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.

1 comment:

  1. I thought Luke Jackson might have snuck in for votes. He kept jumping over Mumford to win the taps even though GWS' midfield read it better than ours. Jackson's tackles and follow up work helped to keep us in touch at half time.
    Just our luck - most interstate teams have been brought to Victorian hubs but we have to fly to Adelaide on Thursday.


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