Sunday 25 July 2021

The plot sickens

It was a great Saturday for analysing the rules of minority sports. From working out what constituted 'ippon' in judo, to a sport that's harder to adjudicate than a Supreme Court trial.

You wouldn't be hearing about umpires if we'd run over the top to win. And you still won't at any great length from me. A team that plays in a manner that draws shitloads of free kicks drew shitloads of free kicks, some were questionable, and we still got close, with all the momentum before collapsing like our drinks were spiked. If your main takeaway is the free kick count there may be vacancies for you at the Essendon Football Club, apply c/o The Hangar, Tullamarine, 3043.

I didn't expect a relaxing evening, and when the commentators were revealed to be Brayshaw and BT that became even less likely. Last week James Harmes had an ear infection, this week we were all going to end the night with bleeding ears. I presume Jason Bennett wasn't available because Channel 7 is smuggling him into Japan to call Sport Climbing, there's no other excuse for having these two together on television. Seven should send Taylor to Tokyo, set up a fictional sport for him to commentate, then leave him there.

The only thing more offensive than the commentary was the digital logos on the wings, an attempt to fool us into forgetting that nobody's there. If you need a reminder of how many stupid people there are just go for a walk around your local shopping centre, but surely nobody's impressed by Playstation 1 level graphics that spookily float in mid-air like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Now that we've lost top spot let's go back to Foxtel, where you might have to put up with Dwayne Russell shrieking like he's sat on a nail, but where there's a banging theme song and they only treat the viewer like half a moron.

Presumably, they thought a top of the table clash deserved their best-known callers, and for that we say thank you not very much. It was also, for the second time, a first place battle between premiership aspirants in an empty stadium. This time it was our home game, flushing another several hundred thousand dollars down the drain, along with the millions lost last time. If we ever get out of this one you can set your watch for Lockdown VI: The Ultimate Challenge to interrupt the first week of finals. If there's an ancient burial ground discovered under the Bentleigh Club we might be the first club to celebrate the double chance by rattling tins.

That is if we make the top four, now that the first leg of the Spirit of 2004 first place to losing an Elimination Final tour is in the bank we've got four weeks and a final to complete the set. At that point I'll happily join the community sooking, despite feeling like the bubble has been about to burst since Carlton.

While we remained true to the side that couldn't beat 17th last week, simply reintroducing Harmes to try and recapture the magic of his tag on Liberatore last time, wacky funster Luke Beveridge ignored the long-range weather forecast and picked a swathe of tall forwards. Turns out one of them was there to be a defender, which came in handy when they lost one of their real backmen during the first quarter. After offering little for years (albeit still at an average of 1.2 goals a game, which is more than you can say for most of the forwards we've employed since David Neitz), the touch-typing friendly Josh Schache played a fine game in defence. Like Hawthorn reverting to type and conceding 100 points this week, he'll probably never do it that well again, and will eventually receive a retrospective Kingsley nomination.

Given that the first quarter was played in the sort of Big Piss we narrowly avoided last week, perhaps we could have lost a tall before the bounce. Do modern teams even do tactical late changes? Or is everything such a system-driven wankfest that picking somebody for the conditions would cause an irrevocable tear in the space-time continuum?

For all my pro-Brown propaganda, I thought he might have been temporarily shelved for a smaller man. So when he instead ignored the rising damp to take a strong overhead mark in the opening minutes I felt guilty for even considering it. Of course, he missed, because that's just what we do. After a wonky opening fortnight, we had a few weeks of (relative) accuracy, but have now kicked 57.76 since the bye.

This one proved costly, as the Bulldogs (complete with BT unfortunately pulling up on describing something as a 'headfuck' just in time) went down the other end for the opener. It came courtesy of one M. Bontempelli standing on his own in an area code of space. Which makes perfect sense when he's the best player in the competition.

Other than Brown's wasted mark, we looked as threatening inside 50 as usual. Which was convenient, because we were playing like every other week, with scant regard for it bucketing down. I'm not qualified to tell you how I'd have done it, but it didn't seem like hopeful long bombs into a pack were going to have a high success rate in conditions that were drifting from 'moist' to 'wetter than an otter's pocket'. It looked like we'd have to pluck goals out of thin air, and there are few better for that tasks than Petracca. His gather and finish on the run was as good a way as any to confirm that we weren't going to end the night on 0.9.9. By his standards, the rest of his night was wasteful, but this finish was delightful.

We still spent the rest of the quarter looking as likely to win as [insert topical Olympic reference here. Eric the Eel? Eddie the Eagle? Melbourne in 1996?]. Down the other end, they were finding many and varied ways to score. Josh Bruce celebrated his by doing the exact same bull-horn celebration that caused Gary to lamp Tony in an episode of Men Behaving Badly. For the sake of completeness, I wasted half an hour unsuccessfully scouring episodes on YouTube to find a link to that scene. Maybe, like the Dees contending for the flag, I just imagined it. 

In the week Nathan Buckley used COVID test numbers to cast doubt on whether the virus is all that powerful (gee, I wonder why), his earlier point about the uselessness of hitouts couldn't have been better proven. If he wasn't just doing a pre-emptive strike to make sure he gets laid again, he could have used them to answer his own question about Coronavirus. How many there are (tests/hitouts) doesn't matter if they don't lead to anything (confirmed cases/clearances). Gawn was having the easiest night since the time he got 80 hitouts against some 180cm part-timer in the VFL but it didn't help. We only narrowly won centre clearances, though I'd never have guessed without consulting the stats, and lost around the ground. This is an area of concern.

Oliver couldn't have done much more to try and get us going. For heroic performances in a loss, it fell short of his Adelaide masterclass, but he was in everything. We're getting to the point where somebody paid to clickbait will ask if his possession domination is counter-productive to the side, and they should be hung in the stocks and pelted with rotten garbage. He's not perfect - and how can anybody be in a side that kicks at 35% efficiency in a quarter? - but good luck extracting half the ball from congestion without him. Would be good not to concede SIX goals from defensive stoppages, but that shouldn't detract from his individual contribution. Mind you, even I was a bit embarrassed when he reacted to having his head pushed down with the gentlest of force like he was Rayden Tallis.

Speaking of Dermott Brereton stepping on people, the man who once missed the point of American Psycho came out with some odd anti-Fritsch sentiment during the week. Not about Bayley's flat new haircut, but his apparently growing reputation as a 'faux tough-guy'. Not one other human on the planet seems to have this concern but it takes all types. The flimsy supporting evidence was a) the fend-off in Hobart, b) gently pushing somebody into a goalpost, and c) a marking contest that left a young Hawthorn player with a zero week injury.

I'm into free speech (e.g. when I eventually slip up and defame a public figure on here, hopefully they ignore it), but would fall over laughing if Fritsch extracted a grovelling apology by threatening to sue. It's not as bad as naming the wrong player as a sex offender, but you could argue it sullies his reputation and potentially affects future earnings. Sadly cooler heads prevailed, but considering the '87 Prelim, the '88 Grand Final and the way we fell over at home against the Swans in '94 (a shock loss to a lowly team, there's a surprise), you'd think Derm would be more polite to us.

In addition to superstar players hanging out on their own in front of goal, the Dogs also found the sort of arsey goals that are worth their weight in gold on a wet night. For instance, Tim English Muffins losing a hitout, then standing back, waiting for the ball to fall to him anyway, and kicking straight up in the air, only for the ball to hit the jet stream and float through from 45 metres out. Forget the umpires, I felt persecuted by air.

At quarter time the rain floated away, hopefully towards New South Wales. This left some hope of kicking a competitive score. After all, we're played like it was dry during the first quarter anyway, so this should have suited us. Giving up a start against a good team for once was a novelty, but one that lost its charm when they got the first goal after the break.

As somebody who's been looking for reasons why we'll fall over for months, I was preparing to wave the white flag like a coward when Derm's mate reintroduced forward pressure to win a free in front of goal. It kicked off a few fun-filled Fritsch minutes, where he made a good fist at trying to half-volley one from an awkward angle, then kneed the ball through from close range. Can't help it if you're unlucky, they're flinging goals through at that end (when not literally flinging the ball from tackles) and we couldn't get the ball to sit 30 centimetres lower for a tap-in. Despite Fritsch showing absolutely no interest, we still had to sit through a minute of replays before confirming he hadn't shinned it.

Now we were starting to get back into the game, and had Brown not stuffed his next set shot into the post from 30 metres, things would have looked a lot better. His long-distance run-up isn't so entertaining when he's missing, but he must have had the memo explaining how we absolutely bloody love a point at this club. Later he kicked out on the full at a near-right angle, but considering the marks,, an eventual two goals, and the need to find some consistency I'm comfortable that while he didn't shut the door on Weideman or 'none of the above', it remains his spot to lose. 

Shame we'd had to go three goals down before turning up, but it's not the first or last time that will happen this season. That we came back at them several times is the only reason I'm not fully necking myself over this result. I remain on high alert to see how we react next week. We may be the first ladder-blind team, willing to treat anybody from 1st to 18th with the same respect.

What we didn't need, having finally got back into it, was to concede two goals at the end of the quarter. As we discovered after Bombers fans went nuts, the first one should technically not have been a free. However, no matter what degree of prior opportunity you have, fresh-airing a kick or handball should morally be illegal so I'm not going to punch a police horse over it. Sure, they missed a Dogs player handballing with his bicep a few seconds earlier, but there was nothing the umpires were doing to us that we couldn't have been covered at our best.

After just five goals in nine games since joining the Dogs, it was inevitably our old mate Mitch Hannan who kicked it. You'll never get me to say anything mean about him after that goal, and he could end the year as the most unlikely ex-player to win a flag since Steven Armstrong, but how typical that a guy who's kicked one goal in a month would save up two for us. Cue memories of other ex-players enjoying the time of their new life against us. Hard to believe we're as far away from Sean Charles nearly leading bottom of the ladder St. Kilda to an upset win against us (FANCY THAT), as 2000 was from 1979. Welcome to my ongoing midlife crisis.

While only the biggest "you're with us or against us" wanker would hold any ill feeling towards Mitch, feelings were running high on field, and the goal lead to some handbags (Hannanbags?) at 20 paces manly jostling. Most of it was at Brayshaw's expense, and even if he probably shouldn't have conceded the free, it formed part of a very ordinary night. It was a fair way down from the heights of our last meeting, where he did the best wing defence since Bianca Chatfield. It's almost like coaches relish playing us a second time. On the other side of the ground, Langdon was restricted to his lowest possession count since the last time we played the Dogs, suggesting they already knew what to do with him, and we didn't know about to counter it.

Given our gradual improvement during the half, a half time deficit of 15 wouldn't have been too bad. Then we went into full DemonTime mode and conceded in the last minute, leaving us needing to repeat the second half reinvention against Brisbane. It nearly happened, but try playing from the start instead of mounting heroic comebacks every week. 

For matches in the first week of an Olympics, it shit on being 61-0 down on the night of the 2008 Opening Ceremony, but still left such a sour taste that I couldn't face any half time analysis. After leaving the room and finding something better to do, I almost missed the restart. For once hearing the game switch back to Channel 7 commentary was a good thing, if I'd walked in late I'd have missed our most potent attacking period of the match. All 90 seconds of it.

