Monday 16 August 2021

Going through the emotions

Even after a season where we've just collected more premiership points than any other in our history, that Adelaide game will still be talked about at length for years to come. Perhaps not by sensible people, but I won't shut up about it. Losing a near-unprecedented losing streak to a lowly side, by a point, with one of the great umpiring non-decisions, and crucial goals kicked by a champion player who later torched his reputation with a spot of racism. It had something for everybody.

With our double chance sealed, and much of the work done towards a fixture shenanigans proof top two finish, there can't have more than about 15 of us interested in the rematch. To everyone else, that was an unfortunate one-off that we quickly bounced back from and this was an irritating speed hump in the way of a much bigger game next week. I was intent on proving that we'd learnt something that day and wouldn't make the same mistakes twice. Not sure the case was proven, but via a few ropey minutes during the third quarter we got what we really needed. Back on top, nobody injured, and with our dignity intact despite generously trying to give the 17th best side in the league a competitive game.

You'd have to be an anti-Goodwin fundamentalist to deny we've done well this year, but because deep down I'm convinced we're going to be exposed as imposters, our lineup made me feel like we were one injury crisis away from being a mid-table side. Not that this would necessarily rule you out of finals this year, but would still have ended in Carlton style coaching drama and the sense that we were never going to contend again.  

Any side is vulnerable to its depth being exposed, but consider how well we've done on the (admittedly flimsy) 'games lost by best 22' measure. Even the majority of those come from Tomlinson, whose replacement is playing out of his skin. Maybe everybody else's replacements would too, but I wouldn't have liked to rely on a starting 18 featuring Harmes, Hibberd, Melksham, Smith and Sparrow - and with vandenBerg as the next cab off the rank - since Round 10. All have their charms, will have a whole-hearted bash, and have played very good games this year but there's a limit to how many fringe players you can get away with. However, given that there's always some absolute random in premiership sides, I have no objections with any of them becoming the new Steven Armstrong or Clay Sampson.

The good news is we won't have to rely on all of the above next week and, barring further injury calamity, the finals. Some will be required to play roles, others will make way for Tom McSizzle to maraud around centre half-forward, and Steven May (a late withdrawal on Sunday with a case of not taking the opposition seriously) to resume his role as the physical and moral centre of our defence.

After some of our NQR performances against lowly teams this year, this was the last banana peel to step over before finals - which will now start without waiting for a bye, creating absolute chaos for my viewing schedule. I'm worried every time we play, but was especially concerned here. They might have only beat us by a point via Hail Mary comeback last time, but no side good or bad has moved the ball as easily against us. I've sooked for the second half of the year about teams not being afraid to play Melbourne twice, they got it right on the first go so who knows what was going to happen now. I know they're winding down for the end of the year (notwithstanding almost toppling Port last week), but offered the chance to go top again it still felt like we were being set up for a unique pre-finals humiliation. 

For much of the first three quarters, the Crows carried on like nothing had changed from the last meeting. What saved us this time was that they had a lack of decent options inside 50, and our makeshift Mayless backline played out of their skins to turn chances back. The counter-balance was this time we didn't have Clayton Oliver playing one of the greatest quarters you'll ever see. We'll assume he's saving himself for when it really counts. 

It was also our last game of the year on Fox Footy, a station with an all-time great theme song, pretty graphics, and commentators who'd come off a lot worse if they weren't compared to Channel 7. One of the most appealing aspects of getting back to live games, probably for about three rounds next year before we're back in lockdown, is having a range of calls to listen to. I know there's technical wizardry available to sync TV to radio, but I'm already 30 seconds behind watching on Kayo, my nerves can't stand any further delays.

Eddie McGuire's performance was a touch better than screaming through the last quarter of Freo/Richmond, like he was calling the Invasion of Normandy, but was still not very good. The only purpose it served was for ticking off squares on your Eddie Bingo card. The involvement of Craig Kelly's son meant a certain mention of the 1990 premiership, and naturally various private schools were mentioned, but sadly without 'Derm' next to him he couldn't jam in a single reference to nightclubs or drink cards.

Whenever he does one of our games, I start by saying how I don't want to join in the lazy pile-on from people who'd hate him if he cured cancer, then spend the rest of the report slaughtering his commentary. It's a case of playing the ball, not the man. You can argue what he does in public, you can't dispute that he's a pox caller. At this stage, I'd even pick Dwayne ahead of him in the commentator draft. Which was lucky, because he was there too. Over the next four quarters much rubbish was spoken, McGuire tempted fate by referencing the tremendously un-PC song My Boomerang Won't Come Back, and hopefully whatever room they were calling from has been bricked up so they can't escape until October.

