Sunday 4 September 2022

Going the long way

In 1990, John Longmire ruined my first visit to the MCG by kicking 14 goals. All these years later 'Horse' has delivered the Kenneth Pinyan treatment again, taking his side to a home Preliminary Final via the express route, while our premiership defence is left under intensive care with the plug halfway out of the socket. 

All is not lost, despite blowing two opportunities to kill off a very good opposition with half our side way off their best, we could (and let's be honest, should) still go through to the last four. The alternative is bombing out in straight sets, but for now the most important thing is that we're still in it. Ask fellow farcical result victims Richmond and Footscray how they're feeling, having got what they deserved for not banking a double chance.

If you woke on Saturday morning with a "what happens next?" feeling, that's probably because we hadn't lost a non-sudden death final since 1961. It helps that we didn't play any for about 40 of the next 60 seasons, but it's still a unique feeling for anyone under the age of elderly. And it shit me no end because it didn't need to happen. Sydney are very good, but we matched them for most of the night and still lost without putting them under any serious pressure at the end. Like pretty much every game against them for the last few years we ran out of ways to find goals and they didn't. Now we teeter on the brink for a week before playing opposition with nothing to lose.

Being twice teased with an easy win, then falling apart to the point where players couldn't even coordinate running into an open goal, was an appropriate end to a week of stress levels approaching 'gushing nosebleed at half time of the Grand Final' levels. For the second September in a row, the coach had the literal shits, while about 14 different irritants combined to give me the metaphorical equivalent. Footy certainly featured in the top five - and hard as the Swans would be to beat, and as blah as our form has been against everyone not called Brisbane, I wanted to buy into the fairytale of romping through September on the MCG and going back-to-back at home. This didn't take into account that we seem to play better on every other ground in Australia except Cairns.

By the time Brisbane flopped over the line on Friday night courtesy of Richmond's defensive indifference, I had an even better reason to win than simply avoiding the prospect of a humiliating straight sets exit. After being uncharacteristically - and as it turns out, incorrectly - hopeful against a team that regularly strangles us, now I'm absolutely packing it at he idea of losing to a team who we've treated with contempt for the last 12 months. The added stress of Dayne Zorko and the Niggle Patrol potentially getting their revenge on us after last time is almost as bad as being eliminated from the finals race.

While I wanted to believe we'd win, and could make a very good as to how it could happen, not seeing us beat the Swans live since 2010 left me without much of frame of reference when I tried to visualise it. Some teams have all the luck, since then we've been terrible, mediocre, ok and a finals slaughtering juggernaut, while they took a couple of years detour towards the bottom and are now a genuine premiership threat again. No wonder they had so many fans there, I remember some early 1990s games where they had Brisbane Bears-like support. Everyone loves a winner, so making finals 22 of the last 27 years probably helps.

One constant in our battles with the Swans is that they hold us to frustratingly low scores. Even after a rare win against them during Winning Streak #1, we've now had 29 goals against them in three starts. The recent record didn't bode well for a repeat of Friday night's Elimination Final, where Brisbane and Richmond went at it like two drunken hobos throwing haymakers. But if you'd told me May played one of the great defensive finals on Lance Franklin, their next big thing forward would barely get a touch, and both Papley and Reid kicked just two goals each I'd have thought we'd done enough to beat them 55-50.

Instead, they pulled goals out of their arse at every turn, most of our forwards played like they'd seen a ghost, and we ran out of steam at the end. Goals via excessively administrative umpiring didn't help, but we could have removed that as a factor by capitalising on the advantage when we had it (and perhaps showing up in the last quarter), after watching the last quarter of Geelong/Collingwood being played under UFC rules, you'd be forgiven for ending the weekend with Damien Hardwick-esque disdain for the umpiring fraternity. 

It might have been the least thrilling of the four finals, but that didn't mean there wasn't more drama than Home and Away. It started in the warm-up when Bayley Fritsch took a Hogan's Heroes style tumble during a marking drill. It was just after a brief burst of rain, so I'm assuming he slid off the side of the bag after failing to allow for the bag's slippery surface. Even though he got up hobbling I didn't think any more of it until he failed to reappear in time for the national anthem. Cue panic about our leading goalkicker being replaced by Joel Smith (26 games, 1 goal), and the question of who would be plucked from the stands mid-hot dog to take his place as substitute. The search for a replacement was called off when Fritsch returned for the first bounce. This was undoubtedly a good thing, especially when the rest of the forward line went MIA but now we'll never know if Smith would have surprised us by kicking eight and taking Mark of the Millenium.

