Tuesday, 8 August 2023

Could've been worse

If you watch long enough you'll eventually see your team lose as red-hot favourites. It's probably a good sign that for everything we've done wrong this century it's hard to think of truly catastrophic upset defeats. Sure, we were so bad for so long that it was almost statistically impossible to do anything historically remarkable but to prove anyone can be involved we did give GWS their only win of 2013. Given they'd had about 115 less years to build their side the Giants were probably still occupying the moral highground anyway.

The historical gold standard for upsets will always be letting St Kilda win their first VFL game in 49, but as there's nobody left on the planet who was alive that day it's about as relevant as the Battle of Thermopylae. Even the trifecta of Sydney-related debacles from 1992 to 1994 are strictly for middle-aged enthusiasts by now. That leaves us with either of the Carlton '06 losses (but mainly the second one, by which time we knew they were shite), or falling over against the Essendon reserves a decade later. None would have been as improbable as going down to a team on a 17 game losing streak while playing for second spot.

Given that we'd have played finals, possibly still with a double chance, this would have been worse on paper than anything for nearly 30 years, but still not as hurtful as punching a gift horse in the mouth at the end of 2017. The good news is we diced with death, but still came back to win comfortably. That's four vital premiership points, an excellent reminder for everyone involved not to let their guard down, and justification for me never automatically assuming a win, no matter the state of the opposition, for several more decades.

My nerves weren't helped by the surprise return of Alastair Clarkson. I've got no time for any footy media these days so had no idea this was happening until Sunday morning. Now we had to deal with new coach bounce, against a guy who's dismantled us more times over the years than anyone other than Ross Lyon, with a squad full of players trying to avoid being executed at the end of Mad Monday. Nice of him to fondly mention his time with us in the pre-game interview, doubt he'll sit next to Phil Egan at a past player gathering.

By this point of the weekend we'd already seen Hawthorn beat Collingwood with surprising ease, and Port lose after a bunch of players went down with the trots, so I was already on high alert for weird circumstances that might affect what should have been a regulation win. It got to the point of checking the Hobart weather report to make sure there wasn't going to be a Casey Fields-style nine goal breeze to one end. Even if North Melbourne 1925 turned up (and speaking of upsets, we did nearly stuff up a finals campaign by losing to them that year) I'd be waiting for seven of our players to fall victim  to modern concussion rules by quarter time.

All this made it a lot easier to take teetering on the brink of disaster at five goals down before half time. You'd like to think a 60 point turnaround that ended in last quarter self-preservation mode indicates even another goal the other way would have been recoverable, but it would have cranked the difficulty level up to uncomfortable levels. Some people derive sexual pleasure from launching comebacks, and I think they may also be working for Collingwood on the side, but not me. It's good when they happen, but if we could go back to nice, easy wins that would be great.

It was an undignified position to find ourselves in after another weekend where most results went our way. If we did as expected it would shore up the double chance, and give us the advantage in a now very real three-corner battle for second place. Sadly West Coast fell agonisingly short of what would have been a piss funny win over Essendon, leaving them on the bottom and giving North no reason to go full Melbourne 2009 and make absolutely sure of losing. 

It shouldn't have needed that anyway. Anyone who counts chickens pre-hatch and talks about boosting percentage should be arrested, but four quarters of good, clean fun isn't too much to ask for. Think about all the times we followed the script in interstate games while no good. There was Adelaide Oval 2014, the win that made Crows fans escape like the fire alarms had gone off, but even that only followed a two game losing streak. Mind you, later that year we nearly toppled top four chasing Port at the same venue so I suppose out of the box, near misses against strugglers do happen.

For a team that hasn't won since Round 2, North have been reasonably competitive. They've only lost by over 70 three times, never by the ton (thanks to us packing up at the end last time), and four of the 17 losses have been by under 10 points, including the last two. Yes, they just lost to a West Coast side who are still 2.3% percentage points worse than us in 2013 but the point remains that they're not as historically awful as you'd expect from a side that with that sort of losing streak. 

