Sunday, 23 August 2020

Putting the cart before the horse

Following Melbourne, there are often reminders that you can't have it all. In the week where we mysteriously discovered a few million dollars under the couch, our three match orgy of fourth quarter violence against hopelessly outmatched opposition came to a shuddering halt. Funny what happens when you run into a side of comparable (and as it turns out, superior), well-drilled talent that don't lose a player to a crippling injury in the first half.

On an otherwise sunny Gold Coast day (I would say 'is there any other type?', but after going on holiday there in 1993 and sitting around for three days while it pissed down they can get stuffed), our chances of winning at Carrara were affected by a strong wind. It need not have been fatal, if you don't do things like try to kick across the defensive 50 into the teeth of it, but made it less likely we'd kick 16.4 like last week.

I was hoping that we'd compensate for the tricky conditions by walking goals in from the square like the Hawthorn game, and via some arsing about in front of goal that's how we got the first. Preuss did the sort of hack kick out of the middle that looks brilliant if it works and shithouse if there's a defender in the way, bouncing straight to Petracca, who saw Weideman waltzing into goal on his own. We should have known how the day was going to go when he overcooked the easiest possible handball, forcing The Weid to scramble around on the floor trying to pick it up.

I'd rather commit self-harm than watch the rest of the highlights but I think that's the last goal we got from the square until the game was dead and buried. Certainly the last goal of any variety for the first quarter, as the Bulldogs took the ball straight down the other end and parked it there for the best part of 15 minutes.

The first goal we conceded was equally as telling. The Bulldogs stormed out of defence like an invading army, literally rolled in one of the worst forward 50 entry kicks ever by a non-Melbourne player and still ended up kicking a goal. Hibberd has been very good in 2020 but this was not his finest day, beginning here with a horrible attempt at kicking into the middle of the ground that hung up on the wind and landed right in the arms of Marcus Bontempelli. Remember the name, you'll be screaming it in frustration later.

Even one of the league's genuine superstars couldn't help getting involved in the circus, rolling his attempted kick to a teammate along the rapidly decaying Carrara turf too. With Hibberd still 20 metres up the ground, probably looking at his foot and wondering what had gone wrong, there was more than enough space for them to finally gather and put the viewing audience out of its misery. Any neutrals who and didn't turn over to [any other program] there and then only had themselves to blame.

If the quality of play didn't put you away, surely the bonkers Fox Footy production did. The director must have thought they were being artistic by doing extreme close-ups and NYPD Blue style quick cutaways but it was giving me the shits. Also no help to commentators who are sitting in a studio in Melbourne calling it off the TV, which didn't stop Garry Lyon regularly complaining about players not looking for options ahead of the ball that he couldn't confirm were even there because the screen was on 20x zoom. Usually Fox production shits on Channel 7 (commentary a draw) but this was terrible. I know Melbourne/Footscray is hardly a glamour game but there will be plenty of dead-rubbers in the next few weeks to try techniques you heard about in an online sports broadcasting seminar.

After vandenBerg was adjudged to have taken advantage when he took a couple of steps and put his hands up to stop the play, you could have settled in for a day of blaming the umpires for everything. I preferred to concentrate on what we could have done to win it ourselves. Considering some of the slurry we got last week you have to realise that umpiring is done at random and there will be days where the opposition will be allowed to throw the ball to each other like they're playing rugby league.

Incorrect disposal was no longer a thing, but there was still plenty of time for unnecessary score reviews, including one where the goal umpire was very passive-aggressive about having to participate. The umpires were also red-hot on kicks not travelling the required distance, presumably having received instruction not to let the Melksham Debacle happen again.

There was a decent patch in the second quarter where it looked like our backline was going to get us out of jail, but the seeds of why we lost were sown in the opening minutes as the ball pinged out of our forward line like a cannonball. The old Demon Trampoline was back, with the intense forward pressure that broke Collingwood's spirit a week ago left in Brisbane. Carnival time for Bulldogs defenders, who could send the ball forward under no pressure, usually finding free teammates all the way up the ground. You've watched enough Melbourne teams over the years to know that there's only so many times a brick wall defence can keep the opposition out before breaking down.

Maybe Burgess was right and we really were four day break specialists? This wasn't near the white flag surrender experience of the Port game but there were elements of it. All the forwards can share some blame (though I'll excuse Weideman because he was usually peeling himself off the ground after contesting), but Spargo had the most violent fall to earth. He barely got a touch in the first half (on ball or opponent), and was involved in a debacle at the other end where he greeted a player running into goal by jumping in the air, only for his opponent to walk past him and kick it. None of it was pretty, and though he got a goal later it was a very ordinary day for him. Pickett also looked lost, he tried hard and almost beautifully crumbed a goal in the first quarter but things weren't going his way. If there were reserves you'd give him a week with them to get some touch.

