Sunday 20 September 2020

Barf Time

NB: Come back Monday morning for another post wrapping up the Sunday night spectacle.

No matter what happens from here, at least we've reached the end of the season without completely embarrassing ourselves. The events of the Cairns trip will be a stain on our season if we're knocked out on Sunday night, but the 2017 style nightmare scenario of choking against a lowly team has been avoided. Only narrowly, and in a manner that suggests we're no chance of beating any team ranked 7th or above but better to be inside the tent pissing out than vice versa.

At the time of writing we're tenuously inside the tent, but are favoured to be evicted by close of business. Everything comes down to needing Fremantle to beat Footscray by any margin, which is unlikely but not completely out of the question. I'll watch this otherwise pointless neutral game with more interest than the Grand Final, thankful that our fate is resting on one team beating the other (a draw would be horrific), and that there are no percentage calculations involved.

I expect the Bulldogs to win, but unlike the sort of people who say they'd rather not make it just because we'd probably lose to West Coast in Perth (do you also stand on 10 in Blackjack?) am open to being given a ticket in the lottery. If I wasn't ready to participate, no matter how briefly, in the top eight I wouldn't have nearly given myself a heart attack last week and unleashed several offensive sprays during the last quarter here. 

Having had, at best, four hours' solid sleep before the game, I was in no condition for psychological trauma. For the first time all season I refused to get out of bed, watching all four quarters horizontally, until leaping to my feet in the dying minutes and parading around the room swearing. Before then it was a quite relaxed experience, continuing my rapid slide in middle-aged mediocrity. First it was sitting on the couch instead of standing, then it was the addition of a lovely blanket, now this. Next thing I'll be listening on the radio in an comfy chair, even when games are back in Victoria. Old age and irrelevance can't be far behind, so if Melbourne want to get on with winning a flag that would be great.

When it comes to us there's no phrase more fraught with danger than "all they have to do is win". That wasn't the entirety of the story in this case, but without Saturday, Sunday may as well not exist. That meant having to win as favourites against a side on the bones of their arse. Didn't help that it was Worsfold's last game as coach (ending an Essendon career that began by leading their B-team to victory over us), and while he might be remembered by Bombers fans about as fondly as Matthew Knights that was always going to provoke some players to have a crack. We don't want the opposition having a crack, we want them sucking their thumb in the corner and crying. Even then you wouldn't bet your house on us.

In our favour, the rescheduling of the game from Round 3 due to the Connor McKenna false positive test debacle. Then the Bombers were in form and would likely have beaten us, by now they'd lost nine of the last 10 and only had pride left to play for. As we've seen a few times over the years, that doesn't count for much when you've got everything else going against you. I was hoping for a Melbourne vs Geelong end of 2016 style capitulation (by them), instead they hung around like an unflushable nugget, briefly threatening to pull off a comeback that we'd never have heard the end of.

The game started much like I'd have expected if we were chasing percentage (no longer a factor thanks to Leon Cameron bringing back his impersonation of Leon Klinghoffer), dominant out of the middle and getting the ball forward but missing chances. 

At times like this everyone needs to form an orderly queue behind the best players, and Clayton Oliver was the leader of the pack. We've done a lot of stupid things at the draft, but whoever made the decision to take a punt on him at pick four will go down in recruiting legend. By this stage it's redundant to go on about how good the man who made Mooroopna famous is, but consider that he's only 23 years old, face the Goulburn Valley and pay your respects. Petracca is less than 18 months older. Give them all the money, the appropriate backup from teammates and watch them drag this often disappointing enterprise into the late 2020s. 

Fritsch had our first chance, but while he's great at finding space he's increasingly ropey from set shots and missed what would have been a settler. Of course, after camping the ball at our end with no rewarded they went down the other end to kick the opener. Instead of a settler, this was a churner. I was in no condition for flashbacks to 2017, even if we probably had more tackles in the first three minutes of this game than the first 30 against Collingwood. The presence of a player called 'Hams' was also an uncomfortable reminder of that day, when I returned home from having my heart torn out only for my then three-year-old daughter to present me an MFC mug full of ham as a practical joke. 