Maybe all they need to get going is for the other side to turn up like they're in a coma, and that's where we came in. Last week I nearly got cancelled for calling bullshit on 'expected score', so this time I'm not saying anything about the 'Pressure Gauge', except that you probably didn't need a number to know that we started loose as a goose. I'm sure standing near an opponent contributes to the overall number, but any bonuses from tackling, smothering, or general corraling were reduced by them merrily kicking around us.

Occasionally they'd kick it straight back, at which point we'd hammer the ball inside 50 as quickly as possible, straight into the loving arms of an intercepting defender. We obviously got a bit excited by Richmond leaving the Grand Canyon inside 50 last week and thought there'd be more of the same here. The problem was that all the kicks were going to 30 metres out directly in front, which any AFL team will eat for breakfast.

After surviving a video review entirely because Lever looked genuine about touching it, we had to reach deep into the novelty file for the opener. When all the obvious avenues to goal are shut, Dial P for Pickett and he'll do something bonkers from the boundary line. He's so good that (as far as I'm concerned) this only ended the day as his second-best finish.

If that didn't convince North that they were involved in a futile struggle, maybe the bit where we cannoned out of the middle, and had a free shot on the run from 40 would have helped. On a rare day where it wasn't blowing a mega gale to one end, that would have been a nice early strike against opposition who probably arrived just hoping to reach the final siren with their dignity intact. 

Instead, we got a brief, horrifying flashback to the day Goldstein kicked five in Hobart. This didn't require much effort, May tried another short kick-in that didn't go where it was supposed to, Bowey fell over reaching for it, and the sound of circus music could be heard gently wafting across Bass Strait. Like Adelaide all over again, the opposition responded to an own-goal by the world's greatest full back with several more. Next time let's have Bowey doing the dinky kick to May. Even better, just hoof it as far away from goal as possible.

Enter Eddie Ford, somebody who I genuinely had no idea existed before Sunday. That's no comment on him personally, he may have a big future in the game but I haven't watched a neutral game as anything more than background noise for a decade. Surely I'd have remembered somebody who sounds like a country music pioneer, now he will forever be remembered as an inducted member of the Kingsley Klub.

His first goal came from Lever trying his luck after winning on the video review and doing the most obvious block in history. Then he was left floundering around in space while Ford marked uncontested. This will probably set the blueprint for other teams trying to negate Lever, but won't be the first time somebody's thought they've got the answers to our backline before we change the questions. Remember that loss to the Bulldogs in 2021 when their forwards were running around like ice addicts trying to throw off the matchups? That didn't last long, and hopefully neither does this.

Things got very ropey, very quickly as they looked like an attacking juggernaut and we were back to an Alice Springs level of potency. This time you couldn't blame the weather, not only was it dry but there wasn't a hint of the usual Casey Fields South winds that generally make games there unwatchable. We were just outplayed, and being picked apart at every turn.

At four goals to one I was thinking things were getting out of hand, before thumping the big red Kingsley button so hard that plastic flew off in every direction when Ford stamped his induction by saying "please sir, may I have another?" at the end. The effect was multiplied several thousand times over by the revelation that his career record was 0-18. Even at our lowest we didn't subject anyone to a start like that. The Spencil took four years to get a win, but even that only stretched to 12 losses. 

It's hard to think of any other obvious North inductees. One was declared in a Docklands game sometime after Twitter (never, ever, under any circumstances 'X') was invented because an indignant North fan wrote in to complain that it was a false nomination. Maybe it was, because I can't work out who he was. We did concede six to Aaron Edwards in a season where he averaged less than two goals a game, but he doesn't feel like a contender. If I've got more free time at the end of the season, AFLW flag defence commitments notwithstanding, I'll come up with a definitive list of contenders for us to debate over summer.

