Shit, I thought we were gonna lose that

By Tom Briglia

Round 16, 2016
St Kilda 4.3, 8.5, 12.7, 17.7 (109)
Essendon 2.3, 6.7, 10.10, 14.14 (98) 
Crowd: 25,204 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 10th at 4.40pm

After the Adelaide debacle I melodramatically declared in my rambling match review, “Winter is here, and there are some cold months ahead.”

No sooner had I finished whinging did we come back from the bye and produce arguably our two most enjoyable matches (certainly by the time the final siren sounded), in the form of wins against Carlton and then Geelong.

All of a sudden – for a week anyway – finals were a slim possibility, and there was also the possibility that maybe we’d taken a step up. Instead we trotted out in perfect weather and kicked 8.20, in the process showing the same conviction of that day’s election result. The rubbish dished up in Carrara last week ensured our two weeks up-one week down pattern seen throughout the year continued (if you follow the trail from our season starting with the second week up, albeit with the fade-out).

The lot of a middling and developing team is that you’re going to win games you shouldn’t and drop games you shouldn’t. It’s a self-revealing state to be in – beating Geelong and then losing to the Gold Coast the following week proved it, but at the same time proved nothing above what we already knew.

So going into a game against a club that I am perennially terrified of facing due to their usual taunting of us, specifically Essendon, it was a perfect opportunity to upset our two up-one down pattern on the day we were due to be back up, and of course it would be in the negative way rather than the third win in a row last week expected us to deliver.

It felt like something had gone away after that Gold Coast match. It might be back soon enough, but the genuine nerves and anticipation we held before that game won’t be returning until at least next year unless someone in the top 8 completely loses their shit. By 2pm on Sunday I was preparing for a cold Sunday in the standing room by myself with unwieldy Essendon supporters. Matt and Dad were content on the couch and Richie was flaunting convention and making the scene in the Medallion Club. Evan was flying a Cessna somewhere despite the rubbish weather.

Instead, I got the late call-up to the Medallion Club from joy boy Richie so I could watch the game in luxury from the extra-padded seats in Medallion Club with Rich, his dad and brother, surrounded by, unwieldy Essendon fans.

A quick pre-match non-alcoholic beverage at the Savoy with Rich and then it was the 21st Century equivalent of the footy weather gauntlet – a faux-dash across the bridge in a howling (probably) cold wind and bitter (maybe) sleet. At Waverley that was often just the walk from the car into the ground, let alone sitting in the gaping frost receptacle for the match itself, but on Sunday it was back into the TV set in a game probably rightfully hidden away in the 4.40pm timeslot.

I don’t say “rightfully” in the sense that I support or enjoy the timeslot in any way whatsoever, but this was probably the first game this year for us that was essentially a dead rubber (unless you’re an avid follower of the Hugh McCluggage/whoever the hell is going to the Number Whatever Pick Cup). Yes, we’ve reached that point of the year where the end really isn’t that far away, and you can feel the gears of the wind-down begin to creak. It’s in the faltering of the anticipation for your own team’s matches during the week, which for most perched in the bottom 10 is often slowly replaced by matters of the wider competition and what will happen come September (and some of October), and perhaps a sense of impending relief that we can take a rest for a while.

The comedown from the win over the Cats a fortnight ago looked like it had entered a second week, with Essendon registering the first 10 inside 50s, and even then our maiden official foray forward barely reached an arm’s length beyond the orange arc.

Without looking convincing we’d somehow etched out a two-goal lead by quarter-time. In lieu of Paddy (sigh) My Favourite Hair in the AFL looked like he was set for some more time up forward, finally kicking one straight after he nearly kicked one entirely from behinds at Carrara. It probably did rob us of something up the ground, but perhaps required as Josh Bruce was reprising his role of getting both hands to the footy at contests but never quite taking anything – at the moment he’s rarely actually beaten in a contest and he brings the ball to ground, but two things come from all that. Firstly, if our delivery forward was actually half-decent he might have had a better shot at a few contests; rather he was never quite in the right spot and on other occasions he didn’t help himself with his positioning under (or not under) the drop of the ball. Secondly, anything under his control from the above was working last year, and for much of the first part of this year too. He’s clearly down on something – form, obviously – but we can’t know unless we’re him if it’s confidence, or his role has changed a little (and then changed back) and unbalanced him as Paddy comes in and and out of the team and as Membrey emerges as an additional, effective focal point on a consistent basis.

I’m on the record via Facebook chat as saying during the game Bruce should be dropped, but thinking about it now that would be very harsh considering he’s still clearly busting a gut getting his hands to the ball, and the fact that when he did no-one was there when it hit the ground. In the last two weeks it’s more of a reflection of the poor disposal going forward not giving everyone else around him much of a chance for to set up, let alone the ball actually going to his advantage to give him a better shot at marking it in the first place. I don’t think dropping him would really do anything; he needs as much time playing with Paddy and Membrey as possible whilst My Favourite Hair is still around to coach them, and it allows the team to have Hair influencing things further up the ground.

Fortunately we did have Membrey up forward on Sunday because he was able to work himself into a good position and make the best of things when one-out several times. He’s kicked five goals three times this year now, as well as few threes, and whilst most of those have come in comfortable wins when the whole team was up this was a much-needed stellar individual performance on a day when most guys were off their game. Four goals in the second half were vital, and his snap goal from a tight spot in the third quarter after pouncing on a poor Bombers kick showed his versatility again, and what he can offer away from presenting as a marking forward.