They were no chance of going five goals up by quarter time, but with scoring plummeting through the floor at a record rate you don't need to go to those lengths to kill a team off early. Especially one that relied heavily on goals from novelty sources last week.

Somehow our season has been CPRed without any goals from tall forwards, two weeks of zero from Weideman and Brown combined. We've got away with it so far (and Weid did give Hunt a gift that he could have easily put through himself) but good luck winning finals like that. It's something they need to consider for next season. Having said that, Brown played almost the best game you'll ever see by a key forward who finished with 0.2. He was up and down the ground marking everything, and got us out of jail a few times in the defensive 50.

Weideman can never be accused of failing to give 100%, but still sorely lacks another marking target that provides some mystery about who we're kicking to. Brown showed that he may have a role, but it's not as a key position forward. Which is why I still think if we can uncrock Tom McDonald via a series of mystical eastern medications he has plenty to offer. For somebody who loves forward connection more than life itself, Simon Goodwin clearly thinks otherwise, and will be flogging Sizzle to the highest bidder. Probably paying part of his contract too, which is a tremendous comedown from your career peaking by kicking four in front of 92,000 people.

Our first goal came from Jayden Hunt, continuing his end of season revival as a forward. Even better, it came straight out of the middle, as the Bombers wasted a hard fought goal at a speed we'd be proud of. To be fair it was helped by vandenBerg's scrappy clearing kick taking two novelty bounces, the second that allowed Neal-Bullen to set Hunt up. He turned on the turbo thrusters to improve his angle and nine-ironed it through. This prompted Fox Footy to unnecessarily display a live ladder. It lingered on the screen long enough that I thought for a second it was going to stay there, which would have been even more ridiculous.

At this stage you couldn't imagine that the last quarter would involve their second string ruckman feeding a rampaging midfield, it looked like a brutal knockout was on the cards. The only problem was turning our early dominance around the ball into scores. By the end of the quarter we'd only generated two more behinds, a bit of a let down from the (relatively) free-scoring at the start of the GWS game.

Sharing two goals with a struggler hardly screamed premiership aspirant, being on the wrong side of three was even worse. After a few weeks of flipping the script by kicking goals at the end of quarters, we inexplicably let Jake Stringer (playing for the chance to stick it up Kane Cornes for calling him porky) wander out of the back and mark with 10 seconds left. Naturally he kicked it, leaving us two points in the hole at quarter time and me considering not leaving the house until November.

Thankfully instead of inspiring the Bombers, that was the end of them for the next 20 minutes. They did what you'd expect a side of their stature to do, (seemingly) throwing the game away in a brief period of pressure-free madness. For the only time all day we took advantage, kicking five goals to nil that should have put them away for good. This was bloody good stuff, practically an end-to-end domination, and exactly what the Bombers deserved. If only we'd been able to carry it into the second half.

There were a lot of players in our side who were just going, but for a while the unit came together wonderfully. In didn't take long to get the first goal, and it was born from the work of maligned players at both ends of the ground. You wouldn't trust Joel Smith to make up ground on an opponent from five metres away but he is good at one-on-one defensive contests, and a desperate last minute spoil turned what would have been a shot on goal into an attack. Down the other end, Petracca found Neal-Bullen in the pocket, where he kicked a goal from an obscure angle reminiscent of similar efforts by Spargo and Baker in recent weeks. If these sort of people were kicking goals like this against us you'd call it Kingsley Korner. For now we are enjoying an obscure player led revival.

According to Dwayne, Bullet's finish was "straight out of the copybook", a rare non-blot mention of the copybook. I don't think he knows what a copybook is, but due to being a citizen of Mars I don't think he cares.

Of the more recently maligned players, I thought Melksham played another really ordinary game. Turns out he had more 'pressure acts' than anyone else on the team. So it depends how much you rate that stat as worthwhile. I'd rather the half-forward flank attacking weapon of yore but he's obviously playing some sort of coach-friendly role that plebs like me can't understand. 