Between the wind and our tall defenders we managed to keep them to two goals, but I can't have been the only one sweating up like a doped racehorse when the clock hit 1.30. Channel 10 used to have the five minute warning, Fox Footy should show DEMONTIME. I will trade the copyright for Dwayne being banned from our games.

This time we did it to ourselves. Petracca - who had plenty of disposals for much less overall benefit than other weeks - tried a ludicrous kick across the ground, which not surprisingly held up in the wind and led to the Bulldogs having a shot. There wasn't much good work to undo, it would have just meant not getting away with playing a clearly inferior quarter and only being a few points behind. They missed, and all was well with the world. If you believe such a thing can happen, quarter time was an opportunity for the coaches to reset and come up with another way to win.

Things looked better at the start of the second, when Melksham (who had a textbook 50% good, 50% shithouse game) fed The Weid for a beautifully taken running goal. It was another week where you thought Sam might go on to kick bag and it didn't happen. The more the merrier but I'm satisfied with his two goals a game plus the additional benefits from providing a target and crashing packs. Consistent four quarter performances will come eventually, for now, I'm just happy to have a confident marking target again. Freo doesn't want Jesse Hogan as a forward anymore, bring him back. Then we get the additional goalkicker and can enjoy the power and the passion of Steven May without that trade being referred to every 10 minutes.

Speaking of May, I know we got him towards the end of his career and last year was a bomb but I haven't felt like this about a genuine key position defender since early Jared Rivers. Maybe even Anthony Ingerson. It's not easy being a rock in our defence but he just about pulls it off. If he's Ingerson, Lever is nowhere near Seecamp but I thought yesterday was one of his better performances. There was a pissweak attempt at grabbing an opponent that eventually led to a goal but we're paying him to intercept footballs, not to do flying, horizontal tackles on the wing.

For a few minutes we'd improved to the point where it seemed we might even have 'worked them out' (cliche). We had not. After a second goal kicked on Harmes (possibly because he's not a bloody defender), the reply was spurned when Melk's set shot from 20 metres out directly in front was touched through. Arguably, the defender jumped over the mark but surely they do that 99 times out of 100 in the same scenario and nobody else manages to skim it through off their fingertips. Consistent with his on again/off again day, he made up for this by walloping the next goal through from 50 to keep things interesting.

We were still narrowly behind in the dying minutes before the hunted became the hunters for once, and two late goals put us ahead at half time. First Oliver with a delightful snap in traffic, then a rampaging Viney set up Fritsch for a shot at the death. Toss a coin for Bayley no matter where he's kicking from but this went through, giving us a barely deserved but much welcome seven point lead. "He's the Fritsch Magnet" yelled Dwayne, very happy with himself and not daring to use the real nickname of Fritzl. We should have embraced the magnet gag, it was all downhill from there.

At half time we got 20 minutes of ads (including Open Mike with Jack Trengove from a pub, which is where you'd go after captaining Melbourne too), Bulldogs players got detailed instruction on how to stitch the Dees up, and our players must have been daydreaming about seagulls. They continued to look bamboozled after the restart as Footscray whacked through two quick goals to take the lead. May and Lever were doing well (with a winning cameo from Tomlinson, who I'm still not convinced in as a defender but will change my mind if he keeps playing like this), but this didn't factor in the medium-sized forwards walloping us.

Footscray fans seem to treat premiership coach Luke Beveridge like Mark Neeld, but he was an early adopter of the idea that hitouts, especially in the middle, are almost meaningless. So it was again, tearing open the Plan B envelope and putting previously blanketed key forward Josh Bruce in the middle to try something different. It did nothing for their hitout numbers, but that didn't mean anything when our midfielders couldn't get near the drop of the ball. Garry Lyon spent most of the call talking Preuss down like he was the worst tap-ruckman ever to breathe oxygen but I dispute that it was his fault - the Dogs were just smart enough to stop our lot getting near it, and for most of the day they were left to sweep it majestically out of the middle unchallenged.

I'm no expert, but I'd have thought you'd do something about Bontempelli. It's one thing - a questionable one - to start the game letting one of the best players in the league roam free, but when he sets up the first goal and of the quarter and kicks the second within the first couple of minutes you've got to do something. I don't know if Goodwin's phone was plugged in because we just carried on like nothing was wrong. What about sending Harmes to him? I don't understand what they're doing with him otherwise. He's not a defender, and he's not running the ball out of defence. So what's he doing other than withering on the vine?

