Sunday, 23 July 2017

The plot thickens

It's appropriate that we haven't played Port at the MCG since the Round 1, 2013 disaster that made that red-faced guy hanging over the fence after the siren into an internet meme. A lot has changed since then, if you'd told me four years later we'd be a red-hot chance of making the finals I'd have scoffed, but some things remain the same. That day as I sat in the Ponsford waiting for the game to start I read an article about how North Korea were set to dump some sort of nuclear bomb on us, and by three quarter time was left hoping for a direct hit. Now we're reading precisely the same story, and you get the feeling that World War III will probably break out minutes after we make the Grand Final.

For now the threat of global thermonuclear war is a distant second in the things I'm most worried about. I'll study my copy of When The Wind Blows (NB: a harrowing book about the effects of radioactive fallout, not a guide to playing Bellerive Oval) when the bomb drops, for now all my fears, anxieties and tensions are wrapped up in our run to September.

Port may not have beaten anybody in the eight at the time of writing, but I still went in treating this like a free hit. A win would most certainly help us fortify our spot in the eight, but the more likely scenario of a loss would see us having to fight our way in from the outside. Even when the most anticipated Footy Teams Day for years (even more than Free Ricky Petterd) delivered the most star-studded set of ins for any non-franchise team in the draft era (#1, #2, #3, and #9 draft picks, plus Jack Viney who we must have done dodgy shit to get on the cheap) I wasn't allowing myself to get excited. I expected they'd try and complete the bingo card by parachuting Jimmy Toumpas in as a late change so he could have 54 touches.

Even without a win here we'd still be in the mix if we beat all the teams below us, so in the grand scheme of things it shouldn't have mattered but in a weaker moment I did allow myself to think how appropriate it would be to come nearly entirely full circle from that disastrous 2013 opener. And if watching us quite literally scare Port into submission for the first 50 minutes didn't focus you on how we've come since then you're even harder to please than me. Alternatively you may wish to focus on our bang-up defensive job in the last that killed Port off. Or the way Petracca is regularly celebrating sealers by smooching people. It's all good.

What's got me flummoxed about today is how we simultaneously played brilliantly and terribly at times. There were still the one metre handballs to a standing teammate, and the desperate kicks to nobody in particular, but I suppose it all balances out in the end when you so comprehensively unnerve an opposition that they start doing the work for you.

The returnees were a mixed bag, like in an office when you've got people coming back from time off some of them kick the door in and dominate straight away, others (e.g. me) are in pieces for at least a week before getting back into the swing of things. Viney and Salem were the door kickers, Watts and Tyson got a 'much needed run'. Which is a polite - but entirely without prejudice - way of saying they were rubbish. Plenty of time for them yet, like Hogan and Gawn last week they can build from ehre.

Nerves weren't settled until there was about 90 seconds left, but I got as close as possible to a sedative in the opening 30 seconds when we romped out of the middle, kicked at Sizzle, he drew a free and converted another flawless set-shot. It was a 50% sign of things to come, Tom continued to battle hard without kicking another goal, but for the rest of the first half Max Gawn treated the man he will delegate All-Australian ruck duties to in his absence this year like a putz.

After a couple of down weeks regaining his touch there was much concern about how Maximum was going to handle Patrick Ryder, and the answer was by thrashing the pants off him. At one point he even threw in a charge-down tackle for holding the ball, one of the few times all day that the decision was so obvious that the umpires couldn't help but pay it. When he went off injured in the third quarter I was preparing the cyanide pills (while Jake Spencer was ordering champagne), and while he wasn't as dominant after returning it was still a welcome demolition job on a top ruckman. To complete his set of leg troubles it's purported to be an ankle injury, but presumably not one that will keep him out next week.

