Carlton vs Essendon: 2.05pm, Sunday 28 February, Princes Park

MICKEY MOUSE FOOTBALL as the pre-season competition is, the fixture is irresistibly mouth-watering: Carlton, taking on ancient enemy Essendon, in the traditional afternoon timeslot on a Sunday and at a home ground that was once the most feared citadel in Australian football. With both teams struggling — for different reasons — both are likely to field full “strength” sides in what will be the first great battle fought out at Princes Park in over a decade.

Resolutely committed to the abolition of the so-called pre-season football competition as I am whenever the subject arises, I find myself — unbelievably — very excited indeed at the prospect of an NAB Cup match this Sunday afternoon.

Like a large slice of the football public and as the traditionalist I am, I see no value in a bastardised form of the greatest game on the planet; to me, the AFL can put its “super goals” and trial rules and every other distasteful aspect of the annual four-week farce of the NAB Cup where the sun doesn’t shine, and instead tack an extra month onto the regular home-and-away season if it seriously believes its own rhetoric about providing additional value to all the stakeholders tied up in the AFL.

After all, the players won’t be asked to play more: they’re expected to play (or be fit to do so) in the NAB Cup anyway; they won’t need to be paid more, for the same reason; the season won’t grind on inexorably under a consequent injury cloud — not only do the players, again, face the expectation of playing pre-season games, but an extra bye during the season would rest bodies — and the broadcasters, who already do quite nicely from both the regular season and the extra exposure the NAB Cup provides, would in fact get a bit more bang for their buck out of extra games of “proper” football.

As cringeworthy as it is in one sense and as satisfactory as it is in another, these two sides meet — even in a Mickey Mouse game — with their prospects for the season ahead in tatters before it starts.

My own beloved Navy Blues are on their knees — again — for not the first (or even second or third) time in the past 15 years; a last-placed finish last year as the end destination of refusing to structurally rebuild the playing list over decades, preferring instead patchwork topping-up in the quest for instant gratification and glory, saw the club finally get real about the modern AFL environment.

Having 15 new players, the brightest senior coaching prospect to emerge anywhere in Australian football in at least a decade in Brendon Bolton, and other key personnel (list manager Stephen Silvagni, Football head and Premiership hero Andy McKay, President Mark LoGuidice at al) either arrive at the club or consolidate their positions means that 30 years after the VFL bolted a couple of interstate sides on and called itself a national competition, the realities of a draft and salary cap are being embraced.

Finally, a team that can contend for a flag in 3-5 years’ time is being assembled from the ground up: that will take time, and the 15 new players in 2016 are merely the first of perhaps another two substantial injections of fresh talent before the job requires only fine-tuning thereafter.

As you would expect, the team the Blues have announced for Sunday’s match has a lot of holes: it is top-heavy, as most of the new players this year are key position players; it is weak in the midfield, as Carlton’s best midfield players are sidelined this week for various reasons; it is very much an inexperienced side, not least as Carlton’s five top-20 draft picks from last year will all make their first appearances for the club; and it isn’t setting the football media on fire, although the reactive Melbourne sports press is more interested in jumping onto bandwagons rather than pre-empting their arrival, which means that any of the new names to be featured will attract sufficient attention quickly enough once they start to perform on a sustained basis.

But if all of that’s a problem, and even though the thoroughly lamentable win-loss record last year (and probably this) is offset by the big and authentic dose of hope Bolton and his new recruits have ushered into the place, a poor year on-field is a good problem to have when it coincides with the solid importation of hordes of the best young talent in the country over the next two or three years.

Essendon, of course, has other problems.

To say the God-forsaken Essendon Football Club has been a bit naughty of recent times is an understatement; now sharing the dubious bragging rights only with a Sydney rugby league club as the perpetrator of one of the worst and most widespread abuses of performance-enhancing substances in Australian sporting history, Essendon has spent its off-season trading in decent draft picks to bolster its eventual playing stocks, and trading in a batch of ageing rejects (mostly from other clubs’ past Premierships sides) to cover the gaping chasm left by the year-long suspension of 12 of its best players by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA).

Essendon would have you believe they’re no worse than we were 15 years ago, ensnared in a salary cap rorting program for which Carlton was heavily punished (and from which some — myself included — don’t think it has ever really recovered).

But as I have said many times, a scandal around paying players under the table is one thing, not that I condone it for a minute, but a scandal around pumping illegal substances into players to give them an unfair advantage, distort the AFL competition and blatantly cheat, is reprehensible. Readers can peruse this article, from my political comment website, which was published in the aftermath of the WADA suspensions being sanctioned.

And so — when it’s all said and done, coming back to the confrontation at Princes Park on Saturday — it is fair to say there will be no love lost between the teams and their supporters, and for my part I think the only fitting outcome is to see the hated cross-town rival’s collective nose ground squarely into the sacred Princes Park turf.

And this brings up the real attraction of the Sunday “mockbuster” between two teams faring poorly, for different reasons, but which will be nonetheless dripping with spite.

When I was growing up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s, God hadn’t at that time invented the Brisbane Bears (please, try not to laugh at the mention of their name) and even once he had, in 1986, the old habit of barracking for a VFL side was far too strongly ingrained for me to be remotely interested in the local add-on to the VFL, which in any case I thought had no right to even exist.

In 1982, during the football finals’ season shared by both the VFL and the various rugby codes that were endemic in Queensland, I was approached at school shortly after Carlton won the VFL flag by a posse of surly, stout beefcakes. “Which football team do you support?” they demanded menacingly.

