It seemed unlikely when they were 2-4 after six rounds, having lost games to perennial cellar dwellers Gold Coast and Carlton, but with a win on Sunday afternoon, against 2019’s most disappointing side, the Demons, the Western Bulldogs, or Footscray, as which they were nostalgically referred to all day, could have seen themselves just a win outside of the eight with six games remaining. With North Melbourne and Fremantle falling over the day before, and Hawthorn facing an exceptionally tough run home, the race for the final two spots looked to be down to four teams, if the Dogs could get a win.

Meanwhile, the Demons have failed spectacularly to live up to expectations. They sit still firmly entrenched in the bottom four, and look almost certain to end up with at least a top five draft pick. No one would be foolish enough to write them off in season 2020, but 2019 is essentially a write off at this point, with Simon Goodwin essentially being given licence to try new things out, given that things could hardly get worse at this stage. With that being said, after winning in the dying stages last week against Carlton, and with three big ins in the form of Lever, Jetta and Gawn, they were a decent chance of causing what would have been an upset.

While this was no doubt an important game on the field for the Dogs, it may have been just as important off it, as they commemorated 30 years since 1989’s famous Fightback. The Dogs may well have been starved of success over their long history as a club, but there’s no doubt that this team means so much to so many people across Melbourne’s West and the country in general. With 1989 hero Irene Chatfield on hand to toss the coin, it was pretty clear to see that this would be a retro round like no other. Here’s what happened:

Fightback 2019

Success or failure in 2019 might not have the same dire consequences for the Footscray Football Club as it did 30 years ago, but after a poor start to the season, wins over Richmond, Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Geelong, as well as a gallant performance in defeat to Collingwood, have revitalised the season, seeing the Dogs in a genuine push for September action. There are few things better in football than a retro jumper, and Footscray’s one on Sunday was an absolute belter, and it was a fantastic touch that they ran out to, and celebrated victory with, Sons of the ‘Scray.

There’s a bit of old school footy about the Dogs too this year, though I’m not quite sure it’s quantifiable. Maybe it’s the workmanlike attitude of their players, but in full flight there are few teams in the competition who play a more watchable brand of footy. You probably would have asked their midfield in head to head against the Dees too, with Macrae, Dunkley and Bontempelli a better first choice trio than Oliver, Brayshaw and Viney. Nonetheless, with Max Gawn dominant against the rucking equivalent of Simba prior to his Hakuna Matata phase, Footscray’s midfield struggled to get their hands on the ball early on, winning just seven of the first 20 clearances. However, they did manage to break even in the scores from stoppages at quarter time, both sides kicking 3.1 apiece.

More important than their ability to get their hands on the ball, the Dogs’ pressure early was manic and showed they had a hunger for the contest which was in part lacking over the first month or so. They laid 11 of the first 12 tackles, and 20 of the first 25, ultimately winning the stat 71-56 despite also winning the disposal count 377-314. Early in the piece, a three man crunching hit on Jake Lever showed how desperate the Dogs were to make their mark on the game.

Speaking of hunger, it was pretty evident in the first quarter that Josh Dunkley’s appetite for the contest was on. He won a holding the ball on Jayden Hunt that showed he wanted a win desperately, and whether that was purely for the sake of his club, or whether he wanted to get one up on his little brother, we’ll never know. In any event, it was a nice kick by him to set up Josh Schache for his side’s third goal, just one of a game high ten score involvements for the midfielder who has looked like one of the best players in the competition since moving out of the forward line. His statline on Sunday was ridiculous, with 39 touches, 24 contested possessions, 15 tackles (including a perfectly executed rundown on Brayshaw which saved a certain goal) and the ten score involvements all game highs, as well as two goals, the second of which came at a critical stage of the last quarter to give Footscray a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Quickly on Schache, his workrate on Sunday with Aaron Naughton being well held by Steven May was very impressive. While he may not have had the scoreboard return, kicking just 1.2, he was involved in eight scores, took three of his four marks inside 50, managed four clearances when he was thrown into the ruck and laid four tackles as he showed once again that he has a lot to contribute at this level.