The first came from that wonderful man Oliver pinging out of the middle like a rocket and finding McSizzle 30 metres out directly in front. Alas, while he had a big go for the rest of the night there wasn't much more sizzle on the cards. I still maintain that he and Brown will be a good combo, based entirely on the Sydney game.

When Fritsch got another from the next centre bounce it was beginning to look a lot like Brisbane. Except for completely wasting the hot start by letting two in at the other end. I don't care how close we got or how defensive teams win finals, this is why I still think we're too flaky for a flag. If I'm proven wrong the starting 22 + substitute can spit in the premiership cup and I'll pour it over my head or worse, but this is a good side, not a great one.  

Just as I was about to microwave my hopes and dreams, the time finally hit Brown O'Clock, and he converted a set shot. I don't know if it's polite to hope a vegetarian gets blood lust, but I hoped this would encourage him to run riot. Not quite, but there were signs.

The story of the night was that just when you thought we'd discovered the answers, Footscray changed the questions. After another pair of misses (reminder - 57.76), they found a way to fumble another goal through and we were back to where we started.

I'm not usually interested in opposition players unless they used to play for us, but am quite fascinated by Cody Weightman. His hair seems to be made out of mop fibres, and he's got a Bill Clinton style "I love mischief" face. I'd already decided to theatrically dislike him for years to come when he climbed on Gawn's shoulders for a tremendous screamer. There have been times where we've ridden on Max's back (see the first Hawthorn game), now between this and the way they intercepted his taps, Maximum might score votes in their B&F. Didn't mean he played a bad game, it was just a night where nothing worked. 

Weightman then flipped the Jeremy Howe Rule on its head, not only delivering an effective possession immediately post screamer, but dashing forward to crumb a goal. There were complaints about our defence allowing it, but I'd argue you can afford the odd meltdown if not aiming to win 65-55 every week. We did our bit, shame on the Dogs for kicking five more goals than they were supposed to.

The rest of a surprisingly high scoring quarter (not compared to Adelaide and Hawthorn playing with bottom four freedom on the other channel) broke two goals to one in our favour, and there was still hope of a barnstorming finish. If not, it still hadn't been the sort of dire performance to make you stockpile weapons and settle in for siege mentality, but enough to convince me we'll need luck to get past the second week of the finals.

I thought Hunt was amongst our best, but he should have feigned an injury and offered himself for substitution after causing one of the goals via a suicidally stupid downfield free. I know he's quick, but surely not at the sort of warp speed that meant he couldn't pull out of the chase-down before it became a clothesline. I only realised you could play on from a downfield free when the Dogs walked into an open goal. Any danger we might get a few easy ones like that? For the first time all night I was getting upset, but a rare hands-down win in the middle and replying goal from Viney calmed the nerves. After a ropey outing against the Hawks, he was a lot better. Still not operating at full capacity but did enough for me.

Our cause was further helped by the Dogs losing a player to concussion courtesy of a collision with Pickett. It was a fitting development for a night where Kysaiah (still never Kozzy) was inspired Richmond-style to annoy previous flag winners. Let's see him complete the hat-trick by giving West Coast players and fans the shits. It was more contest than bump, but given that the Footscray player will miss a week due to a concussion I'll bet they give Pickett one too. Might do him well to take an enforced break. Don't bother challenging, direct the legal fees to Fritsch vs Brereton.

While any sort of comeback is appreciated, I was secretly looking forward to a week of articles declaring us finished. We got away with it after the Hawthorn game due to the confusion over whether games world be played at all, but it would be well deserved here. Instead, everyone can concentrate on trying to sack the Carlton coach instead, because we launched a mini-stranglewank comeback and almost won. Where 'almost' = getting within range then folding like a house of cards.

Even when it got close I didn't think we'd win, but was willing to take the ride. If we'd been the ones defending that comeback my heart rate would have shattered records. First Pickett, then Brown's second, and bugger me, the margin was back to less than a goal. As somebody who looks like he should be playing drums for Redgum, Brown provides an exciting visual spectacle when he gets excited. When I watched all those videos of him kicking goals at North while trying to convince myself he was the right option, it struck me how many he got from frees. From the 'make enough contests and you'll get rewarded eventually' file it came after he was clobbered trying to mark.

If we'd nicked it from here it would have been thievery on such a grand scale that Ronnie Biggs would have risen from the dead to get involved. Sadly, both ours and Ronald's comebacks were thwarted when we didn't get any closer. Who knows what would have happened if the goal umpire didn't have a post in his way when the Dogs player clearly rushed a behind. We might have won, we might have lost by more, we might have done a GWS 2017 and drawn two games in a row. The only thing that is certain is we'd have scored one more than we actually did. 

After a night in the Bermuda Triangle, third gamer Jamara Ugle-Hagen (try singing his surname to the Blue Swede song and see if you get cancelled) missed the sort of set shot that Jack Watts would have been executed for at the same stage of his career. Fortunately for this #1 draft pick, his miss indirectly led to the sealer, falling short for a stoppage, before we failed to learn our lessons from earlier and let Bontempelli again roam free in front of goal. Then, from the next centre-bounce JUH (not the catchiest acronym) took advantage of a pressure-free clearance to lead up the middle like Jason Dunstall. With the practice shot under his belt he double sealed it.

When they stacked on another one it left us a little worse off than where we deserved, but the premiership points went to the right place. Umpires or not, we got within touching distance of the lead against a side with one player less on the bench, one key defender with a blown hammy, a star player isolating at home because he had a coffee at the COVID Cafe, and a forward gamely having a go in defence, then ran out of gas. In these final few weeks before he apparently goes back to Adelaide that might be RIP for Burgessball. 

While the Dogs had to delve into their reserves after five minutes, Tom Sparrow spent another evening watching from the bench without being called on. He's well and truly eclipsed Kade Chandler as Mr. Tracksuit Time now, playing his fifth 'game' without setting foot on the ground, as well as a one minute cameo against the Dogs first time around. No doubt players will start dropping like flies now that finals are just around the corner - and every time Steven May gets clobbered in a pack my heart skips - but our luck with in-game injuries until now has been incredible. Other than Tomlinson's big issue, you've had May get assassinated with a stray elbow, Langdon concussed with a minute left and... nothing else. I will not be held responsible if it goes wrong from here, but it's got to be one of the best runs of the modern era. 

I hate myself for not turning off at the siren, regardless of the fact that Pickett was about to have a shot. We're going to make finals and percentage isn't relevant due to the draw, so what did it matter? I could have gotten a head start on doing absolutely anything else and not had to see any happy Dogs players. The extra seconds wasted just on the "we kick so few goals I'd best see them all go through" pipedream were wasted when he missed everything. I don't think the ball had landed when I dived off the couch and shut the Megawall powering laptop. I will mentally burn the tapes, Goodwin and team should review them until they catch fire. 

After one win in a month, it would be good if things got back on track and I was exposed as a panicky idiot, but I feel like they're suffering general physical and mental fatigue. Shame there's no chance of a snap fixture chaos related bye. Sydney and GWS can't even get a game pushed back 24 hours when they lost a bunch of players before the first bounce, next week will go on even if it means seven games at Casey Fields on a Wednesday. A few weeks ago I'd have said do what you've got to, we've got a flag to win, now I just want a week to come up with a plan that the rest of the league hasn't sussed.

This is still the best side we've had in 15 years (compared to 2018, a worse forward line is cancelled out by a much-improved defence, because if scoring is going to drop to 1967 levels you may as well take advantage), but even after our brief go at nicking this, can we now be serious about where our season's at? We've all done the FM radio style "at least we won't play shit teams in the finals. Ho, ho ho" comedy. Now that top sides are just as capable of rolling us as flotsam and jetsam, staying the course and trying to win playing the same way would be immensely brave. If it works then everyone involved will be hailed as a genius, if it doesn't we'll have something to whinge about for years. And I guarantee you, if it turns out to be the latter nobody's going to care that we sat on top of the ladder for half the season.

Yes, this fit right into my theory that nobody's going to fall for the way we play twice. If GWS and Hawthorn didn't do it, a non-flaky top side wasn't going to either. And we still could have won, which is certainly something in our favour. Like a plane losing altitude, there's still plenty of time to recover. The seatbelt sign is on, and we may be about a week away from oxygen masks dropping, but it hasn't reached the 'PULL UP! PULL UP!' stage of imminent stackage yet, but my faith is shaken.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Jayden Hunt
2 - Jack Viney
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Slight apologies to Gawn, Petty and Petracca. 

Well that's blown the big one wide open, with Oliver taking full advantage of the sort of night he was built for, while Petracca got plenty of it but kicked like he had a wooden leg. In the minors, I'd have already declared Lever and Gawn provisional winners if there wasn't at least one finals game to be played. Good luck beating them anyway. In the case of the Stynes, Jackson currently sits exactly on the qualifying mark of 10 hitouts per game, so not only does he have to pick up eight votes on Gawn but he's got to do it while spending a decent amount of time in the ruck.

45 - Clayton Oliver
39 - Christian Petracca
29 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
22 - Tom McDonald
20 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
19 - Steven May
17 - Christian Salem
13 - Kysaiah Pickett
12 - Luke Jackson
9 - Ed Langdon
7 - James Harmes
6 - Angus Brayshaw, Bayley Fritsch
5 - Jayden Hunt, Charlie Spargo
4 - Harrison Petty
3 - Michael Hibberd
2 - James Jordon (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Adam Tomlinson, Jack Viney
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
Bah, I'm in no mood to give out awards. Let's go for Pickett's snap in the third quarter and move on. He wins a subscription to the DuoNiggle app, where he'll learn techniques for giving opposition players and the fans the shits from legends like Dayne Zorko and Tom Bugg. He also retains the overall lead for the phonebooth goal against the Saints.

The All-New Bradbury Plan
Not winning last week has left us in a world of pain in the race for the top four, and as much as I'd have donated a knacker to finish fifth at the start of the year it does not appeal at all now. So, how do we get there? Well let's be brave and assume battling wins over Gold Coast and Adelaide. Then my via conservative ladder predictoring (we use and recommend the Squiggle system) says that if results go where they're expected to elsewhere we've got to beat one of West Coast or Geelong. So, we face the statue of Bradbury and hope other teams stack it.

Next week, if the fixture remains the same, you'll want North, Adelaide and Hawthorn to pull off tremendous upsets against Geelong, Footscray and Brisbane respectively. Because we're not involved, fat fucking chance. The action is all with GWS, who after years of being abused for recruiting questionable individuals, can do us a solid by rolling Port. 

The following week it's the Giants again, this time against Geelong. It will be viewer's choice whether you go for Essendon against the Bulldogs, or just concede that Footscray are certainties and do their best to avoid an Elimination Final against the Bombers. You've also got Port vs Adelaide, where anything can happen, and the unlikely but not impossible chance of Brisbane slipping up against Freo.

As we've seen over the last 19 weeks, nothing ever goes exactly as you'd expect but I reckon we're in more trouble than the early settlers. If we're the bunny who gives Essendon their first final in 17 seasons, after also providing the last, it will complete one of the biggest fizzes in history. If anyone can do it...

