Monday, 28 June 2021

Saturday Night Lever

Hard to imagine being12-2, basically sealing a finals spot before the end of June, sitting a game clear on top, beating one of the league's form teams and still not being happy, but here we are. It's not that the win wasn't greatly appreciated, but expectations are through the roof and I still think we can play a lot better. The four points are grand, sending Essendon fans home screaming about injustice is even better, but I will be vigorously buggered if that was a premiership-winning performance.

The good news is that just as premierships aren't won in June, nor are they lost when you're a 99.9% chance of making the finals. That number is good enough that even I'll accept we've made it. This gives us eight games to a) hope our good run with injuries continues, and b) iron out some of the kinks that have stopped us delivering any wall-to-wall thumpings so far.

Defensive strangulations are wonderful, I'm just not convinced you can stretch it all the way from Round 1 to a flag. Even Sydney 2005, renowned as the most boring team ever to win silverware (and who cares as long as you're winning it), went 15-7, finished third and lost a final in the first week. I dream of Lever and May bookending their season by tormenting Freo on the MCG in Round 1 and [insert team here] at the same place on Grand Final Day, but have been so damaged by watching this team for 32 years that I can't imagine it happening.

Of course, in the unlikely event of ultimate success we'd look back with the rosest tinted glasses and agree that it was the greatest strategy ever and who needs a killer forward line? Right now there is also the small matter of being the third highest scoring side in the league and having beaten the only two above us, but it might be The Fear talking but that all just seems false to me. I'd argue that with shitloads of regular season and finals to go, trying to defend our arses off and kick a slightly higher score is a bit risky. Sometimes it works, sometimes you lose to Collingwood.

The defence was fantastic again, as they have been for most of the year, but without anyone who we can rely on to kick a score week in, week out, we're always teetering on the brink of disaster. Holding the opposition to 57 is great, but the way we struggled to get 68 should have everyone nervously tugging at their collar. It also helps when the opposition forward delivery plays right into our hands, perhaps more than any side since Round 1. That's not going to happen every week, a backup plan of kicking 20 goals every once in a while would be handy.

It's like we're trying the reverse of 2018, where the attack carried us all the way to Perth, before a brave but overwhelmed trio of Frost, McDonald O and Smith collapsed in a heap. This time there's an unhealthy reliance on the backline to get us out of trouble. It came off here, but if we're serious our performance wasn't much better than against the Pies, it just happened on a better ground. Fortunately, we still think the Grand Final is going to be played on the MCG. Let's hope the full mirror image of 2018 doesn't end in a prelim loss where Fritsch, McDonald and Jackson/Weideman/either Brown/OTHER combine for 0.0.

In every aspect other than kicking a menacing score, this was an enjoyable performance. Giving another mid-table mediocrity a head start was frustrating, but the modern stranglewank is almost our trademark now. The defence was great, the midfield did their job, fringe players were mostly on, and despite the forwards still being lost in the SCG Bermuda Triangle we restricted the opposition score to the point where midfielders could chip in with enough goals to win. Nine goals wasn't many by modern standards, but unlike Collingwood, the Bombers helped us by attacking as if drunk.

No apologies for thinking this was a danger game. You can't trust 'next big thing' chat, but a week of Essendon being talked of as a dynasty in the making (off the back of beating titans like North and Hawthorn) had me worried. We got away with it eventually, but not before wasting a first quarter featuring multiple botched chances. There were already signs that Essendon would struggle to kick a decent score, but if the opposition kicks 2.10.22 (hello Richmond) you only need to fluke 23 to win.

Though the forwards were still psychologically in Sydney, our success was built on a return to the defensive values that have got us where we are today. A couple of their midfielders were on pace for about 70 disposals early in the game, but as they were mostly sideways while desperately trying to find a way across the minetrap midfield the only benefits were for Supercoach wankers. And when they finally broke through the forwards were offered the sort of hopeless long kicks that our million dollar defence eat for breakfast.

While May was very good again, and Petty goes from strength to strength, I was gaga for Lever. After a rocky start, not helped by blowing his knee just as he was settling in, he's been very good for the last 12 months and this might have been the best yet. I've been critical of him punching in contests when he could have marked (but really, how much shit would be hung on him if he cost us a goal by dropping it?) but on Saturday night he was marking everything that came near him opponents or not.

Not actually a defender, but doing almost as many defensive things, Angus Brayshaw continues to show super courage for somebody one major head knock from disaster. Whether he's the long term solution on the wing or not, this was almost as good as his game against the Bulldogs. After being critical of him earlier in the year Gus can smash me in the face with a specially prepared humble pie if his form carries into the finals. It's a nice balance to Langdon running up and down like Roger Bannister on the other side. Hunt also had one of his best games for the year, plowing out of defence at warp speed at every opportunity. I still think he's vulnerable to somebody simply getting in his way, but provided with open space he's off like a greyhound.

