A time to be so small

By Tom Briglia

Round 14, 2015
Essendon 1.0, 5.1, 7.3, 8.4 (52)
St Kilda 5.3, 10.8, 17.9, 25.12 (162)
Crowd: 38,020 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 5th, 1.10pm

It goes without saying – or even the need to say – that the entirety of this round was overshadowed by the awful death of Phil Walsh.

Awful not just because of someone of his unique influence on so many people over so many years was taken away at an early age, but the tragic circumstances that surround it. Somehow there’s a further downside, in that this wasn’t the ending of those troubling circumstances; for his wife and daughter particularly this is just the beginning.

For the myriad proposals made from the time the news broke on Friday morning to when Gillon fronted the media, there was no certainty with which anyone could say their own or any particular proposal would realistically trump any other.

The precedent set on Friday night of having no club songs, banners or pre-match music during games and at breaks was an incredibly simple but appropriate way of emotionally and logistically acknowledging the unbelievable news we woke up to on Friday morning. Having the Adelaide/Geelong game cancelled alone was probably the best course of action amongst a number of also imperfect options. Sadly I couldn’t tell if the number of arseclowns on various Big forums related to Footy (and out in the general public also) talking about how “unfair” the agreement was to the Cats for Adelaide to not forfeit and give up all four points was a surprise or not. This extended to people worried about how fair any Brownlow votes or SuperCoach points arrangement would be. What I am pretty sure of is that the most unfair thing was that Adelaide’s coach was murdered. That’s a reality we’ll never get used to.

Arriving in our near-front row Level 3 seats with Matt, Tiarne and Angie it was hard to not be taken aback by just how hushed the stadium appeared out of reverence for the situation, despite us all being aware of the arrangements made before the weekend proper. A mutual, en masse state of shock to be more succinct. In a way it was what going to the footy was like perhaps 10 years ago – I might be underestimating that figure – and whilst it could have been a refreshing change to being blasted by all the bells and whistles the AFL says we asked for, the sombre context of why it was so, with the image of Phil Walsh gazing over us from the big screens, permeated through every aspect of the day. Both teams were met with a rather muted but appreciative applause from the crowd. Muted, and tempered still with no song or flag-waving kids or (as far as our home games go) drum roll intro loop to heighten the anticipation, and knowing that shortly we would all be observing a minute’s silence for a murdered human being that we were all at least publicly familiar with and, yes, influenced by. Appreciative, though, because we were at the footy on a Sunday afternoon and that of all things it’s typically the four points that are our chief concern. As Friday demonstrated, to even been there at all was something worth celebrating.

A moment’s silence – the AFL never really consistently quite got the full minute posited for ANZAC Day fixtures – and then a game of footy to be played.

I like to think of myself as socially progressive and quite a rational, reasonable thinker* (*What I actually do moment-to-moment and day-to-day may differ strongly). However, if there’s one stereotype I’m totally in for it’s that of footy clubs and the characteristics of their fans, although I feel it contributes to the identity of the clubs a massive amount (but does not, as some fans think that they do, contribute to what actually happens out on the ground). In an era in which the AFL has tried to mostly do the opposite – although I dare say moves to reverse that are slowly being implemented – it’s one piece of lazy thinking I subscribe to. And so with that, Essendon has always been the team I’ve despised playing against more than any other. The attitude of inherent success and superiority that has flowed from the hierarchy down to whichever loud supporter has been invariably around me/on the Hot Topic Board on BigFooty is one that on Sunday appeared to finally be irrelevant in an era in which multiple cycles of the national draft and overall equalisation system have been observed, measured, emulated and improved on several times over. It’s the same we appear to have seen with Carlton, although the Blues at least, with SOS involved, seem to have now acknowledged as much.

Of all clubs it was us that have sent a thunderbolt through the Bombers. In the footy sense, of course; hyperbole and melodrama seem even more useless in a time like this. The current Essendon and Carlton situations obviously are very different, but for the first time it’s genuinely difficult to tell whether or not the supplements saga (now specifically referred to as the WADA Appeal given it’s reached that stage) is solely to blame for the predicament the Bombers have found themselves in. When Jobe and BJ – arguably their two best players – finish with 15 touches combine you think something really weird is going on (or that Jobe is on the precipice of giving in his season due to injury). Given the context of the day a surreal feeling was embedded in whatever would take place. That we would witness St Kilda’s biggest ever win and score against Essendon and fifth-biggest win in the club’s 142 years certainly had the game itself giving us probably the key football talking points by the end of the Round.

