Monday, 3 April 2017

The Mediocre Escape

We had to take the long way, via a frightening flashback to last year's Round 2 fiasco, but eventually it ended in the Melbourne Football Club being 2-0 for the first time since 2005 and Simon Goodwin becoming the first coach to win his opening two games since John Northey. Forget the bit where we almost lost to Carlton again, what's not to enjoy?

Who didn't secretly fear another debacle here? We tried to turn over a new leaf of positivity, but deep down you had to be terrified of what we'd do as red hot favourites against a side coached by somebody out of the Clarkson School. After Carlton 2015, Essendon 2015, Essendon 2016 and Carlton 2016 most people had learnt their lesson about making outrageous public pronouncements about winning by triple figures, but even though 95% of me was terrified of humiliation the other 5% wondered if this would finally be the day we graduated from errand boys to assassins. The wait continues.

It wasn't just the prospect of completing another unwanted Full Shithouse by adding our third loss to Carlton to the two against Essendon, I knew our recent record in Round 2 was disappointing but didn't realise that the average losing margin since 2006 was 73.7 points. Bernie Vince must have recognised the high potential for humiliation when he got his traditional early season report out of the way by punching a hapless St Kilda player in the back of the head last week.

Following Melbourne has affected me psychologically to the point where I've started to get into omens, so when I turned up to discover that we were not only taking on half a side recruited from GWS but also a boundary umpire called Scully it felt like bad times were brewing. I was clutching to anything to convince me we weren't going to win so it didn't feel like such a crushing shock when we didn't. Ironically the scoreboard kept encouraging us to sign up to a Melbourne Experiences program, and what more Melbourne experience is there to sit in the MCG with the air slowly deflating from you like a faulty hot air balloon? If the next phase of our supporting life is for that to happen but we still win then I can dig it.

The way it started you might have been fooled into thinking an avalanche was on the cards. Everyone loves Centre Bounce Hogan™, and his mop-up from defensive side of the square wound up with Garlett 50 metres out. Jeff (under no circumstances 'Jeffy') had a cow of a game in his first start against the Blues, then missed last year with a surprise skin infection, so given that record it was unlikely he'd finally make them pay for giving him away in a fire sale. Then he was one of the best on ground, so thanks again for that Carlton. It wasn't just crumb and run-down tackles, his pass to Watts for the first goal was perfectly weighted to leave Jack 20 metres out practically directly in front.

It was a good first minute, and you'd think keeping the ball off the opposition would have been an unbeatable tactic but the way they set up defensively after this we couldn't help but continually give the ball back. Roll on an afternoon where we couldn't take advantage of our attacks and suffered a bunch of goals (relatively speaking from a team that scored 64) from fluky bounces.

We still have a deeply ingrained desire to put teammates under pressure. Like the first quarter against the Saints it was get the ball and handball it to any teammate in the vicinity, no matter what position they were in. It came good that day, but that's because their pressure went from 100% to 1% for two quarters. When we're allowed to run free like playing Melbourne 2012-2013 it looks majestic but the complication is when the other team tries to defend. Which most teams are going to do, though I hope to god we take advantage of a few who can't before the end of the year and pulverise them. We couldn't pick our way through Carlton's biblical flood, and they didn't stop tackling until halfway through the last quarter. That left us far too close to defeat for comfort.

For all the hanging of shit on rapid handballing our second goal was created by it. Eventually they threw a couple of kicks in, landing with Jones standing on 50 who took a step and hammered it through. At this stage I began to believe in a glorious massacre, which is clearly what you never do as a Melbourne fan because the reversal is never far behind. In came somebody fans of no other clubs have ever heard of called Matthew Wright, who is making a bid for a spot in the Kingsleys by rumbling us every time we play. He kicked the first of the lucky goals when a speculative tap-on fell right into his hands, and all our early momentum was wasted.

Their first goal came from an aimless tap-on which just happened to fall into the right place but I've been impressed at how we've added the perfectly sensible tap-on to our game this season. Since the first pre-season game players who've had the ball floating over their head have realised that they'll be buried - and probably pinged for holding the ball - if they take possession so they've done cute flicks to teammates. That can't last, like whatever that fancy shit we were doing with our centre bounce set-ups last year, surely other teams will work out what's going on and put a stop to it quickly.

It wasn't all disaster after Carlton's first goal, Viney might have been almost absent and both Tyson and Melksham turning the ball over whenever they got it, but Weideman took a massive pack mark right in front of goal for the third and looked like normal service was being resumed. After the second lucky bounce goal we went into our shell, shit ourselves whenever we got the ball and fell right into Carlton's defensive trap.

