Saturday 30 May 2020

Hey Nineteen - Season restart special

Now the prospect of civilisation being wiped from the face of the planet has been temporarily halted we can get back to doing normal things. Bad news for those who have turned 'working from home' into a rorting masterclass, great for people like me whose lives are validated by whinging about footy.

I'd almost come to the point where I could do with footy, but can guarantee that by 4.36pm on Saturday June 16 I'll be pacing around the room like a mental case and hurling foul invective at the TV. It's what the Melbourne Football Club does to me. On the occasion of the game returning (unless somebody catches the big one in a rogue root with a groupie), I thought it was only right to round out the crisis trilogy update. The first two were hardly the original Godfathers but I can assure you this one will be as good as Godfather III.

The most important development after confirmation the season would continue was the release of the first four weeks of the rebooted fixture. Had to sit through a week of drip-fed updates to find out that the AFL's fixturist has gifted us a golden opportunity to either set our season up or implode it like a condemned building.

After everything that's happened between 2017 and Round 1, 2020 I genuinely have no idea where this side is at, so while I assume we're better than Carlton I'm not taking it for granted. The good news is that either we win and get a much-needed infusion of hope or lose to a side that's been rubbish for years and get the chance to blow up deluxe. Just to confirm, if it's the latter we're not going to pay the coach out - we can barely afford to pay staff at the moment, they're not going to take half the list to Cash Converters to fund a termination.

With only 15 games left after that you can all but shut the door if we lose, but the full month will tell you what you need to know. There are two games to follow that we should be winning if we're in any way serious about this season. It's hard to get excited about a sawn-off mini year played under altered conditions but I've not reached a level of sporting zen that allows me to write it off and start again in 2021. If hell freezes over and we somehow turn this debacle into a flag (hah) it will still count. Unlikely as that is I need them to lift my fragile spirits by having the best possible ping. I think even our best only gets us to the fringe of the eight if we're lucky but that will reluctantly do.

A 0-2 start wouldn't be mathematically fatal, but it would leave us in a far deeper hole than at the same stage of a regular length campaign. Let's break the habit of a lifetime, try to be positive and believe that we'll beat the Blues by somewhere between the 5 and 109 point margins of our last two meetings. Then, if we've squared the ledger we have a great opportunity to set ourselves up over the next three games. What are the odds any team called Melbourne will take it?

I care not that Essendon made the eight last year or won in Round 1, they are a mid-table mediocrity that we should take care of if we're anything close to a finals side. But as John Worsfold begins his coaching exit lap we fondly remember handing him his first win as Bombers coach by going to pieces against their B-Side. Which brings up giving James Hird his last victory, a week after they lost by 110 points. History has no bearing on what will happen here, but in my supporting lifetime Essendon sit neck-and-neck with North for most bizarre results (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 148, 9, 10, 11) so I wouldn't be surprised by any sort of wacky result or contentious finish. Don't kick your TV in, you're going to need it for the rest of the year.

Also, this happened once...

... which was a grand old wheeze at the time, but backfired a bit when Hardwick beat us in a Grand Final the next year, won another at Port in 2004 and two flags as a coach, equalling our premiership tally from 1957 onwards.

After that it's a rare MCG game against the Cats. This will no doubt justify sending us back to Kardinia Park with fans next year. Locations shouldn't make any difference, one glorious Friday night aside we've been as bad against them at home as away for nearly 20 years.

This would be the least likely win of the four but it's not completely off the agenda. As bad as we were last year I have faith that our list can beat anyone anywhere, the problem is getting them to perform on the same day. Compare to the years where you would leave the house knowing full well that short of the opposition being blown apart by rogue landmines Mutant League Football style that we couldn't win.

Speaking of that Sega Megadrive classic, did you know it featured an early look at the Neeld philosophy of man management?