Top four implications aside, this was one of the deadest rubbers around. That didn't mean you couldn't sweat up a treat when the Crows did all the early attacking. We were playing like there had just been a break for lightning, while they carried on like the last five minutes of our first meeting. Not only did they have seven scoring shots, but Paul Seedsman was collecting disposals at world record pace. Usually that's only said for effect, but this time he really was on track for about 90 touches at one stage. Whatever we did to keeping him down to 36 at the end deserves credit.

Despite being on our heels in the opening minutes, we still got the opening goal through Melksham, just before he went into the witness protection program. Things were still not progressing as well as you'd have hoped. The only thing keeping me from cracking the sads was the memory of giving Gold Coast a competitive opening term before tearing them apart. Like last time their kicking neatly avoided contests, they were winning at stoppages, and our big names were being kept quiet. If we hadn't played badly against so many dud teams and still sat top of the ladder with a week to go I'd say it was a poor trial for September. Instead, I'm prepared to put it in the uphill skiing file and move on.

Like Melksham, Brown did all his best work early before drifting away. The difference was that he got two goals, might have had a third if not for Atari 2600 level video review cameras, and kept contesting to the end. The science is settled on him playing in September, and even if he only has eight touches a week I'll gladly two a game. Besides, with the VFL season only the fattest chance of being completed, nobody else will get a chance to stake their claim. Stick with experience and recent results then hope for the best. 

By the end of the quarter we'd weathered the early storm and looked to have their measure. The surprise hit of the opening stages was Joel Smith, who has been one of the most maligned characters of recent times but celebrated a week where he got an extended contract and a surprise late call up by putting in a creditable performance. It was far from flawless, and there was also a surprise hit on Hibberd during an ill-advised aerial contest, but it was far better than expected given his struggles last year.

But as much as I enjoyed the brief Smith redemption story, and Lever tormenting his old side by intercepting everything that came near him, the main event was Harrison (never Harry) Petty. He wasn't playing against the world's best forwards, but the ball was coming down there quickly enough that he could still prove to be safe as houses while playing May's role. Anything could happen, but there's your direct replacement when Steven pulls up stumps in a few years. Defenders can only do so much if the ball comes at them too often or too fast, but between him, Lever and May - and with your Salems, Boweys, and Hibberd/Hunts at ground level, we've got as much chance of stopping the opposition as any Melbourne side since about 1964.

With Petty (21), Lever (25) and Salem (26) entrenched and Bowey looking promising, the future of our backline seems solid. All of them should offer something for years to come, but not as many as Luke Jackson, who is not yet 20 but makes me want to do this every time I see him play:

Fortunately, a dual holding the ball tackle with Oliver saw the free go to Jackson, who converted our third in five minutes after the break. Every other aspect of Oliver's game makes you go gooey, but it's now well-established that he can't kick set shots for shit.

I fancy Adelaide team to be good in a couple of years, and unlike Gold Coast, they didn't respond to the game turning against them by going into their shell and being kicked to death for an hour. Instead they got the next two, reducing the margin to a manageable 18 points. We'd been here against them last time, working our way to an early lead, blowing the chance to finish them off, then trying (and failing) to withstand a comeback.

The real nervy moments didn't come until the third quarter, for now we reacted to their quick goals like they were a mere annoyance. After not having a touch in the first quarter, Fritsch was a touch unlucky that a free right in front of goal bounced straight in the arms of Petracca to thump into the top deck from a metre out, but it calmed things down. The later the game went - quite literally - the better things got for Fritsch and his aerodynamic hair.

For the second time, nobody would have blamed Adelaide for giving up. Instead, they came out after half time at a million miles an hour, booted three in a row and reduced the margin to less than a goal. That, for fans of obscure statistical measurements, represents the thankfully rare Reverse Stranglewank - where we go 24+ points in front, then allow the other side to get within a goal.

Just when they had some momentum we responded by plundering a response straight from the bounce. It was created in the middle, but credit goes to Langdon for fighting his heart out to get a kick inside 50, and Petracca for dashing onto the loose ball and stuffing it home. The Adelaide defender might have done a better job of tackling him, but good luck stopping somebody built like a brick shithouse when they're going at that pace.

This was followed by more Petracca delights, this time setting up Pickett at the top of the square with one of the most wonderfully weighted kicks you'll ever see. Again, it seemed like we'd finally put them away and could get on with running out the rest of the game at slow motion. Except for the bit where the Crows burst straight out of the middle and snapped a goal out of their arse to bring it back under 10 points. 

Given how we've played last quarters this year I didn't much fancy having to come from behind to win. Luckily, the proposed shootout (adjusted for modern standards) was cancelled when the Crows failed to score for the next half an hour. Future Rising Star and key West Coast recruiting target Jackson got the party started with a one-handed mark 20 metres out, and that was it for goals by any Melbourne player not called Fritsch. Bayley responded perfectly to a kick not been deemed 15 metres (a change from our usual policy of kicking it straight up in the air) to bend his shot through and he was heating up nicely. 

