Monday 23 March 2020

Behind closed doors

After 160 seasons of gags about us having no fans the inevitable finally happened and we played in front of zero paying customers. I always thought it would come to this, this only surprise is that the rest of the competition came along for the ride.

Nobody was doing it by choice, but if playing in front of empty stands was the price to pay to have something to think about with the country about two weeks away from The Purge breaking out then that was ok with me. More importantly there was the long game of trying to keep the AFL and clubs afloat after Channel 7 come knocking with their hand out to get a refund on the broadcast rights fees. We've come a long way since the competition was in such rude financial shape that they could afford to spend millions importing semi-interested rugby leaguists for expansion sides.

Hanging shit on the league is a national sport around here, and as of a few days ago I was floating conspiracies about them taking the opportunity to stick with shorter quarters forever, but they tried their best to make sure the 17 game schedule was delivered. They had to, not only are their high paying jobs on the line but they'd be well aware of the cataclysmic effect on club finances when they can't replicate the $314 million they distributed to clubs last year.

The next TV rights deal was already a ticking timebomb for a competition over-leveraged to buggery on broadcast money, now it's prematurely gone off and they'll need a forensic Air Crash Investigation style team to stick it all together again. You could have forseen something like this happening, but realistically nobody expected a situation where the world is crocked by the playing of sport was still feasible - we thought more likely an asteroid would clobber us or rising sea levels would wash the eastern seaboard away, something that would have made footy impossible to play. Now we've got several hundred players, thousands of support staff, empty arenas all over the country, and a host broadcaster that lost $400 million last year and has had 1/22 of what it paid more than that to show this year.

I don't know if there was some insurance scheme going on, but the AFL dithered throughout the week like they were waiting for somebody else to make the decision for them. Eventually they decided to go on, and by the way Gil ended the week looking like Marty Feldman I accept that they were under all sorts of pressure. If somebody's not already working on a documentary called Round 1 then the media is kidding themselves. Get a start on it while stuck inside for 14 days, do the interviews when enough time has passed for it to be hygenic, factor in the aftermath in a few months and drop it right before next season (presumably) starts. This could be the greatest AFL story ever told if it doesn't end in voluntary administration.

Much to the disappointment of people who think you can turn 18 businesses with a $50 million turnover on and off like a tap, they did their best to go on at a reduced capacity. We already knew clubs were still going to be in deep financial shit based on the loss of gate reciepts, corporate hospitality, memberships, merchandise etc... the idea of getting some sort of season away was important in making sure the league was able to provide the safety net to help clubs stay afloat. I don't buy any of these pearl clutching theories about it sending a bad message to the community about isolating, it was the right thing to do for their industry, and a low enough risk that you wouldn't be able to pin the end of Western civilisation on it.

For three days the idea worked. While we all knew the season was on borrowed time and would be pulled up eventally, and the empty stadiums were a bit strange, footy gave people an outlet to do something else other than bulk buy TP and feel sad. There even time for a Coronaboner when sports starved Americans discovered the game. As one of the two games not televised in the US we didn't even get to participate in that - though you'd have to be a masochist to willingly follow us. One TV station decided they were going to be massive fans of the team that plays at the MCG - Richmond. It's enough to make you put your head in the oven.

Not everyone was satisfied with the compromised start of the year. Players wanted 22 games (and so did I, completely ignoring the reality of the situation and focusing on my own interests), Channel 7 didn't get the chance to cut to shots of defectives hurling abuse at umpires over the fence, and some were rattled by the lack of crowd noise. For mine it just looked like when they have a VFL curtain raiser at the 'G and nobody is there to see it, I was otherwise unmoved by the silence. Which should come as no surprise given my long-held views on isolation at football grounds. Some had the corny idea of piping in fake crowd noise to create 'atmosphere', and I'm sad that didn't happen because it would have replaced Leanne Cock as the funniest thing to ever happen on Australian television.

Then, as usual, Sydney ruined everything. 5000 people enjoyed a night at Virus Beach, the country shit itself en masse about people not taking 'social distancing' (CLICHE) seriously and started slamming down travel restrictions down left, right and centre. We could have gotten away with Tasmania and the Northern Territory shutting their borders, but when South Australia joined in that was curtains for the AFL. And thus, two hours before our game started we already knew that there wouldn't be another one for a minimum 10 weeks. This cast an air of disappointment over the contest, shortly before we smothered that with the doona of negativity.

