The Alex Docherty Column – “Free Kick Bulldogs” is a Myth

We’ve had a few days to let it go – how are we all feeling about the game on Saturday night? Relieved? Angry? Stressed? Insert whatever emotion you’ve got here, because I absolutely feel you. That game was not only one of the best matches of football I’ve seen in recent times, but it was also the most heart-wrenching and anxious ones, as well.

Having said that, however, I’m about to rattle this birdcage again, and in danger of getting an assortment of comments, abusive or otherwise, I’m just going to put it out there: The umpires did not help the Western Bulldogs win the Semi-Final.

Now, before you sharpen those pitchforks and prepare your fingers to write your spiteful reply, I feel for the Brisbane Lions, the coaching staff, the playing group, and the supporter base, because a Semi-Final exit – a second straight-sets exit in three years on top of it – shouldn’t be an indication of where they’re going as a football club.

I understand completely where the Lions supporters come from, because honestly, I’ve blamed many Bulldog losses to those controlling the game over the years and I’m more than certain my colleagues here at The Mongrel can attest to this when I turn into a full-blown maniac in our group chat.

Is it more of a human nature thing to express your emotions to the point of blaming it on someone else when it comes to a result of the sport, no matter what it is, the older you get?

There are many calls that I found myself disagreeing with on Saturday night, from both sides. Should Bailey Dale have been pinged for holding the ball after he dived on it? Absolutely he should’ve! As a Bulldogs’ supporter, trust me when I say that I was in disbelief that he didn’t get penalised for that action as much as the average Brisbane supporter.

People have looked at the free kick count and claim that they were hard done by from the men in green or that the Western Bulldogs have suddenly now become the ‘umpires pet’ after a handful of games where umpiring decisions seemingly helped them win games. Give me a spell.

Whilst it is true that the Bulldogs have a differential for free kicks that is number one in the competition throughout the home and away season, everyone just looks at that +79 differential and the gap between the next best team, which is Geelong with +33 there are just too many other areas that fans are deliberately bypassing just to get to the outcome that ‘Free Kick Bulldogs’ is a real thing.

During the home and away season, the Bulldogs received 458 free kicks – only three teams have recorded more free kicks than them: Adelaide, Port Adelaide and Brisbane…

Brisbane, you say? But they were robbed!

On top of that, Geelong, Greater Western Sydney and Sydney all were just behind the Bulldogs with at least 450 free kicks handed to them each throughout the season.

“What about the number of free kicks against? They get away with so much!”

It’s true that they have conceded the least number of free kicks of anyone in the competition this year – only 379 free kicks against the club – only one other club has recorded under 400 conceded frees and that is West Coast with 381. Who’s complaining about the Eagles this season? They didn’t even make the finals!

Has anyone actually stopped and thought about how they try to play the game and how they attempt to try and move the ball? How they approach the guy as they’re about to tackle? How they attack a contest?

The Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership was based on a handball-happy style of movement and that drew the ire of many people, which prompted the AFL to really clamp down on what’s considered a throw and what isn’t. There are still Sydney fans still on their high horse about the game itself, and like many other games before that one, it had poor decisions go both ways.

To this day, the Bulldogs still rely on sharp hands at times to really get themselves out of stoppages. As a matter of fact, I think you’ll find that several sides tend to do it in order to work out of congestion. Trying to spot out which of these fast hands are handballs would have to be one of the hardest things for an umpire to officiate during a game.

I’ve played games at local level since a junior and the number of times I’ve gotten away with a throw that looked like a handball is astronomical. Of course, there’s a big gap in between local footy and the professional ranks, but the umpires are human; they’re going to miss things. But we, as supporters, see and expect the umpires to narrow it down to every little detail – something that is completely impossible.

For those of you who dare to dive down onto whatever vitriol is spewed on Twitter, there is a very handy account that goes by the name of ‘Has-the-umpire-made-A-Bad-Decision?’ and it is an account that gives you a play-by-play of some of the more contentious decisions in these games and then explains whether the call is right or not.

The bio says that it is run by an accredited AFL umpire and that it is built to educate fans about the rules of the game. On Sunday, he made a tweet with four attachments of all the decisions and non-decisions of the game, and as I lay on my bed watching the replay with these notes on my laptop, each decision draws more and more understanding of what goes on with the decisions – it’s well worth following the account.

Let’s revisit some of these incorrect decisions.

The handball that goes out of bounds with less than a minute to go in the third quarter that was paid as insufficient intent against Oscar McInerney is the first one. This is outlined by the Twitter Umpire account as an incorrect call. It is a basic skill error and nothing more, should’ve been a boundary throw in.

Speaking of skill errors, let’s go to the last five minutes of the last quarter. Caleb Daniel hacks the ball out of mid-air with his boot inside the Bulldogs’ defensive 50 – in the heat of the moment, trying to gather territory – it comes off the side of his boot and bounces out of bounds and it is called insufficient intent as well. Again, that was incorrect and merely just a skill error.