Given that our opening chances came through Brayshaw, Jordon and Jackson, it didn't look like a banner night for the usual suspects in our forward line (and indeed, it wasn't). The problem was they all missed. Nobody cares where goals come from, I just wanted somebody to kick straight. Accuracy is not a instant guide to success, we were in the positive in 2008 (shit), 2009 (shit by design) and 2013 (shittest), but it helps when we've got our centre bounce game going and could easily fling the ball straight back into attack.

It took Harmes, flashing back to his early training as a forward, to convert a set shot. For the rest of the night commentators encouraged him to tag one of their prolific ball winners. Can't see why, I'm a big fan of the 2018 style attacking Harmes tag but why should we care if all the opposition touches are coming where they don't do any damage? We had 282 disposals when we lost by 31 goals (shame the other side got 510), I doubt Geelong would have been all that concerned if one player had 50 of them. See also Gary Ablett's entire career at Gold Coast.

Unlike his much earlier goal against the Bulldogs, this wasn't the gateway to a high-scoring quarter. Spargo missed the chance to pour misery on them a couple of minutes later, before we spent the rest of it on the back foot, all that dominance wasted by inability to convert. 

It'll backfire when the next TV rights deal is worth a pittance and all our players have to get second jobs at Pizza Hut but there's something amusing about Channel 7 games without goals. You can just imagine somebody sitting there with a calculator working out how much money they're losing, having just watched Port and Sydney kick 10 goals in the first quarter on a channel with no in-play ads. Somebody with more time than me please confirm that there are heaps more goals kicked in Foxtel games than on Channel 7.

With nobody able to get past the Lever/May wall, it was dictionary definition of enigmatic Jake Stringer who got Essendon going. He was otherwise well held by Hibberd (booed by the home fans for having the audacity to leave the club that injected him with ???), but after being talked about as the second coming of Jebus last week, his few minutes on either side of quarter time left me packing it about him doing it again.

After a practice gallop through the middle for a shot that rolled into the post, he got an almost exact replica right shortly after. When they had another shot from close range soon after I was already ready to kick the virtual cat. The disease was catching because that missed, before we suffered our latest DemonTime outrage on the siren.

In a warm-up for things going bad at the end I angrily walked out of the Megawall Room when Essendon took the mark and attended to other business for a couple of minutes. By the time I returned ads were on and I had NFI if he'd kicked straight, having to open the AFL app on my phone to confirm we had surrendered the lead after a quarter of doing everything but placing the ball between the middle posts. Like most weeks this year, all was well that ended well, but it confirmed all my suspicions about our flimsy forward line. 

The Weid was an obvious out, and I initially cracked the sads that they didn't pick Ben Brown to replace him. Then when it pissed down raining all Friday I thought it might have actually been canny reading of the weather forecast. The outrage had to be reinstated on Saturday after realising there was not a cracker of precipitation in the air, confirmed by the driest BOM rain radar this side of Oodnadatta. Hopes of a late change were dashed, and win to not I still think it was a missed opportunity to start developing the structure we want to take into the finals. Is it too much to ask to strangle teams defensively while also kicking bumper scores? Even just once would be nice.

If that upset me, imagine the atmosphere when we conceded the first goal after the break as well? I don't usually acknowledge opposition goals but this was quite the finish, with a loose ball directed from hand to foot in the shortest possible time about 1cm out from the line. It was hard not to admire but that doesn't mean I was taking it well. On Sunday morning my daughter said "I knew the Demons were losing because I heard a swear word." Oops. Can't believe she only heard one, I was cursing like a sailor. 

More missed shots, including McSizzle for the second week in a row didn't help the atmosphere. It was clear that we were the better side, but also that they were capable of smashing on a few goals in a row and forcing us to play catch-up. The best of the misses came from Luke Jackson, who continues to impress but stuffed up royally taking a mark 15 metres out and playing on with the most craptacular attempt at rolling a goal through that you'll ever see. A minute later the Bombers made him feel better, allowing him to kick a goal anyway via tremendous defensive cock-up.

For classic MFC goalscoring blunders, it still had nothing on Russell Robertson against Hawthorn in 2009. With apologies to Gary Moss, quoth a much younger me:

He takes a great mark in the square, and while lying flat on the ground farcically tries to kick it through. Gary Moss (should I know who this is? Why is anyone called Gary in the 21st century?) says "I'll have that", grabs it out of mid-air and we don't even get a point. Think of Jamar trying to play on in the square against Essendon last year and botching it - then multiply by 50. At least Jamar scored one.  