It's difficult to comprehend that by the time we play the Cats it will be five years and one week since that breakthrough win against them. After the briefest of flourishes, which still took another three years, we're back in the same place (or worse), while they've done so well to keep the predicted death spiral at bay that they've only missed the finals once in a decade and went within 20 points of a Grand Final last year. I can't even imagine ever having that level of comfort as a supporter. By now I'd be crippled by fear on a weekly basis waiting for it to collapse around us.

Finally, in the much delayed Round 5 it's Sydney at the SCG. A ground where we were shizen for years before breaking through for a win last year. Even that took a Stranglewank near-death comeback. Forget them easily dealing with us at the end of the season, by then we were in total freefall and desperately looking for the finish line. Like Geelong they've been an almost constant fixture in the eight for years. We've been patiently waiting for them to return to an early 1990s state of disarray but it never happens.

You'd like to think we could go 3-1 but at this stage of my life I can't bring myself to be optimistic. I'll say we come out of it 2-3 and in some level of difficulty but not dead. The problem is winning enough of the remaining 11 games. With West Coast out of the way that leaves us to play Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood, Footscray, Freo, Gold Coast, GWS, Hawthorn, North Melbourne, Richmond and St. Kilda. There's an equal mix of good, bad and ordinary sides in that group but we're going to need to beat at least seven of them to stand a chance.

It's probably unfair to compare this 17 round season to any other year at the same stage but recent records of eighth-placed teams after that round suggest you need to be 9-8 and have a decent percentage (2015 - 9 wins, 2016 - 10, 2017 - 9, 2018 - 9, 2019 - 9). Have I told you how much I hate the short season? I know it's unavoidable this year, but when it comes to future years restrain yourself from whacking off over the NFL and...

In a sport that doesn't involve non-stop traumatic brain injury there's no reason to compact the regular season into four months. Even the Yanks don't want it, they're going from 16 to 17 games and would play more if it wouldn't reduced the life expectancy of players to below 30.

There's no scientific reason why 22 games works but it's just long enough to allow the season to ebb and flow but short enough that it doesn't over-expose the game with so many matches that none of them mean anything. The evidence is fairly strongly in favour, with record crowds and ratings despite the competition being talked down as if it's worse than rugby union. Spare me the fake trauma about people giving at the end of the year when their teams are shit, that nearly 24,000 people went to our last home game of 2019 should be considered a triumph of the human spirit.

'Fairness' is the only upside to 17 games - and you can imagine the sort of nonsense the AFL would do to stay in the papers for an extra five weeks every year - but even that doesn't impress me. It's only fair to the point where half the league plays and extra home or away game every year and Collingwood never travel to Hobart. It might be as fair as you're ever going to get but it's still compromised to the point where there's next to no value in it.

If we assume you can never balance interstate travel perfectly, the next fairest option would be a 34 game season, which is deadset laughable. Have a lie down if you think that's ever going to happen. You could execute seven sides and go back to the 1970-1986 model of playing 11 other teams twice, but even then teams were unwillingly shunted to Waverley for home games so it lacked something too. The only time it's ever been really even was the 1908-1915 period when University was in the competition and everyone played nine opponents twice on the proper grounds. I'm sure the fairness was a tremendous comfort to them at the time.

It's a nice, utopian concept but ultimately meaningless. Play as many games as you like, good teams will still be good, shit teams will still be shit. I will sell the perceived fairness benefits in a heartbeat for stories like Richmond winning their last nine to make the eight, or Port going from two games inside the eight in Round 17 to finishing a game and significant percentage out. I might be in the minority but that's the sort of stuff that fires my interest, not the 13th placed team having the chance to win a 'wildcard' as if we owe them anything other than scorn for being so low on the ladder. Channel 7 now own the game and will do whatever they like, but let's not fall over ourselves catering for spectacle lovers and allied tradespeople.

The constant moaning is like the Itchy & Scratchy nerds in The Simpsons. "They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything you own them." In this case 'them' is the sport of Australian rules football. I respect that it might not be everything you want it to be (it's not everything I want it to be), but ask that you respect the rest of us by not going to extremes to fix terminal problems that don't exist.