I'd love to know if they floated the zany idea of temporarily relocating all 18 teams to Victoria carrying on like the VFL had risen from the grave. You know how it would work, give them a couple of weeks to work things out, shift everyone here, dish out bullshit grounds like Casey Fields to interstate clubs and carry on regardless. It would have looked stupid and been rough on players - especially those sitting around in a hotel room for seven days a week because they can't get a game - but given the choice between the mooted 20% pay cut and the 50% now looming they might have gone for it. Could have made Sydney and Brisbane perform as South Melbourne and Brisbane respectively.

Alas there was no miracle solution or NRL style attempt to play the competition on a mining complex (imagine the carpet cleaning bill after 500 rugby league players have been there for a few weeks?), they bowed to the inevitable and the season died with dignity. Which made the playing of the only full game after the news came out seem like a waste of time. Except that after waiting since August 24 for another competitive, meaningful game I was prepared to suspend my disbelief for a couple of hours and pretend it meant something.

If footy returns this loss becomes relevant, because in a 17 game season losing the opener instantly puts you on the back foot. 22 games is a one dayer, there's plenty of time for ebb and flow - 17 is T20, where a shit start means the game is over for everyone other than the betting community. Imagine we still had to play the Giants next week? I take back all those years where I demanded good teams in the first few games so we could test ourselves. That was only because I knew we wouldn't make the finals, now it's expected that we'll at least be fringe contenders and I don't like the idea of only having 15 games to battle back from 0-2. Will it matter? Probably not.

Pointless as it was, the contest allowed us to answer that time-honoured philosophical question - what is the sound of no mouths booing? And would an interstate team finally get a free kick in Perth if locals making noises like a constipated cow were removed from the equation. Footy Unplugged narrowly got got us over the line in free kicks 11-9, only for us to waste any advantage by kicking into the forward 50 like arseholes again. You can change the world in the space of a month, you can't change the way Melbourne go forward.

It was another example of necking ourselves in the first quarter and being left to chase a significant margin. No chance of a Stranglewank here, the Eagles were too good to let us get close, let alone to a point where we may have threatened a boilover. I'm not here to sack Goodwin - god knows we won't have the money to pay anyone out now, let alone the senior coach - but the ratshit first quarters under him deserve scrutiny.

Since 2017 we've been down by 20+ at quarter time 12 times in 70 games, which is better than Neeld's 11/33 or Roos' 16/66, but they were in charge of slop. That's not even taking into account games where the slide continues after quarter time. This is a good team (on paper) that starts like a busted arsehole and rarely recovers. In an unwanted throwback to 2019 (and let's be fair, some parts of 2018) we weren't that bad, just incapable of taking advantage of opportunities, leaving the ball to spring back off the Demon Trampoline at warp speed, putting the backline under so much strain that they had to crack eventually.

Under the circumstances the tall defenders did well. Well not to tell their teammates to piss off and storm off to sit on the bus until it was over. The smalls... not so much. And after a few minutes at the start where we were competitive, the Eagles showed us the joy of having a spaced out forward line with people standing on their own. If the season ends here we managed to get a Kingsley in, allowing journeyman forward Brendon Ah Chee - likely not even playing if the other bloke hadn't substituted Red Bull for urine - to run riot. In this time of shortened quarters one 16 minute domination session is enough for me to add his name to the list.

For most of the first quarter it was, if nothing else, less of a fisting than the infamous Preliminary Final. Classic Viney was scrapping in the middle like society had already collapsed, Pickett flashed onto a loose ball and nearly kicked a spirit-lifting goal, and Langdon was sweeping up everything that went near him on the wing. Shame he was kicking it with a peg leg, but we were delivered goods as promised - lots of speed, suspect delivery. Still played a good game compared to many of his teammates. I'd prefer him streaming down the wing than Michael Hibberd, who demonstrated a near sexual fetish for hammering the ball inside 50 and straight to a defender.

