Almanac Footy: Miracle at Marvel

 

 

 

When did it first become clear to me that the West Coast Eagles – last on the AFL ladder with just two wins this year and only 4 in the last 47 games, percentage of 56 and coming off a 105-point humiliation in the Western Derby – might actually be a chance of winning the game against the Western Bulldogs – 6th on the ladder, percentage of 109, odds on at $1.01 and playing for a chance to confirm a place in the AFL finals?

Was it when Elliott Yeo goaled to send them 26 points up late in the first quarter? No way. Was it when Jamie Cripps kicked his 5th goal to put them 16 points up with 6 minutes left? Certainly not? The season had seen too much go wrong to be confident then. Was it when Jeremy McGovern reprised his 2018 grand final heroics in the last couple of minutes with the Bulldogs, led by the outstanding Bontempelli, coming hard, with a dive to deflect a pass going to Naughton, a thumping spoil and then a saving mark deep in defence? Tempting but still, no.

The first time I contemplated that the Eagles were a chance of winning this game was in the hour before the game when I was listening to the Grandstand AFL Sunday on ABC radio. Someone called Ben Cameron who was the host was talking to Marc Murphy and Nathan Burke about the state of the ladder after the amazing failure to credit Adelaide with a winning goal on Saturday night. They were analysing who might be able to finish in the eight and play finals with the rest of round 22 and one more complete round to go.

Ben was looking at the chances of the Bulldogs. “They have two games to come. They’ve got the bye today against the West Coast Eagles and Geelong at Kardinia Park next weekend.”
Geddit folks? They are playing the Eagles? The Eagles are so bad the Dogs don’t even have to turn up to win!  They have the bye! I’m here all week! Try the veal!  Bloody hilarious Ben.

And at that moment, as I prepared to walk over to Marvel stadium it occurred to me that if one person in AFL land could voice such disrespect, that maybe there was a wider complacency that might have insinuated itself into the subconscious of others including some in the Bulldogs camp. I didn’t think there was a great chance of it given the professionalism of footballers today, but there was, as Jim Carrey said of odds of a million to one in “Dumb and Dumber” – “so you’re saying there’s a chance!”  That’s what I thought when I heard Ben’s comment.

Speaking of movies, if the Hollywood script writers weren’t all on strike you would think one of them was behind all that transpired at Marvel thereafter.

To fully understand all that was at play here, you have to go back a few days to earlier in the week.

In the fallout from the loss to Freo in the derby – which was just one of five on-hundred-point thrashings the Eagles had endured this season – the footy media was playing its favourite game of trying to get the credit for one of the lower placed AFL clubs, which was not performing as well as might be hoped, sacking its coach. It’s great fun picking on the vulnerable and it sure fills in the columns and airspace created for AFL analysis. Get Simmo! was the idea, and everyone wanted to jump on and be the first to scoop something more substantial than some ex-player’s opinion that he “ought to go”.

So Eddie McGuire – undoubtedly well connected  (who knew he was back in the AFL media?) – must have spoken with someone close to the Eagles Board, who must have mentioned that the issue of Simpson’s contract (two years to run) was on the agenda for discussion. Through a series of what we used to call “Chinese Whispers” this became amplified to others – not quoting anyone particularly, but sounding authoritative and informed – expressing the opinion that Simpson was going to be sacked, perhaps as early as that week (last week).

Which, had I given such opinions much weight, would have astounded me.

In the resultant media storm, a young bloke named Harley Reid “liked” a comment suggesting Simmo was going to be sacked.

Let’s go back a bit further. Adam Simpson had been coach of the Eagles since 2014, stepping into the very big Pumas of club legend John Worsfold, with the Eagles having finished 13th in 2013 with 9 wins and needing a rebuild with the impending retirements of Darren Glass, Beau Waters, Andrew Embley and Daniel Kerr. Simpson had just spent four years as assistant coach to Alistair Clarkson at Hawthorn where they had engineered a grand final victory over Freo in 2013.

In 2014 they won 11 and lost 11 and finished ninth. In 2015 they finished second and played off in the Grand Final. By any measure that was a stellar rise under a new coach. The grand final result was not a great surprise up against the seasoned Hawks chasing a three-peat. 2016 was a step back, winning 16, but key playmaker Nic Naitanui suffered an Achilles and an acl injury. However, a nucleus of young players like Luke Shuey, Tom Barrass, Elliott Yeo and Jeremy McGovern was emerging.  2017 was the year of the extra time win in the elimination final over Port Adelaide. Those young players matched with the older heads of Shannon Hurn, Josh Kennedy, Andrew Gaff, Eric Mackenzie and Lewis Jetta, but still without Nic Nat for most of the year, portended a bright future under Simpson’s guidance.

