Essendon Posts

Shit, I thought we were gonna lose that

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.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tim Membrey – 3
Jack Steven – 3
Seb Ross – 2
Mav Weller – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1

Totals
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

Bruce, Paddy, Membrey, etc.

Round 9, 2016
St Kilda 2.5, 5.9, 12.10, 16.13 (109)
Essendon 1.4, 4.5, 7.8, 9.9 (63)
Crowd: 29,026 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, May 22nd at 4.40pm

Ah, the Bombers. I’ve written ad nauseum any time they’ve come up on this thing how much grief they’ve give us over the years, no matter what the state of play. At the depths of their oughts misadventures they pulled an arsey win over us in 2005 to put our season on the ropes; and we could only knock them off by three points the following year in the wet at the MCG. In the peak of the GT/Ross decade they knocked us off for our first loss of the season in Round 20 and then twice in 2010.

Strangely, in amongst those we’ve managed to register our two biggest ever wins over them – the 108-point win (which could have been more if not for inaccurate kicking) in the final home and away game of 2008 which snuck us into the top four, and then last year that was eclipsed by a 110-point win, which also featured our equal 13th highest score in 143 years and as it sits our 2nd highest in the past decade. In a season in which both teams were features of the bottom round of the ladder, it was a pleasantly surprising performance and one of the highlights of a season in which green shoots began to emerge, albeit on the sad weekend immediately following the murder of Phil Walsh.

Which brings us to Round 9 of a season in which from a football perspective we’ve supposedly made progress and the Bombers are having a year off as 12 players sit out suspended under WADA sanctions. The thing is, this is the St Kilda and Essendon football clubs we’re talking about, so before we look at last week’s results you know it’s quite possible the Bombers and their fans will be looking at this game as a big opportunity for their second win of the season. If they hadn’t beaten Melbourne I would have been going the big vom on the 55 tram on the way in, but that’s been held over for Saturday’s game against Freo after the Tigers dispatched them in the hurricane at Subi on Saturday night. Just the regulation nausea of any lead up to at Essendon clash then.

Essebdon were treated as winners after getting within reaching distance of the undefeated Kangaroos last week, despite not kicking a goal until the third quarter. A week earlier we were for all intents and purposes running over the top of them, but after that and the win against Melbourne it seemed the group was exhausted and evidently all bar Seb Ross, My Favourite Hair in the AFL and Jade Gresham could be arsed making the trip to Perth. Against an Eagles outfit as dangerous as any other on their respective home turfs calamity duly ensued.

After a 103-point loss you wouldn’t thought that you’d be going into the next two games as favourites but that’s the nature of both this season as well as being a developing side. Realistically, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing if we dropped both, but that would be some serious slump after a couple of wins and genuinely good showings against premiership fancies in the early part of the season; collectively enough to assume that that’s close enough to the slightly more likely type of side that will run it in Saints colours.

There was freshness to this side that we hadn’t seen before – all of My Favourite Hair, Josh Bruce, Paddy and Membrey playing together for the first time. It won’t happen too many times but it needs to be done before Roo exits, whenever that may be.

Add to that the inclusion of Dan McKenzie and the a chance of Gresham to back up of efforts last week and there was plenty to look forward to through that nausea that accompanies every Essendon clash. Richo had thrown around the confidentiality clause in his pre-weekend presser by naming Paddy as a certain starter and offering Hickey up as “crook” with Holmes to come in if he couldn’t shake off the alleged lurgee, but it wasn’t to be and the Longer/Lewis Pierce/Holmes contest of being closest to the pin continued.

Somehow Jarryn Geary continues to survive and it was a little disappointing to see Sinclair dropped, but time had certainly run out for Lonie. Eli being flown over as an emergency for that tripe didn’t do him any favours to get a stronger look-in after his best-on-ground performance in the VFL against Collingwood outside of AAMI Park a fortnight ago. Acres naturally was dropped, but he’s rarely been able to afford one not-even-that-quiet week in the past, let alone two and an angry singling out by Richo at quarter time that echoed 1990s-style individual pastings from Sheldon and Alves.

I rocked up to the Corporate Dome after trekking across the bridge through a Trevor Barker Oval-style gale whilst Acres, Lonie and Eli were there actually there leading the possession count for the Zebras at half-time. A drink or two at the Locker Room with Matt, Footy’s own Lewis and Evan and his partner Sophie before we headed to our seats. Lewis and I were a little more nervous than the others as we talked missed opportunities of the past just to really get ourselves in the mood.