Though we were almost three goals up just before half time the momentum had shifted. Our disposal efficiency had gone through the floor and there was no more comfortable marauding down the field into attack. Maybe if we'd got to half time with the margin intact things would have been more comfortable, instead who didn't know that Dale Thomas would do something spectacular after the morning papers had about five pages on what a terrible recruit he'd been and why he should retire immediately. He took a screamer and set up a goal on the siren to cut the margin back to 10.

They didn't look much like a team who'd be able to create enough goals to win, but we looked like one who might be provoked into handing them over with horrible turnovers - even in a week where McDonald Sr risked breaching contract by not unloading a single goal conceding howler in an otherwise strong performance. His brother wasn't bad either, but given that Carlton's attack is about as fearsome as ours was in the year where Chris Dawes was leading goalkicker with 20 it's better to wait for more accomplished opposition to judge where we're really at.

It started going wrong in the third quarter, but not until after 10 minutes where neither side could kick a goal and it looked for all the world like a Round 21 game between 15th and 16th placed sides desperately hoping for the season to end so half of them could be delisted. Because we won I'll say it demonstrated we have plenty to work on, like Hogan not missing sitters from directly in front or conceding four of the first five Carlton goals through turnovers. Like last year turnovers were death for us, because whenever we did one the opposition would have half a dozen players standing on their own. This usually led to the rock solid as ever Neville Jetta trying to take on shithouse but much larger forwards. It feels like we haven't improved all that much from last year, but we're 2-0 and have another 20 games to work on it. I'm still convinced we'll narrowly miss the finals this year and be ready to go crazy in 2018.

The turning point had come well before Hogan killed another attacking opportunity by unnecessarily biffing somebody in the goalsquare, but it didn't help and will probably end up with him rubbed out. Not long after they got lucky again, a smother, and a fumble landing with a bloke to kick what was admittedly a ripper of a finish from the boundary to put them in front. The sad trombone music should have played, because every Melbourne fan in the joint was thinking "Jesus Christ, here we go again"

Then Jordan Lewis - who didn't do much for me until his experience came to the fore in the last quarter - biffed somebody as well, and at least if we couldn't beat a Carlton side full of kids and GWS rejects at footy we could beat them up. Lynden Dunn may be gone, but his spirit of nastiness lives on. Meanwhile it's good that the AFL website highlights won't show you every goal but they will show a slow-mo of the Hogan biff and 30 seconds of the post-Lewis jostle. They know what people really want - but not me, give us all the goals or GTFO.

When they went nine points in front I was about to throw myself down the stairs. We were making scoring look as difficult as any time in the past few years and now had to overcome a two goal margin against a team with their tails up. Have we not learned over the last few years that you never let an inferior team get their hopes up? Everyone knows we're flaky, all they need is a sniff and their confidence goes through the roof. Fortunately Garlett got another late to steady the ship and keep us within a goal at the last change.

After another few tentative minutes where we tried to set a world record for uncontested possessions it was Garlett again, starting a chain which went via the very impressive Harmes, to Neal-Bullen and then Watts in the square. His mark had all the hallmarks of 'player stuffs up trying to play-on and kick it immediately' but he settled down, went back and put us in front again. Harmes set up the next as well, in the play twice before Tyson delivered what might have been his first effective kick of the day by gently dinking a kick through the square past a haplessly wrong-footed Carlton defender.

Our lead got out to 14, and that should have been it, but when they kicked a goal to bring it back under 10 with more than five minutes to play we still looked worryingly vulnerable. What more Melbourne-esque way to make things interesting than the notoriously wonky Levi Casboult converting a set shot. Who else was having flashbacks to Joe Daniher finally sinking us last year after missing everything all day?

Then Carlton suddenly spontaneously combusted. You can't help but love a team full of inexperienced players who can't stretch it across four quarters. There was a moment where they stuffed up an attack with a loose kick, and from there we took over. You could see they'd hit the wall, it was just a matter of taking advantage. After all hadn't we fought back in similar fashion - albeit from further behind - against Essendon a year earlier only to collapse for a second time just as we were ready to win? Considering how many players we had that hadn't fired a shot for two quarters it was no surprise that we were ready to run over the top.

The finish came in the sort of way that we'd have lost a game in the past. After we fumbled our way out of what should have been a goal from a crazy Carlton kick across goal, Hogan self-reported that his snap had been touched and made sure everyone was set up to defend the kick-in. My favourite bit was when our fans booed the video review decision even though Hogan had admitted it was touched straight away. That's why for all their faults the league doesn't take supporter whinging about free kicks seriously. It was a better review than the one earlier when they called for the video to confirm whether the ball had been touched after it had cannoned into the post anyway. The Carlton player took off from the kick-in, not realising Garlett was right behind him and was mown down in a perfect tackle - the sort that usually ends in the tackler being penalised for incidental contact with the opponent's back. If that happened we'd have smashed the joint down, but times have changed and Garlett not only got the free but converted the set shot.