I really wasn't taking well to this finals caper. It had been such a novelty in 2018 that romping away to an early lead against Geelong was a bonus when I was just happy to be there. Now there was expectation and it was killing me. Forced to sit halfway down an aisle, I was so tense that the nervous whizz that came on five minutes before the first bounce was successfully delayed until the final siren without having to resort to an Aaron James style rogue pish. Even before the bounce it was obvious that I'd never survive a close final if we didn't have a flag in the bank. So much for calming down after the impossible dream was realised, you could have shoved a lump of coal up me and come out with diamonds. My legs were bouncing uncontrollably, and I was shivering like a withdrawing drug addict. Part of me didn't even want to be there, it was all a bit too stressful. The people on either side must have thought I was a bit of a loony, and given that I was parked in Row A of the top level of the Olympic Stand there was also the very real fear of my anxiety ending up on TV/one of those dreadful big screen segments where they try and catch innocent people out not paying attention.

If Channel 7 held out hope for another advertiser friendly shootout, this was dashed in the opening minutes, when it became clear that two sides who love contested footy were going to try to win via contesting the footy. That's the sort of slopfest I'd come for, not a repeat of the Bulldogs or Collingwood games where we traded goals for most of the game then stopped dead. In the end that's pretty much what happened, there were less goals overall, but the other side still kept on kicking them until the end, long after we'd gone quiet.

The tone of the evening was set early, with our backline knocking off every long kick with ease, before Sydney bypassed this issue by nicking one from a stoppage. That was your evening - May and Petty in particular playing brilliant defensive games, only for the Swans to find various alternative routes to goal. At the other end Pickett and Brown got their goals in early then clocked off at quarter time, while Fritsch carried on for a bit after half time before falling in the same hole as everyone else. 

Every time we've played Franklin for the last few years I've gone on about his (relatively) poor record against us, to the point where I half expected him to put on his last great performance here and single-handedly rip us apart. Then he met All-Australian full back Steven May, who offered the most comprehensive bath since Coming To America. Franklin had the last laugh due to playing in a winning team, but May was so good it's a shame that nobody's ever going to watch this game again to enjoy it. Perhaps we were being lured into a trap and Longmire was sitting in the box rubbing his hands together in glee as our best defender was tied to a fading megastar while everyone else shared in the goals. Either way, it provided a valuable niggle warmup for the rematch with Brisbane, with Lance (never Buddy) refusing May's pre-match fist-bump, engaging in verbals with him all night, then suffering a case of death after a light knock to the back.

Franklin may have ended the night on 0.0, but his most valuable contribution came from the biggest cockup. Just as he finally looked to have got a kick he so openly telegraphed playing on that Petracca was able to rush in and smother. How we laughed, until it turned out that Trac had felt the full force of the 1000 goal boot in the leg, leaving him looking crocked. He admirably battled on for the rest of the night but was nothing like his usual explosive self, which is understandable when you found out the kick had caused both a severe cork and a hairline fracture in his leg.

After Goodwin's squirts, Fritsch's fall and Petracca's smothering disaster, the quaddie of mystery injuries was completed in the last quarter when Charlie Spargo copped a Gareth John-style blow to the throat. You saw him put his hand to his neck immediately after contact, and it didn't immediately seem to have done any damage but he ended up in hospital for tests anyway. We believe Charleston's larynx is still in one piece and that there will be no effect on his comedic facial reactions. He'd done a great one after running into an open goal for our second, and going within millimetres of hitting the post from the closest possible range, breaking into a big "oh shit" cringe. The TV coverage didn't capture how good it was.

So, despite being under immense pressure we'd worked our way back in front and looked half a chance of staying in this game until the bitter end. One cause for concern was how badly Jackson was being beaten in the ruck by four club journeyman Tom Hickey. This meant any high-minded ideals about playing Gawn as a forward (note: this is a shit idea, even if he once kicked five in a Prelim) went out the window because Maximum was forced to go back in the middle and regain some control. 

