Saturday, 29 July 2017

Fear of Flying

And that, Melbourne fans and sympathisers, is why we can't have nice, relaxing weeks. The last seven of 3997 days (and counting) without beating North featured so many people telling me that there was no way we'd lose that by Friday I had to halt somebody mid-conversation and ask them to hush up because the idea of not winning was stressing me out so badly.

Turns out I was at work last time we beat them anyway - appropriately enough after coming from 27 points down - so my personal winless record against North now stands at 4110 days. Back then footy was a sideline to real life, now it's left me a permanent nervous wreck.  Between North's comprehensive ownership of us for years, the public expectation of victory, having already lost to them this year, and playing at a novelty ground with suspect winds it was nearly impossible to visualise beating them.

Like Hawthorn until that wonderful game late in 2016, it doesn't help when there's no frame of reference to know what winning looks like. At least the Hawks have been winning flags left, right and centre for a decade while regularly toppling us, not peaking as Preliminary Final flotsam. And they were polite enough to beat us easily every time, instead of teasing us with close games almost every time (except the one we lost by 20 goals).

The worst part of it - at least until the last quarter started - was the suggestion that North were quite happy to tank their way through the rest of the year. Do you honestly think a team is going to do that to get pick 1 instead of 2 or 3? At least have some dignity and save it for when there's multiple picks on the line. They had so many players you'd never heard of that it could be the first ever group induction to the Kingsley Klub, but when they dropped two randoms and picked Ziebell and Tarrant I knew there were no shenanigans afoot. The ironic thing, and we'll never know unless somebody lags, would be if they were planning to subtly chuck it, then had to back out when the heat came on. I doubt it, even though there is only a tenuous link to our shenanigans in 2009 and what happened later it will still be used as the case study as to why it will do more harm than good.

All I wanted was to beat them by somewhere between 1 and 99 points. If we'd managed that you almost might have convinced me that we were safe inside the eight. Now all the old doubts spill out, last week's heroics are effectively wasted, and it's back to having to run the table against St Kilda, Brisbane and Collingwood to be certain of it. Some would say we don't deserve to be in the finals on the strength of today's performance, to which I'd say North won't be there and the games won't be played on a village oval with cyclonic winds so better to get in and hope for the best.

On the weekend of the (one eight) sixth anniversary of the day the club was blown into a million stringy bits in Geelong (complete with pretentious Brechtian post headline)  it would have been a great time to cast off the shackles of oppression and beat the piss out of somebody. But that's not what we do. Not yet anyway. Someday soon I hope we'll unload all the pent-up anger and win a game by 140, but anyone who thought we were a chance of starting here needs their head examined. I'd love to spend a season being a sunshine and lollypops "support the boys, everything's going to be OK!" person but would require a lobotomy first.

While I was trying to be positive everything in me screamed that we were going to stuff it up, right down to Simon Goodwin being the special guest On The Couch this week as if they thought the topic of conversation would be an unlikely tilt at the top four. Now they can talk about how to even make the eight we'll likely have to win three consecutive games as favourites when we've got enough trouble doing that once. No matter what happened last week when we hunted Port into submission there was just no trust in this result. This contributed to me feeling like I wanted to have a casual pre-match spew, then screaming "FUCK I HATE MELBOURNE" when North kicked the first goal of the second quarter.

Speaking of significant winds, the way things were going at my place I wasn't confident in getting through the full four quarters without the power going out. I had visions of being forced to run for the car and listen to us finally beat North on AM radio - hopefully remembering to manually open the garage door first to avoid necking myself with exhaust fumes at the crucial moment. If my reaction at the siren was anything to go by it's probably best I didn't have access to a vehicle immediately after the siren. It was bad enough having to drive somewhere 30 minutes later, forced to make a concerted effort not to run half a dozen different people off the road.