Next Week
Like last week, I think we're playing Gold Coast. And like last week, I've got no confidence that by the time you read this we still will be. I suppose we've got to play them at some point by the end of the year, but am almost certain that if restrictions are eased outside Melbourne, the Round 23 game will be brought forward so we can play Geelong in front of a crowd.

What do I know about the behind the scenes action at the club, but it feels like we're a bit snookered with selection. There are players waiting in the wings, reduced to playing scratch matches in horrible, Frankenstein-style combined teams while waiting for the world's worst reserves competition to restart, but do any of them suggest improvement beyond what we've got now? Maybe a bit fresher because they've been sitting around with their thumb up their arse waiting for a competitive game, but otherwise it's not exactly the All-Australian team waiting in the wings.

Despite the worst game of the season coming immediately after the bye, some excuses have been offered about players being flat because of increased pre-finals training loads. I don't know if that's a) true, b) scientific, or c) worrying when directed by somebody who was at Port when they often died in the arse late in the year, but I'm willing to blindly trust a process I know nothing about.

Regardless of whether we play at Kardinia Park, Carrara or Kokomo, I think it's time to gently start resting young players. Jordon has done very well to rack up a shitload of possessions while playing every game, but finally looked like he'd run out of juice this week. Likewise, Jackson was without vim and/or vigour, so in recognition of a season well played I'd like to offer him a night on the couch. 

In their place come Sparrow, the new king of unused subs, and Nathan freaking Jones [Note from the future - probably should have consulted the injury report to see if he was available]. There's a guy you know can just walk in and have a crack without having to worry about warming up in the twos first. He might be straight back out again the next week, but for once I'm willing to flirt with sentiment and give him the chance to establish a spot before finals. McDonald plays as little second ruck behind Gawn as possible and we hope for the best.

Gold Coast haven't been bad recently, sticking with the Dogs and playing a ripping first half against Brisbane before forgetting to turn up for the second, so I wouldn't get too excited in advance if they're the opponent. As for Geelong, you can just assume they've worked us out after last time and will win somewhere between convincingly and very convincingly.

IN: Jones, Melksham, Sparrow
OUT: Jackson, Jordon (rested), Pickett (susp)
LUCKY: Harmes, Neal-Bullen, Rivers, Spargo
UNLUCKY: Anyone whose livelihood requires VFL games to be played.

Final Thoughts
Depending on how many Victorian teams make the top four, there's no serious difference which bit of it you finish in. Still, assuming we don't fall out entirely, I did get a rush from seeing us on top for a bit. We've been there, lost that, and got back again once this year so you never know, but for now I reserve the right to be very, very afraid.

Sunday 18 July 2021

White light, dead heat

I've never claimed mystical powers, but there might have been some foreshadowing in the Friday night dream where a stranger turned up at my door and said mean things about us losing to Hawthorn by kicking a pitifully low score in a game where Ben Brown had zero possessions. Sure, none of that actually happened, but if nothing else it was a good indication of where I was at emotionally.

The Port game was so good that I could have almost been convinced the good times were going to continue. If we weren't the flakiest side to occupy top spot after Round 18 since... err... ourselves in 2004. And we all know how that ended. The tone of last week's post will show I was happy to bank the 100% chance of playing finals and get on with trying to finish as high in the eight as possible. The vibe was somewhere smack in the middle of 'maybe we are a serious premiership threat' and 'I bet you we come off an eight day break and lose to the second worst team in the competition'. Near enough.

For now, the baby remains in the bathwater (if only to avoid the Department of Human Services getting involved), but you have to wonder, in the words of the KLF, what the fuck's going on?

That's not so historically impressive when there have only been 15 spots on the ladder since 1995 but it's still enough to give you trust issues. We've all done self-deprecating gags about not having to play bottom sides in the finals, but based on this and GWS, evidence is growing that teams have no fear meeting us a second time.

The MFC Foundation for Giving Suckers Even Breaks ("Press 1 if you know the name of the bottom four side you'd like to struggle against") has become a cliche to us, but outsiders still don't understand. Even the tremendously sensible Jason Bennett, the only Channel 7 commentator whose reputation I'd punch to defend, carried on like Hawthorn winning would be the most remarkable result of all time. I'm sure they'd have enjoyed it, but for us the impact was lessened by blowing two games against similarly mediocre opposition since Round 10.

In an attempt to behave like a normal person I balanced my natural fear about a debacle by pretending this might be the week we'd maliciously stomp an opposition into dust. The extra three hours waiting for the rescheduled game didn't do the positivity any favours. Switching this from a twilight game was explained as good for Port Adelaide getting a flight home and coincidentally allowed Channel 7 to show two Victorian sides in primetime, but was shithouse for those of us who'd play every game at 9.10 on a Saturday morning to get them out of the way.

The change of start time meant the game avoided an afternoon of pissing rain. If our state hadn't been crippled by shifty removalists the conditions would have done wonders for the matchday experience. Regrettably, I'd almost surely have squibbed like a deliberate decision in Adelaide and stayed home. Looking at a shut level four while fish were swimming around my ankles would have ended in me copping a life ban from the MCG.

While it would have been rotten for fans, maybe a bit of rain would have helped the players. Can't have made things much worse. It was still a bit moist by the new start time but conditions had stabilised to the point where the league's 17th best side scored enough to go home with a share of the points.

Conceding our third highest total of the year was unfortunate, but not as surprising when you consider how the only higher scores came against 15th and 16th. It might almost be better if they reschedule us against second next week instead of risking completing the set against 14th. There's definitely a trend, they might have gone to bits in the second half, but North still hold the highest first half score against us all year. God only knows what's going to happen next, but this is already a contender for the weirdest season of my life.

Realistically, the conditions shouldn't have had any impact on our chances of winning. In anything from outback drought to monsoonal rain, we should have beaten a team that wasn't very good to start the year and has been affected by injuries since. Now that we know big scores aren't our go, I'd have settled for restricting them to a Paul Roos-esque 3.7. Alas, they had other ideas. Bring back the good old days of the priority pick and sides doing everything possible to avoid winning, just like that 2009 Melbourne side which went on to such great things.

He might punch walls and tell junior umpires to FO, but you've got to hand it to Al Clarkson. Just when it looked like we'd sussed the Hawks after years of torment, he discovers the secret bookcase that turns around and reveals a secret tunnel through our defence. Turns out the answer is to just punt it in there quickly and hope for the best. Which is a bit high risk but makes sense when you've got nothing to lose. Meanwhile, we turned up with a commitment to long bombs that was religiously adhered to until the bitter end. Still got us a half-decent score, but only enough to cover exactly what we conceded. 

I didn't get as upset at the final siren as might be expected, but that's because I'd forgotten how dominant we were in the opening minutes. Now that I've had to review it I'm a touch upset. Early on, it was carry on exactly where we left off against the Hawks three months ago, trapping them behind the Great Wall of Melbourne and unloading a barrage on their goal. The only problem was that in this sport the barrage is a sign of failure, because if you're doing what you're meant to, the ball should be back in the middle at the first opportunity. 

After the people you expect to kick goals missed, it was left to Jayden Hunt to cast off some of the shackles from that disastrous end to the GWS game and hoof the first goal through. I won't be watching a replay of any sort to confirm but fairly sure he dropped it in the lead-up, which might be considered in any claims about the umpires costing us this game. Their fanatical devotion to not paying holding the ball gave me the shits but a serious side would have still won in a canter. I've had my doubt on our seriousness since about Round 4 but haven't given up hopes of Bradburying through a field of equally good-not great sides at the end of the year.

In the most Melbourne twist possible, after five minutes of slowly strangling the Hawks just to get one goal we turned around, almost instantly gave it back, then spent the next five minutes on the back foot, playing like the outsiders rather than the $1.08 favourites. Some people probably bet enormous money on teams at such short odds because it's better than the bank interest, but there can't have one serious punter in the country insane enough to try that on us. If you did, I hope your enjoy the next phase of your life, scouring the floor of the casino for dropped chips.

This brief scare was like the opening five minutes in reverse - they started with the goal, then missed chances for more. That's even worse, it means we got the ball back to the middle and still let them go forward again. With due respect to everyone involved's major contributions over the year, can I say how much our centre bounces shit me to tears last night? Hitouts are the most overrated statistic in the game (even research agrees), shown by the number of times Gawn beat a third gamer in the air and Hawthorn still got it clear, and the times where he or Jackson was beaten and we still got to the ball first.

After they failed to take their chances we put on a cut-price landslide, finishing the quarter with three goals. First Spargo, who doesn't get many kicks but uses a large proportion of them to do lovely things, then Brown from a scramble in the square. Not quite I saw him rumbling Ken Jungwirth's record for most goals kicked in #50 but they all count.

On a night where both sides had some association with Brown (see also: my shorts during the last minute), Ben went no closer to sealing his spot in the side beyond any doubt. He missed two set shots, one after a weird run around from the boundary, but was handy with marks all over the ground. From my amateur perspective it didn't make sense that McDonald did all that good work up the ground against the Giants with no targets to aim at, now the guy with the proven record was marauding here there and everywhere. Maybe it was just while Sizzle was on the bench, maybe there were higher tactical ideals involved. Either way, it was good enough to go on with for another week. If the VFL ever plays again the door remains ajar for Weid to put on a Spirit of 2018 style run into the finals.

The lack of a crowd further stuffed our financial position, and maybe the lack of Row A randoms to chat with kept McDonald down to one scoring shot. He wasn't bad either, and thanks to three from Fritsch and a two goal cameo from Pickett we still scored more than the Essendon and Sydney wins, and got within range of the scores against Port, Geelong, Richmond and Fremantle, so scoring wasn't our issue.

In the middle the usual suspects got plenty of the ball (whether that's a positive or not is up for debate), and our backline - especially Lever and Petty - weren't completely disgraced, so it's hard to work out how we botched this so badly. A lot of credit goes to the other lot, but the sum of our parts just didn't come together. If you're comforted by the way we've played against top four sides previously then I'm happy for you, but I think results like this are setting us up to lose an Elimination Final to Essendon.

When Fritsch kicked the opening goal of the second quarter to extend the margin to nearly five goals, it looked like the Hawks had given everything in that five minute burst and were going to go gently into the night. Second last place sides have come a fair way since we won two games with a percentage of 54.1, but it still looked like the old story of the strugglers hanging on for dear life before sliding to their doom. 

This didn't take into account our complete lack of killer instinct. For everything that's right with this team - maybe more than any time in my supporting life - they just can't pummel those who deserve to be pummelled. Like a quieter version of Adelaide (though not for the home viewer, suffering through a fake crowd noise DJ who thought he was playing Ibiza), this was a lead we should never have given up. It's difficult to compare the best defensive side of the most defensive season for 50 years with those from previous years, but imagine what it would be like to follow a side that regularly buries opponents before half time. We've been five goals up at the break twice in three years, and one of those ended by gracelessly falling over the line by a point.

Instead of killing the game off immediately, it went into a holding pattern for several minutes before Brown unusually found himself in a defensive 50 contest and was pinged for a hold. Draw your own conclusions on that one but it didn't look like much to me. Still, like we always say after losses, make a few decent contests in your forward line and see what happens. This was quickly cancelled by a stroke of luck, with our old friend Sam Frost doing zany Sam Frost things and dropping a mark that allowed Fritsch in for his second.

