Sunday, 21 March 2021

Mainly happy returns

Fans of complaining about things you've got no control over rejoice, footy is back in the city where it all began. Given the occasion, there would have been no more Melbourne FC way to celebrate than by losing in tragic and/or bizarre fashion to understrength, foreign opposition. Pigs, however, have taken flight, because for once we didn't ruin an otherwise joyful event. It was grim and gritty but it ended in four points, and for now that's good enough for me.

I imagine this win was the sporting equivalent of floating onto land after six months in a life raft. We went perilously close to tragedy and our long-term survival prospects are questionable, but for now everyone's just happy to be alive. 

In the absence of a recruit intended to turn us into a rampant goalkicking machine (because of course he got injured about 25 seconds after pulling on the jumper), it didn't look like much had changed. If not for sitting in the stands with actual Victorian humans for the first time in 18 months I might have been convinced that this was just an extension of the 2020 season. Steven May was still offering better defence than the Berlin Wall, Clayton Oliver would have 30 touches if he was put in a blindfold, and our forwards kicked for goal like they had been.

Shame it wasn't treated as Round 19, 2020, because we'd had jumped Collingwood into eighth. Instead, hope springs semi-eternal for the new year, as we bank one win and hope for a minimum of 12 more to ensure a rare finals appearance. 

Another key difference between the seasons is that this time we beat Freo, assisted by playing them on a dry day at the MCG and not in pissing Cairns rain with an unnecessarily tall forward line. As Ron Barassi cryptically noted in 1985, "a win is a win is a win." And that's about all this was, homecoming vibes notwithstanding. Nothing shows that we're deep in mid-table mediocrity, the sort that will likely end in another ninth place finish, than a Round 1 win that nobody is all that happy about.

Mind you, only the truly miserable would be unhappy. Considering how badly this could have gone you might as well enjoy it, even if we're more chance of winning the T20 World Cup than an AFL premiership. It was, on the balance of things, good news. No matter how, the points were banked, the MCC didn't have deploy their anti-hoon tunnel, and the coach has dodged his inevitable Trial By Media for another week.

Round 1 wins have been a novelty over the last few years. Other than the early season optimism golden era of 2015-2017 we have traditionally dropped a bollock at our first start, squeezing out any sense of pre-season optimism. Enthusiasm levels were helped this year by not playing West Coast in Perth an hour after the season was suspended.

There were certainly some nerves about going back to live sport. Outside of work and shopping I wouldn't have been in the company of over 10 people for a year. Not that I thought much of crowded spaces before COVID, but they were a fact of life. Now, after a glorious year away from the community, even a lightly attended match against interstate opposition was enough to make me contemplate watching from home. Seeing a win was reward for acting like a normal member of society.

My enthusiasm for a return to the 'G was not helped by the new rules that force you to sit in an assigned seat. After 10 years of doing everything possible to avoid people sitting beside, behind, and preferably in front of me, this did not appeal. I know why they're doing it, it's just not my go. 

At least we were able to play on our home ground, with the AFL enjoying a rare outbreak of decency for towards the small clubs but refusing Essendon's request to shift their game from Docklands. Sure between them and Hawthorn there would have been more than 21,000 in the ground, but then they wouldn't have been able to experience the joy of blowing a massive lead and losing by a point.

I couldn't argue with the quality of seat provided. Level 3 of the Southern Stand, near the 50 metre arc. By reasonable standards it was a major upgrade on the area that my premium membership usually occupies. The only problems were a) I don't often use the Redlegs seat, and b) by landing in Row A I was offered this world class view:

 

It wasn't an issue when the ball was on the other side of the ground, but seemed a bit farcical that the closer the ball got to you the more you had to adjust to watch the play above or below a set of prison bars. Given that there are only about 10 rows in this part of the ground there's limited scope to shift for a better view. Try telling that to the people who were occupying the seat I was supposed to be in. They were welcome to being stuck halfway down the row, I just took an empty aisle seat and correctly guessed that nobody would show up to claim it.  

My plan to get what I considered a better seat occupied too much of my time in the lead-up. After encouraging reports from Thursday night that nobody bothered to check a ticket after the first bounce the idea was to start at the assigned spot, then sneak into the top deck of the Ponsford or Olympic at half time. The MCG thwarted this by closing Level 4 everywhere other than the Members' Stand. For now I'll wear it, I'm semi-confident we can get everyone in the country vaccinated quicker than the 17 years it'll take for me to land an MCC membership.