If the first goal was gifted by a free kick - and per capita has any forward ever drawn so many as Tom McDonald since Queen's Birthday? - the second was a thing of beauty. Alex Neal-Bullen has gone ballistic over the last couple of weeks, and his square up from the pocket to Petracca standing on his own 20m out directly in front was molto bene. Sometimes you want players to be more selfish when running into goal, but his wonderful kick was the perfect example of good vision. The Bullet is an underrated defensive player, but he's starting to be more damaging with the ball as well now and I'm getting quite a taste for it. Roll my posts about how he reminded me of a better Cale Morton rather than the ones where I declared myself over him.

As the margin continued to mount throughout the first quarter it was like a David Copperfield illusion, you kind of knew how we were doing it but couldn't exactly work out how. Our pressure wiped Port's structure out like a small village in the path of a volcanic landslide, but were still struggling to go forward in any convincing fashion. If Watts was 100% fit I'll go hee, adding another milestone game disappointment to go alongside his 100th when he had seven touches, was sub the next week then dropped himself. His 50th was good though. At least it showed that we've got other avenues to goal, and in the last quarter we proved that even when scoring dries up we've got the capability of suffocating sides. Who'd have thought that stopping teams from bursting into the open and linking up from one end to the other via five free players would have something about it?

We've all enjoyed Sizzle commanding the forward line like a general, but there's clearly still some work to be done with the structure. It's not such much the forwards themselves as the entries. Even if you take out the deliberate, long kicks to packs there were dozens of times where players went see ball/get ball/thump ball to a Port defender. It was as if we'd conceded that 80% of hopeful long kicks would be cut off, but that the magic generated by the other 20% of the forward entries would make up for it. One of these caused the third goal, when an unfortunate Port defender bravely backed into a contest, only to be flattened and for the ball to bounce straight into Hogan's hands for a David Schwarz-esque snap through an unguarded goal.

At 20-3 I was unnecessarily beginning to panic. I can't help it, even when I know how well we're playing I'm just waiting for something to go wrong. Other than creating and missing a couple of reasonable chance Port were in disarray, and it was so unlike us to be handing out a strangling like this unless it was self-applied for sexual gratification. When the margin crossed 24 I began preparing for a reverse stranglewank where we threw it all away - or at least went close to it - from a dominant position.

When Garlett danced through the attacking 50, shimmied in both directions a couple of times, ran into an open goal and thumped the ball into the post I thought it was a sign from the heavens that we weren't allowed to have nice things, and how not taking chances would eventually come back to haunt us. It might have if Port had shown up sometime before 3.30pm. Garlett hit the other post shortly after, admittedly this time from a much trickier position. At least we were making chances and keeping Port in a state of constant terror.

In the midst of this comprehensive rodgering of Port's premiership aspirations stood Jack Viney, a man who was supposed to be out for another two weeks with a foot complaint but was instead bashing through anybody in his path to rack up a shitload of disposals. Like Garlett, Gawn, and almost everyone else other than Michael Hibberd he couldn't carry it into the second half but was crucial in setting up the margin that won the game.

Speaking of Hibberd, he must be firming as a chance at following in the footsteps of Carl Ditterich, Laurie Fowler and Stephen Icke as imports to win the Best and Fairest in their first year. He was the co-highlight of our defence, along with Neville Jetta taking the usually terrifying Robbie Gray to the cleaners in the first half. Elsewhere Oscar McDonald is reading the play beautifully, even if his disposals and one-on-one contests still make me shudder, and Jack Trengove made a welcome return in a new role as a defender. He was solid down back, and still knows what to do despite having played about five senior games in five years. He didn't really have much attacking impact, but that's what you've got Hibberd and Salem for. Either way, depending on what happens against North I wouldn't be adverse to giving Vince an extra week out to think about what he's done so Jack can string some games together.

Obviously I was happy at the end of a quarter where we led by 27 points, but it still felt unusual. Like how we were murdering them through the middle, and how their players were so spooked by perceived pressure that they were nearly falling victim to it before it happened. This was very un-Melbourne like, and if it's our future than we're all going to have good times for years to come. Right now I'd just appreciate it transferring to Hobart next Saturday.