I'm not into heartwarming stories that don't involve us, but there was something to be said for Hickey thrashing the pants off Goldenballs, then doing an emotional post-match interview about his kids being in hospital. His success suggests you don't necessarily need to sink millions of dollars into your ruck division. This may come as a surprise to the people who are trying to split the bill with Collingwood and recruit Brodie Grundy when Jackson bolts. As always, I defer to those who do this stuff for a living but I don't get it. Grundy isn't much younger than Gawn, and they're off their tits if they think Max can be a dangerous forward in anything other than short bursts. When you've got one of the best ruckman of a generation, who is well-known for roaming the ground taking contested marks, maybe use him in that role instead of burning him as a fish out of water full forward. Recruiting Grundy feels like Freo getting Jackson just to scoop up a big name because he's available. Maybe we've just got a shitload of short-term cap space if Jackson goes and they think you may as well spend it on a star.

Speaking of tall forwards, I presume Brown will carry on next year, and there's definitely still a role for him as far as I'm concerned, but he was not good on Friday night. Often even when he's not kicking goals he's doing something up the ground, but in this case he got one in the first term then disappeared into oblivion. Which wouldn't be so bad, except Pickett and Melksham went along for the ride. Under the circumstances, it's hard to understand how we found ourselves in the box seat halfway through two different quarters. Not, alas, the quarter that mattered.

When Fritsch got his second after the siren, then Pickett made a rare appearance for an admittedly delightful set shot straight after the restart I was desperate to believe we'd broken them, and were about to cartwheel to a magical victory. Sure Petracca was half crocked, and most of our players were struggling to come to terms with the contest, but things seemed on the verge of bursting wide open in our favour. Wrong. 

The fun started with the big May/Franklin battle, where our man gave away a couple of frees for light jostling that ended in a goal. Sure you're not allowed to whack a forearm into an opponent's back, but tell me the same sort of thing doesn't happen 20 times per game. Also, tell me that they'd pay it if the same thing happened directly in front of goal. In this case it may as well have, because a downfield free ended in a goal. We had all the momentum again during the third quarter so I'm not convinced this was the game-changing moment people wanted it to be. Certainly didn't do much for the idea of the umpires 'putting the whistle away' in September. Nor did the obsession with the guy standing 70 metres away calling frees that his colleague on the frontline wasn't interested in.

We were doing such a good job of holding their tall forwards that one goal shouldn't have mattered, so if you're looking for an incident that began our (for now temporary) demise look at Gawn's optimistic kick back inside that was intercepted and led to their second goal. For somebody of that colossal size he's a very good field kick but I don't know what he was thinking trying to pinpoint a pass into traffic here. Even if there were no good options up the line he of anybody should know that the best thing to do is get it to a contest, hopefully create a stoppage, and go again. 

Next thing you know Tom Papley, who has a punchable face but is admirably electric, has got a third, and not long after the Swans were in front. Because my life revolves around the 2021 Grand Final, all I could think was "last time we blew a lead in a final it turned out pretty well". This statement is no longer true.

A one goal half time deficit was unwelcome, but not insurmountable. What we needed was a spot of crumb, apart from Spargo nearly delivering an all-time blooper, all our goals had come from set shots. You probably can win a game with an overwhelming majority of your goals coming this way, but I'd be interested to know how many times it's happened in a hotly contested final. The comeback started with a rare Oliver set shot, before we finally got a couple of goals from open play. First, Fritsch kicked an absolute ripper on the run from the pocket, then we rocketed out of the centre Mad Minute style for another from Sparrow.

Again, we seemed to be at the start of something big but couldn't capitalise, only for them to pluck a goal from their lower colon at a forward 50 stoppage. Then, in a classic Melbourne twist we let a guy who hadn't kicked a score all season run onto a poorly cleared loose ball and rifle a shot through from distance. There wasn't much we could do about it (except maybe clear the ball effectively in the first place), but this wounded me because I knew then that there was no way this was going to end in an easy win and I didn't know if my central nervous system was up for what might have been a literal heart-stopping finish. Thanks to the Melbourne Football Club for thinking about my health and losing comfortably.

For now, things were still going our way. After doing precisely bugger all until then, Melksham continued that trend by kicking a set shot into the man on the mark. In one of the rare examples of luck going our way, the ball ricocheted to a player who was instantly mown down by Oliver for holding the ball. Consistent with his single-handed efforts to keep our faltering midfield afloat, Clayts converted his second set shot of the term and we were back in front. At this stage it looked set for another round of the lead change insanity that had marked Friday's game. 