So, with all other options exhausted, I gave in and tried to enjoy my lot as best possible. If not for the vision-obscuring bars (thank you pisswreck drunks who can't be trusted not to topple over a regulation sized wall) I could see myself in this spot for the rest of the season. It was a new spot for me, after hundreds of MCG games since the Southern Stand opened I can't remember ever seeing a game from that spot. Though strangely enough I did see the Storm (a team called Melbourne you can trust) kick the living suitcase out of St. George from almost the exact same place in 2000.

The only time I cursed myself for giving in without a fight was when two people mysteriously appeared in the top level of the Olympic Stand during the third quarter. Half time could have been used to make absolutely sure that area was closed but I assumed that if it was open surely somebody would be sitting there. By this time my neighbours were busy converting their half-time snacks into powerful backdoor emissions, making me even more jealous of anybody watching in free-range conditions.

After all this, you can imagine how well I'd have taken a loss. It went the right way in the end, but not before a tremendously ropey start. After a summer of self-flagellation, and more "we must do better" content than you could shake an angry fist at, our midfield was wiped off the face of the park for the first 10 minutes.

This was not what we expected when Gawn was pitched against A. First Gamer due to a Freo injury crisis. Hitouts may be the most overrated aspect of any ruck performance, but in this case the ones Max was winning were nearly counterproductive, due to the lack of connection (thank you Simon) with his midfielders. The Dockers seemed to know where the taps were going better than the people who'd spent all summer watching them. In fact Max's entire first half was a bit ordinary, also struggling win touches around the ground. Things improved after that, even interrupting the May/Lever show for a couple of crucial intercept marks. Having said all that, it's a bit rude to grade him on the Gawn curve when most teams would have been thrilled by the same level of performance. GWS' ruckmen are going down faster than Spinal Tap drummers, they'd have cut off a digit to borrow him for a week.

For the first five minutes we were reduced to forwards standing around waiting for something to happen, defenders desperately trying to keep the ball away, and everyone between the arcs struggling to stop Freo heaving and hoing around the ground in acres of space. Fortunately, the shock of returning to Victoria for the first time since June 2019 (also the last time I saw us win live) left their forwards flummoxed, and they missed a string of easy chances.

The wobbly kicking was contagious, Petracca was given the chance to steady the ship after being sat on in front of goal. He's a 50/50 proposition at the best of times, but the angle was so slight that it felt easier to miss than kick. Challenge accepted.

Then it was back down the other end, where the next in the queue of potential goalkickers also doubled as a Kingsley prospect. Alex Pearce hadn't kicked a goal in five years, and due to a knee injury hadn't played at all since mid-2019. So it obviously scared the shit out of me when they started him as a key forward, vaulting him to the top of a long list of obscure Freo players expected to dick us. He kicked this one like a backman, and we'll never know if that was the entree to a 13.1 afternoon because he soon disappeared with another knee injury.

Pearce's departure introduced us to a rule so good the league kept it under wraps until two days before the start of the season. Yes, the substitute is back. At one point the idea was to cover for players suspected of concussion, then for reasons only known to the dickheads in charge, mutated into cover for any injured player. Now, thanks to complicated protocols meant to stop coaches from faking injuries just to get a tactical sub in, there is a 23rd man invited to sit on the bench with his thumb up his arse and wait for a teammate to hurt himself.

I could almost accept this, other than the ridiculous scenario of the player who doesn't get called on still being credited with a senior game. That's how they did it before interchange (including one of our 1964 premiership team) but back then players were just showing up for a kick on the weekend in between selling cars or running pubs, they deserved some sort of acknowledgement for wasting their Saturday sitting on the bench in a dressing gown. 

In 1975 we left a debutante on the bench all day, then dropped him never to be seen again. Now it's a super-professional competition, and handing out free games for doing nothing seems like a major extraction of piss. I wouldn't be surprised if the AFL had another unpredictable change of heart and decided that these games don't count. For once I'd agree with them. You don't need to tinker with anything in the past, Clint Bizzell can still have the game where he blew a hammy in the warmup and wasn't replaced, just don't try and pretend that Kade Chandler played a game of AFL football on Saturday afternoon.

