This season, we’ve played five rounds.
We’ve seen a number of rather embarrassing defeats by teams that were considered promising prior to the season. We’ve seen St Kilda lose by 80 points twice. We’ve seen Essendon be unexpectedly promising. We’ve seen West Coast, Fremantle, Adelaide and Brisbane struggle away while being dominant at home. The premiers have lost two games, one of which was the game of the year.
It’s five rounds in, and we’re well into the thick of things. At least, that would be the interpretation you’d be taking, were you consuming the media.
For this year, the AFL media has been the loudest it has ever been. It has been at its most abrasive and its most pervasive. There are increasingly newer and fresher hot takes each and every week. In the absence of footy in Melbourne last year, it seems as though the city and the press established there has gone footy mad.
Now, to the point of this article.
Carlton sit with a 2-3 record. They’ve beaten Fremantle at home and Gold Coast away. They lost to Richmond in Round 1, Collingwood in Round 2, and Port Adelaide (at home) in Round 5. In all of these games except for Fremantle, Carlton have gone in as underdogs in both the tipping and the betting markets. People didn’t think they’d win these games.
In the games they’ve lost, only the Collingwood result sits uneasily. Collingwood have their only win for the season against the Blues, and thus it should be disappointing that they lost that game.
However, Richmond have won three flags in four years, and are eager to grab another while the going’s good. Port Adelaide came first last season, and have started this year precisely as they finished the last, if not a little better. They are more clinical.
Given this, I am intrigued to note the veritable cavalcade of derision, scorn and negative press assailing Carlton in the wake of their loss to Port. They won any number of statistical categories, but couldn’t put it on the scoreboard.
That happens when you come up against a flag contending side. The majority declined to pick them, and it was the third smallest margin in the round. But for a single point, it would’ve been the second smallest margin for the round.
Carlton’s losses have come against three teams that made finals last year (including two of the best) and Carlton were not believed to be able to win any of them by the majority. Contrast their record concerning opposition with Melbourne’s – the Demons have played Fremantle, St Kilda, GWS, Geelong and Hawthorn – and you see a team that has taken on two finalists from last season, one of which was from the top four.
Why are they so criticised? The sword falls on them over a team mooted to take the next step and be a top-four side this year in St Kilda. Why are they more criticised than Hawthorn, when Carlton only a few years ago were widely panned for being old and awful? Why are they more criticised than Brisbane and West Coast, who were both considered flag contenders yet still seem to struggle away from home?
People mention the failed rebuild, 20 years of irrelevance, poor development, Paddy Dow, Lochie O’Brien and Stephen Silvagni. It is he said, she said, replicated ad infinitum across the innumerable talkback radio stations, splattered across the pages of newspapers along the southeastern seaboard, filling the free-to-air and the pay-for-view television sets.
There are many supposed voices expressing their concern, proffering their expert opinion. Remind me, how many teams have Kane Cornes, Matty Lloyd, Caroline Wilson, Mark Robinson, Damian Barrett and David King coached in their time? How much time have they spent in AFL development roles or list management departments?
However, there is something painfully obvious about this. The media have put this kind of pressure on Carlton before. They did it in 2012, and saw Brett Ratten removed after a poor loss to the Gold Coast. They did it when Mick Malthouse made his own bed in 2015. They did it in 2019, when Brendon Bolton’s Carlton lost to Essendon.
The media know that Carlton can and does bow to public pressure. Organisationally, Carlton is built on uneasy foundations. Its internal politics are precarious. It takes only the slightest of tipping points to unseat a board member, change the status quo within the board, or remove a coach or a CEO or a list manager. And people don’t leave Carlton happy or content with their time there.
Or, at least, they used to leave malcontented. It seemed to be getting better under Mark LoGiudice. He established the right structures for list management, board appointments, coaching and rehabilitation. They seemed to be making the right choices, painstakingly and patiently.
Under Steven Trigg and Cain Liddle, Carlton’s identity was remoulded, and shaped into something altogether more interesting and more substantial. Under Bolton and Silvagni, the team began to grow, to learn, to endure and to overcome. Every now and then, you’d see what they could do. Results against the Western Bulldogs over the past few years are a testament to that.
And so we return to this week, and to Carlton’s loss to Port Adelaide.
Carlton have started as underdogs in four of their five games. According to the common ledger, Carlton should be 1-4. Their largest loss this year has come at the hands of Port by 28 points.
In the same season, St Kilda have lost twice by 75 and 86 points respectively. The second loss was against a resurgent and determined Richmond with something to prove when coming off a five-day break. But the first was against Essendon, a team widely thought to be rebuilding.
Brisbane, who were in the top four last year, lost by 31 points in Round 1, won by one point in Round 2 against Geelong, won by one point in Round 3 against Collingwood, lost by 19 points to the Western Bulldogs in Round 4, and won emphatically at home against Essendon. They were precisely four points away from a 1-4 record. West Coast have not won a game away, losing to St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs.
Simply put, there should be more than the ubiquitous headlines and conversation concerning Carlton. There are more stories to tell, more individual and team achievements to write about and to celebrate or analyse. This is not to say that the media have some agenda or purpose to what they’re doing, because such is the stuff of conspiracy theory. What I am saying is that the current outpouring of negativity is at odds with where the establishment seemed to think Carlton sat, both in the pre-season and at the moment.
Most thought they would fail to make the eight, and most thought they would lose to Gold Coast away. Even the most constant of Carlton supporters would’ve been tipping with their heart instead of their head to pick Carlton over Port or Richmond.
We’re only five rounds in, yet there’s calls for coach changes and second (or third, it’s difficult to keep track sometimes) rebuilds.
Perhaps the media needs to jump down from the carousel for a bit, walk away from the lights and the glamour, the screaming of the crowd and the fans, and to take a bit of a breath.
They seem to be getting carried away with their own enthusiasm.