Saturday 30 January 2021

The Many Moods of Melbourne

Hello, it's AFLW season. And around these parts that means two things. Firstly, old mate from work will give me the same speech about how he can't watch women's footy for the third year in a row. Secondly it's time to kick off a new Demonblog campaign. This year we turn 17, almost old enough to legally drink three slabs. Which may come in handy depending on how things go on and off-field.

It's terrifying to think that in a couple of years there will be draftees who weren't alive for the first, Llane Spaanderman heavy, review. Always a review, never a report. Let's not deceive anybody into thinking they're going to get in-depth analysis. I'm just making this shit up. It's the constitution. It's Mabo. It's justice. It's law. It's the vibe etc... 

In honour of our women's team playing their fifth season in a proper national competition I thought I'd have the annual crack at getting my daughter interested. After showing cursory interest in the statistical and scoring side of things (no DNA test required, definitely my child) during the 2020 men's fiasco, I asked "Do you want to watch the Dees girls play footy today?" and received a polite "no thank you." Fair enough, I'll tackle it solo. 

Even by my rock-bottom standards, I was woefully unprepared for the start of AFLW. Other than a practice match that was so low-key all the match reports left off one of our goalkickers and nobody cared, I didn't know what to expect. When we traded what seemed like half our list for picks at the end of the season it felt like Lily Mithen ceremonially opening the pandemic with the Sydney Showgrounds miracle goal was going to be as good as it got for us for a few seasons. 

2020 had a good finish, but was still probably the worst AFLW season we've ever had. Work that out. That's why sneaking into the finals and thieving a win was so impressive. Now, after several years of near-misses before finally winning when it mattered only to have the season cancelled the next day, I was ready to accept a rebuilding phase. It would be tinged with sadness over wasting the peak years of the almighty Daisy/Paxy superteam and end in the sacking - fairly or not - of the coach but that seemed to be the way it was going.

Then, for perhaps the first time, I took a rational view of a sporting scenario and realised that it might not have been such bad news after all. When Elise O'Dea turned up on TV in a Carlton jumper I moaned, and Harriet Cordner had come a long way as a defender, but otherwise? Meh. Jakobsson and Smith didn't play in 2020, Guerin had six games in three years, and Newman didn't even average a goal every two games and kicked 0.7 last season.

Things didn't seem so bad, though with so much non-footy related water under the bridge in the last 12 months I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed the Tex Perkins Experience until I saw her wearing a Gold Coast jumper. There's nobody to blame for losing her, in a barely semi-professional competition you can't argue if somebody wants to move interstate. Given that she was only in the side because everyone else was injured, we'd also have had to redraft her. Still, if the way she marauded here there and everywhere taking marks and kicking goals this afternoon is anything to go by I'd have been more than happy for her to stay.

After losing all those players, only having to add three debutantes was a reasonable sign. We still had plenty of inexperience in the team but haven't needed to delve deep into the ranks of the young and Irish before the inevitable injury crises strike.

With respect to Gold Coast playing a reasonable first season in the competition, I was also pleased the COVID related fixture reschedule (brought to you by our premium partner Matthew Bate and the Vodafone 5G network) saved us from having to play Adelaide first up. Sure, the Crows had a rotten 2020 and finished half a game below Gold Coast, but I've still got uncomfortable memories of that 8-68 DEBACLE in the last round of 2019. It's like when we used to play at Football Park and you knew that no matter what factors were involved we would lose comfortably. And we always did.

This enthusiasm about playing the Suns lasted approximately 30 seconds, until their first forward entry prompted our defence to part like the Red bloody Sea and let them in for the first goal. Suddenly playing at Casey looked like a sensible idea. We had opportunities at the other end, but with the forward line playing like they'd met each other on the plane to Queensland, the Suns were able to execute the classic Demon Trampoline counter-attack and turn our forward 50 into them running into an opening goal. 

For ticketholders in the 'First outburst of 2021' lottery, the winner was an exasperated "Oh come the fuck on!" Can you blame me? There have been days where we've barely kicked two in a game, let alone come from that far down. Early returns from our forwards didn't suggest a score much over double figures, and a likely replay of the St Kilda game last year when they were crap and we were crapper.