For his part Chandler was well-compensated, paid the same as Freo sub Gyro Gearloose for doing three quarters' less work, and escaping the one game club in the most administrative fashion possible. That's about all he got out of the weekend, going from narrowly missing senior selection to not playing at all. This means he's an absolute certainty to be dropped next week so he can get game time, leaving some other poor schlub to hang around Docklands on Saturday night and hope for the worst. I'm more upset that Goodwin is in favour of this rule than anything he's done as a coach.

While Freo missed a truckload of chances early, few came through their tall forwards. It was nigh on impossible to get past May, Lever, and to a lesser extent Tomlinson, who chewed up and spat out everything that came near them. The Docker forward line was hardly Franklin/Roughead 2008 (and perhaps only marginally better than Dawes/Frawley 2014), but I haven't seen such domination between these teams since Ross Lyon used to keep us to five goals in every meeting.

Despite this, one laughably suspect measurement suggests Maggie Tabberer was the most effective player on the ground. Treat that with the contempt it deserves, but don't completely write off player ratings before appreciating Blake Acres' 81% game time losing to Kade Chandler's 0%.

Even one of the deaf, dumb, and blind All-Australian selectors would have identified how good May was here. He has been impeccable since the start of last year, leaving you wondering how his career would have turned out at properly functioning clubs. His blocking of everything that came near him was no surprise, so under the circumstances I was more excited by Lever's performance. He was given plenty of opportunities to float around without an opponent, but it's becoming obvious why they paid so much for him. His reading of the ball in the air is A+. 

They won't get that sort of armchair ride from the opposition every week, but on this occasion it was the stuff of legend. As an season ticket holder of the Defenders' Union since the Phil Gilbert era I loved it. Steve bloody Hocking wouldn't have. He'll probably fine us for keeping them to eight goals.

Speaking of backmen, as much as I want to see Tomlinson play another game to prove this wasn't a fluke, that goes double for Nifty Nev Jetta. You've got to adjust for the quality of an attack that kicked as if drunk, but that was his best game in ages. Maybe he'll be this year's Michael Hibberd, unexpectedly clambering off the scrapheap to revive his career. Based on yesterday's defence, if he wants to get back into the side Hibberd may have to be the new Jayden Hunt, whose career we've decided to ruin by putting him back in defence.

On the topic of people appearing at various ends of the ground, our second miss came courtesy of Tom McDonald, the only lowlight of his best quarter since wrecking Carlton in 2019. He ran everywhere, he took big, fat, contested marks and other than his worst set shot in years nobody could have any complaints with how he played. What he does when (if?) Brown and Weideman come back I don't know, but let's roll with it for now and see what happens.

After six combined behinds in a row, the breakthrough finally came through Pickett. I would have picked Chandler, but Kysaiah (still never 'Kozzy') more than justified selection. It wasn't just the goal, but his pressure was - brace for a cliche - elite. One goal a week will do me if he harasses defenders like that, some of them were dead-set shitting themselves whenever he was around.

Though Pickett kicked the goal, the setup was pure Spargo. Charleston's performance will go under the radar because nobody outside the bubble knows who he is, but some of his disposals into the forward line were sublime. I'm biased after jumping on his bandwagon in the pre-season but he's got footy smarts out the yin yang. Give it about three weeks before I turn and call for him to be dismissed.

Freo fans would have been disgusted that after several minutes of doing everything but kicking goals, our first immediately begat the second. For the time the midfield fired simultaneously, and a Gawn > Oliver > Harmes combination ended with the ball being belted inside 50 again. Having already missed a set shot, Langdon opted for a 9.9 degree of difficulty on his second shot, kicking a running checkside from the boundary line. It was bloody delightful, and the Alan Shearer style arms aloft running celebration against his old side just added to the spectacle.

The contest was all very fumbly and suggestive of two teams that will be on the couch by mid-September, but you can only beat who they put in front of you, and as their hot start went tits up Freo clearly became rattled. With every hopeful kick forward hoovered up by the defenders, we were able to counter with two more goals by quarter time. After 10 minutes on the back foot, weathering multiple shots on goal, we'd come out 24 points ahead. It was nowhere near a fair reflection of how Freo had played, but you make your own luck. Ultimately that's what won us the game.

