Round 3 – Carlton v Essendon: Wading through troubled waters


Consider this. In the year 2000, Essendon won their most recent premiership, losing only one game in the entire season. It was one of the most dominant team displays in VFL/AFL history. If they had a serious rival that year, it might have been Carlton, until an Anthony Koutoufides knee injury derailed their campaign. With 32 flags between them, both clubs assumed residence at the intersection of pride and hubris as their right.

What hindsight tells us, of course, was that they were at that point the football equivalent of the Ottoman Empire, post-World War One. Ahead lay dissolution and decay.

For those trapped in a cave, a brief recap.

Jack Elliot’s suicidal salary cap transgressions were the culmination of the former Carlton president’s reluctance to accept the new AFL world; an 80’s corporate swashbuckler’s final, futile railings against the constricts of a new bureaucracy. He fought the law, and took his club down with him. Much of the following decade at Carlton resembles a doomed attempt at managing post traumatic shock. After Pagan, Ratten and Judd, a desperate club turned to Michael Malthouse for one last messiah fix. That decision will stand as a benchmark of organisational delusion for decades to come.

Essendon’s demise was a slower burn, born in the years they delayed the inevitable end of Kevin Sheedy’s Byzantine reign as coach. Though Matthew Knights was chosen successor, he was never the Chosen One. The call of the messiah struck again, and millions of dollars were spent installing the coaching Dream Team of Hird and Thompson. Many millions more would be squandered in the aftermath of the “pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented within the club”, that will remain their legacy.

So these once mighty rivals faced the 2017 season a long way from where they aspire to be. The forbearance of their membership armies has been much prevailed upon. They appear to have chosen very distinct paths back.

Against all precedence, Carlton is attempting to overhaul one of the most entrenched cultures in football. The club that never rebuilds is rebuilding, whilst preaching patience to the most historically impatient supporter group in the game. A club that had become an embodiment of establishment privilege is now speaking a language of diversity and inclusion. And there is even accumulating evidence that they mean it.

It’s doubtful the old Carlton could have credibly applied to field a women’s team. Even allowing for general progress in social attitudes, its eye-opening to consider that the club which brought us the Blue Birds could now so convince its women players that they are amongst equals. Marquee player Brianna Davey has been publicly unambiguous in preferring her Carlton experience to her time in the W-League. Her teammates seem united in sharing that view. The presence of Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, on the current Carlton board probably can’t hurt in this regard.

The Blues’ notoriously interventionist board is now less numerous, and recently lacking the type of Machiavellian sub-plots that were previously shared on speed dial with selected media outlets. Once the storm of the Malthouse departure had been dealt with, Mark LoGiudice has proven to be the lowest profile Carlton president in living memory.

CEO Steven Trigg may have a  disconcerting devotion to management-speak, but he is clearly a fan of process and data as aids to informed decision making. That new process led to the appointment of Brendon Bolton and a demonstrated club commitment to finally take the AFL draft seriously. Having slightly exceeded very modest expectations last season, Carlton seem even more devoted to playing youth this season. Just call us the Baby Blues.

This all seems a very long way from Jack and his friends deciding the future of the club during impromptu meetings.

While Carlton looks to reinvent itself, Essendon’s response to adversity appears to be doubling down on being even more determinedly Essendon. The club has certainly shown resilience through its prolonged doping scandal and the still ongoing aftermath. Its current membership sits above 62,000, suggesting many Bomber fans are more rusted on than their Navy Blue counterparts. This has been fed by the sense of defiance that many of the Essendon faithful have maintained throughout the saga.

Justified or not, there’s clearly a significant Bomber demographic that feels the club was unjustly treated,  that sees its players as victims of official chicanery. Fed by the continuing soundtrack of the Hird camp’s ongoing media war, the last thing these fans appear to want is closure. They still seek retribution. This current source of fervour seems a fraught balancing act in the longer run. Can you ever truly move on if you reserve the right to maintain the rage?

Football-wise, Essendon opted for the tried and true premiership coach option. After his West Coast days, and having assisted Adelaide through their unprecedented moment of crisis, John Worsfold could have been excused for considering himself football’s equivalent to Red Adair1 when he discovered a large chunk of his playing list would be suspended by WADA. He held the remains of his team together through a difficult 2016 season, and would be expecting better this year.

But Essendon’s unique recent circumstance makes it hard to judge their true potential. Their playing profile is mixed. They have the fifth oldest list, with the fourth most experience by games played. Yet they also have the fourth highest number of listed teenagers. Despite their two opening wins, it’s too early to know if this is any recipe for success.

As if in on some cosmic football joke, nature turned on appropriately apocalyptic old school weather for the latest meeting of these now opposing philosophies. The wet aided Carlton, who were fielding a team with five members still in single figures for games played. As the rain pummelled down, any Essendon skill advantage was negated. This became a primal slog of will.

One thing Carlton didn’t lack was youthful enthusiasm. Williamson was startlingly composed on debut. Sam Petrevski-Seton was clean when the ball was a cake of soap. Skipper Marc reminded everyone how good he is when fit. Docherty and Plowman were supreme down back. Bryce tackled like he was sick of hearing about the off-season. And Kruze just worked his arse off. Again.

