Monday 18 March 2024

Where it all begins again

Forget the radical idea of all teams playing in the same round, nothing says "footy is back" like fans queuing at the edge of a cliff to jump off after one loss. As one of the teams lucky (?) enough to have been chosen for Spew and Vom Round, we were able to do both 'fork in toaster' and 'everything's going to be alright' by the end of Round 1. 

Fans have probably been making premature judgements after the first game since 1897, but at least they got to proceed to directly to Round 2, where all the same teams were involved. This year we've had two of the participants in the round so bad they didn't number it play each other in the second week, the other six take on sides in the first game of the season, and byes for Brisbane and Carlton after two games.

I'm sure the AFL has a long list of made-up benefits from last week, but spin until your arm falls off, the whole thing has been a cock-up. Even uncrowned Hall of Fame Legend website AFL Tables went bonkers, just threw digital hands in the air and called the first two games - get this for revolutionary - Round 1 and Round 2. I think the Demonwiki plan of Round 1A/1B was cleaner, but after 25 years doing the league's historical work for them who can blame them for refusing to rebuild the database for what should be a one-off wankfest. 

In 1897 you'd still be seven weeks away from Round 1, but in this ludicrously stretched out season we've already bounced from one side of the misery spectrum to the other by mid-March. Even if you doubt the other side is any good, the best medicine for a first-up loss is to beat somebody for premiership points at the next available opportunity. Things looked ropey at the start, and it took a long time to finally shake Footscray off, but we ended the afternoon merrily sinking the slipper into their lifeless shell, so consider Sydney to be the formation lap and we'll take this as the official start of the season.

The latest stop in the Premiership Hangover Tour nudged the Doomsday Clock back towards 'on-field', but the key danger to our fragile dignity was the next chapter of the administration's war on quiet contemplation. I'm all for Kate Roffey, but will vote for a Glenn Bartlett/Peter Lawrence group ticket if she and/or associated people keep going on about fans not making enough noise withour providing scientific evidence that it makes a jot of difference. To paraphrase Ron Barassi, you give me something to get excited about and I won't shut up. Otherwise you're just trying to force atmosphere, which took the form of fanging chart hits at 3000 decibels before the first bounce. Funnily enough, when we started kicking goals people fired up without needing somebody to yell "make some noise" like an NBL game. We've lost six consecutive finals in all competitions, you can forgive fans for pacing themselves.

Instead of worrying about what people do when they show up, the Prez should go through the membership database from Aaronson to Zakowski and ask where the rest were. I can't believe we ended up with a crowd of 44k, because at the first bounce it looked like a #fistedforever era game against Gold Coast. The more the merrier, but could any of the people hanging shit on us for not drawing more please explain what an acceptable crowd for Melbourne and Footscray at 1pm on a Sunday in mid-March is? 

People who get into games free and are paid to barrack for the code think that because Essendon and Hawthorn got 73k that people are going to come from everywhere to see (relatively) better teams, when it hasn't worked like that in about 50 years. I'm impressed so many did turn up after the comprehensive botching of the usual pre-Round 1 hype.

The announced crowd recovered some moral-highground for whinging about the MCG closing the top of the Ponsford Stand. When I expected the announced crowd to be 25k, there was an element of "I can't justifiably complain about this", but now I've got the green light to go full Karen. Unless the club was involved in trying to fake up atmosphere by packing the crowd together, I'm accusing the alleged 'People's Ground' of being tightarses who don't want to risk a sliver of their $5 million annual profit into paying for staff to patrol the area. These are the same people who turned the lights on in blazing sunshine.

It's good that they've got a sensory room for those who need it, but anything for people who just want to see live games without being around people? I know I'm abnormal, but there must be a few of us. The alternative of Row MM Olympic Stand ended in kids sitting literally next to me at half time, then some bloody family reunion breaking out during the third, leading to flouncing off (and there was a lot of flounce in it) to another section. If that wasn't enough of a live-viewing issue, there was an added degree of difficulty from that bloody camera on a wire that kept swooping down from the stands like Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 12. I'm sure home viewers had the best time since IMAX was invented but it gave me the shits. The camera failed to reappear after half time, and as TCL is now sponsoring footy (please enjoy their not at all written by AI announcement of same) I'll assume it got hacked by the Chinese government.

