by Tom Briglia
Round 21, 2018
Essendon 5.3, 10.8, 14.13, 18.14 (122)
St Kilda 4.4, 6.8, 7.10, 11.13 (79)
Crowd: 37,483 at Etihad Stadium, Friday, August 10th at 7.50pm
What better way to see the most depressing team in the competition play in one of the more depressing games of the season than kicking off your night by yourself in the most depressing seat at Nando’s? For reference, it’s table 50 (near the kitchen entrance), although they did call me “sir” in an unexpected flourish. It was also my first game on my own at the concrete TV set this year. I don’t think it’s necessarily any more or less enjoyable being able to walk around freely having cracked the shits and swearing to yourself, but it’s one of many ways to experience this shitheap of a club.
After a bunch of years writing this thing the repetition of some things gets as fucking boring as they are humiliating. This week’s theme: There’s just something about the Bombers and the Saints. In 2009 I was there on my own to watch them hand us our first lost of the season in Round 20 (who else?), and in Round 18 of 2010 I watched an almost identical game to Saturday’s by myself as for a few weeks our season looked like it was barely keeping its head above flushing toilet water. It doesn’t matter where the Bombers are on the ladder, and it doesn’t matter where we are. They are the anti-St Kilda; the VFL/AFL’s first premiers, we the first wooden spooners; they the equal-most premierships, we the least and by far the most wooden spoons. Their colours are nastier version of our own. The arrogance that fills the air at their home games is something incredibly foreign to St Kilda supporters.
It was leaked during the week that we’re going after Hannebery and Lycett (and then Menzel and maybe Jordan Roughead in the last few days), and might be getting a compensation pick according to Barrett. Lethlean and Richo didn’t rebuff any of the trade speculation. With the any chance that the final chunk of the season could represent a building block of sorts going into next year being eroded with every shanked kick into the forward line, any footage of the past five years – let alone these final few weeks – is increasingly joining the irrelevance of that seen in the Watson years. These broken-down passages of play are filled with either players that played a key role in earlier successes (“successes”), but had no real say in the next tilt (Burke, Loewe, the Wakelins, Tony Brown, Jason Heatley into Riewoldt, Montagna, Fisher, Gilbert), and a bunch of players and curious trade-ins that were parts of that black hole in between (Tony Francis, Tony Delaney, Ben Walton, Jason Gowans, Gavin Mitchell, Sean Charles into Newnes? Weller? Minchington? Holmes, Saunders, Templeton, Luke Delaney et al).
This was all before the talk of Richo perhaps being removed before 2019 cropped up over the weekend, despite Lethlean’s strong words about Richo being the right guys for the job pre-match on SEN. Lethlean seems to have everyone at the club under his control role, to the point where he’s being interviewed by the club for the website – the last time he did that he forewarned the sacking of three assistants – although some people close to the club will tell you there was a directive to leave Richo himself out of the otherwise club-wide review.
It was hard to spot any white in the crowd among all the 37,000-plus people wearing some form of red and black, although this year at St Kilda games it’s been hard to spot anyone in the crowd. I walked around the ground via standing room stand through the first quarter and eventually found a spot behind the St Kilda cheer squad, and felt like we were cornered (ovaled?) by a crowd I assume in size and unnecessary booing would be very similar to being interstate.
The tension in the atmosphere through the first and second quarters probably topped that of any other game featuring our vanilla football club this year. Our pressure was up and slowly we’d worked our way into the game, and the Essendon crowd that couldn’t hate us enough to begin with was incensed after the replay of Brown’s hit on Saad was played at the ground. Brown was late but I think three weeks was on the slightly harsher side, and the red card talk was ridiculous – he didn’t hit him in the head, and if Saad had braced himself then no one would have noticed it happen.
While all that was going on, the ball had gone up the other end after an Essendon poster and ended up with Jack Billings. Later on in the night he again proved he has an intense phobia of kicking three goals in one match. Saad was stretchered off after Billings took the mark and before he had his shot at goal, meaning he had ample time to go through every single miss of his career before taking the kick as the Essendon fans made noise that tripled anything made by Saints fans this year. Incredibly, Billings kicked it, and I thought it might have been a moment that just turned some gears in his head that were rusted or jammed and breaking everything else down. A smart one-two with Lonie along the boundary line in the pocket and neat finish from a turnover, and he had two goals and 10 disposals at quarter-time.
A classic Richo move away from the forward line didn’t necessarily put him out of position – he’s played his best footy higher up on the ground this year – but clubs use pick 3 on players like him because he can go forward and have a big game in the same way he can rack up 25 damaging disposals higher up. He indeed finished with 25, but again, he fear of three goals, along with Lonie (and Paddy of course). His near-mark in the goal square in the second quarter could have been a key moment if the lack of response from the entire team afterwards to the mere prospect of a momentum shift wasn’t so pathetic. But it was the mark that he did take in front of goal in the final term, following which he decided to play and had his shot touched off the boot. As incredulous as I was I fucking feel for him. For all the talk from footy media personnel about it being best for him to be traded to another club, a big part of me thinks there is a lot for him to gain from a new set-up, whether it’s around or in place of Richo. He’s become more physical in recent weeks and is more reliable in getting the ball across the ground. The Bulldogs-through-Bontempelli was a sad night for the club’s arse-up recruiting and development, but the sort-of-not-really change at the club would be good for him. If he did want out, I wouldn’t begrudge him; I would begrudge the fuckwits that have made the club the place it is right now and botched his development.