If I was Harmes' agent I'd cut up a highlights package of the second half of 2018 and ship it to every club in the league. He's never going to win the Brownlow but he did significant damage in the second half of that year and hasn't been used in the same role since. Certainly not here, when we might have thought about trying to curb the influence of a good player with somebody who can rack up disposals going the mythical 'other way'. Instead we just let Bontempelli do as he wished. Didn't win the game single-handedly but it helped.

In the heat of the moment when they were tearing us apart I was ready to punch on. Now I'm over it. Last week we got the perfect conditions to kick buggery out of a team around our level, this week we didn't. That's textbook mid-table mediocrity. I respect the view that we'll never get any better under Goodwin, but knowing that we're not going to sack him this year (even with our improved financial position) I'm going to hang on through the off-season and see what they do to plug holes in the side. Last time I held off on turning against a coach over summer it lasted until about three quarter time of R1, 2013. You're welcome to go off now, I'm not going to fight about it.

There were opportunities to steady the ship, coin-flip Fritsch missed a snap from 30 metres out, before Sparrow became the latest to have his shot touched through. Then the Melksham pendulum swung back to bad, costing us the goal that killed off any hope of a come back. Plenty of time left, not enough good players. He was pinged for an administrative 50 on the wing, but it's not like the umpire didn't yell at him about 10 times before paying it. Can't really argue that you couldn't hear over the crowd noise when there's 2500 people in the ground.

By three quarter time we were 27 points down and had left ourselves far too much work to do, even with whatever advantage the wacky wind was providing. With an extra four minutes I'd have held out hope of romping home with a Burgess Ball inspired Stranglewank (stuffed up a sponsorship deal by not getting close enough), but they'd have had to wobble like Lachie Hunter in a suburban street to lose from there.

I understand the necessity this year, but shortened quarters are horrid. Eventually people would get used to having no hope when five goals down at the last change but it would take a while. When I woke up on Saturday morning to pissing rain and arctic winds I thought it was just the sort of day to get down to the 'G and have my heartbroken, but if you're going to lop 16 minutes off a match to cater for the people who have the excessive spare time in their lives to watch nine matches a week I'll just sit on my couch under a blanket and get on with life immediately after the final siren.

There was a brief outbreak of interest when McSizzle took a 2018 style overhead mark and goalled in the first few minutes. Then in an even more 2018 style incident we wasted his goal immediately out of the centre and my blood pressure recovered to normal levels. In the five stages of sporting grief I'd gone from denial in the first quarter, to anger in the third and bargaining after the Sizzle goal, then skipped depression and went straight to acceptance. We'd had a few good minutes but couldn't capitalise, and giving away five minutes only to have the score in the same place as where we'd started was confirmation that this game was going nowhere.

We got a bit panicky and went back to trying to work our way back into the game via the miracle handball. It didn't always work but there was a touch of cynicism in the call when they (mostly Garry Lyon, back into his comfortable place of Melbourne playing badly) chastised handballs that would have looked brilliant if they'd bounced left instead of right. Of course you'd prefer every disposal hit a player standing miles in the open but that's hardly compatible with games played in nine day Chinese traffic jam style congestion.

Unless you were Charlie Spargo, who got the consolation prize of a goal from an unguarded square, there wasn't much on offer for the rest of the game. The glory of short quarters was further demonstrated by Mitch Wallis wasting time for a shot he was never going to make the distance from just to run down the clock.

It was genuinely unwatchable stuff for Melbourne fans unless you were interested in weird things happening. Fritsch had a set shot that was perfectly on line until a gale-force gust of wind hit just as it was about to cross the line, and after his recent golf celebrations Angus Brayshaw did the equivalent of teeing off into a low hedge by failing to kick over the diminutive Caleb Daniel.

The Dogs fully deserved to win, there were only a few minutes where we were the better side, and while I'd love to have got close enough to have a crack at Grand Theft Football like Geelong or Brisbane, a win here would have been equally as undeserved. Any of them would have come in handy though, like 2018 we're not going to make the eight by just beating lowly clubs, we'll have to do over another contender at some point.

As far as further 2018 comparisons go, this was the equivalent of the loss to Port, who were right around our level at the time (before folding like a house of cards and missing the eight). The difference is that we had another nine rounds to consolidate our spot in the eight - and needed eight of them - whereas now we're fighting from outside with five to play.

If there's ever been a time for learnings and connection - and if you listen to our coach it's when you need to deflect losses - they've got plenty to work on before next week. The Saints are the last top four contender we play, but we're still going to have to rely on other results to get us in. Please refer to the weeks where I said I wasn't all that concerned if we made it, rather than the post-win reviews where it sounded like I'd be smuggling myself to Queensland on a freight train like an old time hobo.

