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Giving up on giving up

Touch of the Fumbles

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Back in 2013 the AFL season opener was played out between two teams that had made themselves practically pariahs among all but their respective loyal supporters.

Essendon had just begun what would turn out to be an interminable journey into football purgatory after the supplements scandal had broken a few weeks before.

The Crows had already copped their whack from the AFL, with fines, suspensions and draft sanctions for dodgy dealings with Kurt Tippett.

Sometime during the second quarter a mate sent me a message: “Who’s winning? The cheats … or the cheats?”

Sadly, it was the latter. Or the former, I forget.

In any case the Bombers ended up victorious in Adelaide, by 35 points.

Indeed, they won their first six games, and were well and truly finals-bound, with 13 wins from 17 starts before the supplements scandal fallout sapped their momentum and the league ultimately expelled them from the finals series.

Instead, they finished ninth, as if the most diabolical, soul-destroying punishment the AFL could think to mete out was to turn them into Richmond for a season.

Ah, the Power. It is one of life’s great moral conflicts when circumstances dictate that a victory for the Alberton faithful is the best possible result.

A year later, in 2014, they made the finals despite playing, for large chunks of the preceding season, a distinctly uninteresting style of football. This year they are not merely uninteresting but uninterested.

The reasons for this are well-documented and only get discussed by national football scribes about once or twice every half hour, so I’ll save the history lesson. Suffice it to say that until recent months, over more than two seasons of the supplements scandal, there was a single thing I admired – envied, even – about Essendon. Their resilience.

It was something we could never really get a handle on.

In Round Nine of 2013, Adelaide came back from 30-plus points down (twice) to beat the Kangaroos by a point in one of our better wins, and Brenton Sanderson enthused that “you can’t fault the spirit and the passion of these young kids that we’ve got … because they never give up”.

Except that we promptly gave up completely, losing our next three straight and seven of our next nine to all-but fall from finals contention (even with Essendon helpfully vacating a spot in the eight).

Cheers Brenton!

So while there were a lot (like, a lot) of things to like about how the Crows went about their 2015 re-match with the Bombers on Saturday – a newfound goal accuracy being right up there – the most laudable trait on display was resilience.

Before the game, one of the television talking heads mused about how admirable it was that Essendon players could bring themselves to turn up and play each week, given the scrutiny they’re under.

Um, ok. Because nothing horrible, unforeseen and tragic has happened to the Crows in the last few weeks, has it?

Surely turning up to play after the turmoil the Adelaide Football Club has endured rates some plaudits too, let alone winning four of our last five games.

And playing, it must be said, our best football since the opening rounds, those two or three weeks when we fleetingly glimpsed a triumphant escape from the mire of mediocrity. How long ago it all seems. But now, all of a sudden, albeit against negligible opposition, everything is gelling; the forward line is potent and balanced, the engine room is humming, there is dash off half back and the defence is growing into a formidably stingy unit. Mackay seems to have found his natural home as the starting sub, having kicked two of his three goals for the season in the past fortnight.

But if it’s subtly playing into our hands that no-one appears to rate the Crows’ prospects (at least until we walked off Etihad Stadium having bolstered our percentage from 104.5 to 111.4 and the Cats obligingly lost to Hawthorn), it’s still worth considering that had we played and beaten Geelong in that rightly-aborted home game in Round 14, we would be now discussed more in terms of whether we can crack the top four than of whether we can edge into the eight.

Similarly, the abandoned game could be the one that costs Paddy Dangerfield a Brownlow Medal: his recent form has been breathtaking, and one can only presume he would have been at his best against Geelong, as one always is in a job interview situation.

Port's late inclusion John Butcher marks before goaling against the Giants. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Port’s late inclusion John Butcher marks before goaling against the Giants. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

It is what it is, though; we must keep winning – against Brisbane, the ominous West Coast and, of course, Geelong – and keep hoping that other results go our way. The crucial third-party hurdle comes on Friday week: if the vaguely-resurgent Magpies can topple the Cats, we can effectively afford to drop our last two games. If they don’t, all else being equal, we’ll probably need to beat them at home to progress.

Then there are the usual variables: North play Freo, Footscray and the Tigers, and wouldn’t necessarily start favourites against any of them.

In the end, though, it’s a fool’s errand to speculate, as something always happens (such as Adelaide trouncing Richmond) to scupper even the most watertight prognostications.

I recall in 2008 a narrow final round win over the Bulldogs propelled us unexpectedly into the top four, bolstered by a massive percentage over our nearest challenger, St Kilda. Unfortunately, the weekend’s jubilation ended when the Saints fronted the pre-resilient Bombers in the Sunday twilight fixture, and smashed them by 108 points to edge us out of the double chance. We lost to Collingwood at home a week later, and that was that.

All we can happily say for now is that our bandwagon teams, the ones we now rely upon to propel us into our first finals berth since we entered football purgatory in 2012, (mostly) did the right thing. The Hawks downed the Cats, and even the Saints were competitive for a half against North. And then there was Port.

Ah, the Power. It is one of life’s great moral conflicts when circumstances dictate that a victory for the Alberton faithful is the best possible result.

But with the Giants playing Sydney, Carlton and Melbourne to close their season, this one couldn’t be left to chance (even though Port did their damndest for about three quarters!).

Port and GWS players get physical after the half-time siren. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Port and GWS players get physical after the half-time siren. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

As if to emphasise the surreal scenario of having to quietly cheer on a rare Power victory, it was forgotten forward John Butcher who changed the trajectory of the game, wresting back the lead with a final quarter goal that ultimately opened the floodgates.

While I will spend the week feeling soiled for having sombrely celebrated the Power’s success, I console myself that the result essentially makes Port Adelaide our lapdog this season – they obediently lose when their season is on the line, and faithfully win when it benefits their crosstown rival.

Of course, what would I know? This is what I wrote of them back in May, after our Showdown loss:

“They are a perfectly balanced side right now; they have the muscle to win the contested ball, the pace to ship it forward, the height and accuracy to capitalize and, if all else fails, a solid defence and some emerging rebounding creativity.”

I am vaguely concerned that I have now described the Crows in almost exactly the same terms, but three months can indeed be a long, long time in football.

Well done, Port. Feel free to return to your losing ways again now.

Touch of the Fumbles is InDaily’s Monday AFL column. For new readers, yes, it’s shamelessly biased – if you feel the need, even up the score in the comments below.

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