2018, Ah yes, 2018. Simpson was instrumental in creating and running the inspired “Family, friends, flags” philosophy. He provided guidance and inspiration for emerging tyros like Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli. He mentored aspiring senior coach Sam Mitchell. And West Coast won the flag in that most epic of grand finals. I wrote about Simpson and his impact on this team in “Father’s Day” on this page and the 2018 Footy Almanac. He was universally admired, and frankly, being a premiership coach when such titles are nearly impossible to come by, in my opinion, earned him the right to determine the time of his own departure.

Nic Nat was again injured for much of 2019, but the team still managed fifth after being knocked out in the second week of the finals. Simpson had been coach for 5 years, playing finals in 4, grand finals in 2 and a premiership.

Then came 2020 and 2021. For the Eagles, people package those seasons as “covid and injuries” but it was actually worse than that from a list point of view. In that period, they lost young star and high 2016 draft pick Daniel Venables to long term concussion symptoms. In 2020 Brad Sheppard was an All-Australian half back. At the end of 2021 he too was lost due to concussion. The loss of these two star players without draft compensation compounded the lack of high draft picks as a result of the team’s success in finishing in the top tier for 6 years.

And then there was Willie. It took Willie Rioli a couple of years to realise what was required to be an AFL player after being drafted in 2016. But when he did, he became a champion and was a major contributor in the 2018 premiership. He credited Simpson with his development calling him a father figure. But he was ruled out of the 2019 finals on refusal of a urine sample having smoked marijuana the night before. A two-year drug ban meant he did not play at all in 2020 and 2021. In 2022 he requested a trade to Port Adelaide. It would be affair assumption that the club would have hoped for more loyalty from Junior after standing by him through his ban and a subsequent drug possession charge, especially given the ongoing injury crisis and the concussion losses.

Despite all of this, Nic Naitanaui returned to All Australian form in 2020.  The Eagles played only seven of 18 games at home, spending much of the season in hubs on the Gold Coast and still finished fifth, but losing their first final to an inspired Collingwood.

In 2021 the injuries came in waves. Wiki tells us that by round 7, West Coast were the most injury hit team in the AFL. The players on the injury list had a total of 1,191 games of experience. Among those injured were Tom Barrass, Shannon Hurn, Jeremy McGovern, Liam Ryan, Luke Shuey and Elliot Yeo.  Then Tim Kelly, and Oscar Allen and Alex Witherden and Josh Kennedy. I wrote about the fighting round 12 win over Carlton at the SCG (“Let’s make a list”) and the equally thrilling win over reigning premiers Richmond in Round 13 (Five things you may have forgotten about Shannon Hurn”.  After the bye the weight of injuries told and the team won only two of its remaining games and missed the finals by 4 points.

2022 started badly and got worse.  Covid and injuries. The Eagles struggled to find 24 fit players to take into games.  The second game against North they had to draw on four non-listed players from the covid top up list to field a side (see “What if Declan Mountford makes his Eagles debut but nobody knew”?)).   Then they had a win against the Magpies at Marvel (see “It’d be a good one to win”). But only one more for the year – a come from behind win against Essendon at Optus.

Not one player played every game. At one stage the injury list had 15 members, and 13 players failed to finish the season.  McGovern, Yeo, Sheed, Rioli and Naitanui missed for long periods at crucial times. Captain, Shuey missed a few with soft tissue injuries. With covid top ups 42 players played. Some weeks they had the bare 24 players to choose.

And, incredibly, 2023 has dished up more of the same. Only, when the team has had a smattering of its senior players fit and playing, there have been wins (GWS and North) and a stirring last kick loss to Essendon at Marvel in Round 20 (after which N Buckley wondered if the Eagles were actually trying to lose it). It’s not rocket science to work out that a team without its strongest and best 4 or 5 players is going to struggle to compete. Even Tom Barrass and Jeremy McGovern struggle on the brilliant Charlie Curnow. What can you expect if both of them aren’t available? Young players make skill and choice errors more often. Even learning what it means to have a full-on crack takes a while for young players to learn and to physically be able to consistently produce. No coach, no matter how good, can change that quickly.