The game turned on a beautiful, centering kick from Tyla Hanks on the boundary line. She found Kate Hore all but directly in front for what could - even at this early stage - be called a steadier. She has missed easier (especially in that season where she kicked 1.7), but found the mark - just - this time. 

As long as we could stop them kicking goals from every attack (we'd have got 270 points in some games if that was a thing) the game was alive again. Then we got an administrative 50 via an encroachment that the commentators couldn't even identify via a replay (which bodes very poorly for the rest of the year, no matter what gender you identify as) that handed Cunningham the easiest of goals and scores were level again. Strange stuff, but no harm done by the slow start.

Just when you thought the tide was turning, we demonstrated our commitment to equality in football by conceding a #demontime goal from the last kick of the quarter. And who better to take a ripping pack mark than our old mate Sarah Perkins. Any half chance we can ever find another player who can take an overhead grab like that? Notwithstanding the fact that we won, the secret weapon in this competition is forwards who can take overhead marks and kick 40+ metres.

Alternatively, you could execute the Eden Zanker method. She got the first goal of the second quarter by outbodying her opponent in a manner reminiscent of the time Jesse Hogan (remember him?) physically removed Zac Dawson from his space before marking unopposed. She converted our third set shot in a row and I bet you that's the first time we've ever done that. Usually it takes two quarters, nine behinds, and a goal shambled off the ground from the square before anyone finds the middle, let alone from set shots.

The fourth - and how often can you say that before half time - came from some delightful Petrevski crumb. It's hardly Marlion Pickett going from a Grand Final to playing against nobody in his second game, but good to see her in everything after barely going near it on debut in the finals last year. Next thing you know former Kung Fu enthusiast Shelley Heath was banking our second goal from an administrative 50 and the lead was out to 11.

I was up and down the confidence rollercoaster, and when Cunningham got her second I was at the top of it again. She was much maligned on these pages in 2020 (not without some justification), but was very good today. In this case she did a wonderful step around a defender, before being the subject of the most blatant trip since the hey-day of Dustin Fletcher. Comically, the umpire responded to her being dragged down like a shark attack victim by half signalling holding the ball before changing his mind at the last minute and making the correct call. That was six straight. Not quite the 10.0 against Freo in 2017, but without viewing the highlights I doubt such a high proportion of those were set shots.

Perkins - my favourite three game MFC player since James Cook - did her best to get the Suns back into it with a dazzling kick to one of her fellow forwards, who showed appreciation by missing from the top of the square. If you didn't see the miss just imagine any Melbourne AFLW game you've ever seen. Speaking of misses, the winning streak in front of goal ended at six when first gamer Bannan sprayed a set shot. That was only a temporary diversion, we got our own last minute goal. Cunningham was again the architect, bringing the ball to ground when outnumbered in a contest only for Hore to be clotheslined. She kicked after the siren for her second and procession mode was on.

At the heart of what was probably our best AFLW quarter (notwithstanding plowing through rotten opposition like West Coast last year), was an outbreak of Paxmania. She had 13 touches for the quarter than were about 500 times the value of her six in the first. Like either of the Pearces, everything she touches turns to gold. And what mention of Karen Paxman would be complete without reference to her outstanding hair. I believe mullets should be outlawed by Act of Parliament, but this barnet is so impressive that it transcends scepticism. Looks like one of the Thomastown Sharps, plays like Bob Skilton. She'll be 33 by the start of next season but here's hoping she carries on for a few more years.

For the first five minutes of the second half the Suns contained the bleeding, even if they looked unlikely to ever kick another goal. We were having them handed to us on a platter, with a third guaranteed six pointer delivered via 50 metre penalties for standing in the wrong place. If administrative 50s were a person they'd have tied the record of Alyssa Mifsud (whatever happened to her?), Cunningham, and Aleisha Newman for most goals in a single game. 

After costing themselves a goal by failing to track whether they were running east/west or north/south, the Suns got a consolation charity free at the other end, but with the buffer we'd already built up it only caused slight discomfort. Any concern about a tremendous choke was banished when a hopeful kick to the square squirmed through the pack to Lily Mithen, who shrugged off a half-hearted tackle and tapped in to restore the big lead.