Let’s get to it – what shouldn’t have been surprising was if we went to the footy on Sunday and saw arguably the worst game we’d seen in years. If last week was bad from a St Kilda perspective, try watching two teams constantly dicking themselves for a half of football in what was a hot, incredibly unsexy mess. Half-time saw nausea beginning to battle apathy in the eventuation of a tight contest towards the end. Fortunately things turned, but it was a draining experience en route.

Hotline Billings began in the backline but it wasn’t until the third quarter when any cohesion across the ground began to appear was it apparent that he was being used as the Port Adelaide 2014 spitter. It worked once or twice I guess and he worked hard across the ground for his 18 possessions but he missed two gettable set shots which would have rounded his game out nicely. He remains in a slump but he simply has to stay in the team – I don’t think too many would argue with that anyway.

Reward for effort has been a bit of a consistent, if background theme for this side this year. The Port Adelaide fade-out could reasonably have been attributed to the one game missed out on in the NAB Challenge, and the Hawthorn and North Melbourne games were sore points for a young side that had thrown everything at much more fancied opposition and not done too much wrong, but had nothing to show for it. The first half was a lesson in this in a different – it was us doing the damage to ourselves going forward that was costing us and wasting the dominance in front-half use and forward-50 entries, a comparison that read 39-17 in our favour at half-time with just 5.7 and an eight-point lead to show for it.

Richo quite rightly pointed out in the post-match that Josh Bruce’s own game was an accurate reflection of the side’s. In the first half he worked hard up and back in what has been something close to My Favourite Hair’s role over the past decade, but wasn’t able to affect too much until Paddy picked him out in the pocket late in the half with a perfectly-weighted kick, and Bruce returned the favour with a strong mark and stepped off his line snap the goal. This came after in the first quarter he’d dashed out ahead of everyone for what should have been a straightforward completion of a counterattacking goal but Geary botched the long kick, which only vaguely needed to favour him, but forced him out too wide and Ambrose ran him down. In the second half he was the recipient of a short pass in the back half of the centre square which he duly dropped, unmarked, and in his embarrassment tried a little too hard in finding the ball, spinning out of trouble (or attempting to), and finding a target further up the ground in the form of blazing away and kicking straight to an Essendon player. Soon afterwards he found himself on his own with the ball in just forward of centre and decided to kick it as long as he could to an Essendon player.

The tone had been set by Gresh in the first few minutes, who picked up where he left off. One of the few players who visibly showed any fight against the Eagles, he was busy early but after showing some composure with the ball in hand as he looked for options high on the flank; he found one short, only to fluff the kick, which he followed up only minutes later with the fluffing of what should have been another easy hit-up in the forward-50. He started the second quarter in a similar fashion – he certainly wasn’t the only offender – and might be running out of a little puff in this stint in the seniors but he had the opportunity at times throughout the game to experience the responsibility of being in the middle for the centre bounce. Lonie finished with 28 touches and four goals and Templeton 30 touches, so dare say at least one of those will be coming in next week. It’s tempting to give Lonie another week or two to really drive home that he needs to earn his spot but he’s obviously a step above VFL level and next week is the state league representative match against the SANFL so there’ll be no hit-out for them if they’re selected. Gresh might make way for the fresher legs anyway given next Saturday against Freo is a match coming off a Perth trip and then a six-day break, which might be a bit much for the first-year player. It’s worth pointing out here that Sam Gilbert collected less than 10 possessions for the third time this year so, uh, yeah.

Riewoldt made his presence felt all the way up and down the ground and as Michael Gleeson pointed out in his report for The Age, this was the first time since Round 24, 2011 that we won a game without Riewoldt kicking a goal. The second half – in particular, the third quarter – may well prove to be the first step in the handing over of the keys to the St Kilda forward line, but until then Roo was working hard just outside the arc to keep the ball inside the front half for little return as everyone from Gresh to, frustratingly, Joey were shanking entries.

The first half, really, had two highlights – Seb Ross and Jack Steven. Seb Ross is somehow nearly our best player now. I don’t know what the hell happened but I was royally incorrect about him. The full pre-season has done him wonders and allowed him to be fit enough to take a big step step up and be able to his natural ability across the ground and in different situations; whether it’s in tight, whether he’s the first kick out of congestion or when he’s hitting up a leading opponent. His disposal has improved incredibly and he’s proven himself to be a very, very natural footballer. Throughout Sunday he simply knew where to be at all times, and arguably the highlight of his game was when he drifted forward, stopped to evade one Bomber, and off a step snap a curling goal under pressure from another. That he finished with 37 possessions not only reflected how much of the ball he had, but how much value and presence he gave the team with his considered disposal.

Jack Steven was the other and he had 40 touches by the time Sandringham’s own Mitch Brown snuck through his fourth goal just before the final siren. Whilst some mention must go to Armo for really lifting halfway through the second quarter when it became apparent that the side was in danger of becoming disenchanted with the waste of effort, it was Ross and Steven that really kept things going in the engine room to at least have us with some sort of lead and to have kept Essendon to four goals for the half.