Once all the niche grievances were taken care of, the main event was footy, and for the first few minutes it looked like the humble fan was going to in the firing line for not providing players a more frenzied workplace environment. Against Sydney, we defended well but wondered if that was just because they had sod all good tall forwards. 'Good' is in the eye of the beholder, but the Dogs have a lot of players who can pull down marks inside 50 and they were all queuing up to get involved early. It's a blip now that you know the result, but the first two goals were a big, flashing 'oh shit' warning. Even as somebody who called for calm after the first game I saw the season flash before my eyes.

Getting hands on the ball would have helped. I don't think there was a single disposal before their first goal, and at best one flubbed handball and Salem being caught HTB before the second. I could have made a case for it going tits up against all those talls, with Marty Hore and Tom McSizzle at the same end for the first time since Carrara 2019, Blake Howes without first game surprise element etc... Enter Steven May, whose professional pride was so wounded by early setbacks that he played the rest of the first quarter like Rambo, going on a one-man crusade for justice. He crashed packs, laid clobering tackles, and was just generally ace. I did think "hope he doesn't get too excited and belt somebody", and was scared to death that his high forearm fend in the last quarter was going to end in suspension.

I didn't realise at the time that May's big tackle was on Harmes, and that he put the exclamation point on with a verbal spray. Big deal, Harmes got a week for headbutting him in the last quarter and they still cheerfully embraced at the final siren. And I'll bet the lunatic fringe of Footscray fans were delighted to see that. Harmes didn't do much to make you miss him, but could have done anything on the way out short of sticking Norm Smith's jumper between his buttocks and he'd still be a hero to me. The dickhead minority who booed him should be boiled in oil, but it's a step up from Pies fanatics (ina all senses of the word) going from flag to hooting serving players within six quarters.

Just when things were getting a bit dodgy, enter opening goal specialist Jack Viney. To prove his unexpected versatility, this was completely different to last week's effort. Instead of activating Beast Mode and powering through a pack, he converted a you-know-the-appropriate-reference style burst from the centre bounce, taking on the extra challenge of fumbling a handball, before regathering and belting it through on the run. It was a good finish, and very much needed to calm the nerves. We still didn't know if the forwards were going to kick anyway, but in an era where I expect every game to finish with both teams scoring between 50 and 70 I'll take anything on offer.

Pickett got the second, and even though he didn't add another major until the last quarter you understood how badly we missed him last week. Whether forward or midfield he produces more energy than Loy Yang B. Now we'd settled into the game, what the Dogs really needed was a goal via absurd clanger. Gawn obliged, running onto a ball in the back pocket that he could easily have let go over the line and trying a weird handball that skewed off in the wrong direction and cost a goal. After facilitating yet another Rising Star nomination in Mystery Week, I was ready for anyone from Riley Sanders to Colonel Harland Sanders to get the next one against us, but it was their other first gamer who got the MFC First Game Fun Pack. He didn't do anything else, but will always fondly recall the gift from Big Max.

Other than getting over-excited there, there's no need for the same 'woe is us' ruck content as last week because Gawn was nearly BOG. I thought Footscray might use their bonanza of tall players against him, but like defending the goalside of centre bounce stoppages at crucial stages of a Grand Final they had less other ideas. He was back to his best, in the sort of game where you can't imagine what Grundy would have done as second banana. Certainly wouldn't have contributed as much as the back-from-the-dead Ben Brown, who might have had the mobility of an Eastern European car but contested well, and took a few good saving marks along the wing.

