Monday, 10 January 2022

You can win 'em all

On Saturday 29 June, 2013 we kicked off top-level women's football, our men won their second and last game of the season. Now the Melbourne Football Club may never lose another match. That's what I call progress.

You may have heard that our men's team did something absolutely bloody spectacular about four months ago. Scientists are still trying to work out what happened that night, and how close I was to dying at half time, but knowing the immeasurable joy that came from the last time we watched Melbourne play, I wasn't sure if I'd ever watch football in the same way again. There's previous form for going out on top, my peak years following Formula 1 were the lead-up to Jordan finally winning a race (the mere thought of Damon Hill at Spa still makes me misty-eyed), and several years of being right into the NRL effectively ended the moment I saw Wests Tigers win the flag in 2005. It's still the only time I've ever seen a team I follow win a major competition live, but for the first time since it seems feasible that it might happen in the AFL too. 

But no team affects me mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically like the Dees. The only other club that goes within a million miles is Wimbledon, and even all the promotions (and in latter years, great escapes from relegation) together can't match what I felt on September 25, 2021 - a day that will truly live in famy. 

You may recall that halfway through the last quarter of the Grand Final, I bawled my eyes out like a baby. There were serious doubts that I could ever take footy seriously again, whether played by men, women or other. I'm pleased to report that when Lauren Pearce beat her opponent all ends up at the first bounce and tapped the ball straight to a teammate I got a rush that suggested everything's going to be ok. Maybe I'll re-evaluate after we've won both competitions several times in a row, until then I'm still prepared to get a bit silly about Australian rules football.

There are no guarantees this AFLW season will even finish, but our chances of making finals (again a top six, though they change the rules in this competition so often that it could end up as 12 finalists plus two wildcards) were greatly enhanced by beating one of the better teams. Or at least that's what I perceived them to be, in reality they've been 1-5, 2-5 and eighth over the last three years. Forget the bit where we lost to them in 2021, Footscray may actually be shite. That would remove a little of the shine from running them around like a training drill for the first 20 minutes here, so let's go with the fantasy about them still being serious contenders.

It was, like so many of our other AFLW games over the previous five years, a one quarter win. Everything after the opening term was good enough, and plenty of players contributed siren to siren, but the win was entirely set up at the beginning. When we lost the toss and had to kick into the wind I had my first "here we go" moment of the season, expecting to let in three unanswered goals, fail to take advantage of our turn with the breeze, then heroically battle back into it after half time before kicking 0.8 in the last and losing by a point. Old psychological habits die hard. 

Instead, we flicked two fingers at the conditions and spent the first quarter gleefully kicking around the Dogs like they weren't there. There was a mention in the commentary about how much Footscray coach Nathan Bourke hates possession football and is all about exciting spectacle. I don't think he meant it to come via his team struggling to get a touch but I was certainly entertained.

Even when they did shamble forward, our backline was immense. Libby Birch was just there last year, doing a job without ever looking dominant. Maybe it was the motivation of playing against her old side, but she was back in All Australian form here. They might want to edit the nomination tape to remove the bit where she gathered the ball on the line and flubbed a five metre kick straight to an opponent. Things were going so well that we even got away with that. All of this was achieved with a negligible contribution from Karen Paxman. I've got no doubt she'll be back, but maybe it's a Jack Viney style scenario where so many good players have turned up that she doesn't need to carry the rest of the team on her back anymore.

At first, there was a sense that our lovely linking play out of defence was going to run aground on a lack of attacking power. It wouldn't be the first time. Tayla Harris took a couple of strong marks up the ground, but still felt like we were lacking the killer touch inside 50. Then again, other than when teams play the competition's Flotsam and Jetsam, does anyone have the sort of firepower I've been longing for since 2017? And now that I've seen the twice-in-a-lifetime avalanches in finals Preliminary and Grand nothing's ever going to compare, so I may as well just take what I'm offered. 

In the absence of a star goalkicker we'll just have to keep sharing the goals around. It's strange how we've had nine players kick three in a game (including Alyssa Mifsud, who can be assured that if she ever Googles herself and finds this that I'm still thinking about how good she was in season one before disappearing off the face of the earth), but nobody's ever got four. One of the equal record holders is Richelle Cranston, who randomly turned up in Footscray's backline after her stint at Geelong. This competition has an A-League style fetish for recycling players. I thought one of the Dogs players looked familiar, turns out she played two seasons for us, achieving the rare feat of being traded in and out of the same club.

Contrary to the opinions of the former AFLW player paid to spruik odds during the breaks, betting on an honest, entertaining, but still semi-professional competition is a bit weird. However, if you'd asked me to back our first goalkicker I'd have chosen - in order - Hore, Harris, D. Pearce, Zanker, and about nine other players before Casey Sherriff. That's no reflection on her ability, she has been very good over the last couple of years, but I didn't expect a defender to wander forward and kick the sort of set shot our forwards have been missing since day one.

A second goal immediately after suggested some very good times in our future. The commentators were generous to Bulldogs fans by not mentioning what had happened the last time their team was on Channel 7, but by the time Zanker kicked a third I was noting that our run against the entire Footscray Football Club (trading as Western Bulldogs) from midway through the third quarter in Perth was up to 118-8.