You're not guaranteed bell-to-bell excitement in every match, so how 'bad' does it have to get before you turn off? Maybe give it a go. Forget an extra five weeks a year, if you switch off you'll have a full 52 to do things that make you happy. If enough people follow something radical will probably be done, and sporting conservatives like me will have fewer grounds to oppose it.

The usual whinging continues.
There was a period mid-lockdown where I was ready to consciously uncouple myself from the AFL. I'm here for the Dees until the last dog dies but when it looked like shortened quarters might be here to stay (and why are we still doing it this year now teams aren't playing three games a week?) that was doing to be it for me. If I lived 20 minutes further away from the city grounds I wouldn't cart myself there every week, and likewise I'm not doing it if the games are shortened.

There are obvious benefits to watching on TV every week, but the idea of downgrading my membership to match my reduced commitment made me feel so guilty that I just wanted to pretend footy didn't exist.

Unfortunately, when people realise you're a footy fan they think you're down for a chat about every aspect of the game from Jake Aarts to Cameron Zurhaar. As one of the few people working from work during this worldwide schemozzle, people were looking for non-Corona topics and went for the easy option of footy mingling. After nearly 40 years of operating on my own deranged part of the spectrum I struggle with small talk at the best of times, and while sports are usually a safe subject to muddle through personal contact, it was difficult to slap on an air hostess smile and feign interest when somebody was blathering on about Richmond.

Fans of other teams, I hope that you all have a nice time but I do not give the fattest rats' clacker about anyone on your list who hasn't previously played for Melbourne. Give me Lynden Dunn comeback content until it bleeds from my ears, keep Joel Selwood mopping the floor with his wife to yourself.

As much as I loathe the idea of shortened games, what really put me over the edge was the idea that we'd cave in to the media loudmouths and sort of people who watch nine games a week and act like they've been forced to do it at gunpoint. I'm prepared to sell out on almost any off-field issue including night Grand Finals and rolling fixtures, but lopping 16 minutes of play from every game was the last straw. Like Lisa Simpson, it's the answer to a question nobody asked.

Until vested interests like McGuire and Hutchison started pushing the idea how many people thought the game was too long? You might turn off during last quarter junk time or wonder what you're doing with your life midway through a 1.10 Sunday slopfest between interstate sides but was it really causing you issues? Not bloody likely. Then a few famous heads throw hand grenades and people start to wonder if there is an issue. We change prime ministers based on opinion polls generated from a handful of people but can't use record attendance and ratings to justify the idea that both footy goers and TV viewers are ok with the game. Maybe they're not overjoyed but few are at the stage of wanting to apply dynamite to the foundations.

If Eddie worked for Channel 7 and said "I don't think you can actually ask people to spend four hours at the football these days" you'd think he was just trying to pump up the ratings, but as the president of a well-supported club he may actually believe that this would lead to more live attendance. This is the same sort of optimism that had internationals going gaga for AFLX. At that stage I was ready to give everything non-MFC related away, but was heartened by the almost universally negative response to the idea.

Saving 20 minutes per game may suit you (but really, if you're watching nine games a week do you deserve to save any time? Seems to me you're struggling to fill your weekend) but have some respect for the game itself. Like the reduced season, removing the opportunity for ebb and flow is a recipe for things to become very dull, very quickly. If people didn't hit 6s in T20s do you think people would care? What's the footy equivalent, Luke Darcy's nine point torpedo?

If we have to save 16 minutes I'd hack and slash at the length of the quarter breaks but I accept that this would be shithouse for fans who like to eat pies and sink bulk piss. At the very least we could look at small changes like not waiting for ruckman to run to a ball up and nominate before getting on with it. Just chuck it up straight away wherever it is, let every bastard jump at the same time and get on with it. Surely third man up reduced congestion by putting more people in the air and less on the ground, waiting to pounce on the first person to grab the ball? At least try this stuff before ripping away at the game itself.