When Fritsch finally converted his third set shot, Essendon looked like they'd had enough and would be content to just get through to the final siren without jeopardising their end of season piss up. The next goal was an even better (and as it turns out, false) clue that they weren't going to offer stern resistance. Petracca ripped pone of the most exquisite kicks you'll ever see from the wing/half-forward to Spargo 45 metres out, with Weideman, Hunt, and no Essendonians ahead of him. 

Charleston gave it to Weid, who decided to ramp up the tension level by throwing an unnecessary handball to Hunt to make absolutely sure of it. There would have been no more Melbourne moment than the last pass being fumbled over the line and blowing a certain goal, but things were going so well for us that we got away with it. Ex-Melbourne player and now goal umpire David Rodan clearly enjoyed seeing it from close up, with his mind obviously flashing back to the happy memories of playing a handful of games with us in 2013 then doing his knee. Which still makes him one of the more successful players on our list that year. 

If we'd gone on to win in a canter, the next goal would have been my favourite. First, it started with May taking a random bounce through the middle, then ended with Neal-Bullen darting through a gap between two players - one of whom at least half-thought about seeking some vengeance for that Adelaide kid by shirtfronting him - and extending the margin beyond 20. ANB hasn't done much for a couple of years, and you wonder if they might try to flog him at the end of the season, but he has had a good couple of weeks.

The fifth was another case of everyone clearing out and letting the stars do the hard work. From a missed set shot at the other end we got the ball to the wing unchallenged, where Oliver wandered around in traffic like he had all the time in the world and hit a perfect pass to an overhead marking Petracca in the middle of three players. You'd be generous to call it a three-on-one when none of them were anywhere near him, so I'm giving equal billing to the Hamburglar for the perfect pass. The finish was pure Petracca, walloping through an absolute Howitzer post-high from 50 metres. By the end of the quarter the margin was 28 points. As we like to say around these parts, 'what could possibly go wrong?' 

If that was a quarter that made you think we could compete against good sides, the third was perfect for about 8.30pm tomorrow night when the heaving and hoing is over and you need to convince yourself we'd have just been thrashed by the Eagles anyway. We were still clearly the better side, and our backline was taking the piss whenever the Bombers went inside 50, but the avenues to goal dried up, with Brown and Weideman more often than not finding the ball on the wing with nobody to kick to. 

Still looked unlikely that Essendon would get anywhere near our score, even if we kicked 0.0 for the rest of the game. But we were already starting to go into our shell, something that would become an issue before long, and the knockout blow remained elusive. In a performance that would have had neutrals reaching for the remote control, it took 17 minutes for anyone to kick a goal. That was comeback kid Hunt, reaching deep down into his reserves of owl energy to thump through an only slightly less brutal set shot than Petracca at the other end.

Essendon barely looked likely to score all quarter, so with a 34 point lead to defend and seven seconds left what did we do? If you guessed 'Allow a forward 50 entry to a player standing on his own in the pocket with his opponent trailing sadly behind' you win. It's my fault for thinking about an adjusted Chris Sullivan Line just a few seconds earlier. Like saying the name of the devil three times an Essendon game is the last time to summon up the evil spirits of Round 6, 1992.

This second Super DemonTime goal was another big moment for Smith haters, though I'm prepared to concede from his one-on-one defending that there might (MIGHT) be something in him if we can develop his positioning in the VFL. Still need to buy a ready-made third defender from somewhere in the off-season though. 

It was classic Melbourne, gently creaking open a window for strugglers to clamber in and pinch a win, but even I thought there was no chance they'd overcome a 24 point deficit in 16 minutes after kicking three goals in the previous three quarters. On the other hand, there would have been no more fitting end to our season than conceding a third goal after the siren. Perhaps we should have spent three quarter time thinking more about finding the footy than the grundle?

The fatal blow remained unstruck for another 17 minutes, via torturous near-choke. The ultimate battle between Burgess Ball and #fistedforever turned out to be a draw, we didn't run away with it but also narrowly missed being dragged into a reverse Stranglewank finish. In the end, the margin flattered us, not giving any indication of how nervy things got in the dying minutes. 