I'd love to tell you how bad their disposal efficiencies were, but in their pre-crisis wisdom the AFL website completely buggered up the player stats. Never thought I'd think back fondly to the functional but detail light original. Until I discovered this:

That's all the stats you can get - and the Dream Team numbers are so very important - in alphabetical order, with no way to filter out any team not called Melbourne or sort the columns. Suspending the season is almost preferable to having to use this. They've got bigger issues at the moment but just a filter and column sorting would be a start. The IT department is probably redundant as of this morning but there's got to be some 15-year-old kid who understands this shit and can fix it in exchange for a signed footy.

For 15 minutes it was like watching our AFLW team, with the backline barely hanging on because the forwards couldn't convert for shit. Then whack, whack, whack and whack went the Eagles and we were five goals down in the blink of an eye. Can't even blame a curse on our training facilities since men and women shifted to separate venues.

The bit where it was most 2019 was when a centre bounce skewed in favour of Nic Nat, and as Gawn stood back waiting for him to tap it to somebody the Rich Man's Stef Martin just grabbed it one handed and pumped the ball back into attack. That's when I half contemplated switching off, before realising that I will always be a Dees Nuffy and keep watching no matter what.

Ending a first quarter in Perth 30 something points down without kicking a goal, didn't that bring back memories of days past. Remember the glory days of September 2018, when the Dees were on the way up, interstate travel was unrestricted, and you could still duck down to the shops for a milkshake without being shot at by a paramilitary strike force. 63 point half time margin aside it was truly was the better of times.

The rest of the game barely deserves coverage. You don't care, I don't care, nobody bloody cares. Anal-Bullet did kick a nice goal out of a pack when everyone had given up waiting for the umpire to blow his whistle, so at least we had one goal on the board. In no way did I expect this to be the start of a miraculous, Lily Mithen-esque comeback. And indeed it was not. He does get the Aaron Davey nomination for the week, so that's some sort of high to end your season on.

Meanwhile, can I tell you how I hate Harmes in the backline with a passion. It's a complete waste of him, he's more useful in the midfield than Brayshaw and I hope that by the time footy returns and Salem is fit that this ludicrous concept will be put to bed. If that means Brayshaw is dropped then bad luck, he's solid but Harmes is better. Salem may be required to replace more than one person, because we also have to 'look after' Hibberd too (in the sense of a dignified exit). Not sure Nev isn't losing significant ground either. Lockhart moved well in defence but that's a work in progress, and suddenly it feels like we're half trying to go for it with players like Langdon and Tomlinson, and half in a rebuilding phase.

Forward Fritsch didn't live up to Coleman expectations, but can you blame him with that sort of delivery into the 50? He was still the only player to make a half decent go of the mince that was being aimed out of the midfield. Mitch Brown didn't get near it but I don't blame him, Tony Lockett would have struggled to contend with having the ball panic bombed to the point where you'd have to be Shaun Smith '95 to mark comfortably.

Same goes for Tom McSizzle, but he's not entirely blameless either. Stop backing back into packs like the ball is going to fall neatly to you, everyone's sussed this move. Sure you've had multiple leads burnt by horrible forward entries but you just have to keep going and make them change what they're doing. Still, you wouldn't argue if he kicked two goals a week by any means necessary. If he keeps that up for the rest of the season he'll end up on.. two.

Literally the only interest from the third quarter, as I started to adjust to the idea of not watching this rubbish for a few more months, was Kysaiah (not Kozzie - work on spelling his real name right and you'll get it eventually. Let's not have any of this Buddy, Jeffy etc.. rubbish) Pickett running relatively riot. There was not much to come out of this that I wanted to see again next week but he looked like a natural. We'll soon coach that out of him.

By three quarter team Team Gaff had Team Gash well covered, and the shortened quarter meant that Spartan fitness regime or not there was no chance in hell of overtaking them. That's your lot when 16 minute quarters become the norm (and they will, because after this Channel 7 will get everything they ever want including floating fixtures, 6-6-6 finals, and BT as the CEO of the competition) don't expect to see your side ever come back from five goals down in the last quarter again.

We kept it fragrant after quarter time but the performance did nothing to dispel my theory that we wouldn't be able to go with top teams this season. However, I do think we'll kick shit out of a few lower sides and fellow mid-table strugglers if we ever get the chance to play them. This might not be such a bad thing, it could still land us in the lower reaches of the eight if we're lucky, but if you think there's a premiership just around the corner you've been drinking 600ml bottles of Methadone.