It didn't help my nerves when North won the toss and kicked with a screaming wind. It was one thing to launch a magic comeback last year that left us within a couple of seconds of victory, but you couldn't ignore that even that took going down 42-0 before finding our feet. And they did put on an even more vigorous first quarter against the Crows there earlier in the year. Imagine that, being paid big money to sell home games to a venue that actually helps the team rather than forcing them to shelter in a meat locker to stay cool.

I suppose if we'd won there'd be a different tone, but I absolutely hated watching this game. I've seen us play worse, and lose on TV by 100+ more, but there was something horribly uncomfortable about it. Not only was there fear of losing to a bottom four team for the fourth time this season, but I despise games played with a heavy wind to one end. Hooray for what floated people's boats in 1967, but they shut the Western Oval down for a reason. There's a lot to be said for low scoring games, but at least when it rains both sides are equally disadvantaged. This makes for generally terrible football (which you tend to expect when watching us), with a side-serving of terror that the opposition will do what they're supposed to and thump on a dozen goals and you'll kick 1.4. This such an offensive contest that I refuse to believe any neutrals were still watching after quarter time.

My spirits lifted when we avoided a repeat of last year's calamitous opening. We weren't playing particularly well, and initially didn't look like much chance of scoring, but at least they were being slowed. With Gawn continuing his pre-injury form last week, Majak Daw's only contribution was taking 'Neville Jetta takes on much larger men' to its logical conclusion by damn near killing Nifty in a contest. Fortunately Nev is made of kevlar, and returned to deliver another strong game with a 100% disposal efficiency. It wasn't the last time he was left to deal with one of their key position forwards, to the point where a contest against Waite with nobody else in the vicinity should have led to him walking off in frustration. He is a mastermind, and I may cause civil disorder if he doesn't make the All Australian side.

For all my anxiety about players being left in free space, and our traditionally loose defensive structure, Oscar McDonald played well. He's a good reader of the play, even if he's a bit Cale Mortony for physical presence. This covered a rare down day for Hibberd, who got plenty of touches but did nothing with them, and Frost who looked like he'd been put under heavy sedation before the first bounce.

Conceding the first goal wasn't a major drama, it was always going to be a case of how well we could restrain them before getting a bash at scoring in the second - and more importantly the last. Obviously I expected that the wind would disappear at three quarter time, leaving us high and dry. In the end it actually strengthened, making our inability to take advantage even more offensive.

When we found ourselves back in front halfway through the quarter from a pair of Garlett goals I let myself get swept away with the idea we'd go into quarter time with a lead, then bash their brains in by the long break. Again, never engage in optimism when supporting this club because there's a high percentage you'll end up disappointed. Realistically given that Viney couldn't get near it, and most of the players who could were butchering it unmercifully I should have known there was more in store.

Garlett's second was another example where we kicked one, then conceded two immediately after and were left six points worse off overall. North weren't playing all that well, but we were giving them ridiculous amounts of space and allowing them to get into positions where they could take advantage of the wind. In retrospect even though he was our best forward I don't know why they didn't just leave Tom McDonald at one end of the ground all day and try to further minimise the damage - especially in the third quarter where we'd built up a slender lead, desperately needed to stop them getting too far in front and could barely get the ball out of defence anyway.

In proper conditions you'd like to think we'd have cleaned them up. They were basically down to Ben Brown, that bloke who gleefully punched Vince in the guts last time and a cavalcade of players that even North fans probably wouldn't recognise. Nevertheless, Brown's two late goals gave them a handy lead at quarter time. We'd looked terrible, but it was only fair to wait until we'd had the advantage as well before judging. Then they bounced into an open goal 30 seconds into the quarter and my swearing was so significant it caused by significant other to pack up and shift to another room.

It's one thing to have a big breeze, but that's not much use without forwards to match. North might not have much this year, but they do have a genuine Coleman Medal contender who they practically found out the back near the bins. Throw in Waite and either of the ruckman rotating through and I was scared of a lower calibre version of Todd Goldstein marking everything that came near him inside 50 in the first quarter. On the other hand we make scoring through tall forwards look more difficult than crossing the English Channel in a bathtub.

