run from 30 metres out. It didn't steady us for long, the other half of the Heritage Quarter where we did most of the things that have annoyed the shit out of us for 10 years was conceding the reply from the next centre bounce.

There's still a lot to work on before we can consider being consistently good against top teams (much less play/win finals), but the third quarter shows how far we've come. In years gone by we'd have reacted to conceding three in a row by carking it and allowing them to rack up six or seven, now our worst quarter only marginally affected our position.

I was so engrossed in our efforts to hold Port's comeback at bay that I tuned out from the commentary as if having an out of body experience, only realising they were still there when Dermott Brereton found an excuse to work the word 'flaccid' into a discussion about forward lines as if somebody had bet him $100 he wouldn't say it. They should have had a red button option to replace him with the vocal Demon who was parked next to the effects mic yelling things like "MAXY!" and "BULLSHIT!" all night. One day TV stations will realise that we don't want shots of baying mutants in the stands after terrible decisions, we want audio of the sort of supporter who swings from joy to frustration in an instant and screams out random commands. It could be me but there would be too much swearing.

Considering our run of last quarter failures before Hawthorn I wasn't getting excited by a 22 point lead, but without any forwards showing any form and Wingard sitting on the bench with a bag of peas strapped to his leg we were in a position where either one goal would do them in or Dixon would show up and smash through five famous goals to beat us on his own. Arise Jack Watts again - not having his best night, but doing the business with a set shot when it mattered again. After three great opportunities for Gawn, Frost or Viney to officially kill them off they got a goal, but by now I was starting to accept that we would win. Garlett's surprise appearance to intercept a handball and snap the goal with five minutes left made it certain. The rest of the game floated by with thoughts of what counts for us as September glory (i.e. playing something other than a home and away game), with Jeff (never 'Jeffy', unless he does stupid things like kicking through an unguarded goalsquare and into the post) throwing in a second then Jones bashing through a popular goal on the run as the siren went.

Remember a few years ago when we surprisingly toppled Essendon and the joyless Matthew Lloyd had a nervous breakdown about the scope of the celebrations? He'd have had an aneurysm watching the aftermath of this, our players did about four laps of honour, taking selfies with any Demon in the stadium and high fiving so much that they won't be able to take a mark next week because their hands will still be stinging. There was no problem with it - the players should enjoy winning, the people who travelled should be rewarded for their faith and SA based Demon fans are owed a lot for the bullshit they've been forced to watch for the last 15 years.

I'm in need of a GPS unit to navigate me through how I'm supposed to feel this week. The last one nearly killed me. It was almost fatal when we collapsed into the finals in 2005, and I wasn't even remotely as insane about this club then. For god's sake I missed the Jeff White powered Bulldogs win at work, only getting home to listen to the last quarter on radio. What sort of way was that to live your life? Now nothing short of a bad case of death will keep me from the MCG next Sunday. Long live the Mighty Ducks finish.

2016 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Neville Jetta
4 - Dom Tyson
3 - Max Gawn
2 - Nathan Jones
1 - Tom McDonald

Apologies to Vince, O. McDonald, Bugg, Brayshaw, Kent, Stretch, Hunt, Oliver and Frost.

Maximum adds one to his lead as it officially becomes a three man race (that is if we only have two games left...) for the Jakovich - and he can clinch next week by scoring at least one vote. Meanwhile in the minors Jetta must have the Seecamp won now, only Stretch or Hunt could topple him with a pair of belters. The Hilton is now officially down to three Oliver was unlucky to miss out on votes this week, and Hunt could still vault into a share of the lead with one BOG. Who would have thought that the race for the medals wouldn't be the most interesting thing about the last fortnight of our season?

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

I could almost have been persuaded to go for Port's effort here, they had a funky silhouette of Justin Westhoff, some reasonable colour contrast and the letters all looked in place. The only problem was that by still trying to do a cute "we're going to win, yay team!" message down the left and the Westhoff message down the right it came out looking like they were saying "let's banish Westhoff". Poor bannercraft, take a hint from our side and when there's a milestone (or near enough to in this case - they must not have bothered to take a banner to Sydney for his real 200th) clear all the other shit and concentrate on the player in question. Dees win, and that's 24-1-0 for the season. Not expecting Carlton to pose many issues next week, so we'll go into the last (?) game of the season looking at another unbeaten year.

Meanwhile it might have been the Pride Game at Etihad Stadium, but neither St Kilda or Sydney can claim a share of pride, dignity or self-belief after these efforts. Not even needs to go down the Bulldogs style cavalcade of 'comedy' one-liners, but can 17 other cheersquads at least chip in to buy the Saints a rhyming dictionary?
Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Considering how many times I've given the weekly award to the first goal of the game it would be rude to mark down Nathan Jones' running strike from the boundary with the last kick of the day just because the game was already well won. It was still emotional, and I'm going with it. He wins a luxurious scalp shining at the same place Peter Jackson goes. Apologies to Kent's Krumb when he busted through Port's defence in the first quarter.

In the overall race the last two weeks have been kind to Watts' goal against Gold Coast. Without that there is no 5.3% with a fortnight left, and every time I see it I fall in love with it more. He is hereby promoted to the clubhouse lead - with apologies to Garlett's inside out goal against the Tigers.

Next week
We'll know 20 hours before the first bounce if we're still alive, but even if the fairytale Spirit of '87 finish is taken away from us we had better eviscerate Carlton from one end of the MCG to the other. After a nice run in the middle of the year they've died in a similar way to us at the end of 2015, and even if it means nothing more than playing for 9th I would like to kill them royally. Let's win first and go from there, nothing will be more Melbourne than going through all this emotion then carking it against a putrid team.

IN: Weideman
OUT: Pedersen (omit with apologies)
LUCKY: Hogan (if he wasn't about to get a mil...), Garlett (saved himself in the last quarter), vandenBerg (I could be convinced to get rid of him instead of Pedo)
UNLUCKY: Barely anyone deserves a game, but there are plenty of players that would have got a dozen in other years. I've given up advocating for Dunn (nothing personal, it's just not going to work), we should probably set Garland free, and I've become convinced that ANB will be demanding a trade.

Barry Book of Berwick
When we make it to the Grand Final it's going to leave me with a lot less time to do the final edits to this masterpiece, but I'm sure you'll trade off several dozen typos for an ending featuring Nathan Jones dipping his bald head in a premiership cup full of champagne. It will have to go unfinished, because I will be found stone dead in my seat at the final siren.

🎵 I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon 🎵

Final thoughts
Supporting Melbourne is like one of those ancient cartoons where somebody's got an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel whispers that the last two weeks changes everything and that a magical future is just over the horizon, the devil spits that there's no way we could ever have the same luck with injuries as this year. Two weeks after we were about to tear the MCG to bits if Tom Lynch had kicked a bit to the right I'm not yet comfortable dismissing the devil, but for now let's just concentrate on this season. I'm getting everything I want and couldn't be happier. For now.

1 comment:

  1. Needs more Dumb and Dumber references.


Crack the sads here... (to keep out nuffies, comments will show after approval by the Demonblog ARC)