There were no Nat Fyfe level heroics from Marcus Bontempelli on Sunday, as after missing most of the second quarter with an ankle injury he came back on to have some impact, though he was below his best. The Dogs have the midfield depth to cover an injury like that, and Jackson Macrae was excellent all through the game really. He probably doesn’t get the attention that he deserves, but when people talk about accountable mids, but this guy should really be up there. His work on Oliver was terrific, with the Demon bull having 17 touches at just 53% efficiency, and with just four score involvements. Meanwhile, Macrae managed 30 touches of his own at 77%, as he managed to work both ways to have an impact, laying six tackles. I’d be interested to know how many of Oliver’s eight clearances came directly opposed to Macrae, because from what I could see of the game, it wasn’t too many.

It happens all the time, where a team has the ascendancy for extended patches of the game and fails to capitalise, only to see the other team go up the other end and score quickly, but that was the exact script the game followed after half time on Sunday, with the Dogs’ seven shots on goal in the first 15 minutes of the third quarter resulting in 0.6 and one out on the full. The Dees managed to whisk the ball up the other end, where Harry Petty kicked his third goal of the game, and all of a sudden the margin was back to what it was at the long break. In reality, Footscray should have kicked at least three, and maybe four goals to put the game to bed, and if they had have eventually lost this game that patch would probably have been the most talked about one. In the end though, they managed to scrape over the line, with Dunkley’s goal complemented by an outstanding outside of the boot banana by Lachie Hunter and then a classy finish from 50 by Bailey Smith to ice the game.

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No Petty Excuses

Heading into this game, having lost six goal hero Tom McDonald and rising, if underachieving, forward Sam Weideman to injury, the Dees’ tall forward stocks looked criminally depleted. They did, luckily, welcome Max Gawn back into their lineup, meaning Preuss could play up forward, but with him seemingly as the lone key forward, they looked like they’d need big outputs from Petracca and Hunt. Simon Goodwin swung Harry Petty forward though, and he looked a likely target in just his seventh game, and first as a forward. His first three career goals all came at opportune moments for the Dees, and with his 10 disposals and five marks, the Dees might have found one here.

The majority of Petracca’s work came up the ground, with 22 disposals and a goal, but it was the behind he kicked in the last quarter, after leading well into space, that hurt his side the most, as the Dogs managed to take the ball up the other end of the ground for Dunkley’s second goal. Jayden Hunt wasn’t quite as effective as he was last week either, with just one goal from 10 touches, though his short pass to Petty for his second goal was exactly what his side needed after bombing away too many times.

It wasn’t just the fault of the forwards that Melbourne couldn’t manage a winning score on Sunday. They had 47 inside 50’s of their own, but their disposal going forward has been pretty woeful all year, and this game was no exception. There was a two minute patch in the second quarter where Jones, then Lever and finally Hunt all found Bulldog interceptors with their kicks inside 50. In reality, just as their opposition dominated the first half of the third, the Demons had plenty of chances through the middle 15 minutes or so of the second quarter, and could have really put their stamp on the game but failed to do so. They were lucky, in the end, to get their fifth goal, after Kyle Dunkley dropped a mark that was paid by the non-officiating umpire.

As much as errors in disposal hurt Melbourne’s forward line, their fumbles hurt just as much. It was an affliction which hurt both sides, but it arguably cost the Dees more, with a Neville Jetta drop late in the third quarter robbing them of what looked like a certain goal heading into the final break, combined with what were by my count four dropped marks by Preuss across the ground but predominantly inside 50. If they had managed to kick straighter they would have probably won this game too. Bayley Fritsch was arguably the chief culprit, missing a set shot late in the third which would have drawn the margin back to one point, and though he kicked two goals in the last, he absolutely needed to capitalise on his last set shot, which would have had the Demons within two points with around two minutes left. Instead, he played on, tried to kick a snap around the corner, and failed, leaving the going a little too tough for Melbourne.