For the second time we'd survived a Hawthorn surge and had the game in our control. With a few minutes to half time this left three options:

a) Finish the quarter with a similar margin
b) Pile a few more goals on and be sad that there wasn't time to score more
c) Concede, concede, and concede again.

Hunt had a go at a long bomb to an empty square that rolled away for a point, but after that we went all-in on option C. Like a urethra, this was taking the piss. 

The second goal demonstrated everything you need to know about our vulnerabilities, created by the sort of hopeful kick off the ground that you'd be slaughtered for trying in an important game. When the third went in, via players standing in so much space they had to dial long distance to communicate, I was swearing like a trooper. No wonder Goodwin looked so nervous on the bench, he was probably waiting for the Fraud Squad to arrive. In a week where the worst opposition since Melbourne 2013 tried to revive the Tankquiry, being investigated for falsely occupying top spot might be the least of our worries.  

We had a couple of chances at a steadier late in the quarter, but to no avail. An 11 point lead was welcome but wasteful given where the game was 25 minutes earlier. Still thought we'd win, just didn't appreciate it being such an unnecessarily titanic struggle. I wasn't as convinced about the result when they got the first goal after the break too, this time from a free kick so administrative that it should have had its own ABN. Gawn probably wasn't supposed to be that close, but considering the player was turning the other way to play on as the whistle blew, it wasn't exactly Jim Stynes at Waverley for crimes against the mark.

This got Max angry, bypassing the midfield to generate his own centre bounce clearance and hoof it forward for Sizzle to kick for the instant reply. Which was great. Doing the usual 'wasting a Tom McDonald' goal manoeuvre a minute later was not. We teased a recovery by kicking the next two goals, but while the nuggets were in the bowl we couldn't find the flush button. 

As much as I enjoy nearly everything Petracca does, and thought that by default he was our best player, he got a bit excited trying to walk through half their forward line and gave away the free that shifted momentum Hawthorn's way again. Another last minute goal left the margin at one point going into the final term. 

The idea that we'd romp to victory just because it happened earlier in the year had about as much scientific validity as assuming we'll keep beating top four sides all the way through September. Especially when this might be the first season in years where the bottom teams are getting better as the year ends, instead of collapsing in a screaming heap. 

There were a few parallels to the first game, including a ropey start where we conceded a goal in the first minute. Like those simpler, expectation-free Round 5 times, they also missed a golden opportunity not long after and. My blood pressure was reaching Chernobyl levels, and while I'm 99% over it now all inanimate objects in my vicinity were in danger of being hurled across the room. I once hurled a pair of shoes when we lost a pre-season game to the Hawks, I wasn't above tipping the couch over this time.

Part of me still expected to run over the top of them, not to the tune of 50 points again mind you, but I was also worried about how flat we looked. You wouldn't picked us as the side coming off an eight day break. Or as a premiership hopeful. Let's see what happens over the next couple of weeks but it doesn't bode well for running this season out at full pelt. Still, when we kicked two in a row to take the lead back you thought - or at least hoped - for about the fourth time that the decisive blow as about to be landed, we'd get to patronisingly pat Hawthorn on the head for being so brave and send them on their way into a race for the spoon. 

This might have happened if we hadn't blown multiple opportunities to put the game away. I enjoyed Fritsch kicking three, and know what he was trying to do with the fake set shot/dinky kick to the top of the square, but all that ended in was no score and a margin still within a goal. For once a five point lead wasn't the prelude to a one point loss, but not far off.

Nobody lives Hawthorn's "Don't think, do" ethos like Frost, and after being responsible for two earlier goals, he got away with murder at the end. God only knows what circumstances you would think thumping the ball off the ground, away from the boundary line and into the middle of the ground that late in the game was a good idea. It landed with Gawn, who found Brayshaw in miles of space for the chance to all but (considering the way we usually give away goals...) make certain of it. Wouldn't have been my first choice to kick under those circumstances but it was certainly gettable. Until he missed.

Then, in a scenario that you could have seen a mile off, the Hail Mary kick down the middle found its way inside Hawthorn's forward 50, to one of about two players on their side who are over the age of 20 and scores were level with 40 seconds left. For last-minute emotion over a game-tying goal it was hardly Marty Hore (remember him?) vs Gold Coast 2019 but with one good centre clearance, or even a quick rebound, it might have ended the same way. All we needed was to shamble through a point but never went close, with Lever having to grimly defend a kick forward that could have easily won the game for them.

When time went out we were going forward, but not in any convincing way, leading to a fittingly bizarre result. Nobody ever knows what to do after a draw, but considering we'd never had one with the Hawks before you can forgive them for not being able to honour this genius idea. 

If we'd gotten up it would have destroyed the old theory that 'shit wins are great wins'. I wish it had. You can still have good and bad draws. When you're the underdog you look back fondly like Collingwood 2010 or Sydney 2011, when you're trying to finish top four and blow a 38 point lead or just flat out can't beat the disaster era Swans, it's a more hollow sharing of the points. Like Hawthorn on Saturday night, the '92 Swans were near the bottom of the ladder and had eight players unavailable. Like Melbourne on Saturday night, we were Melbourne. 

That leaves us 0-1-2 at an empty MCG (stop talking about American things, the draw is shown in the middle), compared to 2-0 at empty Fortress Docklands. The Gold Coast game is more likely to be played on the surface of the moon than in Victoria, but in the unlikely event that it does end up here then we should generously offer to play it under the roof.

In the grand scheme of things, and with our inferior percentage, this isn't a huge game-changer in the race for the top four. Mind you, after Brisbane did us a solid by falling over on Friday night the extra points would have left us in a commanding position. Bet you the Lions don't have half the same trouble with Hawthorn next week.

It's not the end of the world yet. That could come any time in the next two months. Or we may win the flag. With this side who knows what to expect?

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Harrison Petty
2 - Clayton Oliver
1 - Charlie Spargo

Apologies to Fritsch, Salem and Viney just for the tackles.

The squeeze is on at the top, but the big mover is Lever to more than a game clear in the Seecamp. Nothing for anybody in the minors. 

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

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
There was a couple of contenders, but as I won't watch the highlights of this game until 2032 the decision has come entirely from my often faulty memory. With apologies to Hunt's opener and Fritsch from an angle, I liked Spargo on the run from 40, as much for Petracca's delightful spinning handball as the finish. I'm too flat to declare a weekly prize so Charleston can have a $50 voucher for the Demonblog Megastore. Pickett vs St Kilda still leads overall.

Spectacle Chat
On the occasion of this happening against anyone for the first time since Round 1, 2011, let me reiterate the evils of extra time. It's all you'll hear about from the usual clickbait artists this week, but while it's understandable come finals, abolishing draws would be comically unnecessary for home and away games. If you seriously think two or three matches out of 200 every year ending without a winner is the biggest issue facing the game you may need treatment for spectacle addiction. Or you coach Melbourne

Next Week
There's some talk of the Round 19 fixture being redone, so by the time you read this we might not be playing Gold Coast at all, but for now let's assume that's what's going to happen. The way border restrictions are going you can't be sure if it'll be next week or sometime in August, but we've got to get through another match against a bottom side before finding out if the uphill skiing theory is still valid. Gold Coast has about as many players who can only be identified by dental records as Hawthorn, all of who will be rubbing their hands together merrily at the prospect of having a go at us.

I don't know where to go with changes. The only thing I'm willing to say is that I don't see a world in which we need both Viney and vandenBerg. I'm still holding onto the 2018 finals style fantasies about Viney coming good, and his enthusiasm for the chase narrowly keeps him ahead. Harmes was a late withdrawal this week so presumably they'll have him straight back in but I'd prefer to give Sparrow a spin.

Otherwise, unless somebody's crocked or exhausted I don't know how you'd justify changes without a Casey game to go on. Melksham hasn't done much this year but he's about the only prospect in a position we need changes who you know 100% what you're going to get out of at senior level. Maybe they'll arrogantly 'manage' a few players so we've got an excuse for getting beaten?

IN: Sparrow
OUT: vandenBerg (omit)
LUCKY: Viney
UNLUCKY: Harmes, Weideman

I'm not making any result predictions for the foreseeable future, this team can't be trusted either way. Let's just accept that win, lose or draw, the Suns will be offered every chance of winning. It's just what we do.

Book plug corner (e.g. we're all out of player related headlines)
Now that The Last Hurrah is out in stores - if you live somewhere they're open - the media frenzy is slowing. Not before a return to the Demonland Podcast...

... and the moment they said would never happen, an in-studio appearance on the Sports Entertainment Network. And not even on some frivolous late-night Gladiators of Sport style show, but the real news program. Thanks to whoever sent in a text referencing Chris from Camberwell, sadly it wasn't read but I did get to see it on the producer's screen after which was a thrill.  

Randomly, the only other media commitment I've got is in mid-August, so you'll be free of my nasally drawl until then. Oddly enough, The Great Deepression is currently ranked ahead of the professional book on Amazon, which shows many of you would rather read about abject failure than success. Hard to argue.

Final Thoughts
It's too much trouble to finish this season, just give the flag to whoever's on top at the end of this week.

Saturday 10 July 2021

Uphill skiing d. Downhill skiing

Whatever the historical legacy of Melbourne 2021 turns out to be, you can't say they weren't full of surprises. Sometimes the terrifying 'jumping out of the shadows with a chainsaw' type, but more often than not (so far) the pleasant ones. Like recovering from a loss to an injury-hit, fringe finals side at home before rumbling another premiership contender interstate five days later. If you've got an idea where this strange journey will end you're a step ahead of me. 

Yes, the baby has been hurriedly dropped back into the bath with the water running at full speed. You may now breathe into a red and blue paper bag and use the 'P' word, as long as it's qualified by 'fancies', 'hopefuls', 'prospects' or similar. I still wouldn't book in to get a tattoo done on Monday 27 September, and am still not entirely convinced, but this was the win we needed to restore faith in the possibility of ultimate success.

No doubt by the end of next week I'll be back to white flag waving cowardice and declaring it's all over. For now, we're on the positive side of a condensed version of 1997-2004, when there was no scientific reason for alternating between finals and scraping the bottom of the barrel but it just kept happening. Now we struggle against slurry and beat top sides, crucially completing the set against the rest of the top six, giving us a leg-up in what promises to be a brutal double chance race. The eight point game is a grand old cliche, but almost relevant here. Had we lost to Port there's every chance we'd have finished the weekend fifth, now we've got two games break in fifth and will be no worse than second on percentage by Sunday night. That'll do me.

Given the prospect of slowly sliding down the ladder for the rest of the weekend, I was ill-prepared to watch us play in the worst timeslot since 4.40pm Sunday. My preparation was refusing to accept there was even a game on until about two hours before the bounce. Part of this was fear of defeat. Port are as flaky as us, but they're still chockers with handy players so it could easily have gone either way. A loss wouldn't have been fatal, but it would have reduced our margin of error over the last six weeks.

