Sunday 28 May 2023

All things must pass

Sometimes you win a game in such filthy fashion that any evidence should be incinerated and thrown into the ocean. Sometimes you lose the same way and want players, coaches, and all associated stakeholders to be forced to watch it on repeat for the next week with their eyes forcibly held open Clockwork Orange style. 

To say we're in a bit of trouble would be an understatement. It's one thing nearly pulling off the Great Rain Robbery last week, but this was so bad we'd have struggled to win a rematch against North without them forgetting how to count again. Things haven't always gone smoothly in the brief time we've been good again, but I can't remember many losses that were this sort of slog. Even Essendon freed us from emotional commitment early in the third quarter, this made you hold on until the last minute in the hope of undeservedly pinching it.

It's no consolation that two weeks in a row we've had the balaclava on and thievery on our minds deep in the last quarter. The end result has been zero wins, a slow slide down the ladder, and serious doubt about whether this season is going anywhere. Last week had a few minutes where we piled on goals and looked like running away with it, this was just bell-to-bell slow-motion sludge. I don't blame Oliver's injury, Hunter's suspension, umpires, name changes, or backfiring sour reactions to a departed premiership hero.  I'm struggling for alternative theories beyond a) being found out by other teams, and b) barely any improvement since last year. 

Even the good news stories like Chandler and van Rooyen have ground to a halt, and you're probably well within your rights to enter a period of mid-season mourning. The season is in no way over, especially as it's over an unprecedented number of games, but if we don't beat a good side soon things are going to get sour.

Surely the only entertainment in this rotten game for neutrals was laughing at Melbourne fans for booing Luke Jackson just before he unloaded a match-winning performance against multiple all-Australian ruckmen. On the day Jeff Farmer was presented pre-match to widespread delight, those of a booing persuasion had an early chance to theatrically sook up when Jackson got a clear possession in the opening minutes. Do what you like within reason, but I find it an embarrassing thing for adults to do at the best of times, let alone towards somebody at the centre of our greatest moment since the decimalisation. 

Controversially, I'm with the people who showed some class and applauded him. Compared to those who darted out the side door of a burning wreck in the middle of the night, his departure was done as respectfully as possible. I'm not happy that he went, but until he's caught pissing on the Norm Smith statue he's done nothing to me. I'm sure he gave less than a rats what fans thought, and knows they'll be lining up to kiss his feet at future premiership reunions, but I have MFC cultural cringe about every report of this game focusing on him stitching us up to the soundtrack of fans bleating like farm animals.

We should have known disaster was on the horizon when Nathan Buckley mysteriously appeared in the Freo coaching box. It turned out a lot like his last game at Collingwood, where an allegedly fine-tuned attacking machine was reduced to plucking goals from the arse, unable to take advantage of the opposition leaving the door open most of the game.

It wasn't a completely unexpected loss, Freo had already recovered from their dreadful start to the year. Now they're only a game behind us, and any hope of an unexpected bounty from the Jackson future picks have gone up in smoke.

Other than Petracca regularly busting out of packs with more energy than most of his teammates combined, it was hard to find any serious winners from a team that nearly won. The backline had a couple of ropey moments later, but were fantastic early. Everything the Dockers did was sent back with the greatest of ease, but the missing part of the equation was turning that into scores at the other end. The forward line looks horrible, but our rebound doesn't look even remotely dangerous so what hope do they have other than to jump in a massive pack and hope for the best. Or, alternatively, stay on the ground while a defender plucks the ball out of the air.

With not the remotest hint of a mark in scoring position we had to reach for the top drawer of novelty goals. Pickett's dribble kick from the pocket was very enjoyable, but surely he didn't engineer it bouncing over the head of the poor bastard in the square who thought he had it covered. Even if it got an assist from the novelty shape of the ball it still looked good, and as we weren't threatening to kick a traditional one any help was appreciated.

Then, after several minutes of banging away at our defence for no reward Freo went short instead and found a player standing in acres of space, which was a bit too much like last week for my liking. From the next bounce they got a tremendously bullshit free for a fictional push in the back and all the positive signs in the first 10 minutes had come to nought. This fit my theory that if you make enough decent contests in attack the umpire will eventually do something silly. For those on the neverending quest for consistency, Fritsch was touched up in a contest not long after and got stuff all. Then a perfectly good kick inside 50 was deemed not 15 metres when probably closer to 30 and I was ready for another week of everyone attempting to shift the blame for losing onto the umps.

In the spirit of nothing going right, even when we did get a free within scoring range Harmes' shot brushed the post on the way through. By the time it was taken off him, he'd already done the post-goal victory lap to the bench. From there, we kept Freo at bay until quarter time but only by dragging the quality of game down to the equivalent of watching Channel 31 via antenna from King Island in 1996. I'm not a scoring = entertainment consumer but this was dire. I've been spoiled, several years ago this would have seemed one step from the 1989 Grand Final.