The Dogs still had a handy lead in the dying minutes of the quarter, before going to pieces and letting us crumb a pair to regain the lead. NFI how that happened but we were never behind again, and for all the "no plan B" mockery of the coach, our recovery from a poor start was nearly flawless. 

We did have to survive one attack straight from the next bounce, but everything was going so well now that it turned into Fritsch having a Malcolm Blight style long distance torp after the siren. It missed, with the third (?) review of the quarter determining which side of the point posts it went. Everyone was hanging shit on the goal umpires for not backing themselves, but I feel bad for them because the same people will be calling for blood in the streets when they don't review a howler. After that Adelaide fiasco last year, there's only one direction review numbers are going.

May did his best to drag us back into the game with brawn, but after a decent warm-up last week, the sixth sense ball-getting was provided by who else but Clayton Oliver. He had a shitload of touches in the first quarter and never slowed down. He's had more disposals in a game, but not many better overall performances considering the pressure of everyone watching, and the lowest rungs of society desperately wanting him to fail.

I don't know - or need to know - what happened to him last year, but I sense he's much better in the club environment than left to his own devices. You could see the joy he was getting out of this, and the ovation when he left the field in the last quarter was tremendous. I don't know what he's got to redeem after missing a grand total of zero competitive games, but I'll take a redemption storyline if it ends in him playing out a glittering, legend status career with us and/or a happy, stress free life that doesn't end in medical emergencies or related drama.

The full Oliver experience was on show early in the second when he ran onto a loose ball, bumped off an opponent as he gathered, considered having a flying shot for about 0.1 seconds, before somehow seeing Neal-Bullen standing on his own near goal from the corner of his eye, and guiding a handball to him between three defenders. This left ANB to kick the most casual rolling, bouncing goal of all time. He had so long to set it up that he'd have looked a bit of a tit if it didn't get the all important last rotation as was touched through.

In an episode of Air Crash Investigation, the voiceover would have greeted this by saying "that was the moment when Bulldog Airlines Flight 1 was doomed", but we didn't officially shift them for another two quarters. That's something to go on with isn't it Dogs fans? Maybe not. 

If you'd told me a few weeks ago that there'd be an early season quarter where everything went Brown I'd have thought you meant a) Kynan, or b) the colour of Simon Goodwin's undies if we were getting thrashed. The Ben variety had flown so far under the radar that there was mass confusion when he turned up at VFL level last week, before an extra round of 'is he still around?' from casual fans when the teams were announced. Recent history suggests he doesn't make it through the full season, but he did a great job all day. The peak came here, where he first brought the ball to ground for Chandler's goal, then get one of his own after nimbly (!) stepping around a hapless defender. His second came from a completely unnecessary free kick for holding while covered by two defenders in the square, but they all count. Refer to several hundred previous posts about how if you create enough genuine contests you'll get some lucky frees.  

Down the other end we hadn't quite killed off their forward line, but it was reduced to Jamarra Ugle-Hagen marking everything but spraying kicks, while the law firm of Naughton, Lobb and English were stricken from the record. This was a triumph for the returning Marty Hore, who played in a winning AFL side for the first time since before old mate from China set us on course for a flag by eating an infected bat. Also back in the defensive winners' circle, Tom McDonald, who was very good as more of a running defender (for want of a better term) than his old old job as a flat-out key position back. I thought Tomlinson was unlucky to be dropped, but this did add an extra element of rebounding attack. He'll probably be back at full forward in six weeks when everything else fails, but I'm willing to bet now that he won't get to the cherished (by me) career average of a goal a game after giving it a 60 game head start.

As the Big Book O' Footy Cliches would have it, this is a game of inches and after they got the final goal of the first half you do wonder what would have happened if that hadn't been followed by a miss in the opening seconds after the break. Instead, we went down the other end of ANB's second and some much needed breathing space. Alas, Footscray just would not piss off and leave us to enjoy a nice day out. At about the same time the family reunion broke out in front of me, we let another goal in, and it was only a late Chandler shot that made things even remotely comfortable at the last break. 