What was painfully apparent again on Sunday is that we need players who can pull off some half-slick disposal, and Hotline and Jack Sinclair both conveniently dominated the VFL on Saturday (although not in conditions made specifically for slick footy). For all the good pressure work of Jack Steven, Ross and Dunstan we just didn’t look sharp going into attack. Steven and Ross are more than capable of some quality entries but otherwise I don’t know how good the disposal of guys like Dunstan, Armo, Newnes and so on will get over time (we know Armo’s ceiling has well and truly been reached). Looping long kick after looping long kick in helped no-one; Hickey and Bruce’s smart handballs together that set-up Steven for the sealer were sharper than most entries into attack. Hotline had 45 touches and two goals and Sinclair 36 and one for the Zebras and Richo could barely contain himself when asked about them coming in next week in. I’m assuming D-Mac and Wright come out – maybe Acres given the tough love the selectors have given him this year – but to have guys who can find the ball a lot more, in more parts of the ground and be more damaging with it (around the ground and on the scoreboard) surely makes us a better team straight off. It’s strange to think they’re not in the side as it is but when you’re dealing with guys as young as that you do need to teach them some discipline and about what it takes to deliver what is expected of them when they play for the seniors.

It wasn’t particularly a surprise that the Bomber started to get on top of us in the final quarter – we’d barely looked likely all night. Joe Daniher jumped onto Gilbert’s shoulders, and although he missed the shot only a few moments later we were seven points down more than halfway through the last quarter with the Essendon players and crowd up and about. Surely no season would be complete without an arsey Essendon win over us (not to mention the Bombers being the team to upset our two up-one down pattern to the negative).

I hesitate to say that to this point Mav Weller had done “fark all”; at the least it would only be convenient for the narrative. It was a game in which the ball bounced out of our forward line far too easily far too often, so the trap that decent disposal going forward might have set for the opposition once the ball hit the deck was never really there (Bruce’s game probably looked worse than what it was for a similar reason). Either way, it was one of those games where you kind of forget a player like that exists. They’re not “the guy” you’re anticipating to be there at the end of each entry, like a Bruce or increasingly Membrey (or “Membs”, as I indescribably blurted out at some point during the game), and he actually hadn’t touched it all by the first break. But just like the Geelong game, he powered his way into the game by kicking back-to-back goals. Whilst those against the Cats came as timely steadiers late in the third term, these came when the nearly the entire team was down and needed someone to stand up in the last few minutes of the game itself. He (almost) literally came out of nowhere for the first goal, barely a minute of play after Skunk/Membs kicked his fifth to bring us back to within a point, and put us in front by timing a sprint to perfection and cannoned through just as the ball spilled from the contest (Skunk/Membs) in the goal square.

Membrey and he combined a bit more purposefully for the next one, it must be said in large part thanks to potential future captain (but probably not now that Richo and Roo keep talking about Jack Steven) Jarryn Geary, who came up with St Kilda defensive play of the year, or as Rich described a few seconds later once the ball was safely in Roberton’s hands, “play of the year”. The dive across Mitch Brown saved an easy shot at goal to put the Bombers back in front and soon after Membrey had positioned himself smartly to take a mark on the 50 with Mav and Acres running towards goal with Gwilt between them. Membrey wheeled around onto his left and Mav has athletic enough to jump up in his stride, take the ball which had bounced awkwardly high, land, and snap on his own left boot around the corner under pressure from Gwilt to give us some breathing space.

Jack Steven was the one who played a nearly complete game – 41 touches, 13 in the last quarter, 12 tackles and the sealing goal which came when he was one of the few players left running close to maximum speed in the final few minutes, pushing forward into space and finished off the good work of Hickey and Bruce (the aforementioned two smart handballs from two big guys) further afield. It seems like the Jack Steven For Captain campaign is gaining momentum. He can still barely talk coherently but if anyone is leading this team by their actions right now, aside from the current captain, it’s him. He gets more involved in the play when the game is tight, he follows up every effort and he can hit the scoreboard too and do justice for the work up the ground, not to mention creating his own goals. I can’t imagine him holding up a premiership cup with Alan Richardson in the way I could imagine Riewoldt holding one up with GT, and then Ross, but then again that’s only ever applied to one of our captains in 143 years so let’s just wait and see if there’s even going to be a change for next year.

By the time of the final siren the game was safe but there was little celebration. For the supporters – for the most part – games like this are simply there as part of a mass collective. They’re not set up to be a memorable step forward that we look back on like the Brisbane Lions win in 2003 (by one second as much as by five points), and what we hope the Geelong win a fortnight ago will prove to be in time. However, like the heir apparent said afterwards, usually we would lose those. There was something to add to the ever-growing heap of lessons learned.

As we squeezed past the two people at the end of the row on our way out, the second person – visibly affected by alcohol – said to us, “Enjoy it, because that’s as good as it’s going to get”. I assumed she was an Essendon supporter, although at that moment it didn’t really matter who she barracked for. There were some things to take away from that game, both for individuals and the team, but by the end it was just about getting away from the scene unscathed. 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tim Membrey – 3
Jack Steven – 3
Seb Ross – 2
Mav Weller – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1

Jack Steven – 29
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 13
David Armitage – 8
Tom Hickey – 8
Leigh Montagna – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Jarryn Geary – 3
Mav Weller – 3
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1