Monday, 20 March 2023

Are you not entertained?

The moment the fixture arrived I was filled with panic about Round 1. In the dark times you weren't concerned about such things, you'd usually expect to lose so there wasn't much to be worried about. Even against sides at our level you knew that win, lose or draw the season wasn't going anywhere anyway so it didn't really matter what happened. Not anymore. 

This year I felt the weight of expectation like never before, and it destroyed my enjoyment of the build-up to the season. In the last week people who'd previously identified me as a footy nuffy (correction: MFC nuffy, AFL interested observer) kept asking if I was excited, and were almost offended when I said "no, I'm scared". I don't think it how you're supposed to do it.

We're in such a good position (September 2022 physical collapse notwithstanding) that it's hard to comprehend only entering Round 1 off the back of a finals season twice in 15 years. In 2019 the 'difficult' off-season meant nobody was really surprised when it went teet up, and last year the build-up to unfurling of flag kept the fervour up all summer. Now we're not defending premiers, but are a popular tip to be one in 12 months and that left me in emotional disarray. I was only half joking saying we should have resigned from the league after the premiership so nobody could ever beat us again. After a taste of the good life I can't handle the idea of being disappointed again.

As much as coming from behind to tonk a top eight side doesn't guarantee a thing for the future, it was much appreciated by those of us with a nervous disposition. Having done my maddest "be there unless you're dead" support at the club's lowest ebb I'm still just happy we're not going to endless the season winless. Come back and see how that's holding up if we finish 1-22.

So, as you can see I really needed this. Not enough to crowbar a trip to the MCG into my ludicrous semi-rural schedule. The way it's going I'll be lucky to see five games in person this year so I've come to terms with watching at home, even in this case via a shitbox laptop that couldn't adequately connect to a wi-fi point three metres away, leaving the footage scrolling between standard, low and no definition. At one point in the second quarter it was like watching International Soccer on the Commodore 64, but I just don't have the time, energy, or commitment left to be there every week. I'd love to, and feel guilty that I'm not. Long term readers will remember that my last shift work career ended just in time for the 2007 season, so no doubt my next full time return will also coincide with another Great Deepression.

For now, sit back and enjoy the show whether you're watching at the ground, home, or while being held hostage by militants in the Sahara Desert. If things continue on this trajectory a lot of sides will hang with us for half a game before falling away - and along the way somebody is going to get wrecked. I can't ever see us kicking a massive score, but a 140-10 style porking must be on the cards somewhere in 2023. 

It won't be much consolation to Dogs fans but this continued the series of games between the sides with insane momentum shifts. Given that the AFL draw is a total rort anyway I can't understand why we don't play them again. I know the league has to make room for us to go to Kardinia Park every bloody year, but another match between sides with an exciting recent history and a hint of animosity (even before we started swapping players like footy cards and Pickett belted somebody) would be much more interesting than rematches against Carlton or Richmond. At least this way Footscray can't get end of season revenge without making finals first. Which they very well could do, I didn't think they played too badly here, we were just better for a lot longer.

We've had the better of the free trade agreement between the sides. They got Mitch Hannan, who hasn't done anything since the 2021 Preliminary Final, and Oskar Baker who was never more than a peripheral figure with us, while we've come up with two of their Grand Final team. And I bet both Lachie Hunter and Josh Schache just love sharing memories of that night with their new teammates. Other than the usual footy fan pantomime I don't know why Hunter needed booing but thought the retaliatory booing towards Baker dragged us down to the level of West Coast fans.

If you were capable of looking behind general opening round tension, we had soap opera style plots coming out the yin yang. The long awaited pairing of Grundy and Gawn, Hunter vs his old side, a defence without its lynchpin, a forward line without its top goalkicker, midfield Pickett, and a pair of debutantes. By 10:30pm most of the storylines had been resolved in the affirmative - neither Grundy or Hunter had their best games but formed vital parts of the machine, the backline held up against Footscray's cavalcade of talls, we spread goals widely enough to cover the absence of Fritsch, Pickett found a way to excel both midfield and forward, and the first gamer who was in a position to do the most damage played like he'd been at it for years. Tick, tick, tick etc...