Farewell Carlton, and even cheery Brendan Bolton punched something in the coaches' box out of frustration. Nathan Jones whacked on another for emphasis, they didn't score again and we'd gotten away with it. The most important thing is the result, take the four points and cherish them.

2017 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Christian Salem
4 - Jeff Garlett
3 - James Harmes
2 - Neville Jetta
1 - Clayton Oliver

Apologies to Gawn, Hunt, Jones, T. McDonald, Stretch and Watts.

It's a weird leaderboard already, with defenders all over the place and pre-season favourite Viney nowhere to be seen. It would be the first time Jetta has ever been in the lead of this competition, already well on the way towards his previous record season scores of 21 in 2014 and 19 last year.

6 - Neville Jetta (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Clayton Oliver
5 - Christian Salem
4 - Jeff Garlett
3 - James Harmes, Nathan Jones
2 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
1 - Jesse Hogan

This feature has had a shot in the arm from teams across the league trying to be clever by introducing shit banter. Yesterday our perfectly conservative, polite and well-designed effort was opposed by one with more visible sticky-tape than a kid's Mother's Day present mocking us for being rich. That's standard behaviour, and we should be happy that we got the best stereotype in the game, but how far have Carlton fallen when the club that got the best player in the game gift-wrapped by a man so loaded his mistress went home with $100 million after his death has been reduced to pretending they're just a common, working class club.

Bonus point to whoever at Carlton signed off the marketing company's idea that suggested the club's one hovercraft was better than all the yachts allegedly owned by our fans. I'd get an accountant to look at that equation. Looking into these things too deeply is the path to madness, but I'd be happy to sell my services as a consultant to sanity check banner slogans across the league. You come up with the 'humour' (or pay somebody else to) and I'll tell you why it scans badly or makes no sense. Dees 2-0 for the regular season.

Matchday Experience Watch
Fortunately still no sign of Match The Emoji, the only promotion ever to be cancelled after one week. Returning from last year were Hogan's Heroes (now firmly entrenched as a replacement for Howie's Hangers) and Run Like A Demon, but thrillingly we've introduced a power ballad as well. Every quarter before the bounce a tune that presumably came from the same people who gave us the Sails On The Bay jingle went "It's time to raise hell!!!" Which was more entertaining - to me at least - than it reads here. Presumably there are no other words and we just bought a jingle. I thought they might have it on the club YouTube channel, but if you think you haven't heard much from them recently that's because our last three uploaded videos were two weeks, three weeks and nine months ago.

Obviously they couldn't work out how to buy the rights to this...

There was also a free Lego giveaway at three-quarter time, which was dangerous considering how angry the crowd were about to be if we kept playing like shit. The first rule of sports marketing - never give away anything that can be thrown - was never tested thanks to the comeback.

Uniform Corner
Still no sponsor on the rear of the jumper. What more do we have to do? Other than finally beat Carlton convincingly. We were back to the all-blue rear again, does this mean the red back variety can be used to avoid having to wear that vile official clash jumper? If so then change as necessary, and let's keep that horrible white thing under wraps.

Crowd Watch
I could tell there was going to be a big crowd from the number of Carlton fans on the train, all clearly hanging on us fucking it up as favourites once again. 46,727 must be the biggest non-special event crowd we've had for a while, and it must have caught the MCC by surprise because as I walked past the members the queues were stretching back into the park. Imagine waiting 20 years to get a start then having to join a line that long? I wandered around to the pleb entrance, walked to a vacant turnstile with nobody in front and scanned in. At least if you're a member you get free access to quality publications.

Veterans of the top of the Ponsford Stand know that it's all about swearing under your breath and kicking seats, not having fun with your friends. Which is why it was so disturbing that a group of people turned up and started chanting like they were at a soccer match. I'm all for alternative varieties of football (as long as it's this one), but that sort of shit doesn't work at an AFL game. It's been tried before, and I'd be surprised if it lasts another week. While I was already having a nervous day watching us struggle against the flotsam of the league I didn't need the wafting noise of people going through the playlist of World's Most Cliched Soccer Chants. One of them was waving an Israeli flag, so maybe it's a front organisation for Joe Gutnick to finally wrest control of the club back 15 years later?