If you'd just floated over from Easter Island, nothing could possibly convince you that we were the premiership contenders. Other than the May kick-in fiasco it wasn't even like being beaten by fluky goals or zany umpiring decisions. We were just being played off the park, and the score was rapidly ticking towards a critical point. This was a high degree of difficulty test of the theory that teams can't go with us for a full four quarters. It wasn't abandon all hope yet, we were further behind than last week, but with respect to them kicking our brains in for a bit the opposition was not as good.

That was all painful viewing, but you'd think quarter time would have been time to work out what was going on and correct it. Then they kicked the first goal after the break, the margin was beyond 30, and things were getting so ludicrous that I couldn't help but laughing. In the spirit of standing there at the end of 186 thinking "they may as well kick another goal so I can say I was here for the record margin", there was a bit of "this is shit but at least it'll provide good content for years to come".

For once there was a historical precedent for not worrying. Two years ago we turned up unbeaten, gave an unnecessarily good start to a rock-bottom North, then ran them down with relative ease. This time I could have seen winning, but not without a colossal struggle. Once they were only six goals I doubted our capacity to reach that total, let alone stop them from scoring freely from every angle.

The comeback started with Petty contesting a long ball to the square in the exact fashion we've been missing all year (I was wrong etc...), ending in a goal to Pickett. Then he got one himself, the All Australian selectors started consulting the rules to see if he could be picked at full forward, and it looked like all was well in the world. Until Smith either (delete as applicable) dropped a mark in the square, wasn't paid a mark in the square, or had a mark in the square knocked out of his hands at the last minute, leading to them crumbing another and refilling my sense of dread.

That really was as good as it got for North, and by half time we'd wound the margin back to a more manageable level. This included a goal from Pickett turning Jack Ziebell inside and out multiple times in one passage of play. Somehow chief Foxtel miserablist Gerald Healy decided it Ziebell's fault that he was danced into the ground by an artist.

The real gold came right at the end, when they should have walked through a steadier but stuffed it up, then let us go the length of the field for van Rooyen to kick one after the siren. Jayden Stephenson is the reverse of a Kingsley, every time he gets the ball I feel like he'll do something comically silly. If this was NorthBlog I'd have thrown the couch through a wall at a two goal turnaround like this. You're barely holding on to what might be the upset of the year, and even if there's a definite hint that it won't last, you get the chance to put it back into double figures and do that. Putrid. But good news for us.

Now that we'd worked our way back into it, half time brought the real relief we were after. It took a little bit to get rid of them, but the tide was obviously now running in our favour and North had the staggers. They started the second half bleeding a centre clearance, botched an exit kick, then let Jack Viney of all people pull down a screamer. That led to five minutes of attacking for nowt but points, and even if the Roos were the footy equivalent of the guy who arranged to be eaten over the internet we were struggling to build up the appropriate appetite.

It took Petty doing his Tony Lockett impersonation and kicking one from the boundary line to put us in front, and at this point I was ready to carve off one or more limbs for him. Which makes what happened next so tragic (as far as sporting tragedies go). We'd already added another and were looking like walking the rest of the game when a pox kick to his lead saw him stumble and detonate his foot for the second time this season. He got away with several weeks on the sidelines when stepped on against Hawthorn, this one is reportedly at "oh fuck" level. Please refer to George Costanza for further details:

This was very bad for the rest of our season, but in the short term we could always rely on noted goalkicking substitute... Michael Hibberd. As long as we keep all our woes to key position players, this is the benefit of having Smith in the side. He didn't do a massive amount when thrown forward, but fans of statistical oddities will be pleased to know that whatever one percenters are, he had more than any of our players since 2019. At the same time Brayshaw was enjoying the freedom of the midfield to rack up the most handballs on record by anyone not called Oliver or Viney. So that's something to remember the day by.

I was still sulking about the Petty injury when Petracca and the Anal-Bullet pushed the margin beyond 20, and it had gone 2021 a lot quicker than possible. Even when North goalled from their first decent chance of the quarter they immediately left Gawn pissbolt from the middle and land the ball on JVR at the top of the square with a defender hanging off him for dear life. 