That goal was a historical moment that will go unreported because it's strictly for sickos like me. Chandler's third made him the all-time top MFC goalkicker in jumper 37. Hard to see why that didn't make the front of the paper. A cautionary note to young players from the previous record holder Jim Mitchell, whose switch to #1 in his last season has cost him glory 75 years later. Commit to an unusual number and for the record books.

More importantly to normal people, Chandler was a world ahead of last week. Doesn't hurt to have a certain K. Pickett back in the small forward department, but in the absence of the injured Charlie Spargo I'm claiming 'Mission Accomplished' on my theory that you can't play them in the same side. Charleston hasn't had a game this good in a long time, so it's advantage to KC. That's the way I like it etc...

Also significantly better than his first outing, Jack Billings. In retrospect, it does seem silly to pick a sub who's fanging to prove himself after a long career at another club, and after doing nada off the bench in Sydney, he was really good here. He's hardly going to win our B&F and trouble the All-Australian selection committee, but if fit he could be an astute gap-filling selection. 

Running away from Footscray was embedded in our club culture on 25/09/2021, but I wasn't ready to accept a 19 point lead was enough. Last week might have been an anomaly based on occasion, opposition, available players, and conditions, but the most recent evidence of Melbourne in the last quarter was us flailing around as if drowning, reduced to accidental goals because nothing else was working.

My deepest fears got a workout when they stayed forward for the first few minutes. I was ready to demand enquiries about everything up to and including not using the sub early enough on a hot day, when Gawn marked pretty much right in front. To the joy of basic people everywhere he missed, but more importantly they went straight down the other end for a shot that would have made things uncomfortably interesting. It missed, and next thing you know Fritsch fed Petracca with a beautiful handball to goal on the run and they'd wasted their chance to set off our self-doubt.

It was not quite all over yet, because after missing all the easy shots, Footscray's last gasp came courtesy of a recycled defender who only had about two previous career goals cracking one through from distance. Didn't have any long term negative impact, but possibly only because an attack where they had all the numbers fell apart with a fumble and turned into us kicking the reply goal. 

That caused air to finally evacuate the Bulldog balloon with a big "pffffffffffft" sound, and once the body hit the floor we merrily took out some of our frustrations from last week by sticking the boots in. From there we converted a ludicrous (for us) percentage of attacks into scores, while the opposition was losing the will to live. They briefly got it back to four goals the difference with six minutes left, but even I wasn't worried about a comeback... after we turned back an attack from the next centre bounce.  Good thing it wasn't close, because Lever spent large parts of the last quarter in cramp hell. He returned at the end, god knows why, but looked likely to go into full body spasm at any moment.

ReviewMania continued when they stopped the game with the ball in play to try and work out if it had crossed the line for a point. It hadn't, so they bounced it and things were getting really silly. I've accepted that reviews are never going away, but I'd save them for deciding if the ball crossed the goal line, and for hitting the post. Somebody will go off about "what if the game was decided by a point?", but that's a false argument (and here I go with this for another year, see also Score, Expected) because one you pay it the other way, the game goes off on a different path. We'll live if a couple of points a year go the wrong way.

The Dollop of Wallop portion of the afternoon began when Pickett kicked a Pickett-esque goal from nowhere right in front of the MCC Members, delighting the only full section of the ground. Later the same people were pictured going apeshit when Oliver ran off after playing his heart out, but any of our fans who weren't moved at that point need their pulse checked. He had another chance for a running goal that would have lifted the roof off the standards, before doing the team thing and setting up JVR instead. What a man.

As usual I've only paid scant attention to the previous career of our new arrivals, but I'm reliably informed (by who else but AFL Tables) that Jack Billings once kicked five in a game. But then again so did Sam Blease and Brent Heaver. He got his first in our colours here, even if - and you'll never guess what happened next - it had to survive a video review. When the question is the ball hitting the post, why don't they got to the snicko first instead of frame-by-frame vision at the same resolution as full motion video from mid-90s video games?