Actually there was a third highlight and it was Sam Fisher’s falcon.

Half-time was beer time. The aforementioned nausea vs apathy battle was raging as we sat back in our seats with a new Carlton. We were on the precipice of losing to Essendon, it seemed, whose fans had been brought into the game and who we might have to deal with afterwards, and with faux-enforcer Baguley of all people threatening to be the X-factor for the Dons across half-forward the Shame Alert was extreme.

Again it was Matt who provided some sort of footballing wisdom that I’m not capable of and said it was more likely the Saints would break it open in the quarter. What would need to take place for that to happen was, fortunately, something that could have been changed with a simple half-time message/bake from Richo and that was to simply lower the eyes with the footy in hand and for the forwards to make sure they were providing viable goalscoring options. We were certainly more likely on weight of inside-50 and time in forward half numbers along and the Bombers struggles to hit targets as much as we did, and had a lot less of a threatening forward line set-up (Baguley’s ever-annoying presence notwithstanding). But I don’t think anyone thought we would be witness to a quarter of football that on its own may have kickstarted the core operations of our forward line for up to the next decade.

When the three-quarter time siren sounded it ended a quarter in which Bruce, Paddy and Membrey had kicked seven goals between them. There were several highlights to choose from, among those Bruce being the beneficiary again of some slick Paddy work. Paddy was up and about after nailing a huge set shot after timing his movement perfectly to the 50-metre arc was the ball came down from a quick turnover in the square, and then he’d executed a classic full-forward’s lead from deep in attack as Steven charged through the middle and sent it to him perfectly and followed it up with another goal. Worth pointing out here that Paddy got a lot hugs from teammates as celebrations rather than your Nick Riewoldt high-fives as he charges back to centre-half forward post-sausage circa 2005-2010.

But Paddy’s disguised kick to Bruce as he feigned a run up from the point of the arc on the boundary line really showed both the quality and maturity of his football nous. He doesn’t get huge numbers – they were his only three possessions in the quarter – but when he gets it he’s either worked hard to be in a good position or he does something good with it, or both. From what had been probably the most frustrating game to watch – the week previous perhaps ahead, actually – for the year had turned into something incredibly exciting. The movement from the forwards was smart and the delivery was finally for more considered, and we had three cornerstones of our future putting on a clinic. It helped that they were kicking straight as well; Membrey turned his 1.3 at half-time to 3.3 by quarter’s end, having got onto the end of a clever Roo entry off the captain’s left foot and then displaying his aerial capabilities as Luke Dunstan planted a kick from a clearance perfectly between to Essendon defenders for him to spring up to. Just like the Melbourne and North Melbourne games, he demonstrated his versatility in being able to find the ball in dangerous positions in different ways – a contested mark, a big leap and a handy lead was how he got his three goals – but he also worked hard on the wings, which his tally of nine marks reflected.

Paddy likewise; he finished with 10 marks in his most impressive performance by a long way. The decision to drop him back to the VFL and freshen him up certainly paid off as he moved more comfortably and smoothly than we’d seen him. His deft tap of high-bouncing ball over to Joey running past in the forward pocket to set up Hickey in the last quarter was the icing on his cake.

By game’s end the trio had kicked 10.5 and had 24 marks between them. Bruce, after arguably his worst half – aside from his strong mark to do justice for Paddy’s good work in the second quarter – somehow finished with five goals. The lift from Dunstan, Armo and even guys like Savage and Billings in the third to complement Ross and Steven helped enormously, and Roo’s presence up the ground went up again. He finished with 24 touches and the fact he could be so effective across the ground allowed for something necessary and productive to happen.

Of course, this probably isn’t going to happen every week. We’ve got a winless Freo next week and given the bizarre history between the two clubs anything can happen, let alone whatever may happen as we continue to wrestle with this development phase. But on Sunday, when it looked like we’d dug ourselves into a hole, we feel like the players worked hard to get themselves out of it and banked something genuinely exciting – not just for the sake of the day, but for how we feel about where this club is going.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 9
Seb Ross – 3
Jack Steven – 3
Josh Bruce – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Luke Dunstan – 1
Paddy McCartin – 1

Totals
Nick Riewoldt – 15
Jack Steven – 14
Seb Ross – 9
Leigh Montagna – 8
Jack Newnes – 6
David Armitage – 5
Tom Hickey – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Sam Fisher – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Tim Membrey – 4
Blake Acres – 3
Josh Bruce – 3
Shane Savage – 2
Sean Dempster – 1
Jade Gresham – 1
Paddy McCartin – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1
Mav Weller – 1

On Carlisle

“I’d like to thank Hawthorn for their professionalism” – Adrian Dodoro

What should have been a simple, uninsightful trade period wrap is now a simple, uninsightful look at the worst of footy journalism and journalism when it comes to treating footballers, with attitudes towards rape thrown in for good measure. And then, of course, the operations of the AFLPA, and the power now wielded by players and their agents.