A three goal lead into the breeze was a good platform to build on. Alas, even after winning many more games than we've lost over the years, this side has rarely played two great quarters in a row. Logic suggested that having done that against the wind we should have piled on goals in the second. Then classic Melbourne AFLW turned up and put on 1.6. That they only got 1.0 was credit to a backline that picked off aimless kicks inside 50 with the greatest of ease. The only problem was that they'd wised up to our hardly revolutionary tactic of kicking to a free player and started to put pressure on. We'd extended the gap by a goal at half time but I was hoping for a quarter of depravity that would make every other player in the competition's liver quiver. Unless they play for Geelong, who we don't need to worry about because we're destined never to play them for premiership points.

Not many AFLW sides would have blown a 23 point halftime lead, but we spent much of the third quarter giving it a red hot go. The margin got within two kicks before Harris forcibly removed her opponent and kicked a steadier. I was unnecessarily suss about recruiting a spearhead who averaged less than a goal a game, but I'm on board for more of this:

Minor scare aside, if we weren't going to lose from 23 points in front at half time, it would have been nigh on impossible for Footscray to overhaul a five goal deficit at the end. The wind had died down, but while that could have been expected to hurt us, it also didn't do anything to help them score. Indeed they did not, adding no goals nothing by the siren. We only kicked 1.2 of our own, but with nine (plus?) weeks to play there was clearly a spot of "that'll do for now" amongst the players. 

You can understand the reluctance to go full bore when the result was beyond doubt, when there had already been a raft of injuries. It was a big night for the weird subsection of hate-watching men who ring talkback radio and pretend they're concerned for the welfare of female players. They'd have been having a fit watching players go down like nine-pins here. The worst was the Bulldogs player who blew her ACL to the bejesus belt, but at various times we had Lauren Pearce, Lily Mithen, Karen Paxman and Ali Brown on the bench for treatment. All survived in such good shape that the match report on the AFL site denies that we had any injuries at all, but when the Dogs temporarily looked like mowing us down I was bricking it.

Hore added the exclamation mark with her second, going past Tegan Cunningham to become our all-time top AFLW goalkicker. There's plenty more where that came from if we're not forced to give her away to some shitbox expansion team. There's no doubt that the rush to add four new teams to an already stretched thin talent pool is going to cause chaos next year, and no chance the league will risk Hawthorn or Essendon being as putrid as Geelong, so watch for them to be given every advantage under the sun. I'll chain myself to objects to keep a lot of our players, but Hore and Zanker are a must. Witness the bit where Eden did a video game style spin-move through traffic and took off up the ground unchallenged. It was ace, and she's pictured doing that while wearing brown in 2023 I'll go the big vom.

And on that bombshell, it was a welcome return to watching footy. No matter what happens with the pandemic I suspect I'll be doing a lot of it from home this year so may as well get used to it.  

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Eden Zanker
4 - Libby Birch
3 - Tyla Hanks
2 - Casey Sherriff
1 - Sarah Lampard

Apologies to Hore, L. Pearce, Gay and Mithen

Goal of the Week
Harris was solid most of the night, but her goal in the third quarter was a delightful hint of things to come. Here's to more opposition defenders being shoved around like shop mannequins before the year is done.

Uniform Watch
Why were our numbers so comically small? The Jaguar logo is way too high, causing them to have to squeeze in digits that look like they're off early 90s Auskick jumpers. These are the sort of things you complain about when you've got nothing serious left to worry you. 

Next Week
Unless there's widespread COVID chaos and we lose 15 players to the 'cron, it's back to our rightful place in primetime, against Richmond on Friday night. Their thumping win over St Kilda has got a question mark over it due to the Saints seemingly being shit, but there would be nothing more Melbourne AFLW than following a good win by kicking 2.11 in losing to a midtable side. In fact it would make perfect sense if we fell over here, but I don't think we will. 

The good news is that there are players to come back. Presumably, our Irish players aren't locked up in a hotel with Novak Djokovic so I'd be keen to see Goldrick back as soon as possible. Magee went from NFI to very handy at warp speed last year so she's welcome to have another go too. I searched Twitter to see if Goldrick was injured and all I found were tweets referring to how good she is at Gaelic Football, which is ace but I'm more interested in seeing her pissbolting out of our backline at speed.

Elsewhere, attempts to keep the competition afloat start with Freo and West Coast relocating here for a few weeks and playing the wackiest double header of all time at the Western Oval against the Suns and Giants.

Final Thoughts
Things can never be the same again after 25/09/2021 but I still reserve the right to go off my nut over any footy team that starts in 'Mel' and ends in 'Bourne'.

1 comment:

  1. Great read as usual. I wonder why Eliza McNamara wasn't playing?

    I'd like to see the girls buy into the one club mentality rather than seeing the AFL & AFLW teams as seperate. By this, I mean, we still see social media posts by Melbourne AFLW players supporting other AFL teams - Lil Mithen is a prime example, all over Melbourne from a AFLW perspective but still posts Tigers AFL stuff on her socials. AFL players give up on their childhood teams (or at least put them on a back shelf whilst playing for a different team).

    It's well known that Daisy supported Carlton in the AFL, I wonder whether the fact that she will one day retire as one of Melbourne greatest AFLW players has swung her around to be full blown Melbourne supporter. I think I've seen somewhere that AFL & AFLW should be called the same and I agree.

    We are one club - the oldest club and it should mean something to play for the jumper regardless of which team you play in.


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