So while in my left ear I could hear people doing a Bi-Lo version of the Viking Clap, I also had the Dolby Digital Stereo experience of two Carlton fans having a particularly anxious afternoon complaining about umpiring. Fair enough too considering the Wheel of Decisions unexpectedly spun in our favour for once, but one of them was so angry that I was expecting him to keel over and collapse onto me. Our last quarter comeback killed off Carlton, the crunts chanting and this guy but not before 3.5 quarters of the most cliched footy fan mutterings possible. I have a plan to go to a game at some point this year and record everything that I and the people around me say, and it was a missed opportunity not doing it yesterday. Not only would you have got a remarkable level of filth from me, but you'd have enjoyed the ambient noise of "HE'S BEEN DOING IT ALL DAY UMP", "WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!", "HOW DID HE GET RID OF IT!" and "WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR ONES BEFORE THAT!!!!". He also had a major issue with Dennis Armfield, and not even because Dennis has one of those haircuts like the ladies who have such tight ponytails that it causes nerve damage in their head.

Apparently there was a special bonus attraction for everyone that hung around for kick-to-kick. Kick a fellow supporter apparently.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Usually I prefer a violently hit goal that explodes off the boot like a mortar shell, but in this case I'm going to pick Garlett's roller from 40 metres out on the boundary line to start the second quarter. Dinky rollers give me the shits when kicked from close range, but this was as perfect an example of when to do it as you'll get. He wasn't going to get it through on the full from that angle, and perfectly shot it through with enough velocity to make sure no defender could rush it. For the weekly prize he wins dinner with Mick Malthouse to say thank you for allowing him to improve his social standing by joining us.

Next Week
For the first time in history a game at Etihad Stadium is welcome, because otherwise we'd be playing Geelong at Kardinia Park and there'd be no more appropriate place for our perfect streak to come to an end. No matter what happened in Round 1, Docklands is the second most appropriate place and I'm certainly expecting defeat. This is probably a good place to be at 2-0, god help us all we might have suddenly become Docklands specialists and forgot how to play at the MCG and win but otherwise a battling defeat to a presumed top 4 team will set us up nicely for another banana skin against Freo the week after.

Surely Lewis doesn't get suspended for Cripps reacting to a bitchslap like he'd been hit with a shovel but I'm more concerned about Hogan lightly biffing a guy in the head. It didn't cause any damage, but it legitimately put him on his arse and the MRP isn't going to like that. Assuming he gets a week off, which he needs to spend understanding that doing that was no help to anyone.

Other than Vince automatically returning it's hard to even pretend you know what you're talking about with changes when the VFL hasn't started in earnest yet. That competition needs to know its role and get on with things at the same time as the real stuff instead of plodding along a few weeks behind. If Hogan goes I'm going to pick Spencer, because nobody's going to come in and do what Hulk does up field anyway so we may as well get a proper ruckman who's in decent form and can crash a few packs to break space open for Weideman/Garlett/etc...

Controversially I'm going to dump Brayshaw, which is nothing personal because I still rate him highly but like Magner, Tapscott and vandenBerg before him I despise the way they try to use a non-forward on a HFF in some sort of defensive plan that at least to the naked eye never works. I'd rather he goes back to the reserves, plays in the guts and has 40 touches than slowly die trying to get a kick forward. Lucky are Melksham - who finally started to show some of the side-effects of the carpet cleaner Essendon injected him with - and Tyson who will presumably get Brownlow votes because they'll just look at the disposals but was rustier than an old gate.

IN: Spencer, Vince
OUT: Hogan (susp), Brayshaw (omit)
LUCKY: Melksham, Tyson
UNLUCKY: Anyone who played well in a VFL match that I'm not sure actually took place.

Was It Worth It?
There were a few ropey moments where it looked like it would only be worth it to form another chapter in the terrifying list of moments where we've made arseholes of ourselves just as it looked like the #fistedforever era had been banished, but for the last quarter alone I'll give it a pass mark.

Final Thoughts
We started to enjoy ugly wins again in mid-2015, but this elevated it to an artform. It's an important phase in our development, and might have been painful to watch at times but at least we still scored 86. That's better than some of the ugly wins over the last few years where the only way we've found to be competitive is to defend like our lives depended on it and ruin the game as a spectacle. This time we destroyed spectacle and still kicked 13 goals, while it was the other side desperately trying to hold on despite being the worst team on paper.

In the end the right result left us in the top four, so how can you genuinely be upset? Sure it's a false top four also featuring Port Adelaide and Richmond, and if any of us are still there in five months I'll be flabbergasted but it's a perfect start nonetheless. Enjoy it while you can, it's not always going to end this well.

1 comment:

  1. Lynden Dunn was sitting on level 2 with all the non playing players schmoozing. He must have had a word with the boys pre game


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