But let’s start vaguely from the start.

Also does anyone genuinely not think the timing of this video being released was suspect at best? A Current Affair would have been holding onto this for at least a number of days. And also if you’re going to take potshots at St Kilda for their culture and this being “another fuck-up” (which I wouldn’t agree with going by my stance of players and illicit drugs alone, but we’ll get to that) then surely you have a crack at Essendon for being responsible for providing the environment led him to that kind of thing? And this is before talking about Essendon running a pharmacologically experimental environment on its players, regardless of WADA finding the individual players guilty or not.

“Could this be one of the biggest footy scandals of the year?” Someone had to physically go into a recording booth at Channel 9 and actually say those words in a specific tone knowing it would be used for the ACA story that night. Let me guess – it was about the rape allegations against the Hawks players, yeah?

No of course it wasn’t, silly me. Hawthorn is a big team with a winning culture. That’s enough to sway what’s in the public interest when it comes to rape allegations against taking an illicit substance.

For good measure, Collingwood’s own version of this was swept under the rug ASAP in the aftermath of the 2010 premiership. Collingwood fans took on Mick Malthouse’s quarter time tirade directed at Milne in Round 3, 2010 for the remainder of his career but I’m pretty sure I never heard them booing Dane Swan for being convicted for bashing a cleaner with two other top blokes. But he won a Brownlow and plated in a premiership team so I guess he made amends.

Again, if you’re big enough and successful enough. If Jake had gone to Collingwood do you think ACA would have touched the story? Tracy Grimshaw might be a Saints supporter but that would mean fark all in this. Going back a day or so, if Jake and McConville had spoken to the AFLPA about this and he was going to Collingwood do you think they would have told them to keep it quiet and just wait until after the trade to spring the surprise? A perverse outcome is that whilst Carlisle is having his contract rewritten by the club (and will cede a strike next to his name under the new drug policy), McConville actually can’t be sanctioned by the AFLPA because he was acting on their advice. This actually does matter if reports are correct that we wouldn’t have completed the deal had the contents of the video been known to the club earlier. Incredibly perhaps, Eddie McGuire cracked the Ahmed Saads (it was brief, but thanks Ahmed) but still managed to speak sense on the issue and noted the power imbalance of the AFLPA and the individual players as opposed to the clubs. I don’t know if the AFLPA understands that supporters pay their memberships and go to games over decades to support a club, not chiefly the individuals running around.

Either way, for now Essendon has managed to get us again. Not just the Lovett deal, even when we’ve been good and they’ve been bad they’ve given us trouble on the field (see 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010), and otherwise we were scoreboard fodder for them for a century.

The older and more experienced I’ve become as a Saints fan alerts you to more and more bias throughout the media and footballing public against St Kilda as a whole. How would any club smaller than Essendon or Collingwood have fared in the media and in the public’s eye throughout the last couple of years?

Nowhere near well enough when you don’t have an entire newspaper going into bat for you. Sam Landsberger and Jay Clark at the Herald Sun in this case couldn’t wait for the Saints to mess something up. The spectre of Hawthorn loomed large and often led the online edition of the paper – for their faux-presence in the Carlisle trade, in case you were wondering – not for the rape allegations. That was somewhere further down the page.

Dodoro demanding Essendon wanted Billings before negotiations were done? Because he couldn’t gun hard enough for it himself, Jay Clark gets a “respected list chief” as well as Essendon mouthpiece Tim Watson on board to talk up how much sense it makes if St Kilda is “unprepared” to give up pick 5, as if the Saints were likely to turn up to negotiations have not given this whole thing much thought.

Landsberger really got in on the act when Essendon rejected St Kilda’s offer including Essendon’s picks 23 and 25:
“Frustrated Essendon ­officials spent the first week of trade talks waiting for an offer from St Kilda — and rejected it immediately…Despite the mooted deal ­delivering Essendon pick five which it desperately wants, the Dons were insulted and did not consider accepting it…A rival list manager told the Herald Sun the Saints should just get the deal done…’Good clubs find a way,’ he said.”

His excited tweet when the Essendon leaked the rejection to the Herald Sun (amongst literally everything else) simply, er…didn’t stack up given what the situation at the time (and ultimately) was seemed to imply there were literally no further negotiations possible, ever, in getting this specific trade and done and St Kilda had blown because good clubs find a way and I’ll see ya later.