Going from what I caught of half-time interview on the big screens (I was just getting back from purchasing beverages) the Bombers were having a 1965 premiership players reunion at the ground (in all sincerity I didn’t catch the two players from that day they were speaking to). How much do you hold that over another club on a day like that (again, I’m talking in the footy sense)? They’ve won 16 premierships, and 1965 obviously was over us, with the Bombers coming from fourth to knock us off on the big day after we’d finished on top of the ladder. The next time we’d finish on top the same would happen – against Adelaide.

My point is it served as a small, subtle reminder. The game saw some incredibly exciting footy from a really young team that for another week this year is flavour of the, uh, week. But for everything we’ve enjoyed since early 2004, we still haven’t been able to complete the mission. The Bombers have done so four times since with extended periods of finals and Grand Final appearances.

It was the arsey Gilbert dribble along the boundary when he was pinned in a tackle that would ultimately end up with Dunstan [NEW HAIRCUT] for his goal early in the last that said as much about the game as the woefulness emanating from Bombers HQ. It was the kind of day where everything seemed to come off for us. The trick in all of that is dissecting which parts belong to the immense pressure and movement we displayed throughout the day, and which parts came from the Bombers being completely

Cale Hooker’s three goals fortunately won’t belong in the Daniel Healy file given the result, but don’t tell me you weren’t thinking when he kicked his first early on that who else better to play against when you’re Essendon and trialling a defender as your key forward? With Carlisle out and Daniher proving to be more of a project player than first hoped – I do think he will be a great player; it’s more that the timetable is a little longer than it seemed it would be at first – Hurley required down back, Bellchambers AWOL whether he’s out there or not, Giles languishing in the VFL and Ryder now at a different Australian Rules football club on paper some problems were already presenting themselves.

In the end it didn’t matter because we brought out our best game for three years and Essendon there worst since, I would hazard a guess, some time in the middle of last decade. This would prove to be our 2nd highest score since Round 17 against Richmond on a Saturday afternoon at the MCG, missing out by only one point to 128-point win against GWS three years ago. In what should have clearly been not just the club’s biggest win ever (which remained at 139 points) but one of the greatest winning margins of all time, we could only kick 2.1 in the third quarter and a wayward 6.6 in the final term against what quite possibly will be the weakest team we will ever play, given their unique circumstances (never mind, because even if all goes to plan they’ll be knocking us, Melbourne and Bulldogs off for premierships over the next decade).

Simply it was the relentless pressure across the ground for four quarters that was the genesis of every attacking thrust. Even Sinclair’s brilliant running goal out of the middle – the cleanest of the day – came about because he anticipated and intercepted Heppell’s quick handball from the centre bounce. The tackle count of 61 belies the pressure acts and knock-ons in traffic to advantage or at the very least to create some movement around the ball, and not mention that we had 141 more disposals.

One of the pleasing [COACHES’ BUZZWORD] aspects of the game was the even spread of goalkickers. My 2nd Favourite Hair in the AFL was due for a modern-day bag and his 5.2 was punctuated by his hard running and solo effort at the beginning of the second quarter, which saw him harass Gwilt chiefly and finish with the ball and a running goal from around 50 metres. It completed a hat-trick of goals for him after some really physical contests and smart positioning late in the first quarter had him with 2.1 at break. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I still can’t believe that right now he’s good at footy. He’s still a novelty. Like a really bashful G-Train.

The next key forward with a decent plate of sausages was My Favourite Hair, who pushed right up into the backline early to get involved. Bruce ended up finding some more space in the front half and work his way into the game, and Roo also was an anchor for the rest of the team to work with, whether it was when the maniacal pressure had us switching from defence to offence in one tackling movement or when looking to sure things up when attacking options or movements were scarce. And this isn’t about whether or not he gets a ton of possession, it’s about the other guys working with his positioning and presence. I was worried on Sunday and I’ll be worried this Sunday he’ll get an arsey cork from one of the spoilt GWS FIGJAMs (Bugg) and miss Maddie’s Match the following week but you’d think even if he did a knee he’d be out there for that one.

I know it’s an early call but after Justin Sweeney, Matthew Ferguson, Charlie Gardiner, Ryan Gamble and Beau Milkster it looks like we’ve finally found a competent “third tall”. Last week the knock on Tim Membrey was that he got to a lot of contests but probably didn’t take as many as he should have. This week he took 10 marks, had 16 touches and kicked 2.1. Not bad for your 10th game.

He’s not a forward but for pure “Wow, that’s odd” factor Dylan Roberton’s 31 disposals – and let’s face it, entire season – has been a very pleasant surprise. His injuries were probably ignored a bit too much given the criticism he received last year. Maybe he should keep having more kids because the latest one seems to have spurred him on that much more as it is. He’s had 31 touches, is looking more fitter and more mobile than ever, and is proving to be a more effective rebound player than more were expecting. Whilst I’m throwing these around, I’ll huck in Billy Longer too – 18 touches, eight marks with some really good contested grabs included, and 35 hit-outs. Not much by way of first-choice opposition in this one but what more could he have done? Again, I think Hickey has been done a disservice by being played as a forward, but with Membrey, Roo and Bruce all of a sudden gelling pretty well (for one week at least) it’s hard to see either of them drifting down and adding a whole lot more height should both of the be name in the same side.

