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.

Leaderboard
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.

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