The first was admittedly a touch lucky, with the ball taking a bastard of a bounce over a hapless defender and sitting up for Fritsch to toe-poke through. The next was a bit more artistic, Double J James Jordon sticking the ball down Petracca's throat for him to kick one 10x more complicated than what he'd missed earlier. Truck was in everything in the first quarter, and was one of our better players on the day, but if he was 100% fit I'll walk backwards to Mildura. I'd still rather him half-crocked over most of our players but the real worry is repeating the Joel Smith Debacle with a much higher valued asset, unnecessarily making a minor injury worse. If he makes next Saturday night I'll be convinced that he's not in traction somewhere.

When some bloke I'd never heard dropped a mark in front of goal and set up Double J for his first career goal shortly after play resumed things were starting to get ridiculous. Some teams might have taken advantage and crushed them before half time. Not us. It didn't help that the midfield was still being held well by Nat Fyfe and the Nobodies. The next 10 minutes were a reboot of the first quarter, with Freo parking the ball in their forward line and having half a dozen goes at placing ball between large posts. The difference was this time they did it twice.

The resurgent McDonald got us out of jail, in perfect pocket position to mark a Fritsch kick that fell out of the sky like a dead pigeon. It reminded me of the goal he kicked from the opposite side in the first quarter of Round 1, 2019. Back then he was coming off a 50 goal season, had just signed a bonanza contract, and was a live chance to win the Coleman. Not long after, his season followed the rest of the club down the toilet and he's never recovered.

Comparisons to that Port game didn't end with McDonald's goal, when Freo charged at us early in the third quarter my mind flashed back to our capitulation that day. The difference was that this time we hadn't stupidly rushed two key midfielders back from injury on a warm day after one half-arsed VFL practice match and retained enough life force to hold on.

Again, Freo did all the hard work before blowing it late in the term. McDonald turned provider to set up Harmes and we'd restricted them to taking two points off our lead. Still wasn't worth forming a queue for finals tickets over, but was enjoyable enough when you consider how much rubbish we've seen over the years.

Given that we lost the rest of the game by a point it's up to you to decide how excited you get. I was fairly shitting it when we started the third quarter with a missed Sizzle sitter, only for Freo to kick two quick goals. For the mental health of the fans, Round 1 is too early to blow a 30 point lead. Which is probably why Essendon decided to throw a 40 point lead away instead.

This is where SpargoMania erupted, first setting up a Fritsch goal, then getting one of his own to steady the ship. His goal also owed a lot to the run of Pickett, who was having a marvellous quarter. When he wasn't terrifying the opposition at ground level, Kysaiah was trying to take Mark of the 21st Century. I barely saw it live because much of the jump was obscured by the bloody railing in front of me, but it was un-Australian to deem his towering leap as an unrealistic attempt. We've been through this with Pickett before, but surely when you barely miss getting your hands to it that's realistic enough? If you consider this in conjunction with the dangerous tackle fine he got last year for a perfectly normal tackle, there's enough evidence to suggest a conspiracy against him. Did his uncle belt somebody from the umpiring department 20 years ago?

Charleston's goal pushed the margin back over four goals and offered vital breathing space going into three quarter time. Which is why conceding the reply straight out of the middle was so painful. I internalised my grief, the guy behind me responded by stomping his foot with such violent force that he'll be going to the same stress fracture clinic as Sam Weideman. Much to the delight of the AFL, who think stoppages = Satan, there weren't many repeat ball-ups in the middle of the ground, but if there was ever a time to defend in the middle this was it. Instead, we parted like the Red Sea and allowed them to get it straight back. DemonTime is officially open for 2021.

There was no comfort in a 17 point margin. You'd rather have been in our position than theirs, especially with the strength of our defence, but on a (relatively) hot day, with reduced interchange and rules designed specifically to help teams score quickly you couldn't rule out a disaster. 

I don't know if I'd have been as confident defending the same lead against a top team. Nobody was terrible but there were plenty of warning signs for the rest of the year. Harmes was alright in this class but I don't fancy him against the big sides, Jones went as hard as usual but god knows what role he was playing, and Hunt should have his manager on the phone at 9am Monday morning looking for a team that will play him as a forward.

