Confessions of a football pessimist
By Angus Tonkin
Crisis is the word of the week. Perhaps it is a crisis or perhaps it is something else.
Perhaps it is a maturing that I wasn’t aware I needed. It may be the inevitable lull of enthusiasm that follows successive Bombers thrashings. Part of me wants to blame it on the Channel 7 commentary that does nothing to ease my frustration. A small part of me knows it probably has something to do with Collingwood exceeding expectations thus far this season.
It just seems that something is off with this 2018 AFL season and it seems that everyone else thinks so as well.
I’m in two minds as to how to approach it: from a place of pragmatism (read: pessimism) or delusion (read: optimism)?
To date, personally speaking, I cannot think of a season in which I have become progressively less invested. The results are coming in, the AFL app’s worm keeps wriggling to and fro but tight games have been few and far between. The joy simply of watching football has been skewed by a nagging disillusionment that the competition has lost its spectacle. And it’s hard to put a finger on just one aspect.
Games have been repeatedly dogged by over-possession, stagnant movement, strangling pressure, dismal disposal and an infuriating inconsistency in paying holding the ball for incorrect disposal.
It is true that the start of the season is a matter of testing the waters as to what teams are setting the pace, what style of game is being exposed and where the umpires’ rules are being circumvented, so perhaps the criticism is unfair at this early point. The premiership isn’t won in the opening third of the season.
Nonetheless, any lapse in concentration is cause for concern, and looking at the standard of competition is to see a worrying disparity between the game at its best, and its worst.
This widening gulf bears some scrutiny. Only a short time ago it was fairly easy for coaches, as they hunched over the hedge of microphones and recording devices in a post-defeat press conference, to simply make the comment that, ‘It’s such a tight competition. It just goes to show anyone can beat anyone on their day,’ and be believed.
Results this year however, are looking more and more remote from those volatile days of ‘tightness’ with each clump of blow-outs, and as a result the competition is becoming more predictable.
The Herald Sun’s Kiss of Death tipper has tipped only 16 so far this year as opposed to 19 this time last year, which gives us an idea of how many fewer upsets we are witnessing. It’s not foolproof logic, (more from the Bruce McAvaney school of conjuring arbitrary stats to legitimise my rambling than anything more robust) but the point is still valid.
Predictability isn’t normally a precursor to tension.
The media isn’t buying it, and heads are being wrestled into the gallows after further poor showings.
These things can turn around.
In Round 7 last year Kiss of Death topped the Herald Sun tipping with a tally of six, so perhaps my assessment is a pre-emptive judgement. Perhaps the bye rounds will shake up the status quo and perhaps Carlton, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Essendon are just about to prove me wrong.
here have been exceptions as long as there have been upsets. No-one saw Richmond beating Adelaide back in 2006 when Terry Wallace told his Tigers to simply play keepings off, so the game is always susceptible to a rogue one-off game plan. However, applying that over a season is unrealistic. Early in 2018 it is hard to see a major revival happening in the case of the bottom four, who seem destined to duel amongst themselves for the undignified spoils of 18th.
Six games in, the hole some of these cellar dwellers are in already is a serious concern for the stability of the competition, and it is arguably the biggest conundrum for 2018 to nut out.
How do you help teams like Carlton, Brisbane or Gold Coast, which seem only to bleed talent?
There’s only so much a coach can do with a list decimated by injury and free agency, and that isn’t mentioning the excuse for a news story that is the conjecture around Brendan Bolton’s future, which can only be detrimental to his side’s woes. Surely one can’t expect a team with a wooden spoon to dig its way out of a hole in the space of a pre-season with that kind of reception. For that, you need heftier equipment. At the very least a shovel would be handy along with an image of Chief Wiggum shouting, ‘No, dig up, stupid!’.
Essendon arguably wouldn’t have some of their strongest performers currently, if it weren’t for the baptism of fire that was the 2016 season, battling out the year if fringe players and top ups. As such, there are conceivable positives to be drawn from times of struggle, though long-term bottom-four residency cannot be beneficial.
When the balance of talent on either side of the contest is lop-sided, you tend to get predictable results. Furthermore it propagates an ultra-defensive style that thwarts creativity and invites congestion, which has been a familiar sight this year.
Ironically, throwing numbers at the contest actually advantages those teams that can spread from the source faster, with quick hands and precise kicks while being able to defend the open space on the rebound. Richmond does this better than any other team and it is riding a wave of confidence that many are hoping will crash to shore and recede at some point soon. This type of expansive play however, you can only really employ when there is leeway for results.
Too often the coaches of the bottom half teams are perpetually under the gun and on unrealistic timelines for rebuilding, which makes the appetite for attack and experimentation a casualty for the reality that the AFL is a binary ‘win-loss’ economy for most of its employees.
Perhaps my pessimism however, comes from a different source.
On reflection, it may be that in 2018 I am worried because the bottom-four standard is where my team is headed, and I’m just bitter that Collingwood is doing better than my Bombers. Well, there is no perhaps about it.
The antithesis of the Western Bulldogs of 2016, Collingwood attains a joy that no-one can share. Conversely, while a rising Collingwood is a natural downer, the same side also promises a revival of spirits when it is inevitably revealed that they ‘peaked too early’.
So perhaps the source of my disillusionment is not the Magpies, but rather the developing story over the past fortnight, which looks to be the biggest news of the year. The one concerning the drug trafficking trial engulfing former Essendon Premiership captain and coach Mark Thompson. Such off-field spotlight can only provoke either expressions of regret or ‘told you so’ claims, and from which, there are no positive outcomes.
So, what is there to look forward to?
Following that preamble to its logical conclusion, it might be tempting to assume it to be a rhetorical question. But that would be foolish.
I, like most footy fans, have hope. It took effort to think of how each of those concerns might be countered by potential positives, but surely that is the gift of a clamped-on supporter.
However low the depths to which of a season might drop, (and it is important to acknowledge them so those enduring problems are highlighted and ideally resolved) it is equally imperative at times to find ways to break down that pessimism and rebuild it in an optimistic light, however deluded it might seem (and probably is.)
At this point it’s incumbent on me to admit that I am writing at a muted point in the season. This will pass. You have to hope that it’s a low point in what is a roller coaster with peaks the season is to reach yet.
It’s a process of managed expectations. It’s a willingness to offset a loss with being content to applaud a debutant’s solid performance in defeat. It’s a willingness to focus on the repeat tackling efforts to earn holding the ball, rather than the inevitable free kick resulting from the following kick being out on the full. Perhaps it’s a willingness to admire Brendan Goddard’s passion for the game, rather than wishing he’d stop shouting at fellow defenders for not picking up the player, (who is now having a shot at goal,) that he was supposed to be manning himself.
That one’s not so easy.
As a general observer, something may be missing from this 2018 AFL season so far but Round 7 is too early in the year to say that ‘it’ isn’t coming. That’s something I assume through precedent. As a supporter I just have to hope.
I’m a firm believer that Collingwood is over-performing and has peaked too early. A deluded part of me still believes that it’s possible that Channel 7 and Fox Footy might do a direct swap of Brian Taylor and Cameron Ling for Anthony Hudson and Jason Dunstall before next season. And who knows, the Bombers might stop handballing incessantly and raise their kicking efficiency to the minimum acceptable levels.
There are problems surfacing that need fixing, some long-term, some requiring more immediate attention, but in 2018 balancing pragmatism with delusion may be a necessary safeguard for keeping the enjoyment afloat.
Angus Tonkin is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. He’s an avid reader but an even bigger sports nut. And obviously an Essendon tragic.