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Carlton are coming off what was probably their most embarrassing performance under Brendon Bolton – goalless and 70 points in arrears to half-time against a travelling Fremantle.
Make no mistake, the Dockers are themselves a bottom six side, with an average losing margin of almost ten goals outside of Perth this year.
After 13 rounds, the Blues sit 18th on the ladder with one win and a percentage of 61.9.
In 2015, when Mick Malthouse was unceremoniously dumped by Carlton, at the same point of the season they were 16th with three wins and a percentage of 73.2.
Brendon Bolton was appointed Carlton senior coach in August of 2015. This is his third season.
In 2016 at Round 13, they had six wins and a percentage of 84.7. In 2017, it was five wins and a percentage of 82.7.
Whichever way you cut it, the Blues are having their worst year in the last four, and by a space. Things are looking grim.
Carlton have turned over their list dramatically under Bolton. Including rookies from 2015, there are only 12 players remaining at the club from the 46 that were on the list when Bolton took over.
Since 2015, Sam Docherty has become an All-Australian and one of the premier half-backs in the competition. Patrick Cripps looked like becoming a superstar and has lived up to it. Matthew Kruezer has got some continuity into his football under Bolton, and has become the ruckman fans have long been hoping for.
These three important players have become measurably better. Docherty has clearly been missed thanks to an ACL, and Kruezer is only now working into his season after some injury hiccups earlier in the year.
The evergreen Kade Simpson is still a beacon of consistency. Marc Murphy is still a high quality midfielder, but has only played four matches this year, something the struggling Blues can ill afford. Liam Jones has re-emerged to become better as a key defender than he ever was as a forward.
Dale Thomas was brought over to the Blues by Malthouse, and is having by far his best season since his premiership coach was let go. Ed Curnow is having a career year, winning more of the ball than ever before but also continuing a high standard with his defensive actions.
That’s eight players that are still on the list from 2015 that are better than they were, or still of reasonable quality. Three of the best five have been injured – we’ve seen what has happened to an outfit like Adelaide this year, and Carlton are coming from a far lower base.
Sam Rowe is much the same player as he was, but it wouldn’t have been in the plans to still have him as part of the side in 2018, and he wouldn’t be getting a game anywhere else. Levi Casboult is Levi Casboult. Nick Graham is a list-clogger. Ciaran Byrne was on the rookie list in 2015, and is on the main list now but has had a long history of injuries.
Of Carlton’s 2015 list, eight players ended up at other clubs.
Chris Yarran and Troy Menzel were clear busts for Richmond and Adelaide respectively. Tom Bell hasn’t fared much better at Brisbane. It’s hard to think Dylan Buckley will amount to much at GWS.
Lachie Henderson, Zach Tuohy and Bryce Gibbs were senior players, and all requested trades to more successful clubs. This fit in with Carlton’s strategic list build of hitting the draft, with the only flop bringing in Billie Smedts as part of the Tuohy deal, who lasted 12 months.
Billy Gowers was on the Blues rookie list in 2015, and has been a bright spot at the Western Bulldogs this year, starting in the same place.
It’s not as if the delisted or traded players from Carlton have been a glittering array of stars, or gone onto great things.
Bringing in the likes of Aaron Mullett, Sam Kerridge, Jed Lamb, Cam O’Shea, Andrew Phillips and Matthew Lobbe makes for easy pickings, adding a lot of dead wood to the pile of smouldering rubble that is the Carlton list. Maybe Darcy Lang, Jarrod Pickett and Jarrod Garlett will be the same. That’s 20 per cent of the list.
But Matthew Wright has made them better. Caleb Marchbank and Lachie Plowman have too. Matthew Kennedy should.
From recent drafts, Charlie Curnow has the football world salivating. Sam Petrevski-Seton, Zac Fisher and Paddy Dow, all in their first or second year, have shown moments of class that assure us they will become very good players, and incidentally, all three are in the top five for tackles at the Blues this year.
One of the problems with stripping a list right back in such a short period of time is that it’s impossible to get all decisions right, both in strategy and in selections, whether draft or targeting from other clubs. Getting it wrong in the case of experienced players is easier to tell, as in the case of Smedts. With draft picks, it can be three, four, five years. Sometimes more.
One draft pick in a round of 18 isn’t a lot. And really, are the chances of finding a prospective All-Australian or best-and-fairest winner that much better in the 20s as opposed to later on. And how are we to know whether it is the player himself of the development coaches that extract the most from their talent.
The drastic list turnover also means no continuity within the club – players take time to learn how to play with each other, and re-learning it with so many new faces each must take a toll. Friendships are made and broken. The players that survive one year play with the guillotine hanging over them the next.
Coaches must also put in a lot of time each year, forming new relationships, learning about their new players. Does this detract from the development of others? There are only so many hours in the day, only so much energy people have.
Confidence goes up a little with each win that comes along, but down a lot when the losses start piling up, as they inevitably do. Players are fragile, lose hope along the way, and need to be built up again.
It’s possible that Brendon Bolton is too structured, leaving young players caught in two minds – follow the coaches instructions, or play the way that got them drafted in the first place. It’s not easy to quell your own instinct in the service of some grander plan.
There was no joy in Carlton’s play on Saturday against Fremantle. No sense that it was just a game, and a fun one to play at that. There was no connectivity.
Success has many fathers, so the saying goes, and failure is an orphan. That doesn’t seem to be the case at the Blues. Their failures are myriad.
The road was long at the start of Bolton’s reign. It might well be longer now. That doesn’t mean the path they’re on won’t ultimately lead them into the light.