Then there's Brayshaw, who I just can't get into. He's got obvious natural skill but where's his career going? He gets plenty of possessions, few of them damaging. This was a great opportunity to see which journos give their bests on number of touches alone. Not much point getting them if they're turned over. At one stage he and his brother were trading clangers like Randolph and Mortimer Duke. He laid a couple of ripping tackles in the second half, but other than being able to consistently get on the park, what did he offer that Viney wouldn't? It's not a vendetta, I just think he needs another reminder, like the one that worked a treat at the start of 2018, that nobody is a protected species.

Considering how many fans were looking for a chance to try and sack Goodwin, you can only imagine the outrage if we'd blown it from here. When Freo had the first opportunity of the last quarter I was prepared to throw logic out the window and join the protests. That man Petracca got us out of trouble, via Hunt magically appearing at the right end of the ground, Jones doing a Hollywood bounce handball, and a quick snap not clattering into Frisch as it bounced through an otherwise unguarded square.

After all the shit that has been poured on him over the last 12 months, and the desperate attempt by the same people who stuffed up his 2020 pre-season to trade him at any price, I was delighted that  McSizzle kicked the sealer. Based on his two earlier misses from much simpler spots it made no sense that he would lob this one through from the 50 metres out on the boundary, but such are the mysteries that keep you watching footy through all the half-baked rule changes. One of those helped him on this occasion, allowed to run out on a ridiculous arc while the man on the mark was forced to stand still and watch him go.

Between his performance and Oscar mysteriously showing up as Carlton's sub and kicking two goals it was quite the week for the much-maligned family. In classic footy fan tradition, the same class of people who have spent the last five years slaughtering Oscar are now convinced that we were idiots for delisting him.

Though Freo got two late goals we were never in danger of the margin getting close enough to cause alarm. Mainly because so much time was wasted at the other end on set shots that were about as successful as trying to drop punt a bag of fertilizer, and equally as stinky. The chief culprit was Luke Jackson, but as the game was already won I'm prepared to concentrate on the quality of his marking instead. His impact in the ruck and around the ground was limited, but the grabs were top shelf. Bit of goalkicking practice wouldn't go astray. Seconds before the siren he had another opportunity, this time sensibly passing to a wide-open Petracca, who failed to score and all but confirmed that we'll miss finals by the percentage equivalent of one to five points.

Breaking our longest winning drought at the MCG in 101 years was good, but it was still no reason for histrionics. I offered a generous round of applause and went home. There's a minimum of 21 more games left, best leave something in the tank.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal
5 - Steven May
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Christian Petracca
1 - Charlie Spargo

High-level apologies in alphabetical order to Jordon, Langdon, McDonald, Pickett and Tomlinson.

Aaron Davey Medal For Goal of the Year
Nobody will be surprised to learn that it's that man Langdon. I've got great respect for McDonald's goal in the last quarter, but for sheer excitement value best of luck toppling this:

For the weekly prize, Ed wins a $1000 voucher for the closing down sale at Jayden Hunt's World of Headbands. 


Cancelled for the second straight year due to COVID restrictions. We'd have probably won.

Media Watch
After more than a year of not having to worry about choice in broadcasting, the pressure was on to find a radio stastion that complimented my viewing experience. I'm far more open to boofy, bloky, matey behaviour on the radio than television so considered Triple M, before Brayshaw lost all credibility by calling his nephew the best kick on our team. Then it was over to the Tobin Brothers, who have decided to try and tap into the zany market by crapping on at length about their quaddie and reading text messages from listeners with one foot in the grave.

By virtue of 3 All Wankers being permanently excluded due to personal animosity (apologies to Tonsils Granland), SEN won by default. I've been off them since Finey's Final Siren was cancelled, but while Youse Blokes Maher wouldn't give you a time check if you held a gun to his head, it was an otherwise adequate call, despite reception that sounded like the broadcast was being delivered through a can attached to a string.

Crowd Watch
Easy enough to do anything when there's only 21,000 people there, but entry to the ground was reasonably efficient. Until the person who'd just stood for five minutes waiting for a bag check only remembered to get their mobile phone ticket out the moment they reached the barriers, causing a traffic jam, and much dark muttering.