At four goals the difference I was far from convinced the game was won, still looking at milestones to convince myself that the fourth quarter had gone so long there was no hope of a comeback. These are the things you've got to do when the same team recently overhauled a 17 point deficit in the last five minutes to beat you by one. The good news was that they'd lost any capability of breaking through our backline. The bad news was we weren't keen on running away with victory, leading to nearly 10 goalless minutes that even I started to find tedious.

Enter Fritsch and the most exciting individual goal rampage since Jeff Farmer vs Collingwood. His fourth was the sealer, and though the Crows eventually got their ninth and last, it was far too late to have any impact. It also turned out to be one of the most counter-productive goals ever, cancelled out straight from the centre, then immediately leading to another two goals. If Fogerty had stuffed his kick into the post they'd probably have finished the game two goals closer.

Number five prompted Dwayne to pull out the same "Fritsch Magnet" gag he'd used 51 weeks ago, acting like it was a completely off the cuff, spontaneous gag. This is why I like to document the most minor occurrences so they can be referred back to later. McGuire and Brad Johnson didn't hear it the first time, because they acted like Bill Hicks had just come back from the dead and done a live show, setting off a back-patting wankfest about what a great call it was. You'd think even young Ed wouldn't have stood for this sort of thing, then I found this clip from 1992 when he's referencing being belted in a school game 10 years earlier. He is nothing if not consistent.

The callers hadn't even finished gently tugging each other off before Fritsch was back for his sixth. Then we shot straight out of the centre and he was shooting for seven. The margin would probably have been true to the way the game was played two goals earlier, so the combination of that, him having kicked six straight, the rarity of Melbourne players going beyond seven, and the bitter memory of the after the siren miss that cost us a hundred point win against Gold Coast three years ago, convinced me that he'd miss. But he was on such a high that it went through. Somewhere the NBA Jam announcer yelled "he's on fire!

Not only was it the last three goals of the game, but he'd kicked our last five. There's something you don't see every day. Five in a row at any time is rare - Jako got the first six of Round 20, 1991, and Scott Lucas the first five of the last quarter here (and another two later), but the record since scoring progression has been tracked must be Josh Kennedy, lobbing through seven on the trot during 2015.

Speaking of historical precedent, Fritsch enters a rare group of Demons to have kicked seven in my supporting life. He'll be attending reunions with Bennett, Cuthbertson, Jakovich, Lovell, Schwarz, Lyon, Neitz, Farmer, Bruce, Robertson and Hogan. Alternatively, here's a gathering of all the Melbourne defenders who have conceded seven:

There's been a lot said about DemonTime, but this was the greatest individual effort in its history. His third last goal went through with 1.27 left, the last on the siren. This left me so baffled after the siren that I had to rewind and make sure I'd correctly seen this gold standard pissfarting around by Charleston Spargo:

He's already won praise for a range of wacky facial expressions, and this was admirably unusual behaviour. Who knows what the in-joke was, but Hibberd giving him absolutely nothing made it even funnier.

As we said goodbye to Fox Footy for the last time this season, there was one last moment of wonky commentary from our old mate Eddie. He loves trying to be dramatic, and went through a long, flowery spiel about how badly we've had it over the years in an effort to get former MFC turncoat Gerard Healy to jump on the bandwagon of 'his club', only for Healy to flat out refuse to get involved. Rightly so, he knows that ditching us in his prime to take the money of a dodgy doctor means he doesn't get to be happy now. Ring Greg and ask his opinion.

That ended the 'home' portion of our 'home and away' season, via two home games in Sydney, playing away to Gold Coast at Docklands, and a total attendance across our last three MCG games of zero. This season would be strange enough just for the COVID related fixturing shenanigans, but the final ladder promises to be the zaniest for years. Six evenly matched teams at the top, a bunch of slop merchants vying for eighth, North Melbourne as one of the better sides ever to finish last, and Gold Coast as one of the worst to win seven games. If we weren't well clear of the finals fringe (for this year anyway...) I'd be crying in 2017 Melbourne watching flotsam and jetsam playing to make it with 11 wins.

The final act in this wacky series of events will be for the Grand Final to officially be relocated to Perth. At the time of writing it's not official, but there's no chance in hell the AFL is going to take the risk that a) fans will be allowed to watch games in Victoria, or b) the state won't go into lockdown at the drop of a hat. Conversely, WA is so hot to win the rights that if somebody tests positive for the big one that week they'll probably smother them with a pillow and frame somebody (wouldn't be the first time) for murder. So be it. If (and I don't believe in jinxes, but let's just through a few more varieties of IF, if and IF in just to be sure) we qualify for a Grand Final/win a flag in Perth there's no guarantee the same thing would have happened here. Take it and run, even if the way things are going your celebrations will be restricted to raising a glass on your own in front of the TV and having a big old cry.