Surely Jack Lonie’s officially been taking way too many cues from his faux-dad. Great to see him get a Rising Star Nomination; we’ve had a distinct lack of those until recently because I don’t think most Saints fans knew who Alistair Smith, Nick Heyne, Paul Cahill or Daniel Archer were, let alone them coming to the attention of Corporate Rising Star committee.

On that, how much better did we look having both Sinclair and Lonie running around? Their disposal counts don’t show much, and their tackle counts also undersell the kind of pressure they put up forward. Whether it’s with or without the ball they’re so consistent and mature given their age and inexperience it’s difficult to think that this time last year none of us would have even known their names. Lonie could do with some real attention on his finishing, but he was the first one to point out in a couple of media interviews that he’s kicking the hard ones and missing the easy ones. His 1.3 took him to 10.12 for the year. Dare I say I’ll be keeping an eye on the running tally ahead of Grand Final Day ~2019 given who he’s taking orders from.

That man Schneider moved past an opponent halfway through the last and from relatively close range smacked it into the post. This time it didn’t matter, because the game was over 45 minutes earlier.

I’m not going to call it and say we’re on our way to challenging for a finals position, because our younger guys are more infinitely likely to tire towards the back end of the season than we are to bowl over enough of Richmond, Port, Geelong, North Melbourne, Sydney and West Coast. We lost to next week’s opponents GWS in Round 1 and similarly looked to have kicked the game away against our Round 17 opponents the Dees the other week, before needing Max Gawn to get a hit out to the completely wrong spot with 41 seconds left and a calamitous communication error on everyone’s part to get over the line. But what if we did? Suddenly we’re nowhere near Darcy Parish, and after Billings and McCartin at pick 3 and pick 1 we could be headed for some clown with pick 6.

Armo and Jack Steven keep humming along, and it’s safe to say that Armo has finally reached that level we’d been hoping him to reach, say, I don’t know, sometime by any of the 2009 or 2010 Grand Finals. As I’ve said before on this, I probably tend to overlook the really good, consistent players because what else can I say? I don’t know if he’s quite captain material in the off-field sense but how much of a relief is it to see him playing like this? Steven has reassured us that 2013 wasn’t a fluke in different ways recently. Despite a quiet game by his standards his double effort in the winning passage of play against Melbourne showed he is able to stand up in the most pressing situations, and then he produced a nearly complete game on Sunday with 29 touches, 11 tackles and some of the better use of his speed post-last year’s injuries.

Drilling further down into the midfield, the Dunstan/Weller/Ross triumvirate is an interesting one. At their own paces they’re slowly carving out their roles in the team, and I would have said pre-season I had reservations about how good a team could be with three inexperienced (Weller not so much though) but not overly dynamic players in the same 22. Dunstan’s shut that one down by showing he can drift forward and hit the scoreboard, and likewise Weller who’s now kicked 7.1 in the last five games. Embarrassingly, I have to admit I don’t recall seeing one of Ross’s 25 touches, although having seen the replay twice his quick hands in traffic were what kickstarted a lot of good movement. I would have said with Jack Billings due to be back soon that perhaps Dunstan might make way, particularly given he was the sub as he was due for a rest, but regardless of Billings now missing at least a month just try dropping one player from  Sunday’s side.

The final siren was again met with a muted reaction. Whilst everyone in the stadium could see the Bombers had hit possibly their lowest ebb through this entire sage, Saints fans could quietly take away one of the most complete performances you could hope for from a young side, and until the next match optimistically ponder all it could mean for what heights this team and this club could rise to.

But there was no post-match song played and any glee harboured in our hearts for the on-field win was set aside as the players and the fans united again in silence in a display that proved that we are humans before anything else, whether or not your red and black had a dash of white in it on Sunday.

This wasn’t necessarily about footy taking a back seat. It can’t for too long even if you try, because inevitably, disturbingly – but it some ways, and for some, comfortingly – our lives and the wider world will keep moving. In the longer-term this weekend was more about where footy sits in your life. This game and these clubs are a part of who we are; this wasn’t about whether they’re more or less important than the other things in life, but rather how they fit into and influence those.

  • Harry

    What a great day for all the true believers; no doubt the best and most exciting day since the win over Freo when it rained goals on Kossi’s last game.

    So where to from now. Keeping up the progressive improvement is the key so that we can all keep feeling that the Club is moving forward. It will be very interesting to see if some of the in the game against Essendon can do it again this week, eg Membrey, Ross.