We'll see how the rest of this season goes with four minutes less per quarter. About the best compliment anyone's given is that you "didn't notice" it wasn't there. Not that it had any positive benefit, just no negative. Not to one round of games anyway, but spread it across a full season (of 22 games plus finals thanks) and we will miss things. Nobody's going to kick 100 goals ever again but they'll be lucky to get 70, barely anyone will win a game by the ton again, and if your side is four goals down at three quarter time you may as well go home. Imagine how much dinky side-to-side kicking there's going to be when a side only has to protect a last quarter lead for 16 minutes?

Four minutes doesn't sound like much but I was ready to blow up deluxe if it was introduced permanently. Imagine when all the other levers they pull to enhance scoring - as if that's the only mark of quality in this sport - finally work but teams have 16 minutes less to kick goals. They'll still struggle to get to triple figures and perception will be that nothing has changed. We'll end up back in the same place and they'll have to keep ramping up the excitement level until the AFL looks like The Running Man. With your guest commentator Captain Freedom:

Outside of general Collingwood mockery I have no personal animosity towards McGuire, but his ideas on footy are almost as poorly thought out as his Adam Goodes gag. This is the man who wanted the winner of the pre-season cup a bye to the finals, which is where we should have stopped listening to his ideas about competition structure forever. But he's run a successful club so any kooky idea gets a serious airing. I wish I was famous so I could demand the return of the deliberately rushed behind. Why does somebody's success in the 'industry' (*spit*) make their ideas more valid? Malcolm Blight kicked a shitload of goals and coached two flags but he also wanted to put sandpaper on the ball so players could "pick it up easier". Enough said.

Thank Gil the idea has been put to bed. Temporarily anyway. Like the Night Grand Final you can be sure the idea has been kicked down the road for a couple of years. Once Channel 7 find a way to foist 16 more minutes of those dreadful Samsung ads on a captive audience the hand up the league's jacksie will activate and spurious evidence will be used to justify the change. Tellingly, McLachlan didn't say anything like "the negatives of this idea outweigh the positives, we'll work with broadcasters to make watching games more attractive", he just said they weren't considering it "next year." Start by getting some commentary teams that don't talk four quarters of BOLLOCKS.

Contrary to the expectations of people who are paid to watch nine games a week and 'influencers' who are about to put their head in the oven out of despair at the quality of the game I reckon it's still pretty good. Obviously, I would prefer it to be 1991 all over again but anyone who thinks they can recapture the spirit of a past season under modern conditions is living in a fantasy world or conflicted by self-interest.

If you've got any sort of profile your focus should be on getting through this year with as little damage to clubs and the competition as possible and delivering a 2021 that will leave supporters needing to have the smile on their face sandblasted off. Instead they've cracked a Corona Boner that could have your eye out.

Beware of anyone that says "opportunity" or talks to you like you're a moron for having stuck with the game this long. These are the ChangeMakers and ThoughtLeaders who pushed for rule changes to enhance scoring that ended in it going down even further. So why not change the game again, like the people who contributed to an unprecedented 7.5 million attendance to games last year can't be trusted to make their own decisions and need spectacle rammed down their throat like footy Fois Gras.

It's not just administrators who have free reign to fill the 24-hour footy news cycle with ill-conceived ideas. People who are good at footy can also say literally anything and have it reported like they're on the verge of a great scientific breakthrough. Scott Pendlebury's opinion was already irrelevant to me the moment he seriously suggested a 34 game season (at the same time half the players on his list are wondering if they'll have a job next year), but the bit where he seriously suggested a best of three Grand Final series made me actively dislike him.

While a nitwit friendly "everyone gets a prize" wildcard series is sadly inevitable, the idea that anyone thinks that (Steve) hocking a giant loogie into the face of the game's greatest event would be an improvement is so offensive it made me want to filter out everything a footy player ever says again. Even the Melbourne ones, I don't want to have to turn on them as well if they agree.