While the most important storyline of the evening was another defensive strangulation of a finals-bound team, a close second was some of the amazing scenes captured by Channel 7's famous NuffyCam. The people in the front row going troppo made Essendon fans look like a meeting of the County Women's Association. Nobody was pictured nearly tramping children while storming the race, but the sheer volume of people shedding their dignity on national TV shit on anything the Bombers have done since Anzac Day 2019.

Second teams are for the sort of people who'd collaborate during war, but I've got the slightest affinity for Port due to Choke Yourself With A Tie's antics after the 2004 Grand Final. My single visit to Football Park didn't hurt the relationship because nobody was there, and having never met a Port fan in person (not counting the Brent Heaver obsessive from high school - no really - who claimed to follow him from Carlton to Port) there's no reason personal animosity. However, this would change instantly if you put me in any proximity to these people:

Every club has weirdos who sit on the fence and think they're Rodney Dangerfield, but it's quite the gear change to go from pre-match community singing (*spew*) to flying off the handle like Curly hearing Pop Goes The Weasel. These humanoids demonstrated a commitment to the middle finger that hasn't been seen on the eastern seaboard since 1995, and we say thank you for the content.

Thanks to MSDS (that would be your Melbourne Support Depression Syndrome, new readers), I didn't think we were going to win, but acknowledged that the opposition would give us every possible chance. While we take an occasionally suicidal concern for the morale of sides mid-table and lower, Port are guaranteed to fold like a house of cards against anyone with single digit premiership odds. They should switch INXS songs to Wishy Washy.

In the week where Steve Hocking announced he was departing the AFL, the early minutes looked like a fitting tribute to the man whose innovations have set the game alight. 24 hours later the league's other South Australian entrant perfected the going away present, kicking 2.9, dragging average scores below 2019 levels and all but making certain his replacement (who, let's face it, will be acting under the same orders from HQ) introduces some total nonsense like zones at stoppages.

There's an extra level of psychological trauma when you get the exact team changes you want, because you look like a bit of a tit if things go wrong. I still have nightmares over 2012's Free Ricky Petterd campaign ending in him playing the worst game of his life on return. This time the clamour was for Ben Brown, and while Ken Jungwirth retains a share of the record for most goals in #50 for another week, Brown had about as much impact as you could ask for from a full forward who kicked 0.0. It was a fair step down from 10.1 in his last start against the Port. We'd all love a shitload of goals, and he risks the Weid making another run at him if he doesn't get them eventually, but regardless of scoreboard impact I thought he did enough to justify his spot. Either way, you'll never convince that we don't need one or the other in the side. Ultimately I don't care which, but our forward line was demonstrably better than it has been the last three weeks so it's a start.

If like me, your mind is one long chain of interconnected sporting experiences, the sight of Aliir Aliir lining up in defence against us on a Thursday night would have given you warm memories of our last start in this strangest of timeslots. Specifically, the bit where he forgot to contest a boundary throw-in and Braydon Preuss' MFC career peaked with its first kick:

While I was heavily emotionally invested in Brown's return - and nearly shat myself with excitement when he tried to hoof a mid-air ball through from the top of the square - both defences were well on top early. Good news if you appreciate games with a higher value placed on goals, shithouse if you're a broadcaster gagging to play prime time ads.

Speaking of Channel 7, while any commentary box without BT is an improvement, it's a shame that future commentary draft #1 pick Jason Bennett wasn't there. Over the last two Thursday nights he'd contributed to their most sensible calls in living memory, now he was relegated to Kade Chandler style tracksuit duty. I'd like to think he'd have fact-checked the botched tribute to recently deceased ex-President Wayne Reid, who was announced as also playing for us from 1979 to 1981. We can confirm that the 41-year-old Reid was not a suburban footy style playing president, and that they somehow conflated him with Wayne Gordon, who died in 1983.

After 10 minutes of sludge, Port got us going with a criminal turnover, leading to Jackson floating over two defenders who were preoccupied blocking Brown. Which was an early example of the benefit of having him - or any tall the opposition had to take seriously - down there. The rest of Jackson's night was workmanlike, but he is a lot of fun to watch. Freo's dump truck full of cash had to turn around somewhere near Eucla when they needed funding to re-sign Sean Darcy, but West Coast would be mad not to try and pinch him. Suffice to say he shouldn't go anywhere, nobody will appreciate his resemblance to Weird Al Yankovic in UHF as much as I do.

At the other end, Port could only pull goals out of their arse. This is still a perfectly valid way to get them, you just can't rely on it happening 10 times a game. The first might have been set up via a 'handball' propelled by a fresh air swing, but you couldn't argue the quality of the finish, with [insert name of Port player that I didn't bother to learn] changing directions on the boundary line before kicking it over his shoulder. Now that we've got arguably the best defence of my lifetime, expectations are set so high that I even hate conceding opportunistic goals like this but you've got to let a few in or things will get boring.

I couldn't care less if Channel 7 don't get to play AAMI ads, so under the circumstances would have been quite happy to get through the last two minutes and to the break at one goal apiece. It didn't happen, but strangely enough that worked in our favour. Port's goal led directly to two at the other end, which is worth breaking crockery over when we do it but dead-set magic when the shoe is on the other foot. 

It was all about centre clearances, starting with Gawn putting the ball on a platter for Oliver, eventually leading to Spargo being caught high in the pocket. Their fans will whinge about the free but refer to recent comments about getting the ball into a contest near goal and hoping for the best. Charleston's kick was flatter than the proverbial shit carter's hat but just had enough height to go through. Being an extremely conservative footy viewer (e.g. weak of heart) I'd have settled for the same margin that was on offer before their goal. Maximum had other ideas, stuffing the ball into Petracca's hands instead, leading to the almost unseen Double Reverse Demon Time, with Jackson intercepting a handball and sagely waiting for McDonald to steam past and run into an open goal. Fans of plus-size workrate will also note Gawn shepherding him, about 10 seconds after he'd started it all in the middle. What a man.

I'm sure Port has played worse minutes over the years but this was a dreadful finish to the quarter, from a goal up to a goal down against a side that hadn't kicked a decent score for weeks. Port fans with a hate on for Ken Hinkley are welcome to package that 60 second period up and play it on repeat. I found it enjoyable.

These goals were by no means the end of the contest but they certainly helped. The real break came after Port kicked the second quarter opener, only to concede the next four. And what a collection they were, starting with an up the guts rebound inspired by my new BFF Harrison (never Harry) Petty, and ending with McDonald dropping perhaps his greatest ever field kick onto Petracca running into goal. Trac stuffed it home with glee and added to the sour atmosphere by telling the Port cheersquad about it. 

There should be more of it, and to prove I'm not entirely one-eyed, it's ok if opposition players do the same to us. Look at how annoyed I was thinking Steven Coniglio had done a Tom Bugg style shhh in 2018. Turns out it was a soccer celebration, but at the time I went off like an 80s wrestling fan hearing Nikolai Volkoff sing the Russian national anthem. This is why they should hire me to replace Hocking, I know that people don't really want artificial high scoring, they want to get upset by niggle.

The second goal was even better in both development and execution, created by Port shitting themselves at having no way to get out of defence, before Pickett scooped the ball up and kicked it at an extremely high trajectory over a player at full extension. Usually if that sort of thing cleared the prospective smotherer it comes down like a sack of concrete at the top of the square, this time it carried into the front row. I need to see it from different angles, because I've watched the broadcast version several times and still can't understand how it went so high and so far.

My views on selection don't mean anything, but I still feel a moral purity at having backed Pickett in, because he was bloody good. We'll find out next week if it had anything to do with the changed forward line structure, if he was just having an understandable young player slump (and it's not like he hasn't had plenty to deal with off-field this year...), or whether this was a one-off return to form. Whatever the reason, he was electric on the night. Like Jackson, if we can dampen down the go-home factor he's going to give us joy for years to come.

Even May got involved, handed a rare set shot after a 50. The result made me wonder about my theory about him going forward in an emergency last week, but it played its part in a dominant few minutes where a floodgate burst seemed imminent. Port kept it together but turns out the damage was already done. May was also involved in the next one, juggling a flying intercept on the wing to the hoots of the sort of people who'd boo Santa Claus, then shutting them up by regathering and sending the ball forward. This ended in Petracca scooping the ball off the ground under pressure with the greatest of ease and casually snapping one from the pocket. 

Think of all the years where our list was full of honest battlers and good players, without a genuine superstar in sight, then consider how lucky we are at the moment. There's no guarantee of success, but the quality is definitely there. It's one thing seeing bits and pieces of Robbie Flower highlights from an era where half the games weren't on TV, imagine being a grandchild in 2045 and being subjected to eight hour long compilations of Petracca, Oliver, Gawn etc... running riot. Mine will be forced to sit through a super-cut of contested marks and spoils before getting to any of the fun stuff.

It was a good week for quality goals, and after campaigning against Fritsch's Mark of the Year nomination because he missed the kick after, I'll acknowledge that he was absolutely brilliant ins setting up the third. First, by making the sort of aerial contest we'd have been thrashed in last week, then playing on (perhaps he didn't expect to be paid the mark?) and rolling a snap through from long distance. More on the Jeremy Howe Rule later, but give me this over sitting on somebody's shoulders for a point any day of the week. 

While the time in Adelaide was half an hour behind, the footy returned all the way to Round 11. How we can keep Footscray and Port at arms' length but lose to Collingwood remains a mystery. Ultimately if you're going to win one and lose the other you get more value from beating a top side than a bottom one, but it still makes no sense. I'm not banking anything across the next fortnight, but if we don't comfortably beat both Hawthorn and Gold Coast you have to wonder what's going on. I know we won't see them, Adelaide or Collingwood in the finals but it's still baffling.

If we keep playing this against top sides you can have your 9th-18th and we'll just romp through Septemnber. When we followed the Fritsch goal by bursting out of the middle for Petracca to have another shot my face looked like this. Our luck temporarily ran out and he missed, but the tone of the evening was very much in our favour.

Starved of opportunities to kick real goals, Port had to reach deep in the novelty file for the settler. Earlier this year I was mystified to discover ex-Gold Coast superboot Trent McKenzie was still on an AFL list. You may as well have told me Craig Bird and Brent Le Cras were still around. Having not played against us since Round 1, 2015, you could be forgiven for forgetting him, but like Brad Green trying out for Manchester United, you'll always know the fun fact about him kicking like an incontinental ballistic missile. Out of ideas on how to get past our defence it was left to him to heave an absolute bomb through from 60 metres out. 

You never like to concede, but sometimes when there's absolutely nothing that can be done to stop it (for example, see this this recently unearthed goal from 2015, which is almost the best I've ever seen kicked against us), you've just got to cop it. Tell that to Jobe Watson (who is getting better but could still do a a few weeks developing his special comments in the VFL), who wanted to assign blame, saying "Jackson hasn't watched videos of McKenzie because that's what he does", only to suffer one of the greatest torchings from a teammate in TV history when a straight-faced Hamish McLachlan pointed out about 10 seconds later that McKenzie hadn't kicked a goal since 2015. I'll forgive Jacko for this lapse in research given that he was 13-years-old the last time Trent landed one.