2020 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year 
5 - Steven May
4 - Jack Viney
3 - Jake Lever
2 - Adam Tomlinson
1 - Clayton Oliver

Major apology to Salem, who just missed out on the 1. Normal level apologies to Langdon, Petracca and Weideman. Up and down for the rest.

Now that we're outside the eight we've got to work on a maximum of five remaining games, meaning the dreaded line of elimination is valid for everyone below Angus Brayshaw. The Wagnii will need to pick up 5s every week from here until the Semi Final (just one of them, can't score votes as a unit) if they want a finals related share of the Jako.

There is some movement at the top, with Oliver restricting Petracca's lead to one full BOG. Realistically, I can't see anyone outside the top three winning. Gawn could come back and get votes but are the others going to stop scoring enough to let him in? In the minors, May has delivered a near-fatal knockout blow in the Seecamp, while the Hilton is an ongoing embarrassment. First Jackson looked like he might break the tie and his hamstring exploded, then Sparrow seemed likely and his collarbone broke. No wonder Pickett went missing for most of the game, he must have known what was around the corner. Barring something unrealistic happening, he and Rivers are the likely last contenders standing.

35 - Christian Petracca
30 - Clayton Oliver
25 - Jack Viney
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
16 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
11 - Ed Langdon
10 - Angus Brayshaw
--- No hope without one final ---
8 - Christian Salem
6 - Michael Hibberd, Sam Weideman
4 - Jake Lever
2 - Jake Melksham
1 - Mitch Hannan, Jay Lockhart, Kysaiah Pickett (JOINT LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Trent Rivers (JOINT LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Adam Tomlinson

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Apologies to Oliver's snap or Melksham's long bomb but it'll have Weideman on the run in the second quarter thanks. Sam wins one of those roll-on things for removing the bags under your eyes. Hope he has better luck with it than I did. Still no word back on him being the celebrity spokesman for my foundation to support the baggy-eyed.

If Channel 7 is going to pay the much unmaligned Jason Bennett to sit at home playing XBox, then I can handle Mark Howard being added to the Fox team. He understands that you've got to do a bit of boofy, blokey bullshit that deadshits who like BT enjoy but in proportion.

Howard (never 'Howie') also entered my commentary hall of fame for calling Dwayne out on the set-up Fritsch Magnet gag, asking him how long he'd had that planned for. The awkward silence that followed was an ego-deflating like a faulty hot air balloon. I wouldn't be surprised if Dwayne 'had a word' at half time.

Any hope that he might refuse to come out of his room for the second half like a petulant teenager was sadly dashed, and we were treated to regular outbursts of nonsense and random voice rises as if a dog had just bit him on the dick. With 3.41 left Footscray kicked a goal to lead by 26 points and the Master of Disaster yelled "They might be home!!!!1!1!!!!" You reckon? I think that's the point where you can put your neck on the line and make a firm prediction.

Next Week
Now that we've torched a gigantic opportunity to kick somebody else in the head on our way up the ladder, we've got to fight from underneath against the Saints, who in the past few years have gone past us, behind us and past us again to the point where anything could happen. If this is how we play against sides in or above our bracket then I don't hold out much hope, but stranger things have happened.

I doubt playing in Alice Springs for the first time will have impact on them, but hopefully it plunges them into crisis for a week. What you can bet on, after Friday night's BT debacle, is that the commentators won't patronisingly refer to indigenous fans in the ground like it's the first time they've ever been to a city.

As for changes Gawn is an obvious inclusion. When we nullified Grundy last week there was some controversial chat that our set-up was better without him. Cobblers. I appreciate Preuss' endeavour the last couple of weeks, and he's welcome to hang around on the list if he doesn't have anything better to do, but it's not all about the taps. I almost had a plan to save him, tossing up dropping McDonald and trying Preuss forward one last time but it's too risky. McSizzle is McCrocked but he still offers marginally more as a target. Maybe Mitch Brown will get another go? Otherwise, he's heading straight towards the Phil Egan Files.

If Jones is right I'll have him for Sparrow. Our stocks are pretty thin otherwise - Bedford, Jordon, Rivers, Sizzle Jr, Hunt, Baker, Jetta, Smith, The Wagnii, Bradtke, Chandler and Dunkley. Who amongst that list would you really want to see? I'm going to send Pickett away for a week and give Bedford another go. Bennell also back, replacing Spargo. Charleston had a good couple of weeks before this but it's time to get the quality players back in and have as big a bash at beating the Saints as possible.