Needlessly playing on near goal had already dicked us when we were making our run in the second quarter. That was headed by Gresham; while playing on wasn’t entirely out of character for him, missing was. It extended to set shots with himself and Membrey. It’s worth noting that Freeman and Paton did manage to nail their set shots, and Lewis Pierce, who has spent the year in a VFL side that didn’t exist last year, played well coming straight into the team. Throughout the year we’ve seen Clark and Coffield showing composure, Ed Phillips working hard to move across the ground smartly, Josh Battle being good; there’s a strange trend with these guys that haven’t spent too much time in this club’s system.
Who is responsible for the Lewis Pierce situation I’m not sure, but it’s probably a good gauge of the dysfunction at the club. Richo said he hasn’t seen him live due to the arrangement (he has seen vision) and Skrobalak has been coaching him every week, as ruck coach at St Kilda and then within the broader context of the entire Frankston team. Richo said in the post-match conference “perhaps we could have had him in a bit earlier”. Maybe playing Billy Longer injured over and over again might have also been an error.
Reprising Brett Cook’s role as the back-up ruckman for the back-up ruckman and wearing number 42, Pierce had a good presence around the ground from that start. He looked more sure physically in the ruck against Bellchambers than Billy or Our Very Own Stephen Merchant have this year, and he followed up in traffic immediately afterwards and across the ground.
The tall guy set-up appeared to work well with Marshall. In fantastical St Kilda fashion, one of the more notable passages of play was undone by our own goalkicking in the first quarter. Marshall worked up the ground to take a leading mark on the wing, the kick went out of bounds but Pierce roved the throw-in after contesting the ruck and the ball was kicked forward to Marshall, who had worked his way into attack, and of course he missed the set shot at goal.
I went up to the third level at quarter time and was amazed to find people at a match involving St Kilda, and had to nestle up in literally the back row of the stadium. The game looked to have shifted in our favour but after Gresham’s and Membrey’s misses (with a Gresham goal somewhere in there too) the game swung. This was the same challenge we’d faced the previous weekend, in the same period of the game. It was time to show the football world that we were capable of learning the lessons of six days earlier, as a professional Australian Rules team that has access to all kinds of vision and feedback and anything they want, really. The leaders could atone for having gone missing, and the younger guys could show some modicum of development. The coaches could send a different, or stronger message. What an excellent opportunity. Between the 23.04 mark and the 28.44 mark, Essendon kicked four goals.
What do I think of when I consider the leaders at this club in that situation. I think of RIcho’s Mate Dave coming out of defence and launching a high faux-torp going that went wide and bounced out of play, I think of St Kilda Football Club Captain Jarryn Geary being used out of defence when the reality is that he isn’t very good at using an Australian Rules football at AFL level, I think of Jack Steven being caught with ball – in Richo’s words, trying to do too much – and I think of Seb Ross, yes, despite 43 touches and being clearly our best player for a second week in a row, having two opportunities to guide us out of half-back in the second quarter; the first time his kick didn’t really go to anyone and came back, the second attempt didn’t really go to anyway and came back and ended with Hooker outmarking Carlisle to the joy of Essendon fans, and a goal. Newnes had theee touches at half-time, and three-quarter time last week he had six.
But the signs were probably there in the natural spike in tension following Brown’s hit on Saad. The push and shove ensued and while Billings somehow raked through the set shot, that was immediately followed up by Stringer pouncing on Richo’s Mate Dave and McDonald-Tipungwuti snagging the immediate reply, Armo missed a shot at goal on the run and a few minutes later Jack Steven did as well. What the fuck is wrong with drop punts? Long gave away a nothing free and then 50, which led to Aaron Francis kicking his first goal and getting the Bombers fans a little higher on being Bombers fans, but Long hit a low contest soon after and showed no sign of intimidation in it all.
Yet again, it was an en masse drop-off right across the ground. No one stepped up; there was no collective of individuals that stepped up to take on the barrage. The whole team and the whole system and the whole club just dropped off. It was as if all the players ran directly off the ground after running to Freeman to celebrate his first goal, and if not then they sure as hell didn’t remember to come back on after half-time. “We’ll work on it” didn’t have the same ring four months into the season, and now the words are just structured sounds coming out of Richo’s mouth after another loss.
All wider context aside, this just ended up as another typical Essendon and St Kilda match. It’s like going to the pre-drinks for a big Friday night out clubbing, covered in the stench of dick-measuring contests between the Essendon bros. On the actual ground, the Saints don’t offer much; a player with genuine speed and skill and dare in McDonald-Tipungwuti kicks five, Essendon is down to no rotations by three-quarter time and are made to look like heroes, Nathan Brown ends up in everyone’s shit books for a shoulder-to-shoulder bump. Yes, as I said, the suspension is ballpark. But the many, many people out there with a hatred for St Kilda would have said it was Kosi’s fault for not looking when Gia actually did hit him in the head, and they would still tell you that in 2018. I’m not bitter, I’m hate-filled and worn down.
As the talk about who we’re interested in, and who isn’t interested in St Kilda (Gaff, i.e. the best player of the list; also at least two of them are just desperate for a fresh start and/or longer contracts) it’s become apparent that the real work of 2018 will be done through the trade and draft periods. The 2018 premiership season itself has simply been a drawn out exercise of weekly humiliating public demonstrations of our countless flaws as a team and as a football club. That the Riewoldt generation’s legacy – for now anyway – has been forgotten and shat on so quickly and comprehensively shows that maybe this club hasn’t changed much.