It was basically game over, but to be remembered by anyone outside of sickos like me we needed to romp to victory, or almost lose in hilarious (for neutrals) fashion. They burst out of the middle at the first bounce, King of Comedy Stephenson missed again, and that was the opening ceremony for one of the dullest last quarters you'll ever see.

We spent the next 10 minutes with the ball parked at our end for three behinds, any of which would probably have convinced North to give in. According to the on-screen graphic we'd had 98% time in forward half, and I've got no idea where the remainder came from. 

After all that North kicked the first goal and I'll admit to being a little bit scared. But not as much as when they went straight out of the middle for Eddie Kingsley to nearly pull in a mark. That would have left it a bit too close for comfort, before it drifted back into 'forgettable' territory, as it became clear they couldn't do a repeat of the first quarter and we started rotating stars to the bench en masse 2021 Prelim style. If anyone was still watching we'd have been charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

Under normal circumstances, I'd barely be comfortable with a 26 points lead and six minutes left but North's adventure was over. They'd done enough to avoid Tasmania turfing them out for being inept like Canberra did to us. Still, for all the World Cup related soccer references on offer losing the last quarter 1-0 would have left a bit of a sour taste. Lucky it wasn't close, because the quality of the coverage started fluctuating between 2023 and 2003 quality and making it hard to work out what was going on. I thought it was my internet, then I tuned into the next game and it broadcast in glorious HD with no interruptions or downscaling, so thanks for that Kayo. Why not raise prices again?

Somewhere in the middle of all this Real Player through Internet Explorer viewing Chandler got the one in 1.6, and the only concern of the last few minutes was not crippling any other key players. The only legacy of this game is that was a bit weird, and whatever happens to Petty's foot. You can't even look back at standout performances. Usually, I do the votes first then the rest of the post (which rarely ever explains why they were handed out in that order), but at the time of writing everything's filled in except them, and the order has been troubling me since Sunday.

About 10 players could justifiably get one, none who really warranted five, so if you're outraged by the next bit don't say I didn't give it much more thought than usual. This is probably a good thing, there's been a few times this year that our top bracket have done the hard work and the fringe struggled. This was one time you can call a performance flat across the board and take it as a compliment. I won't say more of the same please, but it's sure better than the alternative.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Jack Viney
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Angus Brayshaw
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Large apologies to Gawn and Hunter. Others to especially Chandler, May, McVee, Petty (*sob*) and Smith.

If you've been with us long enough you'll know that there's always a point in the season where I audit the votes and realise the leaderboard isn't right. It doesn't usually happen this late, so it's a good thing there's not a shred of drama at the top of the table. Next year I'm going to keep a spreadsheet from Round 1 to avoid a farce like this, but the end result is Petracca -1, Oliver -2 (has he not suffered enough?), May -1, Langdon -1 and Brayshaw -2, but +1 to Rivers. This may be the shoddiest record keeping since Essendon's supplement program, but I promise we've got correct weight now.

There are now at most 35 votes available, and only if we play all the finals. That means everyone below Jack Viney is gonski, and we could be less than a week away from doing a reverse IRA and changing from 'provisional' to 'official'. No alterations in the minors, with the McVee vs JVR vs Surprise Contender battle for the Hilton remaining the only live contest.
63 - Christian Petracca (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
--- Needs four finals to win ---
34 - Jack Viney
--- Done for ---
27 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
24 - Clayton Oliver
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
14 - Kysaiah Pickett
13 - Jake Lever, Trent Rivers
12 - Ed Langdon
11 - Brodie Grundy
10 - Kade Chandler
9 - Angus Brayshaw
7 - Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty
5 - Lachie Hunter
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Michael Hibberd, Jake Melksham
3 - James Jordon, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown
1 - Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen, Adam Tomlinson, Jacob van Rooyen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Pickett's first goal will get the official GOTY nomination, but I really enjoyed the second because it had the added aesthetic beauty of a grizzled veteran being run into the ground as he tried to keep up. Where was that sort of contempt for North life members the day we let Brent Harvey kick six in Hobart?  
Welcome Kysaiah back to the season leaderboard, which has gone recency bias crazy and is now made up entirely of goals from the last month.

