Mental disintegration (or How to blow an unloseable lead)

There is a fine line between giving up and giving in. North Melbourne seems to have found it. It is the line that separates good sides from chokers.

At the weekend, North blew a five goal lead against Adelaide with about ten minutes to play. It was another fine example of incompetence that has ruined North Melbourne’s season.

It doesn’t matter how far in front North Melbourne get, they cannot defend a lead.

Ordinary teams can defend a five goal lead midway through the last quarter. It’s a fair bet Melbourne could do it on adrenalin alone.

North is capable of exhilarating, attacking football. They move the ball swiftly, with great accuracy. But they defend capably only when there is little pressure.

Simply, they are front-runners who don’t like hot breath on the back of their necks. Giving up generous leads has become endemic. Its points to mental frailty, being soft and leaves the club without a shred of credibility.

Four of North Melbourne’s six losses in 2013 have been by four points or less. The losses cannot be called honourable. Predictable is a better adjective.

Staunch fans might suggest the narrow margins indicate North Melbourne has improved. Given the beltings they suffered to top four teams in the past few years, in terms of margin, they have improved.

But the ladder deals in reality. Compare North’s win-loss ratio to Hawthorn. That’s reality. Through nine rounds in 2013, North has played seven of last year’s finalists and lost to them all. That’s reality and is proof North has not improved.

In each loss, at some stage, North had a handy lead or been in a position to win. Only Sydney has defeated North with conviction, a 39-point win back in round three, and they needed an eleven goal third quarter to do it.

The other losses have been narrow and heartbreaking, 16-points to Collingwood, four points to Geelong, three points to Hawthorn, two points to West Coast and one point to Adelaide.

Each defeat is punctuated by a diabolical lapse, a short period of time where North has eschewed all they had achieved, slick ball movement, solid pack marks and clear decision making.

Fumbling, poor decision making, shoddy skills and mental fatigue take precedence, and the lead is blown.

It is too easy to suggest luck is a factor. Bad luck doesn’t erode a 41-point lead. Bad football erodes a 41-point lead.
North led Adelaide by five or six goals during the second quarter and the last quarter. To win, all the Crows did was keep attacking.

It must give St Kilda great confidence to know that all they have to do is turn on a little pressure and North will wilt.

North can’t be beset by fitness issues. They trained for months during the pre-season to be battle ready. Besides, both sides get tired at the end of every game. Generally, the team who is five goals down should be afflicted with mental fatigue, not the club with the lead.

During the post game press conference, coach Brad Scott was furious. He must feel helpless. He must be in a mad panic.

‘I’m not as concerned about the physiological side of things as I am about the mental side,’ Scott said.

‘Are we mentally tough enough?’ he asked. ‘The answer to that is a resounding no. We think we’ve done enough and players start going away from what we should be doing. There were some absolute glaring examples of that today.’

North, for all their pre-season posturing and promise, lacks the killer instinct required to attain success. It won’t happen this year, not with a group of players labelled by their coach as soft.

‘It was abysmal,’ Scott said. ‘Following a pattern of being able to put ourselves in winning positions regularly and getting five or six goals up and not be able to do what good sides do and that is put the foot to the throat of the opposition and start squeezing.

‘Good sides do it and we don’t so that pretty simply doesn’t make us a good side at the moment.’

To blow an unlosable lead denotes loss of concentration, wandering minds, too many glances at the score board and massive self doubt. The players, when the pressure is on, are leaving the heavy work for someone else to do.

And no one wants to do it.

Fundamentally, the issue is one of defence where North cannot protect a lead, defend a lead or close down the play for ten minutes.

‘Absolutely disgraceful at being able to stop them transitioning the ball from defence to attack,’ Scott said. ‘We couldn’t stop it.’

North Melbourne hasn’t been able to stop it all year. In truth their season was killed in round two, when Geelong rebounded from a 41-point deficit in the second term.

The Cats are a good side, but it is clear North has not recovered from that humiliation.

The humiliation isn’t just limited to this year. This malaise began last year, most notably in round eight against Port Adelaide, when North blew a 32 point lead with 11 minutes to play.

Against West Coast in round 15, North blew a 35-point lead in the second quarter to lose by two points.

Scott said he would hammer the players to find out who can cope with the pressure and those that couldn’t will drop themselves.

‘It’s my responsibility to make sure that we get 22 guys to represent the club for 120 minutes of each game, not for 30 or 40,’ Scott said.

It’s going to take him a long time to rid the club of this unfortunate habit. Lucky he’s contracted until 2015…

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Seems it has to click above the shoulders. Geelong thought it would happen in 2006 – it didn’t. Much change occurred. Then in 2007 they were 2-3 after round 5 – then it clicked – 15 games won in a row (from memory). People kept waiting for them to fall but they kept winning. When it clicks for North, they could be anything. But will it?

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