There was a welcome outbreak of fun in the last minute when McDonald pulled down one of his few marks, then we got another straight from the middle. Lucky for Spargo that Fritsch stuffed the goal home from close range, because Charleston ignored a bunch of spare players in the lead-up and he'd have been in the frame for scapegoat status. This created the conditions for Harmes to take the role instead, after a shizen attempt at a fend, then spoiling a teammate at a crucial point of the last quarter. 

The narrow quarter time lead was a fair indication of where the game was at, but hardly left me expecting to run over the top of them in the last quarter. We were struggling to create good chances forward, and the backline can only do so much now that everyone's swizzed that it's not a good idea to keep stuffing the ball down their throat all day. The brother of Troy should know this better than anyone, his side's commitment to feeding us record numbers of intercept marks in Round 1, 2021 helped kickstart the greatest of all seasons.

Stoppages were a worry, and as much as Oliver would have helped there it's not like we've done all that well with him there either. I'm baffled that we narrowly won the centre clearances, until checking the stats I could easily imagine Clayts out there with the ball going nowhere near him like everyone else we put through the middle. His true value is extracting us from tight spaces, and only Petracca's occasional spelunks through crowded spaces offered any of that here. Viney may as well have been sub for all he did before half time, and the rest of the midfield was just anybody who couldn't run fast enough to get away from the stoppage. ANB was as good at defensive pressure as usual but couldn't dispose of the ball to save himself, and he wasn't alone. After doing surprisingly well in the wet, this time we did surprisingly badly in the dry. 

The only non-Petracca winning midfielder I liked was Sparrow, but the whole operation just lacked razzle-dazzle. With Langdon still as good as anonymous on his wing, Brayshaw filled in admirably on Hunter's side but I still don't want him to do it every week. 

When Freo's forward kicks landed uncontested in the arms of a defender everything was ok. The problem was when it went to ground and we had no idea how to get it out safely, ending in Salem doing the footy equivalent of throwing a hand grenade with the pin out as far away from yourself as possible with no concern where it landed. We might have got that one back, except for Fritsch and Spargo spoiling each other. Not realising it was going to be paid as a mark anyway, Bayley tried a quick snap and missed. You never know how a season will ebb and flow, but bullshit we're going to beat top teams playing like this.

After 15 minutes of making goalkicking look impossible, we had to reach into the novelty goal file again. Fritsch was running in from a tight angle, realised he'd be whinged at for not sharing, and did an unnecessary handball that luckily spilt into Harmes' path for the snap. After struggling to score for all but one big burst last week you can't tell me they're going to stick with this forward struck. JVR can't impact the game long enough yet, Sizzle can't do it naymore, and when it goes to ground the smalls aren't offering much.

We're clearly not going to win games purely with defence anymore, and Freo are no longer in the slapstick era of having Lobb and Maggie Taberer in their forward line, so I was waiting for disaster to strike. But, to be fair, I've been in that mode for 30 years. It was good that our defence was in charge of any kick more than 1.5 metres in the air, but unless we were going to kick goals the path was opened for a 44-50 loss.

Freo's main ruckman going down with injury should have helped, but it just enhanced Jackson's prospects for dicking us. I picture him sitting on the couch at night staring into the distance David Puddy style but he's going to be a shit hot player. He died in the last quarter here, but had already done more than enough to join the Grgic, SME and Watts category of ex-players to kick the shit out of us.

Our chance to lose a thriller kicked off when their first forward entry after half time found a player on his own. We replied at the first opportunity through Viney, who has otherwise worryingly done nada for two weeks. If there's a support group he won't be alone, and with stuff all other attacking opportunities we were left with Pickett trying set shots from the hardest of angles on the boundary line. If this wasn't the worst AFL game of the year I'd like to see the list of alternatives.

For now our best scoring tactic was to let the Dockers get one first, because their next was also wiped out quickly. It came via a Pickett tackle where he had his opponent in mid-air and briefly considered powerslamming him like British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith before wisely thinking twice and letting go. In a limited field of quality players Pickett had more moments than most but he still had a weird day, including an around the corner shot that didn't make the distance. 

The tits-up collapse began with a Jackson goal, causing fans to react with Big Loser Energy. Another made it 15 points at the last change, which you'd never know from listening to Gerard Misery talking about Freo like they were in complete disarray.

I was unmoved by Max trying to rally the troops, and talk of a fourth quarter record built on fruitless comebacks and thumpings of the underprivileged. Fritch's early goal did reluctantly make me sit up and take notice, shortly before we gave it back in comical fashion. For all the other crimes committed, I thought our defence had done well enough that they might hold it against the rest of the side in the event of a loss, until Lever lost moral authority by dropping the mark that cost us a goal.