These sorts of debacles are much easier to take in 2021, when you don't think every goal could be the last before the club is relocated to the Gold Coast. In this case it became the extremely rare 13 point play, with Spargo kicking a lovely snap straight out of the middle to put us in front. That didn't last long, with Peter Wright soon getting one down the other end. It's not like the man contractually obligated to be called 'Two metre Peter' at every opportunity has arrived at Windy... err Tullamarine... as the new Paul Salmon, but you still have to wonder why he couldn't get a game in a shite Gold Coast side. Like Jarryd Lyons being handed to Brisbane gratis, we won't find out until somebody does a hatchet job book on the Suns. Maybe their own media team could write it

This had nothing on Wright's last game against us at the 'G, injuring himself on the first shot of the game, then watching us romp to an eight goal lead by quarter time. How we didn't give our all-time record victory a shake that day is still a mystery to me. At the other end, Steven May was suffering no obvious psychological damage from debuting in a game where the Bombers were 100-1 in front a minute into the second quarter. If I could be remotely arsed doing the required interviews I'd write that Gold Coast book myself just to annoy Tony Cochrane.

Again, the quarter ended with us on the run. Now they were the ones missing piss easy shots, which came back to haunt them when we nicked a late one. Jordon made a surprise forward cameo and won a free. Didn't look like there was much in it, which was great news for Essendon fans who are compiling conspiracy spreadsheets, but goes back to what I said when Collingwood were paid that bullshit mark in front of goal last week. If you create enough aerial contests in front of goal you'll get eventually get lucky.

The game should have been won immediately after half time, when we were again all over them but unable to create goals. When we finally broke through for a double both had novelty value in their own special way. First Fritsch guided a bloke into the post and allowed McSizzle to kick over his head from the line, then the Bombers fell victim to the little-seen double 50 to gift Double J his second. 

The original penalty was for some administrative breach of standing on the mark conventions (and gee, weren't the media right about that rule revolutionising the game - as of this week we're up to 1.4 more points a game than 2019. I don't know if we can take this much excitement). Then the same player who the umpire had warned to stop yelling at him earlier got a bit fruity in his language and gave away the second. Bad luck.

When Petracca kicked a delightful set shot it looked like we'd broken their spirit. Like Gawn having a chat with the local oaf when we played Essendon a few years ago, his post-goal sarcastic wave at their fans wouldn't have been as much fun if we'd lost. As we recently discovered, the gent Maximum had 'words' with was later pulled in by the rozzers to deny car theft, so you take your life into your own hands getting into verbals with Melbourne players. The best part was the bloke who felt it was directed at him and leapt to his feet to appeal for... something. Did he want a free? I've got sympathy for people who instantly overreact in a silly way but that's why you don't sit where the cameras point. 

Not that you had many options at this game, which was part of the reason I didn't even bother trying to get one of the handful of tickets available to away fans. The Towers are currently a bloody madhouse so it's not like I'd have been able to justify going out anyway, but with few opportunities for crowd segregation I didn't fancy being stuck in the middle of footy's version of a Trump rally. Even Docklands - of all places - opened their top level for the friends/family attendance at the Collingwood/Freo game. Every Melbourne fan I know who went was within earshot of a freak.

As you know from my meltdown before the Hawthorn game, I hate sitting in the middle of crowds at the best of times, but a year and a bit of barely seeing anyone that I'm not related to has left me even more anti-social. It's a long wayfrom the mid-2000s, when I'd deliberately seek out nuffies to argue with. It can't have been for blog content, the post from Daniher's last game doesn't mention the loud, terse, argument I had with some Essendon stroker on the train home. Now, I can't think of anything worse. I note the member survey has just come out, feel free to ask them to demand the MCG brings back Row MM.

As next week will have about 43 opposition fans in the ground that seems the perfect time to return. No doubt this means a) losing unexpectedly, and b) being surrounded by Melbourne fans who give me the shits even more than opposition supporters. Don't suppose I can get a special exemption from the MCG to sit on Level 4 if I promise to clean up after myself? 

At the rate other states are going into Corona mode I wouldn't be surprised if Victoria cops another dose - because that's what we do - and the whole thing is called off. Imagine if they got through all the drama of last year then this season was cancelled just as we've got the chance to win something. We'll have to form a support group with the 1994 Montreal Expos. Mind you, if they want to shave a few games off the season I think we can do without the Bulldogs, Geelong and West Coast in the last month.