Independent observers might have thought everything was coming up red and blue when we dominated the first 10 minutes, but we saw a start like this go south so often in 2022 that fanatical viewers knew to stay at DEFCON 1. This despite a delightful first goal where Kade Chandler took advantage of being freed from substitution duties for the first time in two years to put the loveliest of all passes on Pickett. 

Obviously Channel 7's Chandler fun fact was that he'd been sub four times last year because they kept mentioning it, but I forgot that he came on the ground every time last year. I've got him permanently stereotyped by his 2021 Tracksuit Time period, and after finally getting a few quarters in a row dating back to the practice games I was very happy to see him do well here. He flubbed a couple of gettable-to-piss easy set shots but was otherwise completely at home. Excellent forward pressure, good disposal and should easily hold his spot. It would be nice for him to get some reward when any number of dud teams might have been happy to get him under the 'recruit fringe players from good sides' rule and guarantee a weekly game.

Speaking of guarantees, I'm glad we're beyond whatever contractual shenanigans/coincidence that landed Brayshaw back in the midfield last year. You wouldn't have him kick for your life but he's good for interceptions and general collection of ball at ground level, and I think we've got enough other players to go through the middle that he's not needed there as anything more than a surprise option.

When the Chandler Goal Assist Machine activated again to set up Gawn absolutely everything was going our way. Their forward line was obviously meant to stretch us, but you've got to get the ball down there effectively in the first place and they were left doing hit and hope bombs that we mopped up with the greatest of ease. Naughton beat Petty in a couple of contests but the rest of them did next to nothing, and the whole operation fell apart when one had to be sent to defence to cover the injured Liam Jones. 

The last we saw of Jones he was doing a neck from watching so many goals go over his head at Carlton and he went down with more neck related issues here. First it looked like a leg complaint, then something to do with an arm. Insert COVID vaccine jokes in the space provided. At this stage of life I couldn't care less if he got the jab or not but am mortally offended at the idea of anybody leaving a million dollars on the table for ideological reasons. For that amount I'd take an experimental cocktail of drugs sourced from the glands of a poisonous Russian ferret ("there's an idea" - Essendon), and maybe this was the universe's way of saying he should have just rorted a vaccine certificate off the internet like everyone else.

In Jones' absence, much of the defensive burden fell on conversion job Josh Bruce, forced into defence because the Dogs have recruited so many forwards. By the end they were probably scrambling to find a receipt for Rory Lobb so there might be life in him yet. Here's an argument for in-season trading, there must be a shit team somewhere that needs a key forward and could save him from ending his career in this undignified fashion. At one point when he was on Ben Brown we got the historical curiosity of the two most recent players to kick 10 in a game playing on each other. Surely this hasn't gone near happening since Stephen Silvagni randomly plundered Fitzroy in 1993 before going back into defence.  

We were moving the ball and escaping defence so well that the only way the Dogs were going to get a goal was from a defensive blunder. Enter Adam Tomlinson (who should not be held to Steven May's standard because who's ever going to reach that?) and a short kick that didn't clear the defender turned into their opener. Now, for the first time, we were on the back foot and all that early dominance was turned into a Bulldog lead not long after. New year, same concerns about not being able to go on with a start. For now I was back to contemplating how miserable I'd be in the event of a loss.

It doesn't matter when you've won by lots, but at the time I was in an undeservedly bad mood. It goes to show that no matter how much I struggle to get going for a season, I'll never stop the wild mood swings from watching this side - flag or no flag. Life must be a lot easier when you go for a team but ultimately don't care what happens.

We got back in front via Sparrow towards quarter time, but were aided by some rank goalkicking at the other end. That's gimmick infringement, we're usually the ones spraying shots from every point on the compass. Regardless of only being in front due to peg leg kicking, I was satisfied by the break that even if we didn't win here, it would just be a blip on the radar. This didn't factor in upcoming games against good sides, or the near certainty of Sam Weideman kicking seven against us a few weeks later, but when has there ever been anything rational about following footy?