Freo did their best to get us back into it, including defenders having a mid-air collision while raffling who'd pull down another optimistic long bomb inside 50. Then Sparrow made it three points, and I was ready to accept premiership points off the back of a truck. This lasted about as long as all the other goals, before they shambled one through to get more breathing space. Hello again to Pickett, who took advantage of pox defending to mark in the pocket and put us within range again. You know what happened barely a minute later, and as much as I'd have loved to snatch victory from the jaws of debacle we were getting what we deserved.

Like last week, we got a random 50 on the half back line to keep things interesting. This time Grundy tried his best to turn it into 100, but even after the umpire had to tell Jackson to get out of his way several times he didn't have the grapefruits to double the penalty. It ended in our last realistic chance anyway, when an under-pressure shank landed with Brayshaw 40 metres out. With a minute left winning still seemed unrealistic, but the commentators complaining about him not kicking it quickly enough didn't give much thought to how he had to convert in the first place. In the worst of all worlds he took his time and missed, so that was that. Maybe Gawn could have had a free 50 metres out with about 20 seconds left but what good would that have done?

And after another in our long history of dud home performances against Freo, we are officially only a favourable draw away from mid-table mediocrity. Walloping North, West Coast and (partially) Hawthorn was fun, but all the good sides have cracked the code. I'm not waving the white flag yet, because the random death spirals of the last two seasons have been recovered before the plane hit the ground but at this stage I seriously doubt our capacity to finish top four, let along make things interesting in September.

But, in a season that is proving to be weirder than most there's plenty of time for this to go either way. I'm hoping for a string of odd scenarios - involving lockdowns if that's what it takes - playing into our hands again.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Steven May
3 - Angus Brayshaw
2 - Tom Sparrow
1 - Kysaiah Pickett

Apologies to Gawn and Fritsch

If we got nothing else out of this week - and we didn't - the defender tie has been broken. Still nothing n the Hilton, which has waited long enough for JVR to do something voteworthy and is now happy to move on to Howes, Woewodin or any other random who might poll.
41 - Christian Petracca
26 - Clayton Oliver
11 - Max Gawn (JOINT LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Brodie Grundy (JOINT LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Jack Viney
8 - Kade Chandler
7 - Jake Lever, Trent Rivers
6 - Kysaiah Pickett
5 - Lachie Hunter, Ed Langdon
4 - Michael Hibberd
3 - Jake Bowey, Angus Brayshaw
2 - Ben Brown, Bayley Fritsch, Harrison Petty, Tom Sparrow
1 - Tom McDonald

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I refuse to believe Pickett somehow designed the ball to vault just as it reached the square, but nevertheless it looked good and we didn't get many others so put it in the book. For pure aesthetic value I'm promoting it to third on the overall leaderboard, both ending Chandler's participation and leaving us with 2/3 goals from losses. Happy memories.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Christian Petracca vs Gold Coast
2 - Lachie Hunter vs Port Adelaide
3 - Kysaiah Pickett vs Fremantle

The New Bradbury Plan
I'm not opening the envelope yet but the seal is about 75% ripped. For now, it could only be a top four plan, but as the ladder is shaping up to be the biggest minefield since World War I you can imagine a nightmare scenario where we're left scrambling to lose an Elimination Final to Gold Coast.

Next week
I've seen a few danger games in my time, but Carlton In Crisis is an all-hands-on-deck red alert scenario. Hopefully they react to being kicked to death by fans, media and 'stakeholders' alike by imploding, not uniting. I'd rather we weren't relying on their back-to-back Coleman Medal winners to keep slicing shots left, right and everywhere but centre. They'll have to find their way again eventually, so why not in a prime time, national TV match where everyone's busy waiting for the trapdoor to open under the coach.

We don't do selection massacres, but if I've been tempted recently this was the time. Then you look at the Casey result and they not only lost to Werribee, but the key goalkickers were Schache, Smith and Melksham, and Tomlinson got the most possessions. The professionals will know if somebody played a role etc... etc... but on face value there's not much in the tank. 

Even if Brayshaw did well on the wing, I'd very much like Hunter back. McVee could do with a break so Gus can take his spot. And for the love of all that is holy can we pick Ben Brown again? I don't give a rats that he only got one goal (though 17 kicks suggests much roaming up the ground), he knows what he's doing, was in good form before injury, and JVR could do with a rest. I know McDonald didn't do a lot here, but let's have one go at reuniting the 25/09/21 lineup before moving on. Otherwise scour the rulebook to see if there's a way we can delist him in time to be picked up by somebody who'll play him in the mid-season draft.

You'd think we'll probably win but I wouldn't be advance taunting any Blues fans in your life. Won't prove anything if we do, but if the worst happens get set for one of the shittest weekends in recent memory.

IN: B. Brown, Hunter
OUT: McVee, van Rooyen (omit)
LUCKY: Chandler, Harmes, McDonald, Viney

Final thoughts
The sort of person who thought we lost this fixture last year due to changing name must be baffled by back-to-back defeats against Yaartapulti and Walyalup. Who can be bothered complaining about politics when there's so much footy content to whinge about? 

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