Unfortunately there was only one more and it was permanent. Not that we didn't have a string of opportunities, but it lacked a goal from a 50 because the player wandering past wasn't quite far enough away while he had zero no impact on the kicker, and a towering mark from a key forward. By this stage we lacked key forwards entirely. Gawn panicked Hickey into giving away a free for a late goal, but we turned around and gave that straight back to be two goals down at the last change.

If there's ever been a time to halt the matchday 'entertainment' this was it, but Russell Robertson persisted with a goalkicking competition between two fans, both of who should have refused to participate due to three quarter time nerves. It was nowhere near the low point of the evening, which came when the scoreboard operator used the pause button on footage of a seagull to make it look like the bird was bopping along to the music. The MFC didn't help the situation by running a 'comedy' slot that referenced snow and the eating of cheese.

At this point I briefly turned the radio volume down (forced to listen to Triple M due to shithouse reception on all the AM stations, Mark Howard oddly kept giving a score two points off reality for the first three quarters and nobody bothered to correct him), and could hear a cockhead neutral a few seats down loudly faking an interest in the competition as an excuse to try and be funny. This may have been the same person who screamed "BUDDDDDDDDIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" when Sam Reid took a mark, and while violence doesn't solve anything I'd like to have stabbed him in the face with a fork.

We're such a weird team that you never know what's going to happen, but realistically our chances of overhauling them and staying in front were slim. I didn't know that they'd won 77% of last quarters this year, but was well aware we hadn't. Still, even as the game ebbed away from us I held a childlike hope of a comeback until the dying minutes. Even after we conceded the first goal of the quarter courtesy of Harmes clobbering an opponent with the old Tito Santana 'Flying Burrito' in a marking contest. He was lucky to just miss taking the bloke's head off and escaped with a fine. As you can understand, this went down poorly with supporters of any club who have ever have a player suspended in controversial circumstances. And they can all get stuffed.

Our last decent hope of keeping things interesting came midway through the quarter when Spargo dashed onto a loose ball in the pocket, then flung a loopy handball over the top to Melksham that we'll charitably describe as 'tired', ending in Melk falling over, not being able to get it back to Charleston running into the open goal, and Sydney escaping without conceding. In a moment of high farce the same person who'd done seagull special effects early and hit the 'Melbourne goal' button, making the lights dim and the electronic hoardings go red and blue in celebration of us turning a gilt edged chance into fuck all. One more loose snap from a one legged Petracca went wide, they kicked the sealer via a player fortuitously standing in the way of a hurried kick inside 50 and it was over.

In the dying minutes Sparrow had a consolation shot which hit the post, leading to some creature in the crowd doing a choking gesture. You could do that every time we've been three goals up against a top eight team this year and probably come out right.

Considering where we were at early in the second and third quarters, it feels strange that we were so well beaten. But then you find out that we scored from about one of 40 something rebound 50s and realise that's exactly why. At this point I don't think we're going to win a flag, but I'm willing to believe a couple of teams could facilitate one by playing into our hands. 

I'm 20kg lighter than the last time we played a final in Melbourne, but it still took Herculean effort not to eat my feelings on the way home. I was so flat I could have gone the Zinger into the Quarter Pounder and a large pizza. I don't need to see live flag to validate the experience from last year but it would be nice so was pretty flat, but the next morning I woke up and felt fine. We're a decent side who were rumbled by an even better one. It feels like this is the way the season has been heading since our first loss. In the most naked attempt at a reverse mozz in history, I'd like to say we're finished and there's absolutely NO WAY we can bounce back to win the flag from here.

2022 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Steven May
4 - Clayton Oliver
--- A distance so far you need an expensive NASA space telescope to see it ---
3 - Harrison Petty
2 - Bayley Fritsch
1 - Charlie Spargo

Apologies to Gawn, Langdon, Petracca and Viney.

And that, sports fans, is that. Even with three to play, Clayton Oliver cannot be beaten, and is for the fourth time your Allen Jakovich Medal winner. He and 5x champion Nathan Jones remain the only multiple winners - with Travis Johnstone, Brock McLean, Cameron Bruce, Aaron Davey, Brad Green, Brent Moloney, Jack Viney, Max Gawn and Christian Petracca on one each. See, not all midfielders. Just mostly. 

Appropriately, the other man who did his best to carry a side over the line also confirms a win, as Steven May pockets his second Seecamp. If you want to know how long I've been doing this, the first ever winners were jointly Nathan Carroll and Ryan Ferguson (!).