This good mood lasted about 90 seconds into the second quarter when the Dogs thumped through a long goal and I instantly went back to wishing I could still watch TV with my head in the oven. Speaking of thumping, it was about this point where Kysaiah Pickett livened things up by doing this: 

The phrase "you don't see that every day" is overused, but this had to qualify. Ironically, the man on page five of the 2023 Tribunal Guidelines went home with a two week holiday. We're not even bothering to challenge, probably having pored over the Zapruder film all weekend to try and find an angle where it doesn't collect the head before realising there's no defence by modern standards. Even a few years ago you'd have got away with it because the victim bounced to his feet and played on - not even upset enough to join the post bump jostle - but the week the AFL got sued by repeat concussion victims wasn't the time to introduce human cannonball to the competition. 

He'll pay the recklessness tax, and all the muppets trying to get him four or five weeks can calm down with the manufactured outrage. The good news is that he got away with punching Jack Macrae square in the chops during the aftermath.

In the biggest upset since Melbourne/Essendon 2013, this assassination attempt has not (at the time of writing) led to race hate controversy from some ill-bred humanoid. This is undoubtedly a good thing. I guess these days people get more upset about not landing multis than players nearly getting a dose of instant CTE.

If we'd been the one to lose by 50 from there somebody (David King) would have mournfully gone on about Pickett "regaining the trust of his teammates". Instead the Dogs botched a few excellent chances, the sides split the next two goals, then Pickett went back to wrecking them for the rest of the night - fortunately at ground level rather than diagonally. 

At quarter time I'd been darkly muttering about not putting sides away when given the chance, but Footscray's woeful goalkicking came back to fatally haunt them. From the 20 minute mark we went boonta Grand Final style, lobbing through five in a row before the siren to take control. The obvious favourite was Pickett getting a free kick so administrative that even he wasn't sure if it was for or against him. If the same thing happened to us I'd have contemplated murder, but that's why you want league leading agitators on your side not against you.

Now we were a little over three goals up, Lachie Hunter was probably huffing oxygen to stop the flashbacks to 25/09/2021, and Footscray looked rattled. To our credit we did go on to wallop them, but for the sake of my blood pressure it could have happened a bit quicker than it did. They got two of the first three goals after the break - as well as Naughton being denied a goal that could very well have gone through if anybody bothered to review it - and I was packing it over another big shift in the game. 

In a flashback to last year, our tall forwards didn't look particularly terrifying but like the backline they worked so well as a unit that it didn't matter. Sure McDonald didn't have a shot until after the siren (another Grand Final flashback - this time he didn't have a human pyramid forming next door and missed) but does anyone think Brown kicks four without McSizzle taking some of the focus?  At one point Brown thought he was early era McDonald, taking back-to-back intercept marks in defence. Both Gawn and Grundy wandered through the forward 50 to do damage throughout the night, so even if Maximum's around-the-ground game was 10 times better Brodie did his bit. His career won't last as long as Luke Jackson's but he can contribute right now while we're in the (incoming cliche alert) window.

We finally broke them with 1/3 genius, 2/3 luck - Oliver responding to their goal by hurling out of the centre like a missile was the genius part, but the rest was fortune. The ball bounced over everyone inside 50, where Brown ran onto it and briefly got tangled in a flurry of flailing limbs before kicking through the open goal. Footscray got the next, but we responded next to straight away again. Finally, after four years of mainly sitting around being forced to do nothing, it was finally time for Kade Chandler to shrug off his tracksuit and pre-season specialist tags and kick an AFL goal. 

And what a lovely goal it was too, turning a defender inside out first before snapping from the pocket. It was not only reward for years of being treated with contempt at selection, but for making the most of his opportunity on this night. His forward pressure was good, he linked up well with teammates, and had kicked a sitter on the three quarter time siren he may have even been in the mix for votes. That miss left us just under five goals up and the faintest possibility of falling over. Based on pre-season, last year, and most previous meetings against the Dogs this was unlikely but you couldn't rule it out.

Like certain other games against them where we'd put on a burst of goals I needed a steadier at the start of the last quarter to know everything was going to be alright. Enter Jake Melksham, freed from substitute duties to finish off an end-to-end move so erotic it should have been restricted to fans 18+.