Footscray's descent into madness was complete when a kick-in disaster saw Billings feed Salem a cheap one from the square, and a Brown miss on the siren is all that cost us a 50 point win. It sure didn't feel that brutal, but who doesn't love reminders of another time we unexpectedly ran up the score against this opposition?

So, the other side may be no better than mid-table mediocrity but watching us win at the MCG (or anywhere for that matter) was a nice way to kick the season off for real. The next six months is going to be a potentially fatal rollercoaster of emotions, but now you know that we can beat somebody, the mission is to do that about 20 more times, ending on a similarly sunny day at the other end of the season.

2024 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Max Gawn
3 - Steven May
2 - Christian Petracca
1 - Jack Billings

Massive apologies to Viney and Chandler. Significant apologies to Brown, Lever, McDonald, Rivers and Salem 

8 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jack Viney
3 - Judd McVee
2 - Christian Petracca, Tom Sparrow
1 - Jack Billings, Blake Howes (LEADER: Rising Star Award)

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It's welcome back Pickett, and straight to the top of the leaderboard for that out of thin air one in the last quarter. In the unlikeliest scenario ever, he shares the podium with 2x Jack Viney. I liked last week's power move goal, but the one this week was very good because he had to regather it first. You'll notice there's no JVR vs Sydney included, even though it won Goal of the Week, because that was the worst thing we've been nominated for at the SCG since Howe took Mark of the Year while we were 85 points down, then immediately botched a handball.  

1st - Kysaiah Pickett (Q4) vs Footscray
2nd - Jack Viney (Q1) vs Sydney
3rd - Jack Viney (Q1) vs Footscray

Matchday experience watch
Our first home game of the year is the activation (*spit and spew simultaneously*) equivalent of Homer Simpson and new billboard day. This year's big innovation was 'Simba Cam', which encouraged fans to hoist their child into the air and... not much else. It certainly wasn't because Disney paid us a huge pile of cash, so wait until their lawyers find out what we're up to. Either that or it'll go the way of Hogan's Heroes/Howie's Hangers when somebody trips over a seat and their child ends up in ER.

Crowd watch (incorporating White Line Fever and Sorted For G's and Whizz)
I've never seen so many young men patiently waiting for bathroom cubicles at half time. Doesn't seem like a sanitary place to whop foreign substances up your nose, but given that the gear is probably cut with 72% oven cleaner anyway, what's the difference? One distant New Year's Eve I sampled the genuine article and ended up walking from Toorak to Southbank to Richmond, via singing the Grand Old Flag out loud in Fawkner Park. Which seems like a much better use of excess energy than watching more wonky footy. 

Next week
I've given Hawthorn no respect this year, so next week will either confirm my suspicions about them or end in an embarassing reverse that will have the vultures back on our doorstep. They pushed us late last year, in a game so tedious that it caused at least one of our players to go on the rails, but on paper things should turn out ok.

Selection gets interesting after Ben Brown's surprise revival, last week it was how quickly can we get Petty back, now there's probably scope to warm him up in the Reserves. Petty has played more damaging games in the last 12 months, Brown has years of experience so you know what you're going to get, and each has lower extremities that could catch fire at any moment.

There's also a question of whether we need all these tall defenders against a side not called Footscray. As far as I'm aware, and get ready to be proven wrong when Jason Dunstall 2.0 kicks a dozen, Hawthorn isn't exactly flush for exciting marking forwards. Regardless, the Cararra Club of McDonald and Hore should be rewarded for good performances. So for once, especially because Casey lost a practice match to perennial stragglers Coburg, let's say no change. Woewodin didn't do anything wrong so he can go again as sub, and after making five changes this week let's relax and not worry about our flimsy depth for a few days.

UNLUCKY: Petty, Tomlinson

Final thoughts
Don't block out your calendar for September yet, but this was a much-needed reminder that we were only slightly off last week. If we keep enough players upright until the end of the year things can still turn out well.

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