“Carlton,” I responded, beaming, and quickly deduced that that was not the correct answer, for before I realised it I was running — quite literally — for my life, with these three clods in hot pursuit. Even now, almost 35 years later, I shudder to think what might have happened if I hadn’t managed to outrun them. It wasn’t the first time barracking for a VFL side in a rugby state got me into trouble. It wouldn’t be the last, either. But that is another story.

What I wanted, more than anything, was to be able to go to the ground these matches were played at: no small wish, given we lived in Brisbane and the VFL (obviously) was played in Melbourne; but there was always something magical about the idea of Princes Park, whether glimpses of it were caught on the late night replays VFL matches were relegated to in Queensland back in those days, or whether commentators were heard talking about it on live radio broadcasts.

It was, in my view of all things Carlton, a field of dreams.

Many years later of course, I would kiss that turf the first time I watched a match there after moving to Melbourne; even that event was delayed, for having moved south with “the wrong girl” and taken her to the football one day in 1998, the prospect of a standing room only ticket (which was all that was left when we arrived) was anathema to her, and we went straight back home.

Carlton walloped St Kilda that day, too, which made the slight doubly difficult to digest.

But with “the wrong girl” and I having parted ways at the end of my first year in Melbourne, almost every week a Carlton home game was played at Princes Park (by then, of course, known as Optus Oval) from the following year until the administration of Ian Collins sold the ground out from underneath the club as a playing venue, I was there.

I soon found myself integrated into a little group of diehard local Carlton supporters (who remain close and valued friends even now) and every week we did the trudge: either a train to Flinders Street and a tram ride up Royal Parade, or someone would drive, and we’d do battle with the draconian parking restrictions around the Princes Park precinct.

I loved the place: from being able to smoke in the stands (thank you, John Elliott) to the arcane festival atmosphere provided by Captain Carlton in his hovercraft, a dodgy old scoreboard, ancient stands, and beer and hot dogs served from truly archaic catering outlets, I revelled in the history of the place and felt privileged that even in its 11th hour I had been able to enjoy a few years of both the good and the bad that was everything Carlton on its timeless own turf.

Making up for lost time, I was at Princes Park to see some of the most memorable moments of the twilight of Carlton’s playing days at that wonderful ground.

I was there on the infamous day Geelong’s Darren Milburn knocked out club hero Silvagni with a crude high bump in round 22, 2001, and watched in horror as Milburn followed up that effort by almost inciting a riot, clapping the angry pro-Carlton crowd and laughing at it as he was dragged to the bench by his coach; the enraged chant of “Kill the c*nt! Kill the c*nt!” that rang out around the ground as Silvagni lay convulsing on the turf capped off a shameful afternoon for which nobody ever forgave Milburn. Carlton won by 70 points.

I was there, too, the Antarctic afternoon earlier that season on which a 74-point belting by Carlton flicked a switch for the miserable Brisbane Lions, who had inconsistently sputtered their way to four wins and three losses heading into the round 8 match; that humiliation on Royal Parade galvanised the Lions, who would win 13 of the next 14 games — and the 2001 flag — in its aftermath, and for the second consecutive year the Blues would finish the season wondering what might have been.

I was there the day Scott Camporeale and Craig Bradley ran riot against Port Adelaide in 2000, racking up almost 90 disposals between them in a 91-point shellacking.

I was there a couple of weeks after the Brisbane match in 2001 to see Carlton surgically dismantle the West Coast Eagles by 119 points, and remember a day earlier that year on which the Eagles’ own cross-town rival, Fremantle, could manage just a single point during a first quarter that saw the Blues boot 9.5 to lead by 58 points at the first break.

I was there in round 18, 2000 — a game billed as “The Last Suburban Battle” between Carlton and its other sworn enemy Collingwood, as a scheduling quirk saw a game that should have been played at the much larger MCG unfold at Princes Park — to see a tasty 20-goal mauling of the old foe; unbeknown to so few of us and despite a reasonable year in 2001, we were witnessing the last moments of Carlton’s glorious history for many years, as the salary cap scandal and a raft of penalties hit the club in 2002 and sent it tumbling in a spiral it has never really recovered from.

I was there every week between 2002 and 2004, as the scene of so many triumphs over almost 1,000 games became the site of so much navy blue carnage as the club fell down the ladder and stayed there, in its darkest hour, as the salary cap penalties combined with a team of mostly second-rate recruits ushered in almost a decade of misery.

And I was there, the desperately sad day in 2005 that saw us play our final home game at Princes Park, losing to Melbourne despite winning the final quarter by 40 points in what at three-quarter time threatened to be a blowout, trailing as we did by 57 points at the final change.

Whilst it wasn’t played at Princes Park, one of the final moments of glory in Carlton’s recent history was the 1999 preliminary final — which I also saw — at which the Blues terminated the season of Essendon, which thought it was going to march right over the top of us into a Grand Final and that year’s flag; even though the Bombers would do precisely that one year later, the one-point victory to secure a grand final berth, as the legendary Anthony Koutoufides led Carlton to one of its finest wins of all time, is a cherished moment both as a Carlton supporter and in a timeless hatred of a bitter adversary.

 

The last 15 minutes of that wonderful game can be watched, uninterrupted, here.

On Sunday at 2pm — a traditional afternoon game in a traditional afternoon timeslot — football, Carlton and the hated enemy Essendon all return to the best ground in Australian football for what promises to be at once a grudge match, a glimpse at the likely prospects of both sides for 2016, and a wonderful throwback to the old Melburnian tradition of a day at the football.

20,000 people are expected to turn out. It goes without saying that I will be one of them. And my six-year-old daughter — already a committed Carlton supporter — will probably be there too.

I can’t wait.

 

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