When you follow Melbourne confidence is usually closely followed closely by disappointment, but after that goal I was still moved to check our highest scores. This was already up there, with room to have a crack at the all-time record if things went well in the last quarter. I didn't hold out much hope, the combination of a year away from high-level footy, the warm weather and waking up at bullshit o'clock to fly in would lead to a tepid last quarter. And lo we did score but one more behind, leaving it our equal sixth best AFL score.  

Much to my open disappointment but secret delight, last minute specialist Perkins got another at the end of the quarter to keep things interesting. This time there was ample opportunity for another, and if we hadn't escaped a ball bobbling hither and yon in the square during the last few seconds the margin would have been under 20, with the looming spectre of a tremendous collapse. I can't pretend to be as emotionally invested in this as the men's game, but it's still inconsiderate to subject fans to so many mood swings in the first game of the season. I'm not ready for this sort of inner turmoil yet.

Male or female, we never play two great quarters in a row, and courtesy of Perkins' second, the Suns won the third term. It helped that they shut the gate on Paxman, keeping her to two touches. She got a few kicks in the last quarter but it really was a one quarter performances. But what a quarter, especially as that's where the game was won.

Whatever was said at the last change, I hope more attention was given to the coach than when Simon Goodwin inspired Jayden Hunt to inspect Christian Petracca's grundle. No doubt the message was to just run the clock down as much as possible, but as much as I expected the last quarter to be a fizzer an early goal to settle the issue would have been nice. Instead, Gold Coast camped inside their 50 for the first few minutes. Fortunately, they had a couple of near-misses but wasted a third of the quarter on a couple of behinds, meaning we'd have to drop our bundle in record fashion to lose.

After an otherwise good game to watch, no doubt the "you're shoving this down my throat" fanatics tuned in just in time for the last five minutes when all interest had been lost and players were cramping up all over the place. If your TV/internet connected device cut out at this stage let me assure you that you missed absolutely nothing other than us holding on to win in the face of nearly zero pressure.

So, it's 1-0 for the Melbourne Football Club in 2021 (2-0 if you count practice matches), and that's good enough for me. An interstate trip in warm weather out of the way, another game into the young players, and the platform is there for a decent crack at the top whatever it is this year. Not to temper expectations too much but you'd like to see them do similar to a good side, the game was won in one furious quarter and we still let the Suns kick their biggest ever score. 

Had they consulted their 2000 page AFL rulebooks they'd have realised that it's an offence punishable by death to lean on an angle of more than 90 degrees while running at a speed of no less than 10km/h within hearing distance of the kicker, and saved themselves at least one goal. In that case it might have been closer. But stiff shit, it wasn't, make with the four premiership points.

Just when you thought all was going well, Fox Sports finished the day in an appropriately ramshackle fashion but cutting off the theme song halfway so it said "it's the emblem of this has been a Fox Sports production". It was an interesting version, especially with Jonathan Brown's voice coming in over the top like Luther Vandross dueting with Janet Jackson but I doubt it'll catch on.

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Lauren Pearce
3 - Tegan Cunningham
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Eliza McNamara (LEADER: Whatever It Ends Up Being Called Award for AFLW Rising Star)

Major apologies to D. Pearce and Hanks. Mid-range apologies to plenty.

Media Watch
Like our commentating lord and saviour Jason Bennett, Nigel Carmody is never going to get a call-up to the AFL unless he stops commentating the game sensibly and starts to inject more of the top bloky, green and gold, Hogesy, Barnesy, matey, fair dinkum, piss sinkin' larrikanism than Channel 7 talent scouts are looking for. Perhaps like Bennett, he'd rather retain his dignity than be caught talking bollocks on national television. All the big money is in buffoonery but they can both comfort themselves knowing some of us still appreciate sensible commentary.

Next Week
In theory, it's the Tigers at 5.10pm on Saturday at Casey. In practice, anything could happen at the moment up to and including being rescheduled to play doubles against the Williams Sisters. It would take me less time to get to Metricon Stadium than Cranbourne - including 14 days in hotel quarantine - so I'll be taking this in from home if you don't mind.

Richmond was shithouse in their first season but they've added a bunch of experienced players and should be much better.

Final Thoughts
We've got a good record in Round 1 so it's not worth getting over the top excited yet, and I still reckon there's a bad patch in our future over the next couple of years when we lose experience at the top of side, but for now all we know is that a team called Melbourne played a game of Australian Rules Football and won. That remains a very good thing. On to the next battle.

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