I’m sure Sam would have loved throwing in that last particular quote. “Good clubs find a way”. Never mind that the Bombers requesting Billings from the outset is pathetic overs to begin with. Rather, Clark wrote about it as it as a bold and genius move on Dodoro’s part. St Kilda’s offer might have been overs in our favour but I’m pretty sure it was diluted in its sense of entitlement compared to Dodoro’s initial request. But no, Essendon are made to look reasonable, intelligent and strong-willed.

Do we remember how the Herald Sun reacted to the St Kilda schoolgirl story? I seem to remember the club logo stamped across the front page in the summer following the 2010 Grand Final Replay as the football world rejoiced that St Kilda were still St Kilda – a basketcase of a culture and the founding club with still only one premiership. Good luck telling anyone the actual facts of that saga without having to look anything up (and then trusting what you see enough to be your source). But what do you hear most amongst the standing room wisecracks? “Schoolgirls” and “rapists”.

It’s a slippery slope and the justice system here isn’t perfect (no shit). There’s a few a key issues here.

One is the attitudes and overriding naivety when it comes to footballers taking drugs – of the non performance-enhancing kind, which is a distinction we now have to make because of the Bombers. What is it about illicit drugs that garners such distaste from so many people? Increasingly a higher proportion of people throughout our society have taken these substances. Some a more dangerous than others, some are more addictive than others and this invites the relevant comparisons betweens what illicit drug use accounts for when it comes to public and private disruption as opposed to alcohol and cigarettes. But why are people so against players doing this as opposed to the occasional line done by many people you might know, or perhaps yourself. Yes, there is addiction but that’s on a different plane altogether, in the way alcoholism is to the many of us who drink without it taking over our lives. I’d certainly say the most questionable thing Jake did was film himself doing it and then sending it out to a whole bunch of people. Either way, there’s probably a disconnect between the public and what these illicit substances actually do, and there’s definitely a disconnect between the public and the way they measure footballers.

The uncomfortable thing for Saints fans is something that shouldn’t be uncomfortable to say just because they’re St Kilda supporters. I noted a few others (and myself) pointed out that ACA‘s promo ignored the Hawthorn rape allegations despite its shouting. These were exactly what Stephen Milne was under the most part of a decade but as mentioned it was only when Mick Malthouse – coach of the league’s biggest club and the one that would take out St Kilda on Grand Final (Replay) day – had a crack at him for it that people really decided to take notice and being having their shot at him on game day in a bigger way than the traditional distaste of an opposition small forward. It wasn’t the reporting of allegations that the case had been deliberately botched by police soon after an incident occurred. I dare say very few Saints supporters would have noted that Milne was cited on that night and against Collingwood again two seasons later for using homophobic slurs. Perhaps fewer might have loudly made observations that more recently he pled guilty to a lesser charge of indecent assault in that rape trial, and avoided conviction and was fined $15,000. Again, I didn’t hear Collingwood fans – or perhaps anyone – booing Dane Swan. The fact that one human plays for the club you support does not make them infallible, and nor should it make them or the club as a whole any more or less fallible for that person alone.

There’s one key kind of redemption when it comes to the wider footy world – that of winning. For the most part members and fans don’t genuinely know if a player is a top bloke or not; they’re measured by if they’re a premiership player or if they’re any good, and if they’re a GOP then if get talked up by teammates about what great people they are around the club.

Can this new St Kilda that Finnis, Summers, Bains and Richardson are building make itself great enough to be the Geelong that turned a drink driving Stevie J into a multi-premiership winning great of the club and game? Or the Collingwood that turned a cleaner-bashing (three on one) Dane Swan into a premiership hero and Brownlow medalist? Hawthorn’s won three flags in a row now so two players being investigated for rape, it seems, is no huge deal. No one will do a Craig Hutchison and be over-zealous in their reporting and name the wrong player as involved in the Milne incident. No one will name anyone for as long as possible.

For all of Finnis and co’s good work, for a long time we’ll still be hearing about how we are the old rabble of St Kilda that can never move beyond that one premiership, which we “celebrate” the 50th anniversary of next year. What does it take to move beyond that image? In a game filled with boorish and narrow attitudes, Carlisle playing in a St Kilda premiership seems to be the only thing that will make people reconsider in the foreseeable future.

A time to be so small

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.

Remember feeling OKish?

Round 5, 2015
St Kilda 2.6, 6.7, 10.10, 11.14 (80)
Essendon 3.2, 6.6, 9.11, 11.16 (82)
Crowd: 29,869 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, May 3rd at 3.20pm

It was the corresponding round last year in which we beat the Bombers on a Saturday to go three wins from five. My overriding thought that night was that maybe – just maybe – we’d escaped an extended bottoming out and could at least be competitive as we rebuilt.