The violent tuggery over everything American is selective. NBA fanatics want to extend the season and have multiple game playoffs, NFL viewers want to shorten it and have a Lady Gaga concert at half time of a night Grand Final. You can't have it both ways and I struggle to find a problem with the current setup. Here's an American concept for you - if it ain't broke don't fix it.

This goes equally for the game itself. With respect to the people who have and will lose jobs, maybe reduced lists and the decimation of assistant coaching ranks will have unexpected benefits for scoring and open-play, keeping both spectacle creationists and evolutionists happy, and giving Channel 7 the chance to organically play more ads. Maybe not, but can we seal off the rulebook and game structure for a couple of years and find out? There's a lot of changes from recent years that I don't like but can live with. Then we can have some certainty and a proper, evidence based debate at the end.

For now the white knights who are desperate to save the AFL from the best position (pre-Corona) it's ever been in can't even come up with a clear position on what's wrong. Nor can they tell you where they want to get to and how, it's all just piecemeal ideas presented like everyone else was stupid for not thinking about them first. Don't just give me buzzwords like "congestion", tell me exactly what you're trying to achieve. It's like the night I was stuck at work with three 9/11 truthers, all who were convinced something was wrong but had ideas that contradicted each other. Get back to me with a unified manifesto and I'll give it a fair hearing. Until then I reserve the right to hang shit on any suggested change to the game. Unless I come up with one, then it's a genius idea that should be introduced immediately.

Unexpected outbreak of pragmatism corner
Who knows what sort of razzle dazzle wankfest the AFL will be in five years time, but one thing we know is that for the rest of 2020, Channel 7 will be piping in fake noise like an episode of Family Ties to try and take your mind off the fact that nobody's there. Having nothing but the authentic sounds of the game and the inauthentic enthusiasm of commentators is a problem for some people. I sympathise with them, but there's also a point where you just have to decide to take the year off and come back fanging to go in 2021. You won't miss much, certainly not the comic moment when the camera zooms out to reveal 100,000 empty seats making noise.

When this idea was first floated I expected it to sound like the main event of Wrestlemania III, so was pleasantly surprised to hear an example so inoffensive that it's not worth punching on about. I don't know why they needed to consult with Hollywood types to come up with something barely above Sheffield Shield levels of enthusiasm but at least this is one 'innovation' guaranteed to be gone next year. I wouldn't choose it but I can live with it.

I was hoping that Foxtel would refuse to join in so we could enjoy the relaxing sound of Dwayne Russell going off like he's in a burning building five minutes into the first quarter, but given they used it on their NRL coverage it looks like no such luck. At the very least they should use one of their few natural advantages over normal TV to allow people to turn the fake orgasm noises off.

The NRL's hairdryer.mp3 was such an irrelevant sound that it took me about 20 minutes to realise it was fake noise and not just the background hum from support staff and bench players. This was a good thing, and at first it didn't annoy me. Didn't see the point, or how it would enhance anyone's enjoyment of the broadcast but nothing worth starting a picket line over.

But the longer the game went on the more annoying it got. If like me, you haven't had a good night's sleep in about 20 years you'll be familiar with the use of noise machines and apps to try and create and create relaxing noise. The problem is that it's never properly random and you either hear or think you're hearing the same bits over and over again, creating a counter-productive distraction. By the 80 minute mark - a game length that encourages barely anyone to turn up even under normal circumstances - it was starting to give me the shits.

Still, it didn't have a drastic impact on my experience so if it keeps broadcasters happy and other people from self-harming then I'll wear it. Things can always get more ridiculous, novelty cardboard cutouts look silly enough, but the Americans are thinking about digitising fans in the seats. Don't give Channel 7 access to this technology, they'll create holograph Essendon fans to do their block when a free goes against them.