With the talls not getting anything to their advantage, it was down to Oliver and Melksham to strike a blow for the 'others' and get us back in it. Finally the sort of pressure that smothered Port was applied and had the same effect, before being given up on again. Immediately after Milkshake's goal, McSizzle marked right in front at the top of the square, and after slamming through set shots from every part of the 50 in the last few weeks missed a sitter. Even as were starting to overhaul them I still knew this wasn't going to be our day. But was a smash and grab against the tide win too much to ask for?

That miss indirectly led to another North goal into the wind and all of a sudden I was under more pressure than a space shuttle commander. There's a certain move I do when watching games in front of the TV and everything gets too much for me, it's a lot like this, but without as much ducking of the head. But plenty of jumping up and down.


Then for the only time all day we got a run on and looked like we might be capable of treating North like a 17th place side instead of indulging them as an equal. Mind you there was still an element of luck in some of our four goals, with Melksham expertly crumbing a dodgy throw-in and Hogan thumping through a ball that dropped on the line, after initially having no idea where the ball had landed, before fortuitously turning to discover it sitting up right in front of an open goal.

In the last few minutes we had a moment of magic that is practically the only thing worth re-watching. Immediately after a Hunt goal, Petracca burst out of the middle and smashed a pass straight to McDonald. Given a longer distance to kick from he got it right this time, and for once we'd used the dying minutes of a quarter to our advantage instead of rolling over and dying.

The game really hit the skids in the third quarter, quickly settling into a pattern of North furiously attacking while we grimly defended. It was like last week, except we weren't holding onto a five goal lead. When they kicked three in a row we weren't holding any sort of lead, and it became a case of managing the damage before we could go down the other end and try to trample them in the rush, like 22 men escaping a burning building.

The performance of Jordan Lewis was more divisive than politics, religion and comedians doing blackface gags. He'd play behind the ball when kicking into the wind, and go back to his normal role when we were attacking, and though I wasn't as down on his performance as some it didn't float my boat. He might have been directing traffic and setting up the defensive effort, but every time the ball went near him it looked like we were about to concede a goal.

He did give away one - in classic Melbourne fashion to a defender who'd previously kicked six goals in 195 games - then a rotten, panicky kick led to Hogan bending over to pick it up, being bumped and suffering a broken collarbone. I'm not going to blame Lewis for the injury, the way most of our players kick any of them could have been responsible for setting up a teammate for catastrophe. It's just another fiasco in Hogan's horrible season. He's suffering the unluckiest run of any player in recent times this season, and this should do him for now. Time to go on a lengthy holiday and reload for 2018. If we make the eight from here with even the remotest forward momentum stick with what got us there.

Even worse it blew the structure of our forward line on the day to buggery. Watts didn't look any better than last week, so with Hogan out our attack basically came down to Tom McDonald in the air and Garlett lurking hopefully out the back. In an ideal world you'd have thrown Gawn down there for the whole last quarter to scare them, but as his only credible replacement in the ruck was McDonald that couldn't happen.

It was not a great day to be Mitch Hannan. He's proven a handy competitor all season, and is an almost certain winner of our Rookie of the Year award (albeit in a thin field) but he toiled away for 76% of the game without having a single kick. The last person to achieve a zero in as much time was The Spencil in Round 2, 2014 when he played 82% for doughnuts, and before that Gawn (79%) vs Freo in 2013.

It happens with ruckmen (Mark Jamar went kickless in six of his first 11 games), and Jared Rivers' 86% vs Collingwood R2 2009 is understandable for a defender, so I set out to find the last non-tall to play at least 3/4 of a game and not introduce ball to boot once. There I discovered Matthew Whelan, who also played 76% of his last game, but I'm not counting it because he was going around with a blown hamstring for tanking sentimental purposes. Time of game records are kept since 2003, and I couldn't find any small forwards or midfielders who had similar days of toil and struggle. No need to drop him immediately though, one game where you can't get near it is ok when you've got credits in the bank. If it happens again next week trade him to Siberia.