So that's it, everyone go your separate ways and we'll see you in June (?). Should give them plenty of time to review this to see how a consistently good team plays. Here's to half the squad coming back looking like they've sucked air from a hose and the one or two who'll be keen to know if off-season drug testing still counts as an essential service getting away it.

Also, Jake Lever. Your moustache looks shit at the best of times, but in play it makes you look like you should be invading Poland. Please attend to it during the break.

2020 Allen Jakovich Medal
If the season never comes back it's lucky we've got leaders in all categories except the Stynes. This is probably the longest standing club award outside the Bluey Truscott so perhaps I should protect its integrity and not award anything if there's no a minimum number of games played. Watch this space. But not anytime soon.

5 - Jack Viney
4 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Ed Langdon
1 - Kysaiah Pickett (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)

Apologies to Oliver, Lever, Neal-Bullen, Harmes and, Lockhart

In these tough times noted humourist Gerard Healy gave us all something to smile about when he said he was going to "enjoy the next two hours". Which was a change from the last decade of moaning for four quarters every week.

Speaking of Fox Footy, soon to be the second least viewed channel on Foxtel behind the Jesus one:

a) Who thought playing the menu music from a Sega Megadrive game after goals would add anything? Makes it sound like somebody's playing Ecco the Dolphin after every major.
b) The on-screen scoreboard is awful. It's equally as 1994 as the soundtrack
c) Gerard Whateley doesn't look at all comfortable doing that Robbocop ad. Sufference definitely involved.

Next Week
I didn't want to play GWS next week, but this is an extreme way to get out of it. See also all the other games until winter at a minimum, and that's not a time of the year where anyone gets flu like illnesses is it? What about poor old Nathan Jones, this has shot both his 300 games and a run at Neitz's record. Even in a pandemic my thoughts are still with Jones. I would give him my last roll of toilet paper.

With no actual game to watch I'm going to put on a weekly Facebook Watch Party of classic content. Had to give myself a crash course on how to do it this afternoon but it seemed to be ok. The only issue is that it turns out I stopped downloading torr... err... legitimate copies of our wins at the end of 2013 so the options are a bit limited at the moment. Trying to get copies of the two 2018 finals in a usable format, but we might have to go for a few classics from the vault in the early days. Please contact via the usual channels if you have an easily accessible stash of 2014-2018 wins.

Final Thoughts
As they used to say on The Virology Show, it's been a big month in illness. On March 1 my season preview didn't mention Coronavirus, Covid-19, or the prospect of our season being stopped for any reason other than good taste. Less than 22 full days later the whole competition is walking the Brad Green Mile, and there is no longer rock solid certainty that clubs are going to come out of the other side of this ok.

If you're a bored billionaire this would be the best time to amuse yourself by proposing a new competition, with club costs bankrolled for the next few years until they get back on their feet. There's no reason for this to happen, but if you're loaded and looking for something to do while you're in lockdown it would give us something to talk about.

Unless you really need it give your club this year's membership money as a donation. I'll be getting even less use out of my reserved seat and Grand Final guarantee than ever before but this isn't the time to be scrambling to save every dollar, especially now they're shutting brothels down.

Whatever happens we go again, in the unlikely event that the AFL dies under a mountain of debt and the Melbourne Football Club is dragged down with it then we'll start again in whatever competition - top level or otherwise - will have us. Lineage that goes back to 1858 will continue in one way or another, even if I have to go down to VAFA HQ and sign up to start a team in the Division 4 amateurs myself. It shouldn't come to that but we have to remain vigilant.

Not only has the men's season come to a crashing halt, but the miraculous victory of the women on Saturday is now worth nothing except memories because their season has been stopped too. They don't even get to come back and play the last two rounds in August, they've had the plug pulled entirely with no premier to be awarded. Bit rude, but that's where we're at.

So, with no new Melbourne FC content in any format, unless there's a need for a midweek Crisis Post I'll be off blogging again until games resume. If you need me I'll be hosting the watch parties on Facebook or doing doing the usual discount Titus O'Reilly schtick on Twitter.

May you and your families stay safe in this arsehole of a time. Play us out Charlie...

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