Also, I didn't mind Alistair Clarkson's suggestion of adding two subs for this year only if the VFL isn't played. I say this as a fan of a club that drafted a project player with pick three, but what a waste of a year's development if the kids can't play any games. They can train until the cows come home but it's not the same. This would give us the chance to give players who are ready to play four quarters every week a taste of the big time, even if it's just for a quarter.

I hated the original sub rule because it took a player off the interchange, this I can get behind because a) it adds rather than subtracts and b) it's temporary. I'm sure Clarko will disappoint me with some kooky concept eventually but for now I'm backing behind the man who punches holes in walls and yells at junior coaches. Spectacle fanatics - note the difference between this temporary change intended to benefit players and plain old dicking around with the game in the hope of the 1989 Grand Final breaking out.

Rattling the tin
Back to the familiar club business of being poor. For once we've got an excuse, but after years of debt demolition the fan-free season is going to rip an even bigger hole in our finances than the disastrous 2019 season. Fortunately for us, especially now that we've sold the pokies and reduced our Northern Territory cash grab... err.... commitment to one game a season, the AFL has a fund specifically designed to keep skint clubs from going under. Which is nice of them. (update - perhaps not) This is money we'll have to pay back eventually but at a better rate than what the banks would do to us, and with less chance of them foreclosing on us Nauru style if we can't pay up.

We're in a better position than a couple of clubs - St. Kilda especially - but as expected the fan-free season is going to rip a massive hole in our finances. Not to mention the reduced opportunities for sponsorship when proper businesses are cutting costs as well. We should get a hand sanitiser company on board, one that you can drink Donald Trump style to cleanse your soul after another distressing performance.

Barnet Watch
A couple of our players have NQR haircuts. What sane and reasonable person cares?

Random House
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, and after the runaway success of my first book (lest we forget, temporarily the #1 'American Football' book on Amazon) I'm pleased to say a real publisher is looking after the next one. My original pitch for an MFC Disaster Years 1965-1987 retrospective became an in-depth look at season 1964.

Forget having to stick to a rigid word count, the hardest part was having to write about a successful Melbourne Football Club. Speaking to a lot of players who played in an era of guaranteed success probably didn't help my mood about being back on Struggle Street in 2020.

For obvious reasons it will lack the self-loathing and full body misery of the original but I think it's going to come out well. I've just got to get back into the State Library and MCC Library for a little bit more research and it will be done, but I've got until November to submit it to the publisher, so if you or somebody you know saw the '64 season and wants to contribute memories please get in touch via demonblogger AT

The actual playing of Australian rules football
In two weeks we'll have a named squad and our first game back will be imminent. The lack of injury updates on the website suggests that nobody has burst a tendon in their Playstation controller hand or dropped a jar of salad dressing on their foot.

If you take our last list and go forward 10 weeks that should mean the only players unavailable (last minute training mishaps notwithstanding) will be popular ethnic duo vandenBerg and Kolodjashnij. Don't fancy seeing either of them again at this rate, though AVB should have one more foot explosion in him before he gives it away. I don't know the status of Hibberd after his recent personal tragedy so I'm factoring him in for now but wouldn't object if he CBF engaging in something so frivolous as football.

Jones and Salem are obvious ins, but I don't see any point swinging the axe otherwise. After the Goodwin speciality of being jumped in the first quarter we weren't that bad against a top team in Perth. Some tidier kicking into the 50 and we should clean this lot up.

IN: Jones, Salem
OUT: O. McDonald, Spargo (omit)
LUCKY: Brown
UNLUCKY: Jackson, Weideman + Oscar, who played his best game in a long time

And the Clarko Plan is adopted I'll have Jackson and Rivers in the green vests thanks. Because they have to wear a vest, otherwise they might sneak on without anyone noticing. They should take advantage of the world situation by wearing masks and performing illegal substitutions like The Killer Bees.

Final thoughts
I didn't think I would be ready to go but I am. Give me all the Melbourne games you can find and I'll pick and choose from the others as we go.