As if the crowd wasn't warm enough after a quarter of psychologically dominating our alleged betters, the next thing you knew Jeff Farmer was providing the kicks for Hogan's Heroes and there were scoreboard interviews with Liam Jurrah and The CELEBRATOR. Now the fans were really achieving multiple bars of service, it was just a case of the players carrying on rather than releasing the pressure valve and letting Port reel us in. They had a fair crack, but the built-up buffer and a last quarter rammed to the gills with tough defence were too much to overcome.

On the rare times we've unloaded a blitzkrieg like that in the first quarter the proof of whether or not it's sustainable is usually seen in the opening minutes of the second. It's not necessarily whether we kick goals, but how quickly, and how easily the other team starts winding the margin back. Happily there was no instant reversal, Port continued to struggle when they went forward to the point where Charlie Dixon clotheslined Neville Jetta then had a big sooky spray at him afterwards. Jetta has grown into such a beloved figure that for the rest of his miserable, SANFL reserve grade quality game Dixon received the worst reception from a Melbourne fan since $cully.

It was fitting that the first goal of the second was set up by Mr NBA Jam himself Jake Melksham doing another novelty move, this time spinning out of a tackle to get his kick away. At some point he must boot three goals in a row and they must play HE'S ON FIRE over the MCG loudspeaker. His kick found Hogan in a one-on-one contest, but instead of physically picking his opponent up and moving him out of the way (and if the non-free for Port's first goal was anything to go by, he should have) he halved the contest, gathered the crumb and snapped around the corner for the fifth in a row. And not long after that he added the sixth too, turning his opponent inside out and shoehorning his kick about 50cm over the line before the ball bounced back.

People who are into motivation and just generally not being miserable bastards all their lives are keen on visualisation, so I tried to think what it would look like if we continued to butcher them like this and won by 110. Big mistake. I will quite comfortably go back to expecting everything to go wrong and being surprised if it doesn't. It will be better for my heart, already under immense strain from not only the game but hauling myself up the stairs from ground level. I'd like to invite the Royal Melbourne Hospital (not to be confused by footy fans with 'The Royal' - home to the two most diametrically opposed reviews ever) to hook every machine they've got up to me one day at a game and see what they discover. That I'd quietly died during the third quarter most likely.

Nobody understands my fractured psyche better than notorious Twitter shock jock, 2013 best-man and Buckley sacking fanatic @Amul82, sending this at precisely the same time I was sitting there worrying that one goal would be the start of an avalanche.
It got up to 48-5, but just when we were within five minutes of keeping a side goalless in a half for the first time since 1994, Port finally got one. They shouldn't have considering the high degree of molestation Sam Frost underwent in the marking contest, but hey if they hadn't scored there they might have kicked the next 15 goals unanswered so let's trust in the final result. Westhoff's ill-gotten major came much to the premature mirth of several thousand Melbourne fans who were getting a bit ahead of themselves in being patronising to others.

We'd held out for about 10 minutes post-tweet, but I still thought "here we go" when they got it. I've had that feeling for opposition goals for every margin up to about 60 points. The only good bit about Port kicking a goal was that as Jackson Trengove lined up the scoreboard resolutely claimed it was Jack Trengove.

When Hannan resumed normal service with some lightning crumb not long after, it looked like Port's comeback might have been as easily snuffable as everything else they'd tried. With only 90 seconds left in the half it felt like even we couldn't get into too much trouble from there. Then for the second week in a row we turned one goal for into two against to end up worse off than we'd been to start with. To be fair the second was aided by a 50m penalty that came out as about 75, but it was an unwelcome momentum shift right before the break. Considering how badly we'd monstered them it wasn't that big a lead, and now we were vulnerable to all of a) the post-Darwin wobbles, b) underdone returning players and c) Port belatedly deciding to having a go.