Of course, that didn’t eventuate. We threw away that 4-2 start that beckoned against the winless Lions in New Zealand the following week, and it would be three months until our next (very unexpected and bizarre) win.

So perhaps it’s strange that I walk away from this one feeling better than last year, as Rich aptly noted on our way out of the stadium. Not just that it was a loss, but that a) it was against Essendon, and b) it was a close loss against Essendon. It would be too easy to throw in “c) Schneider”, but I’ll get to that later.

For some reason Hulk Hogan was at Seaford this week, and I dare say being in Melbourne proper to begin with was a stretch for context for him. The Saints have a number of celebrity fans including the other type of Hulk, Erica Bana (who happened to be at Seaford himself last week), the guy next to him at the 2010 Grand Final Draw, AKA Michael Klim, Molly Meldrum, Peter Hitchener, Sandy Roberts, Shane Warne (if ex-players of sorts count), and a host of other (Tracey Grimshaw was sporting a Saints beanie on A Current Affair last night also). Hulk (Hogan), however, belongs more to the once-off line of celebrity supporters, infamously and awkwardly boasting Elle MacPherson.

The Hulk (the, uh, real not real one) was at least vaguely more animated than the life-size cardboard cut-outs of Delaney, Steven et al in the bemusingly recurring “feature” Battle Talk on the club site. Battle Talk ok, but they’re rarely going to say anything different about whoever they’re playing that week, and by that I mean they’re rarely going to read anything different off the autocue about whoever they’re playing that week.

Following the last fortnight a number of people would have thought Essendon would cruise through this one based on St Kilda’s form alone. The fact that the Bombers had beaten Hawthorn but hadn’t really shown much otherwise might have led a few (myself included) to think they were due to right the ship, and given the attacking footy they’re capable who better to that against, and via a very, very big margin?

A last minute call-up to the Medallion Club with very old family friend Andrew, his partner Emily and Rich was an appropriate way for myself to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first venture into the overrated section (specifically in the way it’s run, the ticketing and it’s thirst for actually being the MCC). That night, the second Fridaynight  of the split Round 13, suitably saw a lowly Essendon pull out an arsey win against us to leave us outside the top eight at 6-7. It was also the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround that at least should have seen us playing in the Grand Final; interestingly the following week we played the Bulldogs – as we do this week – and that match was the start of the career-best form of Kosi.

To further mark some arbitrary Essendon-St Kilda dates, 20 years ago saw the Bombers smack us by 116 points and then 76 points in our two meetings that season, and of course this is the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Grand Final, in which the Bombers came from 4th place to to beat us in the Grand Final after we finished on top of the ladder, something we’d repeat the next time we finished above the rest in 1997.

The Medallion Club also happened to be the site that Rich and I spent arguably the two darkest days of last year in. Losses to West Coast in Round 14 on the Sunday and then Richmond the following Saturday afternoon weren’t the biggest we had, but came after respective 86, 70 and 96-point losses. Billings may have christened himself Mr. 100% against the Eagles, but this pair of games were probably when we felt the heavy weight of the past had taken us as low as it could. This was the new normal, the cavernous Corporate Stadium playing host to not much in front of not many. The fact the roof is closed messes with my melatonin levels and it’s hard to not be extra depressed about everything once you enter the stadium at 2.30pm and your day is essentially over.

I’m not going to get carried away and say “and then on Sunday we were there for the turnaround”, but I really do hope we can look back on this as one of the first times this group really showed that it had a future together. But let’s go easy. Like it does within matches, more obviously we’ll swing from side to side between weeks, and there will certainly be repeats this year of the aforementioned drubbings.

The intent was really good from the start, and that loose sense of rejuvenation following a dog’s balls fortnight was heightened by Tom Hickey and debutant D-Mac getting involved early.

Hickey provided one of the biggest structural takeaways of the day (/night), playing essentially the Nick Riewoldt roaming role across half forward as the tall target. Given his size and that he was coming back from injury I assumed he’d spend a lot more time closer to goal, but instead he was pushing up to the wing within minutes to provide the kind of option we’d so painfully lacked in the absence of My Favourite Hair in the AFL. He was far more mobile than I thought he’d be, and perhaps more so than the three goals he kicked in Round 2 last year against GW$ his performance gave us the best example yet of why we were so keen to get him.

In fact he played so (relatively) athletically and nearly completely as a forward it swiftly put to rest for the time being whether we could carry two ruckmen in the same side. Whilst Billy Longer had a decent impact across the ground against the Blues the previous week as the sole really big guy – so much so the club put him on media duty for the first time ever – he only gathered six possessions in this one as his focus was more so to get to the stoppages and get the hit-out. Hickey, on the flipside, recorded only six hit-outs.