If Port fans ever had a reason to get upset, it was about the next goal. Like Spargo's free, the 50 for tackling Pickett after his mark might technically have been there but still felt fortunate. I know Fritsch had just given one away under similar circumstances but this was a little more subtle. Considering what we were subjected to at that end of the ground six weeks ago I wasn't going to ring AFL House and plead for them to overturn the decision. 

The best bit about it was Pickett having absolutely no idea he was going to get 50. It was the umpiring equivalent of throwing him a surprise party. "It's a big price to pay!" commentators always scream, as if there should be any thought given to where the ball will end up when applying the rules. I think there should be a 25 metre penalty for administrative slip-ups like not standing the mark at the correct angle, but that wouldn't have saved Port here. We got a goal and it annoyed the home fans, so a win all round.

This time we couldn't defend through the last minute, but unlike them in the opening quarter restricted the damage to one goal and one behind. After a half playing like he was back at Gold Coast 2011 alongside McKenzie, May and Harmeichal, Charlie Dixon got lucky right on the siren when a tackle from his fellow Suns escapee lingered a second too long after he'd lost the ball. You could make an argument that he was swinging his foot at the ball while May was bringing him to ground but good luck getting an umpire to factor that in with 0.1 seconds to make a decision. Like goal reviews, I'm rather wear a few incorrect decisions than introduce any more opportunities to stop the game for replays. It was an unwelcome goal literally on the stroke of half time but not worth waving the middle digit over.

Despite that, things were going reasonably well. Until we let in the opening goal of the third quarter. It took them two goes, and like the Fritsch scenario last week, the goal came from a perfectly normal and sensible mark, while the miss was from a screamer that will be replayed all week but was ultimately worth 1/6th of the other. I'll happily be declared as a boring killjoy, but you can stand on somebody's head (or in this case knee Max Gawn in the back of his), do a full flip, land on your feet and sing Nessun Dorma but it'll never be as good as any bog-standard mark that contributes to or stops a goal. 

Things were getting a bit nervy. I thought it was a bit premature for the commentators to talk about how we'd almost reached our recent average score by half time, because we're always in danger of losing our way up front. And indeed we did for about 20 minutes, before the screamer bloke got another, prompting us to immediately barrel out of the centre, with the Anal-Bullet seeing McDonald leading at him like Tony Lockett.

On a night where everyone wanted to have their say, nobody likes on-field chat more than the Sizzle. He was in his element, almost jumping up and down on the spot to protest a free for an opponent falling into his legs, starting the loosest definition of a 'fight' with the opposition, and earlier, interrupting his goalkicking routing to discuss the degree of difficulty with a fan. Given the behaviour of some of the fence-people it's nice to know that he found somebody sensible to interact with, and their discussion was conducted in the best possible taste. By the initial embarrassed reaction of the girl, I was worried Tom had channelled Ric Flair and made an indecent suggestion to her.

The setup was there for a repeat of his post-goal chat with the Sydney fan but alas he missed. The second one was straight down the middle, leaving him too far away from the people for a chat. This time his kick was flawless, and came at a crucial time, when Port had the margin into single digits with less than five minutes left. If shaky confidence let to that weird around the corner kick last week (though I still think it may have been a reaction to the cross-wind), this should have banished any self-doubt.

For the second time to that end of the ground, Port had us on the ropes late in the quarter and blew it. To be fair they were unlucky to concede the zaniest goal of the season. It was that man McDonald again, first paid a rare deliberate at Adelaide Oval, ("under pressure" says McLachlan as it was handballed directly over the line), then stuffing up an attempt to run around the man on the mark, regathering the smothered ball via a pair of Fritsch fumbles, holding it at arm's length to stay in play (or near enough to for a spectacle loving boundary umpire) and curling through a snap. So much curl.

Obviously the good bit doesn't happen without the initial blunder (remember when the 'stand' rule hadn't been discredited yet and he ran about 20 metres around the man on the mark from a similar spot?), but the recovery and finish were A+.

That left us a 22 point lead to defend. It didn't help my nerves to learn that Port has never overturned a three quarter time margin of more than 21. Given that they've been around for 25 years, their list of record comebacks is putrid. They didn't go close to overturning their record, but not until I'd spent the last break quietly shitting bricks at the prospect of being lured into a crowd-pleasing, season-starting comeback.

Unlike me, our players and coaches are not scarred by 30 something years of comical defeats. Only Gawn, McDonald and Viney played under Neeld or Bailey, and half the rest probably haven't heard of either. If anything they were more likely to be spooked by memories of the great deliberate squib of Round 10. You'd like to think that with a different set of umpires it would have been paid this time, but can you ever be certain?

Unlike the first trip to Adelaide, we'd defended so well all night that the idea of giving up the equivalent of four unanswered goals was fanciful. In reality it was, but that didn't I still greeted every stoppage for the first few minutes by looking at the clock to confirm how much time had been wasted. 

Port's futile attempt at breaking into our defence was not to kick better to the existing targets, but to get a new one. Like a baseballer playing all nine positions in one game, Aliir was called on to play as a "how could things get any worse?" forward. That didn't work. He can take a mark, but so can all the other forwards that we spent the night merrily spoiling. 

He'd already had a short earlier, and considering the distance that missed by I was fairly sure he wasn't going to kick five and drag his side over the line, but as AFL's equivalent of the Make A Wish Foundation you couldn't rule it out. What I really wanted was his absence at the other end to be ruthlessly exploited. It was not, but we certainly had our chances. Like Carlton and Footscray, a side we had control over were allowed to stay alive much longer than deserved due to the lack of a killer blow.

I wouldn't have believed it at the time but one early goal would likely have been enough, which is why my first true outburst of the night coincided with Langdon missing at the start of the quarter. It just felt like tempting fate when all I wanted was to slam the door shut and start looking towards next week. Because everything else was going his way, Petracca was the one to put it beyond any reasonable doubt (being unreasonable, I was still a touch nervous), with his third. The lady in the background clearly hadn't been tallying the scores in the Record because she thought he was still on two.

There was a Fox Footy segment after the game where the happiest looking Gerard Healy I've ever seen (was he left something in Dr. Edelsten's will?) swore black and blue that our improved forward play was more about intensity than the extra tall forward. To a degree I was prepared to agree. You still can't underestimate how much it helped McDonald to have the heat taken off him, and with the ball regularly being brought to ground there was certainly a much higher standard of forward pressure than we've seen anytime recently. 

A romping last quarter that sent fear through the league would have been nice, but we had to settle for slowly removing Port's collective will to live. The last goal was another ripper, with Fritsch doing a nifty (dare we say slick?) tap-on for Pickett to run to 50 and heave through his third. I love that shit. The finish was great, but the knock-on was the best bit.

Port's goal on the siren was a non-event, and even if percentage does come into it after Round 23 it won't be for a spot in the eight this time. We've reached the mythical 100% finals chance, and can officially concentrate on the top one/two/four rather than punching on for the right to finish eighth. It's a weird and wonderful world, and if I have to dump/refill the bathwater again it's going to play havoc with my water bill.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Tom McDonald
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Kysaiah Pickett
1 - Harrison Petty 

Major apologies to Gawn, Lever, May and Salem.

It is most certainly ON at the top. Barring the greatest of disasters, and despite Sizzle having his best run at it since 2015, you won't catch the top two from here. There's no movement in the minors, with Lever still holding May and Salem at bay in the Seecamp, Gawn likewise ahead of the barely qualifying Jackson (10.1 hitouts per game)in the Stynes, and Jordon vs nobody in the Hilton.

38 - Clayton Oliver
34 - Christian Petracca
22 - Tom McDonald
21 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
20 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
19 - Steven May
17 - Christian Salem
13 - Kysaiah Pickett
12 - Luke Jackson
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
1 - Harrison Petty 

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
This is the hardest week of all. You could have Pickett's up and under, Fritsch's roller or the straight down the middle one that ended with Petracca, but I'm going for McDonald's smother/regather/curl because it perfectly encapsulated the MFC ethos of weirder, stranger, zanier. Bonus points for telling the opposition all about it. Obviously he wins the meat tray, in the spirit of Roy and HG's Club Buggery.

Pickett retains the lead for the St Kilda goal, but I can't tell you how close this went to going in front.

Next Week
It's Hawthorn again, and we hope they've learnt less for the return meeting than GWS. Given my recent record you won't catch me claiming victory in advance. They just got thrashed by Freo, are playing kids, and logically should just pack it away and finish below Adelaide and Gold Coast, but as if Clarko gives a shit now that he knows he's out of a job (for about 15 minutes) at the end of next season. Be very afraid. If you've just emerged from a coma don't let the margin of our first meeting fool you, that was three quarters and two minutes of sludge before they lost interest and collapsed.

The forward question has not yet been settled but Brown's got to get another couple of weeks at least. My good intentions to watch the Casey game were thwarted and I saw 0% of it, but while I'm happy for the Weid kicking three, I still wouldn't have picked him if he'd got 10. I hope his VFL form leaves him ready to commit total mayhem when selected again, but my first preference is still Brown.

That leaves the only big selection dilemma as whether Harmes and Viney both play. Their tackle numbers show they were both going at it full pelt, but with respect to Jack playing a defensive role, neither did anything with the ball. We could give one or the other a week off, or a night with the feet up as unused sub. 

Even though Viney had one effective kick from eight (!!?!!), I'm ever so slightly leaning towards keeping him due to an irrelevant bias towards his 2018 finals campaign. Still, I wouldn't object if it went the other way or they didn't bother with a change at all. In Goodwin, Yze, Choke Yourself With A Tie and god knows who else we trust.

IN: Sparrow
OUT: Harmes (omit)
LUCKY: Viney
UNLUCKY: Weideman

The week after
Just when we thought we were out of Darwin they pull us back in, this time to play away team to Gold Coast. Talk about a main event in any arena. Presumably, we don't get a cracker of what the NT is paying for the game, continuing the ripping free ride they've had from their association with us in 2021. Curious about the weather in Darwin at this time of the year I had a look at the BOM forecast, and one of days just said 'less humid'. This doesn't bode well for backing up against the Dogs, but we should be past the stage of our development (both physical and emotional) where playing a July game in the NT can be used as an excuse for everything that follows.

Phil Read
You'd be hard-pressed not to find me flogging my new book somewhere at the moment. I'm far too shy for all this but with a PR professional whipping me along I've been everywhere. Please, spend your valuable time listening to the fringe football personality once described like this:

I was also on ABC Drive last Monday, conducting an MFC love-in with our old vice-president Beverley O'Connor. You can hear that from 23.05 here. For now, the last stop on the media tour is SEN this Tuesday, where I'll be in studio after 11:00. Sadly they've moved from Richmond so I won't be able to see the same place where I won various prizes (including two hams and a tennis racquet), or summon up the ghost of Finey. If Chris from Camberwell rings in they might have to put the emergency tape on while I'm being revived. Keep an eye on Twitter for more details. 

You can still order online, but the book is now available in shops too. Make a scene if your local store doesn't stock it. Apologies to [store name redacted] for interfering with the display of your sports section to give The Last Hurrah greater prominence. Unless you've got rusted on loyalty to a retailer I endorse Dymocks and Readings, whose websites tell you exactly which stores have stock. Unusually, you can't get it at the heartland Dymocks Camberwell, but their Indooroopilly branch is mad for it. I hope you will be too. It's hardly going to knock The Barefoot Investor off the top of the sales charts but we're having a bash, so thanks for your support.