I'd love to spend more time complaining about the umpiring, but in the end when the game was on the line we got a couple of rippers so live and let live. This was in no way my view during the game, as I hurled pointless long-distance abuse at that coneheaded bloke that everyone hates. Not surprisingly my vitriolic hatred of the umpiring started getting serious at the exact same time it became clear we had a fight on our hands.

Considering the sides kicked two goals apiece to open the third quarter it wasn't like they were immediately threatening to storm over the top of us, but you could clearly see what ailed them in the first half had mostly been corrected. With respect to Ken Hinkley it didn't take a genius to realise that if Wingard was doing nowt in the middle and R. Gray likewise up front under immense pressure from Nifty Nev that you had nothing to lose swapping them. This worked a treat until Wingard was injured, which like Patrick Cripps a fortnight ago was unfortunate for him but a much welcome boost for us. Like Cripps it was one of our players that did it, Frost crippling him with an attempted smother than being a good guy and apologising. Before wandering off and taking a mark two metres away while Wingard was still lying on the ground in agony. There's only so much room for politeness.

There weren't so many examples of two of our lot running to one opponent and leaving another unattended this week, nor did too many Port players merrily step around our players and leave them flat on their arse, but I'll tell you what will shit me even if it only happens once a game - players electing not to shepherd. I enjoyed James Harmes' game on the whole, but there was a moment in this quarter when he gave the ball to Hibberd with acres of space in front of him and only one defender to contend with, and he never once looked like he wanted to block, or at least even casually step into the path of the Port player. He must have known Hibberd's A1 special move is the long kick, so he was hardly going to get a handball back with that much room to run into. It was dire, and though we're well beyond that nightmare era when literally the only player on our list who'd shepherd was The Spencil there's still too much of this going on. Unless you're clearly in a position for a one/two handball it should be a non-negotiable to protect the ball-carrier.

Just when it looked like they had the momentum late in the quarter enter Garlett to slide one in from the pocket and finally achieve the novelty roller goal he'd been cheated out of by the post at that end twice in the first quarter. It was much needed breathing space, giving us a five goal lead at three quarter time that we were historically unlikely to blow. History was fine, but at three goals below the Chris Sullivan Line I wasn't just worried we might throw it away, I was convinced we would.

As Port's second goal went in within five minutes of the restart I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, and hoped that having quit 15 minutes early in Darwin might have conserved enough juice for us to fall over the line. Having half-heartedly watched Adelaide introduce cue to rack in the last quarter when the game was won on Friday night I thought the trip was about to have an impact. If the groundswell of opinion against that deal was building last week (and it's signed through next year, so don't waste your time starting a petition), a loss here would have caused the earth's surface to fracture.

The next 15 minutes was one of the great backs-to-the-wall defensive efforts we've put on in recent times. It was only necessary because we couldn't for the life of us kick a goal - or register any score for that matter - but the ball was almost permanently locked away in our attack for endless stoppages. Every time we had a player sitting back to get in the way of any long kicks, forcing Port to try and work it out of congestion under heavy first quarter style harassment. Still, after several minutes of the ball sitting at our end for no reward I'd mentally switched to a localised version of the Bradbury Plan that would see us grimly defend a three goal lead for 10 minutes by making sure no more were kicked.

The endless cavalcade of pressure eventually cracked them though, and halfway through the quarter there was a noticeable dimming of the lights as they lost the ability and/or will to try and break out of our Veil of Negativity. The last straw was Jimpey doing everything he could to win the ball while dashing forward, only to give the ball to Dixon and watch it thumped straight down Jetta's throat with one of the laziest kicks inside 50 you'll ever see. Our attacks might often be ineffective, and many of them are misguided, but at least they've got effort behind them.

Then out of nowhere a ball landed luckily in Jake Melksham's arms 50 metres out, hard on the boundary. I thought at least he could run 30 seconds off the clock before kicking to the top of the square and hoping that on the 400th attempt we might take a mark within 20 metres. Then quite literally out of nowhere he sliced it home with surgical precision, not showing any ill-effects from McDonald running straight into him post-mark, and we were safe. His stock had already gone through the roof since Bugg removed himself from contention, and it was nice that as a tribute to Wonaeamirri he continued to rip out over the top primal scream style celebrations for every goal.