Another late Petracca goal, sadly without crowd remonstration, left us 17 points ahead at the last change. Given how well our backmen had done against their toothless attack this seemed like a good barrier against a disaster, but after Adelaide I'm not trusting any scoreline that can end in losing by a point. This philosophy held up well when the lead was back to 11 in the dying minutes, hanging on far more grimly than you'd expect.

Is it time to be suss about our last quarters? Take out the landslide finish against Hawthorn and we haven't finished strongly too often. North and Brisbane were pretty good, but we had the coup de grace ready to go against Richmond and packed up, did just enough against Sydney, blew a bunch of chances against Carlton, kicked three in Adelaide for what good that did, and got one against each of the Dogs, Collingwood and Essendon.

I'm not defaming BurgessBall, we're running the games out fine but just not scoring. Even including the Hawthorn romp we've kicked 40.48 in last terms. Compare to 49.39 in third quarters and we'll discuss 'premiership quarter' references in late September. None of this means we're going to do the same next week, the week after, or at any time before the end of the season, but I'd be much happier defending leads than having to chase. And when I say 'defending', I mean being about 75 points up at three quarter time.

If Bombers fans had been a bit upset about umpiring across the first three quarters, there was a total fiasco at the start of the last that had them ready to riot. I wonder how the sort of people who get themselves arrested abusing opposition players were faring? No fanbase in the AFL would be as susceptible to QAnon style nonsense, but it was almost comical seeing Petracca getting away with trying to turn through a tackle in the back pocket, then hitting the ground and fresh-airing his kick. It wasn't quite as bad as the unpaid deliberate in Adelaide, but only because there were 18 minutes left not 45 seconds. Either would be a worthy winner of the OPSM Unpaid Free Kick of the Year.

There was another one with Harmes later in the quarter that looked just as bad to the naked eye. This has since been covered up on the grounds that incorrect disposal doesn't matter if you didn't have prior opportunity. Which is almost the stupidest thing I've ever heard. No matter how long you've got it for, if you whiff on any attempt to connect ball with hand or boot you should be pinged. Never mind, if you're ever going to have a ripping run with umpires do it against supporters that will get the most masochistic pleasure from being abused.

The only disappointment was that the game ended without an outraged Essendonian jumping the fence and making a dick of themselves on national TV. They still created such a spectacle that Channel 7 abandoned earlier experimental coverage featuring weird angles and unnecessary close-ups to go back to the normal programming of nuffies standing up to scream their hearts out in disgust. Not saying I wouldn't have been going off chops under the same circumstances, but if you ever catch me doing it on TV something's gone wrong.

Given that nobody else looked likely to finish the game off, it fellow to Tom Sparrow to kick a lovely set shot that extended the margin beyond 20. The stakes weren't sky high at that stage but it was still a balls-in-a-wheelbarrow finish considering he's the first player on the chopping bloke in the event of a loss, and that the people paid to do set shots were spraying them everywhere. Pity that it bought us all of about 25 seconds of relaxation.

We've handed goals back in some comical ways over the years, but this was new, giving away a 6-6-6 free that allowed the Bombers to thump the ball forward and instantly reply. When we blew our warning earlier in the game I did think "hopefully that doesn't come back to haunt us", but realistically how often do you ever see an actual free for violating this rule? Especially when all you have to do to avoid it is having six men stand here, six men stand there and six men stand in the other place. No idea how we could stuff that up, but true to form the home crowd greeted their good fortune with a bronx cheer.

When they got another to reduce the margin to 11 I was dead-set soiling myself. We held on, but not without five minutes on the run in a fashion not befitting a premiership contender. Thank christ their forward play was still generally dreadful because ours was non-existent. Have I gone on enough yet about how unhappy I was with our attack? Well strap yourself in, there's more where that came from.

Eventually, via much pissfarting around in the middle of the ground we ran the clock down far enough to make it a certainty, banking another vital win. It was a credit to grinding, mentally tough football but doesn't make me any more confident of winning a flag than a week ago.

The only shame was that there was no ceremony after the game that thousands of disgruntled fans with nothing better to do could stay behind and ruin. We did get unusually candid footage of some peanut half-heartedly charging the race as the umpires departed, only to go in reverse and nearly trample a child who was following him. Magic. And the good news with Essendon is that every year there's less of them old enough to effectively hang shit on us about 2000. 

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Jake Lever
4 - Steven May
3 - Angus Brayshaw
2 - Ed Langdon
1 - Christian Petracca

Apologies to Salem, who could have had the last spot if not for Petracca's two crucial goals. Also to Oliver, Hunt and Gawn who were in the mix.