Down back, Steven May played clearly his best game in red and blue. He was pretty good against the Lions, and kept Mitch McGovern markless last week, even if the former Crow looked disinterested in the contest at times. In any event, playing on Aaron Naughton is a step up for anyone really, with the young key forward having dominated last week against the best backline in the competition, statistically. May managed to keep Naughton to just one behind from four marks and 10 touches, after he kicked 4.1 from nine marks last week, and when the young Dog did get the ball, it was in general up on the wing where he was considerably less damaging. May, on the other hand, had 16 touches at 81%, rebounding the ball a game high eight times and gaining 484 metres – the most of any Demon, in a performance that essentially kept the Dees in the contest. He was assisted well in the backline though, with Christian Salem saving two certain goals, and Jake Lever and Sam Frost managing to kill contests even if they didn’t win a lot of the ball themselves.

‘That’s Ruck Craft, Big Boy’

The above could well be the quote of the season from the eccentric Gawn, who decided to give the umpire a few pointers after giving away a free kick to Josh Dunkley in the second quarter, who duly converted to break a run of three straight Demons goals. In fairness to Gawn, it was a horrible free kick, as he simply used his strength to outbody a much smaller opponent. In fact, as ruck free kicks go, the only worse one you’ll be likely to see this year was the one against Gawn in the last quarter to Josh Schache. I’ve watched that vision three or four times now and I still can’t figure out why he was penalised.

Tim English, in combination with Rowan Marshall and Reilly O’Brien, is one of the up and coming ruckman of the league. He has all the tools, but he isn’t quite built enough yet to compete with the best of the best. In two games against the Dogs this year, Brodie Grundy has received six Mongrel votes, monstering the young West Australian. With Max Gawn back in the Melbourne side, you’d have expected him, in tandem with Preuss, to dominate, and while they did in the end, winning the hitouts 52-20 and the clearances 41-29, the midfield couldn’t really capitalise on the work of the big men. In fact, the Demons have scored from just 18% of their centre clearances this year, the worst rate in the competition, and to three quarter time the Demons hadn’t scored from a single one of their centre clearances, indicating just how wasted Max Gawn’s work has been across the season.

With more games under the belt of Preuss this season, you’d expect the ruck pairing to dominate all of next year if they can get on the park together. With one of the two in the ruck, and the other down the line to stop the opposition from taking contested marks, the Dees have the makings of a good structure, but they need their midfield to be able to capitalise on good ruck work. The two time All Australian’s flicked hit out over his head to Viney, who set up Petty for his first, was a thing of beauty, and he did manage seven score involvements, the most of any Demon. Heading into the game, I would have put money on Gawn to be best on ground, and though he was one of the best Dees on the ground, his impact wasn’t quite what we’ve come to expect.

Concluding Thoughts

Can it actually be done? The Dogs have won four of their last five games, and after Sunday’s gritty win, sit just four points and percentage out of the eight. They should win their next two, against St Kilda and Fremantle at Marvel, but then would need to win at least two, and potentially three given their inferior percentage, of their next four games, against fellow finals contenders Brisbane at the Gabba, Essendon at Marvel, the Giants in Sydney and Adelaide in Ballarat. It’s certainly not out of the question that we could see the Dogs return to September for the first time since 2016, but they would certainly have to earn their place.

And where to now for the Demons? I can’t really see Simon Goodwin putting his cue in the rack, but with West Coast next week in Alice Springs, and Richmond and Collingwood to come, it’s certainly going to be a tough ask to climb any further up the ladder. With Casey struggling a little in the VFL, now might be the time for Goody and his coaching staff to begin experimenting fo
r 2020, and it will be interesting to see what they do with their first round pick, with Brad Hill and Alex Keath both being linked to a move to the Dees over the course of the season.

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