As long as we didn't concede immediately that was it, and Petracca turned up for another to add the exclamation mark. By the end our fans were so frothy that when Justin Westhoff kicked the last goal people saw a beard, assumed it was Dixon and booed him anyway. It was all for nothing, we'd kept a team with a percentage of 130 something to 9.11.65 and in a much needed boost to the reputation of Plan A it had been done from the opening bounce.

By virtue of playing for a spot somewhere between 5th and 11th we are still by definition mid-table mediocrities, but the clock is ticking on that era less than a year after it started. A few weeks ago I made the erroneous claim that my focus was on 2018, and that anything which happened for the rest of this year was a bonus. This was a coping strategy when we were losing players at a rate faster than the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, now that almost everyone's back and we've won a game we weren't meant to I've come to the point where missing the eight this year may cause me to have a total mental and physical breakdown. So that's something to look forward to.

2017 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Jack Viney
4 - Neville Jetta
3 - Michael Hibberd
2 - Max Gawn
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Apologies to Oliver and Salem who were in heavy contention for the last spot, but also T. McDonald, O. McDonald, Petracca, Hogan and Harmes.

Leaderboard
Just as a cavalcade of new contenders emerged, Viney returns with one fully functioning foot and throws his name into the hat. Technically everyone on the list can either win or tie with five games left - if you believe we've only got five games left. In the minors it looks like the Seecamp is a two horse race between Hibberd and Jetta, while Pedersen's ploy to get dropped and protect his Stynes lead has been rumbled by Gawn dealing what will probably be the decisive blow.

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

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Plenty of contenders this week, probably because our laborious attempts at attacking usually ended with the ball flinging out the back of a pack for somebody to create magic from. With respect to Hogan's second snap, Hannan's lightning crumb and the sealer from Melksham I'm opting for Garlett's slicer from the pocket in the third. For the weekly prize he wins a 60 minute woodchopping lesson from Andy Lovell so he can ease his frustrations on the goalposts.

Tom McSizzle remains your overall leader for the Mid-Air Miracle at Subiaco.

Clayton Oliver does funny things
The Patron Saint of Novelty Behaviour reportedly chucked a duck in spectacular fashion at quarter time, then once he'd shed the contents of his stomach he came back and had 30 touches. There should be more of it.

I've never before wanted to see somebody going the vom, but I feel our kid would do it in such a funny fashion - with heaving shoulders and the head flying everywhere - that it would be an incredible experience to watch.


In the battle of Dixon vs Watts tribute banners, both put in better performances than their subject. Ours had a lovely Watts picture and a heartwarming "always No. 1 to us" dedication that must have made the people who spent 2009-2016 publicly willing him to fail shift nervously in their seat. On the other hand Port had a giant random space between CHARLIE and DIXON, and the diagonal sticky tape they used to affix his photo made it look like they were calling for him to be banned. By full time they probably were.

One thing I'll give the Power is that they didn't have a curtain, and with the way everyone on our side was gingerly ducking underneath I don't think we're far away from seeing one enforced on our cheersquad. And at that point this segment will be retired. Until then, Dees 16-1-0 for the season.
Crowd watch
I tossed up whether to sit with the Redlegs and risk having to talk to somebody, or needlessly heading for Row MM of the Ponsford when any of the double letters would have seen me well in the clear. Just like the Carlton game, for the first half the back row was an oasis of serenity (albeit a bloody freezing one) before tourists flocked from everywhere to get involved at half time. Do these people ever come back, or do they treat their visit like one to Hobart and think "well that was inoffensive, but I won't be doing it again"?