After three quarters of torment, where he could barely move and was referred to by commentators as looking like he was a hundred years old, moving Joe Daniher into the ruck at the start of the last quarter seemed like a comical move on the same level as when we played Oscar McDonald at full forward. Instead it nearly provoked one of the great comebacks. He shook the cobwebs off quickly, running around like there was nothing wrong with him, matching Gawn at the centre bounces, and setting up play around the ground like he'd been playing the most deep-cover game of possum ever.

The fun started barely a minute in when Stewart got another goal, while we looked to have stopped dead. Maybe Burgess Ball is a myth after all. When some random narrowly missed a snap a few minutes later I was absolutely shitting it. We were trying to save the game rather than winning it. Enter Jayden Hunt again, using the extra grip he'd derived from Petracca's bunghole to take the handball from Fritsch and kick a steadier.

If you thought that would encourage Essendon to give up again you were well wrong. Now 25 points up with eight minutes left it was going to take quite the collapse to throw our season away. Challenge accepted. Straight out of the middle they plowed forward, where Stringer went for the sort of unrealistic screamer that they've been paying all season, clearing the pack for the ball to roll over the back for the instant reply. If I was writing the rules I'd let people go for those ridiculous attempts on the off chance that 1/100 times they pull down mark of the century, but given that players have been pinched for less every week for the past 17 and a half rounds it was a clear as day free. Blinded by the spectacle the umpires let Devon Smith - the only AFL player named after a processed meat - waltz into an open goal and keep the game alive.

Now things were getting nervy, not only were our attempts to chip the ball around for six minutes largely unsuccessful, but luck was going their way too. Just as a free was called in the middle of the ground the ball spilt to a player standing on his own forward of the play. He kicked to that man Stewart at the top of the square, throwing in a knee to Hibberd's jaw while marking it, and the margin was back to 13.

One of Petracca's few blunders, pulling a kick out of defensive 50 and landing it with an opponent, cost us another goal shortly after, reducing the margin to seven with three minutes to go. This is where terse words were uttered in my house, including I believe the sentence "Fuck off, if you cunts lose from here I swear I've had enough and you can all get fucked". Of course I'd have been back at the first opportunity but I felt strongly about it at the time.

It was starting to feel like an era adjusted replay of 1992. Imagine how much damage that game did me aged 11 and consider the potential mental impact here. I've been told we now employ two psychologists, and if it carried on like this I was going to need one of them to call me at the siren. Remember, a draw was as fatal to us as a loss, removing the margin of error no matter what their next score was.

This was a time to shit bricks. Losing from 35 points up in a shortened quarter against a nothing happening team wouldn't have just left us open to mockery from Essendon fans, but would have offered a green light for fans of every club in the competition to pile on. We'll do the pisstaking of our own club and the rest of you can get stuffed. Especially David King, who tried to jump on the bandwagon just three years after writing the article telling us to calm down and stop worrying.

If we were a plane the ground proximity warning would have been making this noise:

Unexpectedly we did, narrowly averting disaster by finally stopping them walking the ball out of the centre. For some reason they'd responded to their last goal by taking Daniher out of the ruck and sending goalkicker Dylan Shiel to the bench. Which probably didn't help. 

With the ball bouncing around the middle of the ground Trent Rivers continued to build his reputation as a big moment player. After a hit-and-miss day he hit a perfect tackle on a player who was wheeling out of a pack, probably seeing half a dozen teammates heading towards goal without an opponent. Said free players were left out of position, and from the spillage Melksham found Fritsch standing in acres of space. Given his record from set shots I'm comfortable with him storming into goal instead of trying to waste time. Fortunately he slammed it home and we were safe.

The only danger now was giving it straight back 20 seconds later, but that was finally the inspiration Essendon needed to go "good try boys, wrap it up", and Fritsch added another one with a snap over his shoulder from the square. Thank god for that. Now if the Dogs win to put us out we can claim that it's not what we've done, but what everyone's done to us.

It was wobbly, it was in no way finals-like but it did the trick. This team shits me, but ultimately they did the right thing when it mattered. That's about the best you can hope for around here.

2020 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year 
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Salem
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Jayden Hunt
1 - Mitch Brown

Big apologies to Gawn, May and Viney, who could have snuck in for either of the last two votes. Other high-level apologies to Fritsch, Langdon and Lever. 