Final Thoughts
It's been difficult to find a frame of reference to anything we've done this year, but regardless of what happens in the end we're a half chance of playing the best home and away season of my life. Even the 16-6 finish in my first full season of caring was only good enough for an Elimination Final. As much as I reject the idea that jinxes are a thing I'll note that one more win draws us level with memorable seasons 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2018. Three of those ended in a prelim or better, the other in the biggest fizz known to man. Nothing is certain but the odds are increasingly tipping in our favour. Hold me, I'm scared.

Sunday 4 July 2021

Misery is the best policy

In 1975's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a group of unfortunates are gathered, horrifically tortured by representatives of the elite and forced to eat shit. Which bore a lot of similarities to Salo, or the 120 Games of Salem, our ill-fated attempt at staying a game clear on top of the ladder.

You wouldn't have thought the team that capitulated against Hawthorn a few days earlier would pose a problem for an alleged premiership contender, but the only way we could have put on a more Melbourne 2021 performance was if we'd lost to the Hawks ourselves. That opportunity will be available in two weeks, at which point we'll probably simultaneously be celebrating a 100% mathematically certainty of making finals AND slamming the panic button with so much force that plastic bits fly in all directions.

The Giants were the first side to test my theory that nobody's going to be scared of playing us twice. At the moment it's looking good. This was not a loss we had to have, rather a series of self-inflicted disasters ending in a futile, low-speed comeback that we'd have needed a fifth quarter to finish. A bit like Queen's Birthday but without all the excuses. 

After nearly 30 years of expecting bad things to happen - because they usually do - I tried an alternative route and pretended that we were finally going to beat somebody in convincing fashion. Foolish boy. Especially when you consider all the warning signs over the last few weeks. There's plenty of time to get on a roll before finals so no need for the Fraud Squad yet, but please refer to last week's offer of enthusiastically submitting to sodomy if we were playing like a premiership team. 

There were multiple problems, but it looked like a genuine key target would have helped. Because our coaching staff have got their team to the top of the ladder and I'm living in disarray six days a week I was prepared to accept the brave/arrogant (delete as applicable) non-selection of Ben Brown. Sure he kicked five in the seconds last week, but why should that mean anything when our senior forwards hadn't had that combined in a fortnight? If selectors (whoever they are, I'm not pinning this entirely on the coach) thought our forward line was effective enough last week you may as well start taking social bookings for late September.

This just went to show how lucky we got against self-destructive opposition last week. Compare the pair - Two mid-table sides, two games where our defenders couldn't have done much more if they'd left body parts on the field and two totals not befitting teams who seriously deserve to be in flag contention. Last week a four goal roll in the third quarter carried us over the line, this time we didn't kick two in a row until either side of half time, then not again until we were desperately trying to claw back a four goal deficit in the final term.

After Footscray and the second half against Brisbane I was willing to be convinced we were a genuine premiership chance (not that we're out of it yet...), but still wouldn't have backed us with somebody else's money. You simply can't trust Melbourne. Now, after several weeks at the top we enter Round 17 a very real chance of exiting in fifth. For all the comparisons to 2004 earlier in the season, at least we took a month to work our way down from first to a losing Elimination Final.

The top of the ladder weeks were great, but the novelty value has obscured the fact that we've barely played four quarters all season. That the closest we got was against the side likely to have overtaken us at the top by the time you read this is one of life's great mysteries. North 2016 remains the gold standard for collapse from 9-0, finishing eighth and losing an Elimination Final by 10 goals, but even they were polite enough to thump a couple of strugglers before going to pieces. There's still time for us to exercise the top team prerogative and trample somebody. If the alternative is trying to win every game 60-55 it's going to be a long seven games before finals.

I should have known it was going to be a disappointing day when even density limit measurements were taking the piss:

Just a month short of 10 years since that atrocity and the near-suicidal chain of events that followed, never forget that the month which nearly ended it all started by playing a lowly side for a spot in the eight and losing by 64 points. If only that was the worst thing that happened to us in July 2011. Let's hope we're not saying the same about this game by the end of July 2021.

It was a disappointing return to live viewing for the first time since that magical win over Richmond. More so because I'd forgotten how winter worked, rugging up adequately at the top of my body by failing to account for a three goal breeze blowing directly up my leg. Once upon a time I'd have been wearing shorts and laughing in the face of death, now I can understand why old people are so keen on tartan rugs. Take me back to Level 4, where the breeze is moderate, the cameras never point, and there's an informal no dickheads policy.

If the baby went out with the bathwater after Collingwood, the tap had barely started running again before things got weird here. We're enthusiastic about trying to chase down leads, but my nerves were still affected by seeing Toby Greene - the man who proved the jingle "everybody loves Zagames" wrong - take advantage of a smothered handball to kick the first goal after 30 seconds. Hardly fatal, but it didn't bode well for maintaining our cool under pressure. The Giants (or if you work in a marketing department, the GIANTS) kept it up long enough to build a solid lead before dropping their guard in the last quarter, relying on us to finish the game attacking as if under heavy sedation. Challenge accepted.

Whether we had 'chances' early depends on your definition. If you're counting basic inside 50s then yes, plenty of them. If you prefer when the kicks go somewhere near one of our players and create a goalscoring opportunity then not so much. 

What saved us, initially at least, was another masterclass by our defence. By now there's nothing more you can say about May and Lever, but I would like to declare a deep fondness for Harrison Petty. Strange career so far. One of the wonkiest debuts of recent times, a break in case of emergency stint as a forward in year two, missing all of 2020 injured, and only finding a place this season because Tomlinson did a knee. Now I'm keen on him staying down there forever, bulking up and becoming the new May (no pressure) in a few years. Now, watch me turn on him by Round 19 before he's making mysterious super-sub appearances at Carlton in 2023.

The introduction of the medical sub has reduced the impact of teams losing players earlier, but you'd still think one of their starting backmen blowing his knee five minutes in would create an opening in their defence. Maybe it did and we just didn't have the nous to take advantage. Reminder - this team was very recently at the top of the AFL ladder.

We've had such a great run with in-game injuries (apologies to Tomlinson), I'm scared to death of anyone who half looks like they're hurt. Triple when that person's name starts with Steven and ends in May. As he hit the deck during the first quarter I was ready to self-harm, but because he's made of iron May was back on his feet and rushing through behinds a few seconds later. What a man.

Salem was also safe as houses, reguarly getting us out of sticky situations with calm, accurate disposal, only to see the ball coming back towards him at speed a few seconds later. The backline was also hurt by our trouble at stoppages, with the midfield threatening 'much vaunted' status. Petracca and Oliver got going - to a degree - eventually, but were well held early, while Viney looked underdone, and none of the others who drifted through were offering much.

Our best opportunity came from Gawn, with a set shot that erupted off the boot almost as violently as the one against Hawthorn but just fell into the top of the post. It took a GWS blunder for McDonald to find Pickett - otherwise nearly anonymous again - on his own for our first. Now that we were back on level terms I could get over the wonky start, except that other than Viney torching Petracca to miss a shot we didn't go near another goal for the rest of the quarter. Still, it looked like we'd get away with it and bore our way a slender lead by quarter time, before fan favourite Toby Greene went for the big slide into a tackle, won a free and kicked their second. Good luck to him, you may as well have a go if they're going to pay it.

I didn't like seeing our backline playing their hearts out only to go down to a pair of lucky goals, while the forwards were sinking without trace. It wasn't all their fault, the delivery was putrid too, but all I'm saying is somebody with several years of proven goalkicking form might have come in handy. The reverse 2018 tour continues, where we were kicking goals out of our arse but crying out for tall defenders.

Still, we'd given GWS a free quarter then run over the top of them once this year so you couldn't write it off. I don't like trying to win that way (and to be fair, it's not like players and coaches are deliberately executing the rope-a-dope strategy either), but our long list of comebacks kept me from toppling into despair. Except when we gave up the first goal of the quarter two minutes in, I forget about being in public again and let out an exasperated "oh for FUCK sake" with a child sitting about 1.5m away. Oops. I'm sure he's heard worse on the internet.

While just under 17,000 was a fair crowd given a lack of away fans and the ongoing bullshit you have to go through just to get in, there was still enough space to sit where you liked (as long as it wasn't Level 4). Suffice to say I didn't take my assigned seat, in the middle of two unconnected groups, and chose an aisle seat in the back row of level 2A with nobody in front of, or within three seats to the side, of me. 

It was still close enough to have a week of hanging shit on Essendon fans thrown back in my face by our lot doing the full 'woe is us' routine about umpiring all day. It didn't quite reach the same levels as a grown man nearly trampling a child while backing away from yelling abuse over the race, but I still didn't want to be involved. Sure, there were decisions that I didn't agree with, but last week we made out like bandits under the same circumstances. To quote Love Theme from Finey's Final Siren, 'sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked'. Should have still been in a better position at three quarter time, could have still won the game. Weren't. Didn't. Got what we deserved.

There's sooking about the world's most deliberate deliberate not being paid with 40 seconds left, then there's howling like a banshee when Jake Lever clotheslines Callan Ward like he's The Ultimate Warrior in mid-air. To their credit, there was dead silence when a Giants goal later in the term was conclusively shown on video to have avoided the post. Watch games not involving us and marvel at how often ultimate nuffies scream their heads off when presented with conclusive video evidence, like people who think OJ Simpson was just unlucky to come home and discover a murder.

When the ball goes forward to enough contests (instead of being kicked straight to a defender), accidents are going to happen. Good teams cover them, we were not playing like a good team. Nothing had changed from the first quarter, and had arguably gotten worse. We were still on target to kick a pitifully low score (as predicted) and waste all the good work done stopping their cobbled together forward line from delivering a Team Kingsley. May running riot as a loose man was great, but at some point trying to get hold of the clearances would have been nice.

After a few minutes of trying to beat Richmond's 2.10, we finally got things going our way in the middle of the quarter. Now conversion was the problem. I've often lamented the lack of a half-forward line, but Tom McDonald was everything you'd want in a CHF yesterday, roaming up the ground and taking important marks. The problem was that unless you expected Fritsch to beat several defenders in each contest, McSizzle also needed to be on the other end of the forward entry. Shame Jesse Hogan wasn't down the other end, he'd have been able to offer advice, having been on the end of the same 'needed in two places at once' scenario hundreds of times while playing for us. 

McDonald's contribution was much appreciated, but I suspect he might have lost confidence in his set shot kicking over the last couple of weeks. He's recently missed a few that he would normally have eaten like two all beef patties, and tried an uncharacteristic around the corner snap from 30 metres. The only reason I can think of is that the wind was going across goal so he wanted to try and thump it home at maximum velocity. He won't be trying that again.

Like last week, it took unlikely dead-eye Tom Sparrow to show them how it was done. Which quickly instantly led to the Giants kicking two more, at which point my inner voice was cursing me for leaving the house. By the end of the day I'd made peace with the decision, reasoning that it's still always better to be there, even if your side loses, and your thighs feel like they've been refrigerated, but at the time there was a bit of self-loathing.

