Since the turn of the century, the Carlton Blues have ‘won’ the wooden spoon four times. No other club has done so more than twice. In 2017, I’m tipping Carlton to make it five.
What’s remarkable is that before 2002 the Blues had never finished at the bottom of the ladder in more than a century of VFL/AFL history – and, of course, they won 16 premierships in that time, the equal most of any club in the game.
They’re a great club. More accurately, they used to be. For those like myself who have grown up watching the modern game, they’re a shambolic mess, known for salary cap breaches and their controversial pursuit of priority picks.
At the end of 2015 they won their most recent spoon and made the admirable decision that it was time to cut their losses and start over.
Mick Malthouse, an ill-considered coaching appointment if there ever was one, left the club that year, and was eventually replaced with the latest mini-Clarkson on the market, Brendon Bolton.
At the same time, a favourite son of Carlton, Stephen Silvagni, returned to the club to serve as its list manager, having played a key role in building the talented list that now exists at Greater Western Sydney.
These were decisions that had to be made, and only time will tell whether or not they offer any level of success. I’m not optimistic they will, and in the short term, the outlook is bleak.
In 2016 the Blues had a season that went far better than anyone really expected, thanks largely to a string of six wins from seven games from Round 5 through to Round 11, which even included a win against an eventual top-four side, Geelong.
That was a run of form that had always-optimistic Carlton fans wondering if maybe finals was on the cards, but outside of that seven-week purple patch, the side won only one other game.
They closed out the season with a four-goal loss to Essendon, a team missing a dozen players, a side so depleted they were tipped by many to go through 2016 without a single victory.
If you’re wondering to yourself which of these two sides of the coin was the ‘real’ Carlton, it is the team who lost ten of their last 11 matches that you will see turning up in 2017.
Carlton have five players on their list who could be considered above the AFL average – five. They are Patrick Cripps, Sam Docherty, Kade Simpson, Bryce Gibbs and Marc Murphy.
The other 41 players on the list are average or below. They fall into two categories largely – developing youth, and those who are at their best only serviceable AFL players or worse.
None of the youth seem ready to take that next step up in 2017. The Blues fielded a side missing the majority of their stars in the pre-season comp on the weekend, and there was little to suggest that they have players ready to make an impact at AFL level this year.
It is, after all, only two years ago that they were making decisions like trading away a draft pick so they could bring in Liam Jones on a three-year contract. This is a new policy, there’s very little talented youth on the list, and what is there is still raw.
On top of that, there are question marks over some of that top five. Cripps and Docherty should have strong seasons again, and Simpson too though he is 32, but almost-30 Murphy is badly in need of some revitalisation.
Bryce Gibbs is the biggest concern, after last year seeking a trade and being held to his contract. Much has been said about his professionalism during the pre-season, but we’ll see how well that holds up when competition starts.
Will Carlton’s future be any brighter than its present? So long as the club chooses holding 27-year-olds against their will over acquiring more first-round picks, and continues to fill out its list with Reject Shop stocking-stuffers, I remain unconvinced.
That’s something we’ll find out in time though, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong. It has happened before, and it will happen again. Live in hope, Blues fans.
For now though, their list situation is simply diabolical, and while I like Brendon Bolton – how could anyone not, with that cheery face – his honeymoon period has come and gone.
The four clubs who finished below Carlton in 2016 are all likely to improve – Essendon and Fremantle through the return of key players, Brisbane with the new-coach bounce, and Gold Coast having added both mature and young talent over the off-season.
That being the case, I can’t find any good reason not to make this my tip for 2017. These Blues are bottom-place bound.