Even before Hogan's injury we didn't look much like scoring, and only got two behinds for the quarter courtesy of speculative shots by Harmes. If we'd restricted North like that in the last term we'd have won easily, but they weren't mad enough to give us such ridiculous amounts of free space and let us eventually craft goals against the flow of play. They were far better at slowly moving the ball up the ground into the breeze, while we simply couldn't handle it and usually didn't have the firepower when it got up there.

An impotent attack aside we did a reasonably good job holding them out despite spending almost the entire quarter under siege, and a six point deficit at three quarter time would have been a doddle for any team with a properly functioning attack and way to get it to them. It would have been a good time for Watts to come alive, but without Hogan to take the heat off him he was thrashed royally. Nevertheless we did level the scores within a minute through Garlett's third, and a GWS 2013 style last quarter avalanche was on. For about 90 seconds before North did what we couldn't through the entire third quarter, and they were never behind again.

Like the third quarter all the attack was to the scoring end without much reward. The difference was they'd already nabbed one on the break, and looked likely to do it again whenever they got into any space. They'd clearly done their homework, playing on quickly, changing direction and watching our players stick out a casual arm or fall over. McDonald got one more goal, but we still looked unlikely to kick a winning score. Down the other end we were lucky not to cop another, thanks only to Jetta sticking a foot out as a reaction to having the ball thumped straight at him.

After that near miss we went back to attacking for no reward, before they went down the other end against the run of play and found a player standing on his own inside 50 for the winning goal. At that point I flopped back on the couch and realised my jaw was so tightly clenched I had to consciously think about opening it before it would unlock. We missed a couple of half chances through Petracca and Hibberd , leaving us within a goal but never looking seriously like we'd get in front. That didn't mean we couldn't nick an accidental one, or see the ball inadvertently carry over three defenders like the goal North kicked in the third quarter. We could have used the conditions to reload for at least one more opportunity, but instead found the ball down the other end again. An ambitious Hunt kick into the middle floundered on Lewis not getting to the ball and we sunk without trace.

I'd jumped back on my feet when we started to attack from defence from 30 seconds left, and as that died and North attacked again I turned and delivered what was meant to be a lusty kick to the couch, only I half slipped, nearly went arse over and managed to hurt the top of my foot on the underside of the thing instead. I tried to console myself through shared distress on Twitter, and the first thing that came up was a video of $cully kicking a goal. What more do you need to know?

Stat My Bitch Up
The streak still pales in comparison to our 22 straight losses against Hawthorn from 1973 to 1984, but that only took 4012 days to accomplish. So unless we get a replay against North in the next couple of weeks this will officially be the longest we've ever gone without beating a team (pedants: we're not counting folded sides here) in the history of the VFL/AFL. The #fistedforever era is like a cold sore, even when it's not visible you know you're still infected.

2017 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Clayton Oliver
--- As much distance as is known in this galaxy ---
4 - Dom Tyson
3 - Tom McDonald
2 - Oscar McDonald
1 - Neville Jetta

Apologies to Gawn and Salem who might have had one. Please do not contact me with questions about where Lewis is or I'll set a rule to redirect your email to the spam folder.

Leaderboard
This week Clayton Oliver did not do any funny things, he just playing stirling football and grabs back the competition lead. There are only 20 votes left in the regular season, so if you're now convinced we can't make the eight you may wish to draw a dotted line across your computer screen or mobile enabled device above Christian Salem, because if we only play 22 games nobody from him down can win.

No change in the minors other than Jetta drawing one closer to Hibberd, who has gone from a contender for the overall title to under pressure for the Seecamp in a week. Gawn and Hannan still lead their respective categories.