Provisional Final Leaderboard
A week ago I declared Oliver finished, now he's snuck back into contention if we play again. Still hard to see how Petracca can finish without a share of the title at the very least but something to look out for if there's another game. If we don't then all hail the 11th man in 16 (!) seasons to take the title. He will join Cameron Bruce, Aaron Davey, Max Gawn, Brad Green, Travis Johnstone, Brock McLean, Brent Moloney and Jack Viney. The all-time champions remain five time winner Nathan Jones and two time champion Clayton Oliver.

In the minors, Salem just kept May from confirming victory. He's now (potentially) got four finals to work on overhauling him. Given that I doubt we'll be playing any, and probably losing first up if we do, I'm predicting there's no way for Trent Rivers to now go without at least a share of the Hilton. After polling his only vote against the Eagles, here's to Pickett playing a Weideman-esque surprise finals stunner and polling five votes to draw level.

46 - Christian Petracca (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
--- No hope without one final ---
41 - Clayton Oliver
--- No hope without four finals ---
30 - Max Gawn (WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jack Viney
--- Better luck next year ---
28 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
23 - Ed Langdon
13 - Christian Salem
10 - Angus Brayshaw
6 - Michael Hibberd, Trent Rivers (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Sam Weideman
4 - Jake Lever, Adam Tomlinson
2 - Jayden Hunt, Jake Melksham
1 - Mitch Brown, Mitch Hannan, Jay Lockhart, Kysaiah Pickett

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
A few options to consider, based on both aesthetic quality and importance. I liked the Anal-Bullet from the boundary, and Hunt had a couple of nice ones, but it's hard not to go with Petracca again, this time for that long bomb set shot. He wins the flex off a mini kettle, and retains the clubhouse leader for the sweep 'n thump special against the Giants.

Midway through the year I was into the freewheeling lunacy of an Eddie/Dwayne call. Today was not the day for it. Under the circumstances I would have appreciated the most sensible commentary team they had. 

Instead, Pies Lotto was back, as Eddie tried to hijack the call with unnecessary references to Collingwood. If you didn't know that James Stewart's dad used to play for the Pies before this, and I didn't know who James Stewart was full stop, you were left in no doubt by the end. Seems Stewart Sr's nickname was 'Big Snaggle', which was about as relevant to this contest as Strzelecki exploring the Snowy Mountains.

Somehow Jordan Lewis went four quarters in special comments without mentioning his involvement in the famous Round 23, 2017 bruise-free first quarter debacle. Actually, it's even more surprising that Eddie didn't find a way to mention it first. Bonus points if it was as part of some Triple M style 'banter', possibly ending with the subject saying "that's good from you ho ho."

Next Week
Come back tomorrow and we'll discuss if there is one.

The Bradbury Plan reaches its natural conclusion

Due to Gold Coast and GWS stooging us (and thanks to the Suns dickhead who stuffed up an open goal trying to play on), the only route to survival goes through a team that has been almost as flaky as us for the last 25 years. Best of British luck with that.

Final thoughts
Now that the chinks in my otherwise iron constitution are showing I'm not sure I'm going to make it to 6.10pm tomorrow night without ending up in hospital. That's not even factoring in the tension from four quarters of a bunch of players you've never heard of (not, sadly, including the injured Michael Walters) holding our future in their hands.

I'm genuinely scared that we're going to miss out in the most farcical circumstances possible, but unless our season ends in a heartbreaking finish I think I can pretend a 9-8 record means we're pointing in the right direction, even if I don't 100% believe it. Might be better for all our health and fitness if the Dogs just plow away to a 50 point lead in the first 10 minutes. Then we can cover up our own failings by abusing the Dockers and vowing never to visit North Queensland again.

In the meantime, reach out and touch the screen of your internet connected device and let's hold a sporting prayer circle that for once a bizarre, unexpected set of circumstances work in our favour. After that, who knows what happens next. Otherwise it's back to the hub to throw TVs out of the window like a double booking of The Who and Motley Crue.

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