Gary Pert had a go at picking an empty MCG over a full anywhere else in Australia. It was a classic case of flying the flag while knowing full well he had no chance of winning the argument. As expected the other 17 clubs chose option A. Which makes sense, the only interest for sides not involved (which could very well be us by that point) is flogging their allotment of tickets for the biggest possible profit. Personally, if nobody was going to be there anyway I'd rather play at Docklands.

The ultimate irony would be if cases are brought under control in the next month and we reach Saturday 25 September without a Grand Final or a lockdown. Maybe that will allow small groups of fans to watch together. Usually I'd go to the ends of the earth to avoid people, but in the still unlikely event of us being a red-hot chance of a flag, it seems right to be around others who understand. Meanwhile, I'm down for almost anything in politics, but if Victoria doesn't host the Grand Final and they still have a public holiday the day before I might join the Revolutionary Workers' Party. Unless we're not involved, then you can play it in Kabul for all I care.

But if it does go to Perth, and we're in it, they're going to need somebody from that state to hand us the premiership cup. Is there any other option?

Speaking of that wonderful man, here's an award created when we weren't sure if he was still alive....

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Harrison Petty
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Bayley Fritsch
2 - Luke Jackson
1 - Christian Petracca

Tremendous apologies to Gawn, Langdon and Salem, all of who could have snuck in for one.

It's just Petracca's luck that the week Oliver fails to score he only gets one, leaving the margin at nearly two full BOGs. Last week I incorrectly said there were seven games left, which is probably because I went to a state school. There were actually six, now there's somewhere between three and five, so the line of doom is set at exactly 25 points. 

This means the only potential winner from outside the top two is Jake Lever, if he polls almost full votes in every game and we lose our first final. Don't see how we get that far without Oliver polling three more but you never know. In recognition of his likely podium finish, the awards committee has named Jake the provisional winner of his first Seecamp.

With the two horse Hilton race untouched, the thriller is in the Stynes, where Jackson has hit the front. Importantly, his 19 hitouts both take him back over the qualifying mark and offer him some breathing space, now on 10.8 per game. It wouldn't be the biggest boilover of all time if he won (step forward Fitzpatrick/Gawn, sharing the 2013 award with odds of $50 and $45 respectively) but have to be close. Welcome to the future.

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

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
I'm going to break from convention and jointly award this to all three goals from The Bayley Fritsch Junktime Rampage. Especially the last one, because all my prejudices about watching Melbourne left me convinced he wouldn't kick it. If I was wrong about that, maybe I'm wrong that there's no chance we'll ever win a flag while I'm alive? For the weekly prize he wins a vat of industrial strength hair gel. Pickett retains the overall lead that's held since Round 2.

The All-New Bradbury Plan
The equation is simple, Footscray d. Port and we're assured of a top finish, no matter what happens in Geelong. Every other game and team can get stuffed.

Next Week
Do not adjust your sets, Melbourne (yes, that one) will play to win the minor premiership on Saturday night. It's supposed to be in Geelong, but who knows what will happen before then. The tight as a fish's arse ladder means it's not as simple as win = 1st, lose = 2nd and get a 'home' final either way. Port/Footscray on Friday si crucial, we're safe if the Dogs win (and in that case you may see some kooky late changes), but if it goes the other way we're playing to avoid dropping to third. 

The narrow percentage gap between Port and Geelong means the margins would decide which we play in the first week. If the game is played at either Melbourne ground I'd prefer a second shot at the Cats, if the AFL lose their mind and do it at Kardinia Park, then give me the Adelaide Oval any day of the week. Let's just do it the easy way and win first time around.

The first two changes are obvious, May and McDonald come back as fast as you can possibly get two players in. Making way for them are their recent replacements. Melksham departs after about six minutes of great play across two games, and 154 where he was nowhere to be seen. Smith goes out with apologies, but there's no place for him as long as May is breathing. 

I'm not keen on vandenBerg as sub, as much as it might provoke scandal and media speculation I'd give the job to Viney. Still wouldn't entirely be against Jones coming back into the side, but I just can't see it happening. 

IN: May, McDonald
OUT: Melksham, Smith (omit)
LUCKY: Harmes, Sparrow
UNLUCKY: Jones, Viney, Weideman

Don't quote me on this but I think we'll win. I don't seriously believe this from a football perspective, but am going all in on the dream, shortly before we're knocked out of the finals in straight sets.

Final Thoughts
It had to come just as we're being rooted six ways from Sunday by a pandemic but I'm ready to give full emotional investment to our finals campaign. Odds are that it still ends in disappointment, but no matter where the final breath of our season is taken I reserve the right to stick my head in a dishwasher out of despair if it doesn't end in Max Gawn holding the cup. 

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