67 - Clayton Oliver (WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
45 - Christian Petracca
35 - Jack Viney
29 - Steven May (WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
27 - Max Gawn (WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
25 - Angus Brayshaw
21 - Ed Langdon
13 - Harrison Petty
12 - Kysaiah Pickett
9 - Jake Bowey, Bayley Fritsch
6 - Luke Jackson, Jake Lever, Alex Neal-Bullen
5 - James Harmes, Michael Hibberd, James Jordon, Jake Melksham
4 - Tom Sparrow
3 - Ben Brown, Christian Salem
2 - Charlie Spargo, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Toby Bedford (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Tom McDonald, Sam Weideman

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It didn't lead to anything important, but the occasion is enough to vault Bayley Fritsch into the top three for the season. Obviously you don't need explanation of why he won, almost every other goal was from a set shot, and as none won the game somebody pinging it through on the run from an obscure angle is always going to be better. For the weekly prize he gets to redo the missed national anthem, complete with Sydney having to fly back to Melbourne and participate.

1st - Pickett vs Carlton
2nd - Langdon vs Essendon
3rd - Fritsch vs Sydney

Next week
It's our old friends Brisbane again, what could possibly go wrong? Good thing there are no unresolved personal issues between players that will add unnecessary spice to the build-up. On paper that should be the only interest in this game, but beating them by 120 points combined this season means absolutely nothing now, I'm expecting them to spring zany surprises, turn the tables on us, and give Captain Courageous the last laugh.

I think we'll win, with a margin along the lines of last year's final rather than the twin porkings this year, but write the Lions off at your own peril. Charlie Cameron gets another chance to kick a goal against Michael Hibberd, Cam Rayner will be raring to go after a week off, and the ruckman who'll come in as a concussion replacement is so obscure that he may as well start filling in a Kingsley application now.

Working in our favour is the knowledge that Brisbane won't get the same sort of defence-free, laissez-faire contest that Richmond provided. I was disappointed that the Tigers stuffed it up because not only do I want to avoid the chance of a team getting Niggle Revenge on us, but if we have to defend our premiership the hard way I wanted redemption to come against the best side of its generation. Now we risk torching the legacy of that first half in Round 23. But, I guess we ran the risk of doing the same to Gawn's kick after the siren in Geelong and next thing you know goals were raining on them in the Prelim so what do I know.

Potential changes are complicated by Casey winning their first final and getting a week off, just when we could have done with fringe players tearing at the ball like wild dogs to try and impress. I assume this means they'll be too scared to pick McSizzle, but if the problem is getting miles into his legs why not round up a few of the no chance players, pay some Casey types to show up on a Sunday afternoon, and play a scratch match in his honour. I'm still calling for him to come in - otherwise just do a lol selection and play Smith forward, maybe he'll be inspired by kicking four against them in a practice match before his grundle fell apart?

As for the outs, it's hard when you haven't got confidence in anyone to come in. Melksham was remarkably dreadful here, but that's one dud performance (admittedly at a terrible time) when ANB has been rotten for weeks. I think chucking them both in one go is a bit drastic. So if McDonald isn't right the Milk survives.

IN: Bedford, T. McDonald
OUT: Melksham, Neal-Bullen (omit)
LUCKY: Brown
UNLUCKY: Bowey, Smith, van Rooyen

Jumping straight to a prelim would have suited my convoluted schedule wonderfully, now I'm about an 8.7% chance of being able to attend in person. So be it, even if that feels like the worst commitment to finals since riding out the last three weeks of 2005 in agony, then listening the Elimination Final debacle on a radio at work. Four years ago I'd have murdered a man to get into either of the MCG finals and booked a flight to Perth on my phone in the dying minutes of the semi, now I couldn't be any further from that point in my life without converting to Latvian Orthodox. That's my problem, it won't make a lick of difference to the result. Besides, considering my recent record you should consider taking up a collection to keep me away.

Final thoughts
If we go out via consecutive losses to South Melbourne and Fitzroy, the AFL should make us play University in Prelim week.


  1. Credit to Sydney for their niggling tactics. We fell for the trap when we should have concentrated on the footy. Of course it’s the retaliator (May) who is sanctioned after copping much of the same from Franklin earlier.

  2. ANB...Petrified. Hard to watch.


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