To our credit (?) we got the last goal of the quarter through Anal-Bullet, and could have had another if Harmes hadn't been subject to a foul so professional it should have had its own superannuation account. As much as I want to see a countdown clock I never want players to know exactly how long is left to the second, which is how you end up with scenarios like Harmes thinking the siren was about to go and trying a torp when he actually had 10 seconds left. It came off the boot like a sack of fertiliser but there was still enough time for the ball to tumble into the arms of somebody inside 50. Sure it was a GWS player, but this was not a day for good fortune.

After a half time break spent questioning my life choices and pondering about how depressing it's going to be if this season fizzles out, we should have quickly made up for the Harmes incident. Petracca was gifted a chance from a turnover but miss and it was threatening to be one of those days. Which is why it was such a surprise that Fritsch - barely seen in the first half - converted a set shot from the outskirts of Fritschville 3131.

When he followed up with a forward pocket screamer the margin was set to be less than a goal with a quarter and a half to play. Nothing is certain when you follow Melbourne, but considering how we did everything but place ball between middle posts at the end there's a case to made for running over the top for an underwhelming but statistically meaningful victory. Then, after kicking the hard one he missed a snap from close range, invoking the 'Jeremy Howe Rule' - screamers have no value if the following disposal is ineffective. Don't try and get me to vote for him in Mark of the Year, I'll be doing a symbolic write-in vote for Lever and May's 24 intercepts.

The only way that momentum-killing miss could have been any worse was if GWS went down the other end for a goal. And you'll never believe what happened next. Fritsch was important in the comeback but what a waste this was. Especially when his miss eventually turned into us conceding twice, wasting everything back to ANB's goal at the end of the second quarter.

Our defenders were going so well that Salem had to get us going again, delivering one of the most casual finishes of all time. From 40 out he just steered it through like it was a frisbee. Given that Josh Kelly was running riot on the other side it's time we stopped debating that trade, engage in a group hug with the Giants and admit we were all winners. In the end our one might stay forever while theirs ends his career at [insert club here], at which point the balance might tip in our favour.

All this carry on left us 17 points behind at three quarter time. Not much for a free-scoring team, but a fair mountain to climb when you're playing like a Ross Lyon sex dream. As far as comebacks against GWS at the MCG go it didn't need to match the 12 goal avalanche of 2013. Another Round 1, 2016 would have been just fine. I enjoyed Choke Yourself With A Tie trying to pump the crowd at the break, that's the kind of zany behaviour that I waited 10 years for us to get involved in.

Kicking the first goal was a good start, giving it back within 90 seconds wasn't. Cue 15 minutes of the most panicked, artless attacking you'll ever see. Almost everyone had a go and either missed, kicked it straight to a defender, or hesitated and was caught before they could get a kick off.

On a good day for my uneducated footy theories, the big failure was Hunt as a forward. Bless him, at least he tried something when the game was near enough to be won but we didn't look like winning it. If you're going to shoot him for his trifecta of holding the ball disasters about 12 other players deserve to go with him. This time "shoot straight you bastards" would have been more apt for the condemned men than the firing squad. 

I don't know whether he still subscribes to the mystical powers of owl energy (was this even a thing? A Google search for "Jayden Hunt" "Owl Energy" shows four results. Three of them are me and the other is a defunct fan page), but something got him almost all the way there before he'd run out of ideas and go down in a tackle. I'm sure part of that was looking for a target rather than panic bombing it to a defender and looking stupid anyway. If you could splice his speed with Spargo's sixth sense for dinky sideways kicks to teammates you'd make millions.

Don't know why we didn't send May forward, like the goalkeeper of a losing side at 90+5 in a soccer match. Instead we just meekly went to our grave trying to play the same toil and struggle attacking game that's recently generated scores of 63, 68, and now 55. Somehow the team with the best defence in the competition has suffered most from average scores plummeting. At the time of writing it's 80.7 per team vs 80.4 in 2019, which is probably why you've stopped hearing from AFL lackeys about how grouse the game is this season.

We remained within two kicks for the last few minutes, but nine points have never felt so far away. Usually I'd be upset about radio broadcasters going silent about how much time is left (which is a shameful cave-in to the five minute warning lobby, especially when they've got monitors that show the exact time) but it didn't seem to matter. You knew it was going to be a short quarter due to the lack of goals, and were even more sure that we'd shot our bolt. Our lot tried until the end but never went close to making it seriously interesting. Time expired, the handful of Giants fans partied like it was the 2019 Prelim to the tune of a Eurovision Song Contest winner, and we left looking like the same sort of flaky side that blew last season via back-to-back Cairns calamities.

I'd love to sit in on the review. After a near miss last week our backline has earned the right to walk in as a group, throw tables across the room and scream "what more do you want us to do?" I held my tongue at selection this week, but now that the magic and mystique of being top of the ladder has gone, there's going to be a full meltdown if we don't pick another tall this week. Just somebody to take the heat off Fritsch, offer some opportunities for crumb, and allow McDonald opportunities to maraud.

The ideal response to spending several weeks at the top of the ladder would have been to stay there by any means necessary. But if nothing else (and there isn't much), now maybe everyone inside and outside the club will accept that just being top after Round 15 doesn't mean jack squat and there's work to be done. The star midfield are not guaranteed winners, the forwards have been off the boil for weeks, and the backmen can only do so much to keep the score down if their teammates aren't going to cover it. 

We're still only at DEFCON3, and nothing short of a grand old rooting in Adelaide will make me declare a crisis, but it's time for a rethink. It hasn't always been pretty, but we've built a great platform to attack the finals from, I'd hate to think it'll be wasted it like the AFL's version of the Titanic band, continuing to play the classics while slowly being submerged.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Steven May
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Tom McDonald
2 - Christian Salem
1 - Max Gawn

Apologies to Langdon, Petracca, Petty, and second half Fritsch.

With the big two missing out, the move is on from the backline, with Lever now within three BOGs of the lead. Can't see Oliver and Petracca both missing out on the votes too many weeks - though they've only had one between them since the bye - but you never know. If we continue to adopt counterattack tactics that Napoleon would bar up over there could be plenty of votes in their future. This will also make for a thrilling finish to the Seecamp - Lever now leads, with May and Salem close behind.

35 - Clayton Oliver
29 - Christian Petracca
21 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
20 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
19 - Steven May
18 - Tom McDonald
17 - Christian Salem
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
It's got to be Fritsch. I'm not going to hold what happened next against him, this was a lovely finish. Get the man some space and let him do it more often. I'm all out of novelty weekly prizes so he wins nothing. Pickett still leads for the goal against St Kilda, and I'd very much like him to kick a few about 10% as good over the next month.

Next Week
The novelty of playing on Thursday night - complete with the sort of sensible commentary by Jason Bennett that will see him banned from ever appearing on Channel 7 again - will be welcome if we win. Otherwise, it's time to get your top four Bradbury Plan out and watch us slowly sink from first to fifth. Not only could Port jump us on percentage, but Footscray, Geelong and Brisbane surely won't make the same mistakes against lower sides as us.

We've got to do something to breathe life back into the side, but I can't see how any of recently unused subs vandenBerg, Melksham or Chandler is going to provide vast improvement so I'll be respectful in my changes. Firstly, after holding my tongue this week I reserve the right to trip out and make a dick of myself if we don't pick Ben Brown. I watched more of these videos of his 2018/2019 goals than was probably necessary, but you can't tell me that if fit he's much worse than he was in those years - or that we're not a better side than either year's North.

You'll note a shitload of goals from frees, which goes to my theory about getting in the right place at the right time, but also enough contested marks to discredit the old "you have to put it on a platter for him" theory. Also, kicked five in two games for us before being dumped after a single down week. 

The good news is that while Brown didn't kick any in Casey's loss, he was reportedly used like it was a training session, which you'd think indicates they were saving him to come off a five day break. Now watch him kick nothing next week and be instantly dropped. Not like there isn't a precedent, going from a great partnership with McDonald against Sydney to getting the arse a week later after struggling in the wet as part of an unnecessarily experimental forward structure. I don't know why I'm so protective of him when he's played three games but it just feels like he could be a match-winner come finals, and at the moment you can't say that about any of our other forwards.

Melksham was also left on the bench for large parts of the Casey game. Not sure I'd be excited about it but there's an outside chance they could rest Pickett and play the Milk. Sentiment generally doesn't get you anywhere, but I'm willing to give Pickett another go before he's asked to find form in the VFL. Primetime slot, home state, opposition that famous relative played for, and hopefully a better forward line providing crumbing opportunities. Melk to the sub, AVB back to the VFL to get BTB and have an RHG.

Viney wasn't great this week, but if he's fit (and who'd ever make a conclusive call on that?) I want him to play. Look at the 2018 finals for an example. I've always liked Harmes but if we need to sacrifice a midfielder to open space for another forward he could go. In the end I settled on Sparrow, who isn't doing much wrong, but we can't have all these midfielders playing and still get beaten in every element of the midfield game. Happy for him to come in at the expense of Viney or Harmes in the next few weeks if things get drastic.

Given the quality of my recent predictions, this might work in our favour but I reckon we'll lose by a few goals. Feel free to come back and hang shit on me in the comments if we win, I'll be first in line to write a grovelling apology but at the moment the Veil of Negativity has got me covered, I just want to go a bit silly and scream "We crawl on our knees towards our doom!" But, you know, always happy to be proven wrong.

IN: B. Brown
OUT: Sparrow (omit)
LUCKY: Harmes, Pickett, Viney
UNLUCKY: Weideman

Hope we do better than either of our Thursday night starts last year, dead set rooted by Port in front of 323 enthusiasts at the Gabba, then opening the Cairns Festival of Farce against Sydney four weeks later. Otherwise, there's not much historical precedent, we beat Sydney in 2019, lost to West Coast in 2011, and played other Thursday games in 1900, 1901, 1911, 1963, 1985, 1991 and 1997. At least Channel 7 got to play plenty of ads when the Pivotonians thrashed us at Corio Oval. I'm told the forums were running hot that night.

Jeff Write
There's never been a better week to officially launch a book about Melbourne's last flag, because at this rate there's not another one on the horizon.

I've got no idea how the publishing supply chain works but all going well The Last Hurrah should be in stores this Wednesday. This late in the piece you may as well support small business and buy it from a retailer, but if you live somewhere obscure or abhor human contact it's available online. I finally got my hands on an actual copy this week and the design has come up a treat, you can decide if the words are any good.

As part of the launch, you can hear me talk all things Melbourne on 774 Melbourne from 15:45 Monday, TAB Radio at 07:30 on Tuesday, and if you're really keen ABC Wide Bay around 12:00 next Saturday. The last one is a pre-record before the Port game so it will either be not as or more gloomy than you expect. The following Tuesday I'm in studio with a nominee for Mr. Spectacle so that might get a bit awkward. More on that next week.

Final Thoughts
You'd think my first live loss in almost two years would be more disappointing, but no. The siren went, I got up and left. It was another missed opportunity, but hardly the end of the world. That's probably coming over the next month, best leave some vitriol in reserve.