29 - Clayton Oliver
25 - Jack Viney
24 - Michael Hibberd (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
21 - Neville Jetta
20 - Christian Petracca
16 - Jayden Hunt, Tom McDonald
15 - Nathan Jones
13 - Jeff Garlett
12 - Sam Frost, Jack Watts
8 - Christian Salem
7 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jordan Lewis, Dom Tyson
6 - James Harmes, Cameron Pedersen
5 - Oscar McDonald, Jake Melksham
4 - Mitch Hannan (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Medal for Rookie of the Year), Bernie Vince
2 - Dean Kent, Alex Neal-Bullen, Josh Wagner
1 - Jesse Hogan, Jake Spencer

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I'm tempted by Hogan's thumping kick from the line, just because of the look on his face when he realised it was sitting at his feet and ready to be booted through - but you'd have to work hard to win a weekly prize for a tap-in. Instead I'm going for Melksham's crumb in the second quarter. He wins a night in a lifeboat aboard the Spirit of Tasmania. McDonald still leads overall for his goal against the Eagles.


Fox Footy were so busy running their #1 fun fact about our losing streak into the ground that I had shots of both banners from people at the ground five minutes before we got a token fake-live look at the sides running through them.

However good the Roos are at playing the wind in Hobart their cheersquad are the opposite, with a weedy little number that felt apart on both sides under pressure. Shaun Atley will remember his 100th game for two reasons, and the second will be the way the cartoon image of him came loose and flapped around. If the curtain was big enough the whole thing might have picked up and taken off into the Derwent River. Alternatively ours was well designed and had a nice Van Diemen's Land/Demons reference. Dees 17-1-0 for the season.

Late Bannerwatch update - a report of North's flimsy Reject Shop effort inspired this person to start an account specifically to write in and complain. As we need being cocky about crepe paper on Twitter to lose to North when we haven't beaten them since MySpace was popular.
Next week
Our tour of Australia's most unlikely AFL senior venues continues as we go to Canberra to play GWS. Had we won here I'd almost have been tempted to get in the car and enjoy a live Carnival of Hate, now much to the detriment of my couch I'm not going anywhere other than the living room. The joy of never knowing what the hell this team is going to do next is that the Giants have also been in ropey form, so it's not entirely out of the question that we might win. But we won't. And then it's most likely fighting our way back into the eight from the outside.

I'd love to play Gawn forward in Hogan's absence, just to smash packs and bring the ball to ground, but I don't suppose sacrificing him and playing Pedersen or The Spencil in the middle would end well against your Mumfords, Lobbs and whoever else the Franchisers have in the ruck. Maybe they could pick Spencer as a forward and just give him the instruction to crash into people? More likely Pedersen returns unless Weideman kicks eight for Casey.

Elsewhere, in the afterglow of victory last week I made some premature comments about retaining Trengove when Vince was eligible to return as punishment to Bernie for needlessly getting himself suspended. Like a politician winning an election and throwing out all the campaign promises I am furiously walking that back now. Vince provides the odd fiasco, but also more attacking impact, and now there's some urgency about this game I'll roll over and welcome him back.

IN: Vince, Pedersen
OUT: Trengove (omit), Hogan (inj)
LUCKY: Hannan
UNLUCKY: TBD after Casey play. What happened to Ben Kennedy?

After that
A bleak future where robotic North Melbourne players enslave us all.

Final thoughts
Technically as they were called the Kangaroos for so long, we haven't beaten North Melbourne since Round 2, 1998. That was the day that definitively got me back into footy after wavering for a few years, if I wasn't a rusted on psychopath today might have sent me the other way.

6 comments:

  1. Jones in as well for either Harmes or ANB?

    ReplyDelete
  2. is hamster, finals is a different proposition, keep the glass 51% full, maintain the retch

    ReplyDelete
  3. You've got Gawn on both 5 and 7 votes. Plz fix.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a flub. Corrected now. Apologies for any distress caused.

      Delete
  4. Nice blog, Thanks to Author
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    ReplyDelete