Our Very Own Stephen Merchant could have held on to a few more marks – he only took four for the day but seemed more capable in the air as the game progressed – but not only did he provide a contest coming out of defence, his 19 possessions reflected how hard and effectively he worked down low once the ball came off hands (often his own).

Richo didn’t have Hickey a certainty to play this week given Roo is coming back in (as is Joey), which would be astounding but when My Second Favourite Hair in the AFL Josh Bruce is also the Second Leading Goalkicker in the Competition and clearly has a better output when a tall target is playing higher up then perhaps it’s Membrey who comes out this week. He wasn’t given the most enthusiastic response by Richo but it’s folly for anyone to think that coaches aren’t going to send messages to their own players when speaking publicly about them, and further folly to think they exactly what that means. Given Hickey’s own game and the structure he allowed for Bruce to take advantage of, Membrey would seem to be most likely. Hickey is also ready for game time and getting some momentum into his career, whilst Membrey is still 20 and has played a grand total of six games – and five of those were in the last five weeks. He’s probably due for a spell with the Zebras just to get his head around a few things.

D-Mac looked very comfortable for a debutant, and probably started stronger than he finished. He registered a couple of smothers and was backing himself to go up in a few marking contests. He’s only 183cm but deceptively quick for his frame, which combined with his not-quite-on-trend hair and slightly slouch makes him look more like your St. Paul’s reserves forward lumbering around the 7-11 end of McKinnon Oval. With Joey returning you’d expect it’s him or perhaps Sinclair of the lighter brigade to come out, but given D-Mac showed more than enough intent and Sinclair might be experiencing a little wear (like Membrey), the latter might be due for a spell in the Peter Jackson.

The first quarter was defined by two things – Jack Lonie and inaccuracy, and unfortunately they’d be intertwined to Schneideresque proportions by game’s end. Whatever Schneider’s been doing in his mentoring role has worked almost too well, because he’s been able to convey just about everything of his game over to Lonie. I don’t know about you but I reckon Lonie plays his position just about more effectively than anyone else in our side at the moment. He set up Bruce with a great push and turn followed by a pinpoint left-foot pass to the top of the square, but then ended a chain of three gettable shots at goal from Roberton, Billings and himself with a wayward snap, leaving us at 1.5 to 1.0. That Essendon goal, by the way, echoed the worst of our leaky pressure from the previous two matches, and foreshadowed the two vital goals the Bombers would score in the final quarter.

Lonie, like he had in previous weeks, had a very strong reaction to missing the kind of shot at goal made for players like him but didn’t drop his head. In fact he probably held it too high if anything because he pushed right up the ground soon after and on the spread took on Fletcher and was completely monstered by him. Another behind soon after undid Jack Steven’s hard running and Dare Iced Coffee higher up. It was tempered by another left footer, Jimmy Webster, showing off his silky field kicking skills and hitting Dunstan in space close to goal after Dunstan was at risk of being ignored completely despite having the proverbial around him just 30 out from goal.

So some frustrations, but overall the effort, intent, whatever was all there. Of course, in the last two matches we’d kicked 6.3 in the first and led by 26 points during the second respectively, and gone on to lose by a combined 114 points. This week seemed a lot more cohesive though, and it proved to be such.

When I’d hit the top of the Bourke Street stairs (ok I took the escalator) just under an hour out from the game there was an actual crowd on the footbridge and I was genuinely taken aback. We’ve become accustomed to some woeful crowd numbers over the last couple of years, and whilst a lot of those there were Essendon fans (likewise most of the anticipation belonged to them), it was still strange for there to be some interest in a game involving ourselves. That said, the final crowd didn’t even hit 30,000 so the fact it felt that “full” probably shows just our far we’ve fallen. But don’t worry, now we’ve also got that MAKE SOME NOISE thing which is essentially a weird, ill-toned noise and big-screen graphic that comes on slightly too long after a goal and breaks up the organic anticipation of the resulting centre bounce (particularly when there’s some momentum our way). But for fuck’s sake why would we be at the footy then. A goal apparently doesn’t get us excited enough anymore. My suggestion is don’t feed it but perhaps people are getting more stupid and important people will tell us that they’ll have to find a way to make SOME MORE NOISE and en masse we won’t notice.

Very rarely do I have to deal with the Medallion Club amenities and shithead staff (that neutrally dark suit jacket will never be the MCC red, white and blue stripe standard, I’m sorry) but any danger of having more than one bar? Having queues out into the walkway as the next quarter is beginning is a mess. Fortunately, not that many more people would turn up in the section even to a sold out (“sold out”) game at that Concrete Dome so I guess it only gets so bad there.

