AFL Round 23 – Essendon v Richmond: The Claytons’ match

 Here we were at Round XXIII.  And the Tigers were going to play in September.  But tonight they were playing Essendon at the G in a Saturday night showdown between Traditional Rivals, the outcome of which the AFL had hoped when they set the agenda for 2013 would be cutthroat affair determining ladder positions for the finals.

It had been a long season, made longer by off-field events that had drawn the AFL into embroilments with three of its member clubs.  The re-opened Melbourne ‘tanking’ enquiry and the Adelaide salary cap’ affair were dealt with pre-season, but the scandal involving the Essendon Football Club had been a festering wound all season.  The AFL had finally acted the week leading up to the match.  After two days of intense negotiations Richmond’s opponent of the night was barred from playing in this year’s finals, denied participation in rounds 1 & 2 draft picks, plus were fined $2m for bringing The Game into disrepute.

It was an Essendon home game and it was expected that there’d be a huge crowd of vocal Red & Black Faithful to see their Boys off for the season, and to show solidarity behind the club.  There was a buzz going around after The Dons had beaten arch rivals Carlton the week before.  Had they shrugged off a four match losing streak?

We were a motley mob.  Ian was a Bomber by birth but had become disillusioned with the Cult of Hird going back to the last days of Chez Sheedy.  He would have had no trouble shooting Bambi back then and felt that ‘personality’ had been put before the long term interests of the club.  Matt was from Singapore.  An ex-pat who came across regularly to see his two boys Ben & Sam.  He was born a Roy Boy and came across to Tigerland when The Maroons were sold to Brisbane by the AFL.  Thirteen year old Ben’s a rusted on Tiger and Sam, two years younger, prefers less violent sporting activities, such as martial arts.

We settled down in our ground level seats in the Ponsford Stand a little worried.  We’d finished 5th.  Were we really that good?  Our defence was the ranked 3rd best in The Competition but our midfield and attack were iffy.  What if The Disgraced Bombers had come to play to vindicate their stance all season – ‘that they’d done nothing wrong’?

The Dons were also farewelling a couple of their longest serving soldiers.  Both loyal Servants of The Club, Man Mountain David Hille and Nathan Lovett-Murray were hanging up the boots and although past their glory days, both were more than token inclusions.

There was no need for The Long Suffering Punt Road Faithful to worry.  The Tigers kicked the first four goals of the quarter and The Bombers looked flat.  When Jackson Merrett ran into an open goal and missed and a couple of relatively simple scoring opportunities were fluffed you could feel the deflation in the Red & Black Army.

I can’t remember a feeling at a football match like the one that prevailed from that point on.  The fans had paid their money to see an Essendon last stand for 2013 against a Traditional Rival or a Tiger mauling of The Team That Dare Not Speak Its Name.  Neither was forthcoming.

The second quarter was a non-event.  Bruise free football was how one fan described it in the beer queue.  The Dons kicked 1-2 against wasteful Richmond’s 1-6.

There was some cheering from the Essendon Fans when their Skipper came into the play.  And the Richmond supporters felt it would be the polite thing to boo in response, but their hearts weren’t in it, and the cheering became dispirited once the Richmond Fans gave up responding to it.  People were coming and going around the ground as though the game hadn’t started.  Buying refreshments, getting up to relieve themselves, or just stretch their legs.  This was a Clayton’s footy match in every sense.

We were farewelling one of our Favourite Sons too.  Shane Tuck, after 171 games with an average of 23.4 disposal a match was moving on.  He started in the green vest and came on at half time to a rousing reception when Matt White felt a hamstring twinge.

The Tiger would have received a rocket during the long interval and they slammed on the next four goals to put anything but a miracle between them and their opposition of the night.  The Bombers came back but the heat had long gone out of the contest and it limped to its predestined conclusion.

The Essendon fans were requested from the third quarter onwards, via a big screen announcement, to remain in their seats at the end of the match as the players wished to pay their respects.  The Struggletown Faithful found this amusing as much as revealing.  At Punt Road we never walk out on The Boys until The Final Siren’s Gone.

Essendon were done for the season.  Well and truly cooked.  If ever there was a clear example of a team losing focus this was it.  The playing group had the club sitting on the 2nd rung of the Premiership Ladder in mid July.  By Round XXII they had slipped down to 7th.  By Round XXIII the AFL had relegated them to 9th.  Now the interesting thing about this collapse is that it seems to happen to Essendon in August as it used to happen to Collingwood in September.  Is the malaise deeper than just the pressures of 2013?  With their Football Department in tatters and the board presenting what could best be described as a brave front, how they manage Season 2014 will be decisive to the future of the EFC.

We were happy to be September Bound for only the 2nd time this Century.  Ian was philosophical about The Bombers and was prepared to follow ‘The Sash’ to Tigerland, at least for this season.  Ben was ecstatic: his first finals.  Sam was ambivalent: would he have to go to the Footy again this year?  Matt was amazed at the lingering crowd.  The Yellow & Black Army had stayed on after several renditions of the Tigerland Battle Hymn to help farewell The Dons.  I’m proud to say the Essendon players got a standing ovation as they walked past The Richmond Cheer Squad.  Matt said Australia would be the only country in the world where 60,000 people would hang around to cheer a bunch of drug cheats.  It was said in the best possible way, of course.

Essendon       2-4       3-6       5-8       9-11  (65)

Richmond      4-1       5-7       11-9     15-14 (104)

GOALS                      Richmond – Edwards 4, Vickery 4, Jackson 2, King 2, Martin 1, Grigg 1, Tuck 1,

Essendon – Hurley 2, Jetta 2, Melsham 2, Lovett-Murray 1, Dalgleish 1, Howlett 1.

Better players           Richmond – Ellis, Houli, Jackson, Martin, Cotchin, Edwards, Foley, Tuck (from ½ time).

Essendon – Goddard, Hibberd, Satnton, Melsham.

Umpires                     Donlon, Farmer, Dalgliesh

Official crowd           60,976

Our votes                  Ellis (Rich – 3) was creative & constructive all night

Stanton (Ess – 2) worked hard in a hopeless cause

Edwards (Rich – 1) created movement and provided a focal point in the Richmond forward line.


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