Carlton earned the win. I think this picture speaks for all Bluebaggers on the day.

But after winning the battle, there’s the matter of the war. Blues fans will need to keep practising to pronounce ‘patience’ for some time yet. Meanwhile, the Bombers might consider spending less money on lawyers and more on anger-management counselling.

This argument will be resumed in Round 20.


1 A bloke who had to put out a lot of fires.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. John Butler says

    I’d definitely reconsider one line here.

    Carlton’s reinvention isn’t against all precedent. One of the club’s keys to its success has been the ability to reinvent itself since the days of Jack Worrall.

    We’ve just done an excellent job of ignoring that for the last 20 years.

  2. I hope we are on the right track John. I feel we are and hope our drafting improves and moves focus from GWS. It was good to get a win on the board and some of the youngsters hold hope for the future. Hopefully the group can rise to greater heights than Ratten took us in 2011.

  3. John Butler says

    DJL, repeat after me,

    Patience, patience, patience, patience, pigs-arse! (oops, dammit, slipped) patience…….

  4. Strange days, indeed, J Butler.
    I enjoyed your summaries of each club.
    Patience, patience – as with all things, this is sound advice.
    Not that it necessarily guarantees anything (beyond a balanced world view).
    As Melbourne, St Kilda fans would vouch.

    None of us really knows.
    Probably the balanced world view needs to be reason enough.
    I seem to recall some sage uttering something about “World, slow, Ox, patient..”

  5. John Butler says

    Agree E Reg, absolutely no guarantees for either approach.

    BTW: We’ve rather gone off Confucian sayings down at Royal Parade now.

  6. Erudite, thoughtful and to the point. What are you doing on this site JB?
    I saw Kouta on Inside Mike last night. “Jack Elliot is the greatest ever President of Carlton” his chequebook said. Sounded like a bloke fixed in the 90’s. Doesn’t go back to the club these days. Sounds like a win/win.

  7. John Butler says

    PB, Kouta has always struck me as a very humble, loyal person when I’ve heard him speak.

    He got his start under Jack, played his premiership under Jack, and yes, was well payed under Jack. I think that’s loyalty speaking. And a lot of Jack’s presidency was good for Carlton. But he never knew when to quit. The damage happened when he stayed too long. Those who did nothing about that share the responsibility there.

    In accord with our new mantra, all should be welcome back at Carlton. We’ll just exercise discretion who we let near the till.

  8. Luke Reynolds says

    What an interesting read the link to the impromptu meeting was. Even if written by Robbo.

    Remember watching a late season Carlton v Essendon game back in 2000 with some mates. None of us followed either team. Was a must watch, event game. The AFL needs these clashes to be as big again.

  9. Fair balanced summation for a Blues fan!
    Djlitsa – Not sure John actually said you were on the right track but it’s at least a different track to that which Carlton supporters would recognise.
    Clearly for both clubs, Elliott and Sheedy stayed on too long.

  10. John Butler says

    Luke, that would have been round 20, 2000. When Kouta hurt his Knee and Bradley got injured as well. The Blues fancied themselves a chance to knock the Bombers off until then. We’ll never know.

    That Robbo piece just sums late period Jack up to a tee. There he is, years after he brought the roof down on his and the club’s head, still boasting about being the mover and shaker. You can just see them sitting around over a bottle of Grange reorganizing the world in their own vision.

    Budge, it’s the old story. You leave a problem unattended, you end up with a much bigger problem somewhere down the line.

    Cheers guys.

  11. JB well played a honest summation of both clubs dark days wish there were more supporters like you especially re the red and black mob.At least with the blues there is a plan in place while possibly to gws focused ar least there is a long term plan re returning to the glory days.i enjoyed watching this game a good old fashioned slog re Rowey it hasn’t been lost amongst the redlegs folk and been greeted with a chuckle the way to get him to play his best game is to belt him.

  12. John Butler says

    Thanks for the comment Rulebook.

    I reckon Silvagni’s knowledge of the GWS list was a particular opportunity for us. We didn’t have many other natural advantages, given we had slipped so far off the pace. So far, I reckon it’s paid good dividends. I’m confident Plowman and Marchbank will be fine long term key defenders. Phillips shows promise as a mature bodied ruck. None of these are easily acquired assets. Anything else will be a bonus.

    No one has successfully rebuilt just using the draft. You have to find ways to add the right players from other sources at the right time. There’s no exact formula. Carlton certainly have a long way to go. But I’m certainly more encouraged than I was a couple of years ago.


  13. Tony Robb says

    Nice one JB.
    Your summation of Essendon was nearly complete. Just left out the obnoxious, in denial pricks, part. Looking forward to the Pies clash in a few weeks. The Robbs are in town with our Giants caps on the Friday night and our Blues cap on the Saturday.

  14. John Butler says

    Tr, we must catch up Saturday night. I’ll email you.


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