Next week
My entire supporting life is feeling like we're walking into an ambush, and this is the ultimate expression of that. If you're going to blow everything up and start again, North's controlled flight into terrain style rebuild is a much neater way to go about it than our multiple cartwheeling explosions through residential areas. For a side that's 4-13 they've got a downright reasonable percentage of 88.3, which points to a hard-fought win that keeps us ticking over and them trending towards a lucrative second last finish without being disgraced along the way.

But this is North, the last remaining hoodoo of the home and away season (though I'd like another 100+ point win before I die thanks) and a team that has treated us with contempt for 10.5 miserable seasons. At a ground that usually features hurricane force winds blowing to one end, and where they eviscerated the Crows only a few months ago. Though that was before they started rolling out rookies by the dozen, and hopefully even if they have to go to MFC 2009 style levels they will ensure that the right result occurs here. Alternatively it becomes the first ever multiple-induction Kingsley game, Majak Daw kicks 12 and I close my head in a sliding door out of a mixture of frustration and rage.

I don't see any reason to change a winning combination, Jones isn't ready yet so there's no reason to mess with the rest of a side that throttled top four competition so effectively.

We should win, but given that North has finished everywhere from 4th to 13th since 2007 and we've only got within 10 points of them three times I don't know what to think. It would be excellent if we could parlay today's first quarter success into not being 42-0 down in the first quarter like last year.

IN/OUT: No change
LUCKY: Nil
UNLUCKY: Kennedy (always), Maynard (regularly in Casey's best), Spencer

After that
More rigorous use of the ladder predictor, and based on the off-chance that we beat the three teams we should from here - even allowing for a Round 21 loss to St Kilda - I've got us finishing 8th. Still too close for comfort, so how about we start tipping the tables on the teams that have tormented us for so many years and crush a couple of sides in the next few weeks? It unnerves me to write it, like the old "let's boost our percentage going in Round 23" debacle against Carlton last year. What I'd really like is to take the experience playing in the cold from today and Hobart to Canberra and beat the Giants. Then I'll know it's love.

Was it worth it?
Very much so, despite the arctic temperatures and Everest style crosswinds. I went in ridiculously overdressed, with so many layers that if there was a sudden, unexpected rise in the temperature I'd have probably boiled to death in Row MM and not been found until some kids clambered up there at half time next Friday night.

Final thoughts
A post-match trip to the supermarket was a fine indication of how far I've come, even in the space of a year. Forget that if we'd lost I'd probably have jumped the deli counter and hit somebody over the head with a knob of bratwurst, it was refreshing to pilot a trolley around without having the overwhelming desire to maim an innocent bystander because of what 22 men had done while chasing a bag of wind.

6 comments:

  1. Great review, as ever. #pedantscorner: it was Nev rather than Salem who took the intercept mark from Dixon's kick in the last.

    In my experience Nev is a man of few words, so an intercept mark at a crucial moment was a wholly fitting riposte to mouthoffgate.

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  2. Draft royalty - #1 Watts, #2 Trengove, #2 Petracca, #2 (mini) Hogan, #4 Oliver, #9 Salem.

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  3. Love you work, especially the last line "it was refreshing to pilot a trolley around without having the overwhelming desire to maim an innocent bystander because of what 22 men had done while chasing a bag of wind."

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  4. Can't believe I've only just found this blog - easily the best around. Love your style. As a Pom, I picked the Demons when I came to Melbourne in 2005. I got the bug for the MFC pretty quickly - little did I know it would be one of those flesh eating bugs, that destroys you from the soul out. I've enjoyed looking at your reports on some of those games I went to - I eventually had to stop going in about 2012, because I was getting so cross at our ineptitude, that my heart would be pounding uncomfortably. However, it's all changed now, hasn't it? My young fella is a one eyed Demon, who has been going since 2014 and has seen more wins than losses in his time.

    Keep up the great work, I look forward to reading each week.

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  5. Because of its proximity to the northern coast of our great land the ball was confiscated by NASA. It has since been found to be "normal" but the guys that took it away could only be described as "scary."

    So the remote control theory was incorrect, the ball did actually travel that distance. Well done Agent Hunt.

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