It's against the spirit of the game to present this in portrait rather than landscape, but it deserves to be seen regardless:

Just in case that NQR flange Elon Musk turns Twitter off and we lose all the embeds of great moments, let the record show that it involved Gawn spoiling, Oliver gathering from mid-air in traffic, and unlocking the vault with a delightful handball to Pickett and thumping a tremendous kick to Melksham, who skidded it through from outside 50. From it hitting Gawn's hand in the back pocket to crossing the line was the best 15 seconds I've had so far in 2023. Melk hasn't had that much fun in a short form of the game since dominating AFLX. The commentators weren't ready for him, we were told he was "preparing to come on" early in the last quarter, about 90 seconds after he'd run past the camera, and even when he was kicking the goal the not-that-one Al Nicholson thought it was Harmes.

It was nice to see the sub get involved so early, we used it so infrequently the last couple of years I think the only time it had any impact was Chandler murdering that West Coast player in a tackle. Sadly I've got to admit I've come to terms with this new version. A decade ago I was ready to set myself on fire in protest about subs, but after two seasons of players sitting on the bench for four quarters waiting for a teammate to be injured, the return of ad hoc changes felt like a good thing. In the absence of a deflating Round 1 loss that's my excuse to use this image:

It helps that this time the sub is an extra player, rather than the 2011 method where they just made an interchangist wear a green vest as if we wouldn't notice them illegally sneaking on. 

That was very much it, and after a consolation goal we went back to kicking the piss out of them. Even when Petracca failed in an a slapstick attempt to toepoke a goal through from the square nobody cared because the game was long dead. We'd done everything required, nobody got injured, and while I could have done without Mr. Electricity getting himself rubbed out via excess enthusiasm it was hard to fault anything. Does it translate to even better teams? No idea. I don't even know if it translates to Round 3 at this point, but it was the start I needed to avoid keeling over dead from stress.  

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Kysaiah Pickett
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Jake Lever
1 - Clayton Oliver

Apologies to Bowey, Brayshaw, Brown, Chandler, Hunter, and McVee.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Apologies to the coast-to-coast masterclass at the end, but I can't go beyond the romantic notions of Chandler's first. For the weekly prize he wins a commemorative golden tracksuit, in the same way Brazil got to keep the World Cup after winning three times.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Kade Chandler vs Footscray
2 - Jake Melksham vs Footscray
3 - Ben Brown Q4 vs Footscray 

Media Watch (incorporating Press Conference Punch On Watch)
I was hoping we'd get a repeat of Stressed Bevo nearly garotting a journalist at the press conference but had no time to stay around and find out. I'll just wait for anybody who angered him to have their personal scandals exposed in the next few days. I'll be nice in case the dirt unit starts digging through my archives. 

Next Week
It's Friday night against our old friends Brisbane, fresh from shattering like a fine Chinese vase under the lightest of pressure from Port Adelaide. Based on this you like to think it'll go more like Round 23 than the Semi Final but beware teams on the rebound. The difference is this time we won't be at the tail end of the season with half the squad ready to keel over and die from exhaustion.

Those who remember the glory years of picking through the lower reaches of the list to try and find 22 competent players each week will appreciate that now we've got too many players to fit in the side. 10 years ago you'd have pushed your grandmother down the stairs to get all of Fritsch, May, Salem and Viney in the side the moment they were fit but now it's not so obvious. 

May for Tomlinson (with apologies) goes with saying, and you've got to get Fritsch into the forward line somewhere but I'm not as concerned about the other two. Salem is 141 games ahead of McVee but no point jamming him into the side without practice games, and Viney's becoming so iconic for injuries below the knee that I'm prepared to be conservative with him. Give it another week and then rotate Sparrow out to make room. Melksham did enough to retain the coveted position of substitute, until Pickett got rubbed out. May as well just play him from the start now.

I never expect to win, but given our recent record against Brisbane everywhere other than the MCG I'm confident we can give their death spiral down the ladder a helping hand. Watch for their socially aware, politically correct fans to heckle Harrison Petty for once publicly having feelings. And for the love of all that is holy, Jake Lever please just hand the bloody ball back if there's a free in the dying moments of a thriller.

IN: Fritsch, May, Melksham
OUT: Pickett (susp), Laurie, Tomlinson (omit)
LUCKY: Harmes
UNLUCKY: Melksham, Salem, Viney

Final thoughts
This was very good, and puts me in a much better frame of mind for the rest of the season but nothing serious has ever been won in the opening round. I'm certainly comfortable that unless the entire list catches creeping cruds we'll be right in the mix at the end, and in mid-March what more can you ask for? 

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