Leaderboard
With anywhere up to 13 to play, it's still a battle between two. Petracca barely shaves anything off Oliver's lead in a rare voteless week, and Lever shifts into massive outsider chance territory but it's still hard to see this going anywhere it hasn't been before. The good news for Lever is that he's drawn level with Salem in the race for the Seecamp, with May not far behind in what promises to be a blockbuster race to the end. Nothing in the other minors, Gawn hard to beat when no other players qualify, Jordon hard to beat when he's the only eligible player getting a game. 

35 - Clayton Oliver
29 - Christian Petracca
19 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
17 - Jake Lever (JOINT LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Christian Salem (JOINT LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
15 - Tom McDonald
14 - Steven May
12 - Luke Jackson
11 - Kysaiah Pickett
9 - Ed Langdon
7 - James Harmes
6 - Angus Brayshaw, Bayley Fritsch
4 - Charlie Spargo
3 - Michael Hibberd
2 - Jayden Hunt, James Jordon (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Adam Tomlinson 

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
As enjoyable as Spargo's snap and McDonald's scoop over the head were I can't go past Sparrow's nerves of steel in the last quarter. Don't let the fact that we stuffed it up immediately by not being able to get six players into the correct part of the ground detract from how good his finish was, considering people paid to kick goals who have far greater job security than him were missing left, right and centre. For the weekly prize he wins an inflatable neck pillow for comfort when he's relegated to unused medical sub again.

Pickett against St Kilda still leads the pack - and any danger of something remotely close again in the next few weeks? - but I'm getting a bit of sick of that now so will be open to any sort of wondergoal taking the clubhouse lead.

Next Week
Finally, we're playing against a team from a COVID ravaged pariah state, with GWS currently applying for refugee status in Victoria. When Alice Springs got the boot the first time I was almost certain this game would be moved to make up for it. Lucky it wasn't, now they've got the Big One as well and we'd probably have ended up playing in Dubbo.

Given that the Giants warmed up with an MCG home game (?) and lost to Hawthorn, you'd think we wouldn't have much trouble here, but I have worrying flashbacks to them threatening us for a quarter and a half in Canberra three months ago. Jesse Hogan is listed as one week away in the latest injury report, and wouldn't it so Melbourne for him to make his latest triumphant return, kick half a dozen, then not play another game for the year? If you could guarantee me they'd be the only six GWS got and we'd win comfortably then I'd offer them to him on a silver platter. Alternatively, he could run into Steven May, which would be like getting dumped, going through three years of total life misery, then being introduced to the person your significant other chucked you for in the first place.

I almost kicked the TV in when the post-match show on Fox claimed our forward line had worked well. I'll say this every week until it either happens or is (more likely) proven incorrect, it's Brown O'Clock. The Ben variety will kick goals, and we're running out of time to get him in the side and on a roll before finals. Our attack didn't work on Saturday night, McDonald and Jackson got 2/9 goals, and one of them was from a foot out. If you rely on the defence to get us out of jail every week it will eventually come unstuck. Brown did his bit by kicking five for Casey, I may punch on if he's not picked this week.

On the off chance we decide to play the proven goalkicking commodity who has previously won the Coleman Medal, kicked 10 in a game and played in as many winning finals as our entire club since 2006, somebody's got to make way. I'm suss on Fritsch's performances at the moment but am initially prepared to blame the lack of protection from other forwards, so instead it's Sparrow who makes way with apologies.

Otherwise, it's hard to see any serious need for changes. Given that we've just had the bye you can't argue that we need to start rotating players with an eye to September. And injuries haven't bitten us yet, with Nathan Jones going one game closer to David Neitz's record by sitting on his arse in the dugout all night. Good for him, he played enough games where he did the work of several men that he may as well get one for free. 

Based on stats alone, Spargo would be shunted out of the side for a rest but he's the ultimate role player. Pickett might be due for a rest, he's having a red-hot bash but is running on much lower charge than he was at the start of the season. The problem is finding a replacement, Chandler flubbed his only real appearance so far, and the VFL is such a farce of a competition that it's hard to assess anyone else's claim.

I know this is veering in dangerous, frightening, territory but I think we'll finally win with some authority. There's no scientific basis to this claim, don't blame me when it doesn't happen.

IN: B. Brown
OUT: Sparrow (omit with apologies)
LUCKY: Pickett
UNLUCKY: Chandler, Jones

Final Thoughts
I love being 12-2 more than life itself, but let nobody think the job is done. Time to kick the suitcase out of a few sides, and put some legitimate terror into the hearts of the other contenders. Fear - from the other side for once - is the missing ingredient.

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