It became apparent in the second quarter that Billings had stepped up after humming along through the first few games. He presented as a lead up forward and finished some good work from Schneider again, but I really do think his highlight was when Sean Marchetti interviewed him for the ground’s own coverage (which I’d never seen before and I don’t like the idea on networks to begin with). Billings seemed kind of frazzled by the situation himself but still interviews like a kid anyway (he still is one really), and Marchetti took the mic away from Jack’s mouth before he’d finished the answer. The finisher was the “what do we need to do in the second half” segue into everyone’s half-time, and Jack mentioned nothing more specific than maintaining effort “and we’ll see how that goes”. Uh, yeah. Terrible hair too, still. But he’s starting to show his class with the ball and off the ball he uses his body more smartly. What he could be after couple more pre-seasons is looking more and more befitting such a high pick.

The second quarter also saw a disparity between two guys at either end of the ground and at either end of their careers. For the first time, Sam Fisher is beginning to look slow. He still finished with 20 touches, a few marks and a few tackles, but there were some contests where in an attempt to apply physical pressure to a contest he looked like Josh Bruce pre-huge grab against GWS. Just vaguely there because a human body was required by laws of the game to be roughly in the vicinity. Not sure what I’m meant to be expecting from someone at that age and I’d certainly have him in the side, and ultimately there was a tinge of sadness to know that whilst he’ll still be making a decent contribution his floor might be getting a little lower a we might be seeing it more often.

And incidentally, that other player is Josh Bruce. I can’t tell you how  excited I am that someone with that hair plays for St Kilda AND is kicking a whole bunch of goals even though they look like they should be filling in for whoever’s playing against Rich and I at FutsalOz in Brunswick on a Monday night. In that sense, as a I mentioned a few weeks ago, there’s a lot of Fraser Gehrig about him. Nonchalant, very inward celebrations and a somewhat lackadaisical left-foot action and overall physical presence. With Hickey in the side Bruce was good enough to find space and then take some tough marks when required, and G-Train comparison for me was complete when he far-too-calmly wheeled around onto the left in the last quarter and off a step or two put us in front from 40 metres out on an angle.

But for the second week in a row we’d let a lead of at least 20 points slip away. Let’s cut the crap and go to Schneider. You could say this was his Daniel Wulf moment from Round 5, 2002 in the sense that he hit the post late in the game and messed up a chance to put us in front late in a match, in an era in which we’re following a bunch of kids that you simply can’t rely on to definitely do what’s required in a tight finish. Not necessarily because they’re rubbish, but because they’re kids. The pressure got to Lonie as well who appropriately sprayed a shot late as well, but he’s an 18 year-old playing his fifth game, and even then already looks to have a big future.

The problem with this one – aside from running into goal and hitting the post when you could have either kicked past the man with space to your right or just handballed to your left to Tim Membrey who’s by himself and even closer to goal – is that Schneider is specifically in the team for those moments. To guide things home cooly and calmly. Indeed, the set shot just a couple of minutes earlier with no angle could be argued to be an easier shot. You could say Lonie’s handball to him for the second kick was too heavy and he had to spend too much time getting control of the footy, but he’s an AFL footballer and that’s where it ends. A 10-point lead with a few minutes left? Nah, the ball goes straight up the other end, Travis Colyer burns everyone off from the halfway up the ground and still has the composure and class to finish from 50 metres out. A 5-point lead with two minutes left? Etc.

Sadly, like Daniel Wulf, Schneider may well be remembered for both of these moments above anything else. Added to his 2009 Grand Final performance, all of a sudden he’s a got the air of a serial offender. As much as he’s done for this team, and by all accounts continues to do off the field with the younger guys, I can certainly say the 2009 Grand Final is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of him. But this isn’t his generation, and it clearly wasn’t his day in a lot of respects. GT’s orders on that fateful Saturday night were to win at all costs following a 122-point loss at the Cattery, but obviously the über flood we served up against the Swans had nothing to do with the barnstorming style led by the G-Train, Roo, Milne, Hamill and co of 24 months later. On Sunday this team’s performance was owned by Bruce, Billings, Lonie, Steven, Armitage, Hickey et al. All these guys showed genuine promise playing their natural game and ideally will be there for the next tilt.

A narrow loss to the Bombers is one of my more intense fears as a St Kilda supporter, but I left the ground experiencing the now-foreign feeling of positivity. This is a young side and we’re going to have to some pretty off days between now and whenever it may be that we’re a threat again. But for the first time in a very long time, I can’t wait to go to the footy this week and watch the Saints.