IN: Bennell, Gawn, Jones, Bedford
OUT: Pickett, Preuss, Spargo (omit), Sparrow (inj)
LUCKY: Hannan, Harmes, McDonald
UNLUCKY: Preuss, Brown

The Return of the Bradbury Plan

Now that we're outside the eight there's a heavy reliance on other teams doing us a favour, which makes this a far purer Bradbury than last week. It suggests that 6/8 spots are taken and that the battle remains for 7th - 12th. The big movers are Carlton, with their two recent wins catapulting them back into the mix at the expense of Gold Coast. I'm prepared to write the Dockers off as well, not quite entirely but close enough to. Still time for them to finish ahead of us mind you.

No threat to us, win everything - Brisbane, Port, Geelong, Richmond (↑), North, Adelaide, Sydney (↓), Hawthorn (↓)
Likely no threat, can do us favours by beating other mid-table teams - West Coast, St. Kilda, Fremantle (↓),
Outside threat. Beat some mid-table teams, lose to everyone else - Gold Coast (↓)
Big threats, lose everything until further notice (matches between them to be decided on a case-by-case basis) - Collingwood, GWS, Essendon, Footscray, Carlton (↑)

I don't want to be negative, but I reckon it's shut the gate if Collingwood beat both North and Carlton, the Dogs beat Geelong and we lose to St. Kilda. Anyway, your guide for the next week and a bit:

Adelaide d. Geelong
Brisbane d. St Kilda
North d. Collingwood (who, for all the shit we poured on them last week, will be six points clear went they win)
Hawthorn d. Essendon
WCE d. Richmond (unlikely to have an effect)
Geelong d. Footscray (crucial result now)
Sydney/Port - no interest
Freo d. GWS
Carlton vs Collingwood TBD (if the Pies beat North we may as well concede that they'll make it and get to fighting for eighth. Otherwise this could go either way)
North d. Gold Coast

The Finance Report
If we're going to be out of debt next year and comfortable enough to turn down (further) AFL assistance, you have to wonder how rich we were going to be before the pandemic. The million dollars of panic fundraising helps but that's covering costs that didn't exist without the season collapsing.

The highlight of the article was that we'd made $100,000 in memberships and donations since tonking Collingwood. There are two things Mick Malthouse was right about - Steven Milne and that the Pies are our Grand Final. If this was a comedy program we'd cut to the MFC membership office now, with the phones ringing off the hook from everyone trying to get their money back.

The breakdown of our improved finances is interesting:

  • The sale of Leighoak (in the end wonderful timing before pokies joints were shuttered for the year) helped buy a $7.5 million investment portfolio. Which is good until we put it all into an essential oils pyramid scheme.
  • Even though its only benefit post-pokies will be to split up and sell, the value of the Bentleigh Club has shot up to an alleged $20 million. Did they discover oil under it? You'll never build an apartment block big enough to be worth that price in Bentleigh but if you can't trust "industry sources" who can you trust?
  • Saving $500k on the rent for AAMI Park this year is a masterstroke. 
  • $400k in free money from the MCG despite not playing there. Which is nice of them. 
  • Thanks to the people of the Northern Territory for staying Coronavirus free enough that we can still pocket our $600k for playing there next week. Also to their government for letting us in, unlike the Tasmanians stitching up North.
  • ... and a million tipped in by the fans on top of only having to refund 100 memberships. That's less people who used to go on a month-by-month plan and cancel their credit card in July.
Not surprisingly, the China Southern Airlines sponsorship era is over. I'm still not sure if they were a real business or a front for running guns to third world countries. All-in-all as good a result as we're going to get in this climate, even though the figures on Bentleigh seem tremendously rubbery. As long as we don't get dudded into playing both Anzac Eve and Queen's Birthday as the away team next year, and we get some hint of the new admin/training base not being in Gippsland hard to argue with how the administration is doing. And if they want to redirect some of that money to me I'll be even more flowery in my praise.

Final Thoughts
The only good news is that the nightmare scenario of somehow making it through to the Grand Final and having to watch at home with no guests is over. That is a rare time when I would want other people to be around, if not a bit hypocritical after shunning human contact for 20 years. This is not a side that will beat enough finals contenders in the home and away season, let alone taking them out in a September/October/December (delete as applicable) finals series.

I picked us to finish 8th at the start of the season and don't think I'll be more than a couple of places out. The problem is that's now far more likely to be 9th or 10th than 6th or 7th. I can tell you with absolute certainty that it won't be 6th. If it all contributes to a barnstorming 2021 when we become genuine contenders - finals first, flag second - it will all be worth it. History suggests it won't be.

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