1 - Jack Viney vs Brisbane
2 - Jake Melksham vs Brisbane
3 - Kysaiah Pickett vs North Melbourne

Media Watch
For many years Anthony Hudson was my favourite TV commentator, so I need to watch some replays and confirm that the Dwayne style pre-planned 'funnies' have only been introduced to his routine recently.

I know he's probably hoping one of the Channel 7 callers falls down a well and he can get back into the big time, but this is the worst decline of a once great caller since late-period McAvaney thought he had to play along with BT's buffoon routine.

The All New Bradbury Plan
Due to Port finishing the season with the structural integrity of a third world apartment block the plan now covers a top two finish, as well as the usual tactical voting to influence the rest of the finalists. It's also getting to the point where we have to consider what happens if we don't get a home final. I'd rather not play Brisbane and risk ruining the legacy of a great home and away win for the second consecutive year.

Collingwood d. Geelong (we're not going to finish top, try to get rid of the side most likely to win the flag from outside the top four)
North Melbourne d. Essendon (arguably, an Essendon win affects the likelihood of Geelong making it but I'm prepared to overlook this in the interests of spite)
Gold Coast d. Sydney (Likewise, this is counterproductive to not wanting Geelong to make it but we're at the junction between the Swans taking R24 seriously or giving up and playing randoms so let's hope they're demoralised. Also good for them staying ahead of Freo)
Adelaide d. Brisbane (Finally, somebody who can put Geelong away and do the right thing by us)
Hawthorn d. Footscray
Richmond d. St Kilda
GWS d. Port

... and West Coast over Freo for obvious reasons.

Next week
Last time we played Carlton they were in absolute freefall, barely resisting sacking the coach to appease nuffies. Probably a bit harsh to refer to them as a 'dead horse' at the time, now they're the infamous form team of the competition. I liked the other version better. Fans of references to the 2021 Hobart comeback will also note that we bled bulk goals in a loss to Adelaide the next week.

Due to the VFL being a shambolic competition Casey had the week off again so it's hard to justify changes. Sounds like Oliver's coming straight back, barring any more random setbacks or hospital visits. This will either end in him playing so well that internet dickheads are even more convinced of a conspiracy (though it would be the most hamfisted one since 2009), or dying of exhaustion halfway through. I doubt he'll start as sub, so hopefully we have plans B, C and D available just in case. 

My fantasy scenario is that he runs out of juice after the sub has already been used, goes forward, kicks four in the last quarter, then reunites with this guy.

As for the Petty replacement, good luck finding one. Brown is regrettably cactus, Grundy is not a goalkicker, Jefferson is too young, McSizzle is only just returning from injury, and unless you're into one of the wildest comebacks in history I don't think Schache's going to help. So for me it's Smith forward, Tomlinson or Hibberd back, and hope for the best. If he can compete in the air and bring some of our bullshit forward 50 entries to ground that might be enough. Not sure that's what we want to be building the rest of the season around, but it doesn't look like we're going to have many other options.

If Carlton are in any way serious they'll give us a massive scare here, and I wouldn't rule out having to spin the result as a 'loss we had to have', but it'll get me through the week in a better state to assume we'll struggle but win.

IN: Oliver, Tomlinson
OUT: Harmes (omit), Petty (inj)
UNLUCKY: Anyone who couldn't put themselves in the window at Casey.

Final thoughts
I'd rather be served poisonous mushrooms than watch this again, but it did its job of confirming finals, getting us a step closer to top four, increasing the chance of hosting an interstate team at home in the finals (because that worked so well last year), and generally adding to the pre-September foundations. Now, throw the master tapes off the Spirit Of Tasmania and move on.

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