I cannot see how it is possible to judge the ability of a coach on what the Footy Gods dished up to the Eagles from 2020 to 2023. Adam Simpson couldn’t control the pandemic or the unprecedented number of significant long-term injuries on an already depleted list.  With a team of mid-draft kids and rookies turning out, the near certainty – whoever is in charge – is that you will get inconsistency, fade outs and blow outs and that has been the sad reality for fans of the blue and gold.

If the faceless folks on the Eagle board consider that someone could have done better than Simpson with that hand dealt to the Eagles in those seasons, they need to tell us who that was and why. It’s impossible of course because there has never been a team so decimated by injury and illness. There is nothing to judge it by. And if they can’t tell us, then Simpson should not be dismissed on the back of it.

But if you were looking for the green shoots, I reckon they are there in numbers. And that is a credit to the coach.

The shoots include the fast-track development of young players – Culley, Ginbey, Hough, Hewett, Maric, Long; the upward trend of those with more playing time than they might have got if all the seniors had been fit; B. Williams, Jones, Petrevski-Seton; and the development of a couple of younger guys into potential champions and match winners; Tim Kelly and Oscar Allen.

So out of the wreckage of the 100 plus point losses and the inconsistencies and injuries, comes a team which is starting to offer hope. It just has to all come together.

And then there was the Miracle at Marvel.

So, there we all were under the roof on Sunday for the Bulldogs’ “bye”.  And twenty minutes in it looked like a bunch of the Dogs had believed the hype that they didn’t need to turn up to win. Which was hard to fathom given that there was, as Ben had pointed out, a spot in the finals to play for. The Eagles had nothing at stake but pride and the potential loss of a first pick in the national draft if they won and moved off the bottom of the ladder, handing the pick to North.

Do you remember that kid who liked the ‘Simmo to be sacked’ post? That’s the guy they reckon will go number 1 to North or the Eagles. Sounds to me like he might need a bit of a lesson in humility before his name is read out. Having so far racked up zero AFL games, he trowelled on disrespect to a North legend – 306 games, two premierships, All Australian, club captain, Syd Barker medallist – and a much loved and admired West Coast hero – two grand finals, one premiership, 6 finals series. Here all week. Try the humble pie.

It was all a bit amazing to see. Jamie Cripps (with partner, Liv, a new father to a young boy, Lance, in the week) wound back the clock with five goals, most of them a long way out or on a sharp angle or both (as well as an incredible kick which he spun back to stop inside the line thirty metres downfield). Jeremy McGovern, who had played less than half the games over two seasons threw himself around careless of the consequences for his scarred body.  He had been missed. Jack Darling took a fantastic one-handed mark with his other arm locked away by his opponent. Elliott Yeo kept winning the ball and launching long attacking kicks. Tim Kelly won the ball in tight and found passages through packs which should not have been there. Allen kicked three. Duggan played one of his best. Passes hit targets. The ball moved quickly and all of the young guys stood up and chipped in.  Nine points down at three quarter time to add to the weight of the many reasons why the Eagles should have had no chance of winning, they did.

This was a win for the ages. A win for all those footy fans whose teams are at the low end of the ladder, but who still hope each week that their team can pull off the impossible win. And, as it turned out, a win “for Simmo”.

Tim Kelly told The West Australian “We’ve got Simmo’s back, he’s got our back and today definitely felt like it was a bit about him and each other.”

Jamie Cripps spoke for the players to Fox Footy; “Simmo’s been copping it which is a bit unfair… We just wanted to come out and have a real crack today pretty much for Simmo because he’s a great coach and he should be our coach going forward.”

For his part, Simpson in the post-match, after responding drily to the ‘tanking’ suggestion from a couple of weeks back (which he said had cut him deep), said “It’s been a pretty heavy the last few weeks. Really proud of them… they threw everything at it today…to win away today away from home was really special and I reckon it will pay us back next year.”

As to the potential loss of the number one draft pick Harley Reid, Simpson said he felt for Harley and that his son had ‘liked’ the same story. He said “what will be will be” in the draft; “As a club we would take this win any day of the week to help build what we are trying to do in the future”.

Me too.

And he’s the guy who should be doing the building.

Tip your waiter, Ben.

 

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Comments

  1. Daryl Schramm says

    A good read. Sets it up nicely this week for a memorable goodbye to the retirees against my Crows. I wouldn’t mind knowing PBs thoughts on the thread of this contribution.

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