Wish I'd had more time to prowl the outside of the ground, because I was dying to see how many people turned up thinking they could buy a ticket on the day only to be directed to the shizen Ticketmaster mobile website. Also interested in the fate of the guy who sat next to me on the train with his membership dangling merrily from a lanyard. What chance he got all the way to the turnstile then discovered the card is about as useful as a Video Ezy membership this year.

Matchday Experience Watch
With so much time away from live footy, I'd forgotten about novelty quarter time promotions. While tooling around on my phone I looked up to see a footy rolling past a comically oversized can of paint. There's plenty of time left to work out whether the contestant was supposed to land the ball on the roof of the can, or whether near enough would be good enough.

The Little League was also given the arse, replaced by a sponsored 'skills competition' for a handful of kids. Strangely, the real deal seems to have been played at other games in Victoria, so who knows where it went here. Maybe that's how we've remained an 'unassisted' club, throwing youngsters under the bus for sponsorship money. Stiff shit kids, we've got a training base to pay for.

All Your Training Base Are Belong To Us
Speaking of... the idea of a dedicated training/admin venue near the city (thank you Casey, but no) continues to look like a pipe-dream. The best idea so far is putting the oval at the Wellington Parade end of the MCG precinct and constructing buildings over Jolimont Station, but good luck getting that past the locals.

If Gary Pert's radio interview is anything to go by, they're still desperate to pretend it's 1986 and build a social club as part of the complex. I've not had a drink in five years so am probably not the target market, but suspect that it's just a Trojan Horse to build a lucrative Collingwood style function venue. Which makes sense, how else is the place going to make money on the 350 days a year we've not playing over the road?

Pert was there for the start and finish of Collingwood's project, and helped get the government to chip in $10 million, which would all be fine if we had anywhere to put it. You can put the footy ground anywhere, ask anybody who regularly goes to Cranbourne for training, but to bolt the function venue, (sorry... 'social club') on as well the place will have to be somewhere appealing. I don't see it happening. We'll probably end up building it out the back of Docklands somewhere and lose millions because people don't want to have their wedding reception next to a fish market.

Next Week
At the time of writing we haven't had a good look at St Kilda yet, but next Saturday night would be a fantastic time to prove we can beat mid-table Victorian sides too. The most interesting storyline, other than whether Docklands will top the MCG by opening Level 4, is whether we still play better there than on our home ground.

Based on their pre-season game with Carlton they're going to be running around like headless chickens, offering both plenty of opportunities for us to hit them on the break, and for them to find an avenue to goal that doesn't involve kicking at May or Lever. Considering how badly they fell for the latter in our last meeting, surely they're not just going to do the same thing again. Ratten is no idiot, he'll come up with an alternative.

As for changes, I'm sure more will come out about Casey's practice match against the Northern Bullants, but at the moment all we know is that they won by 57 points. Not all that impressive considering they're now a standalone side. Apparently, Viney played, and as long as he's alive that's enough for me. On reputation, you might chuck Sparrow to make room for him, but I'd rather make a statement that we're not resting on our mediocre laurels by chucking Brayshaw instead. He wasn't terrible, but can we not reasonably expect more? Won't happen.

IN: Viney
OUT: Brayshaw (omit)
LUCKY: Hunt, Jones, Sparrow
UNLUCKY: Chandler

For the second week in a row I think we're a red hot chance of winning, but wouldn't at all be surprised if we lost. That's mid-table mediocrity for you.

Was it worth it? (featuring Final Thoughts)
Under normal circumstances, this result would be filed under Ron Barassi's "A win, is a win, is a win" file. But after all this time away, I reserve the right to get sentimental. The novelty will wear off soon and the seating arrangements will start to give me the shits to the point where I'll probably just stay home, but for now I'm chuffed to the bollocks to have seen us play - and win - live. Let's have more of it.

2 comments:

  1. There was a strong crosswind at the Ponsford end which made shots on goal very tricky.
    Loved the Trading Places reference.
    If Oliver’s handball to kicks ratio was reversed we’d win more matches and he’d win a Brownlow.

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  2. Brayshaw was stuck on a wing, AGAIN. He's an inside mid and didn't attend one centre bounce - if that's not poor coaching then I don't know what is.

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