One last one that I’ll touch on that happened late in the third quarter, against Hugh McCluggage for holding the ball. Yes, he was on his knees looking to win possession of the ball, but he is then wrapped up in the tackle and the replay shows that he is not diving on the footy. It’s not holding the ball, and it should have been at least a stoppage.

Whilst it needs to be addressed that these were bad calls, more people are flocking to calls against Brisbane than they are to the players who missed opportunities to put the Dogs away – players like Lachie Neale, who missed the following shot on goal from the boundary line. They’re not flocking to the missed shots from guys such as Hugh McCluggage or Lincoln McCarthy either.

Granted, these were all either long range or from a difficult angle, possibly even both, but if we’re going to be microscopic about the umpires in this game, then detailing the players missing shots on goal is worth at least a mention.

In the last six minutes of this contest, there were nine calls and only three of them were wrongly made. The missed holding the ball call against Bailey Dale, the insufficient intent against Caleb Daniel and the mark that was paid to Marcus Bontempelli – you know the one that he took over Oscar McInerney from behind?

McInerney was in the front spot, got hands to it practically at the same time, we’ve seen this numerous times – it should’ve been play on, not a mark to the man who was arguably second to the footy.

The free kick for blocking Ryan Gardner on Charlie Cameron was a correct call. Charlie had absolutely had no intention of going for the ball, but rather impeded the run up of Garnder to attempt to impact the contest. It’s something we see often on the field that doesn’t get looked at enough times, but this one was too obvious to miss..

The decision to not pay Daniel Rich the mark is a bit contentious, but Adam Treloar, after getting to Rich, was quick to turn to the umpire to ask if he touched the ball before it landed on Rich’s chest. I will admit it is very difficult to see it on the television screen, but the umpire has the best view, so you’ve got to take that as face-value at least, right?

The free kick against Brisbane that cost them an inside 50 in the last three minutes was correct when you look at the replay, despite the swing from Alex Keath to try and knock Lincoln McCarthy away, the Lions’ forward has a hold of him and slings him to the turf. It could’ve easily changed the result of the game, but the umpire 110 percent made the correct decision.

Let’s fast forward to the last 70 seconds of the game, Zac Bailey kicks the goal to tie the scores up and we’re back to the middle to bounce the ball. Oscar McInerney and Tim English are contesting the ball, and a free kick is awarded to the Bulldogs for an illegal block.

I understand that the rules regarding the ruck contest are quite scrambled, but was it a contentious call? Far from it.

Go and watch the replay of it, McInerney makes the beeline straight to English, even sets his sights at him, he then bypasses the ball whilst in flight and then deliberately sticks his knee out to impede him from making any other genuine attempt to palm it down. By the letter of the law that is a free kick, and if you go back through the season, you’ll find that this decision has been pretty consistently paid.

So I’ll ask again, at what stage were Brisbane robbed? At what stage in this game were Bulldogs handed this game? I’m not saying don’t complain about the wrong decisions, because there were a few throughout the game, but the only ones who I hold responsible losing this game are the Lions, themselves.

It’s not the fault of the umpires that Lachie Neale only had the three clearances. It’s not the fault of the umpires Joe Daniher couldn’t introduce himself to the game. It’s not the fault of the umpires that Hugh McCluggage missed two crucial chances on goal, or anyone else for that matter, and it’s not the umpires’ fault that guys such as Nakia Cockatoo or Deven Robertson couldn’t make an impact on the game

The loss is on the players and only the players and I’m not going to hear any different.

There was also video footage of the umpires being straight up abused by Brisbane supporters as they were going down the race after the match. I said to myself at full-time that I wouldn’t be shocked that if someone threw beer at them afterwards, such is the treatment of the umpires these days.

It’s an ugly look for the game, and there’s got to be a better control from the supporters. This type of behaviour can, and most likely has, translated down to junior footy, where umpiring is actually sparse in some parts. Who would want to be an umpire?

Be upset you didn’t win, get annoyed at umpiring decisions on your own time. But don’t go and deliberately headhunt someone from the stands, or on social media for that matter, either.

Which does remind me of something else –  the whole targeting of Cody Weightman on social media after the Essendon win is just absurdly idiotic from people… if you can call them that. Sure, he might have added extra mayo on some plays here and there this season, and all four of his goals in the Essendon win all came from free kicks that have been questioned by everyone, that’s all fact.

But how many of them were genuinely his fault?

We can argue the one against Sam Draper was him searching for contact, but for what it is worth, the correct answer is none of them. The free kicks that he draws are ultimately up to the umpire’s discretion and the umpire got all but one of them correct – that one being the bump by Zach Merrett on the boundary line. There was absolutely nothing in that – it wasn’t even the ‘push’ as the umpire called. It was a genuine football play.

If you’ve got this far, well done for not closing the article and not storming off to resume your life in lockdown – your dedication will not go unnoticed.

If you’ve read this and you’re still in the crowd of ‘Free Kick Bulldogs’ and hope that Port Adelaide give them an absolute towelling, then that’s okay as well. In fact, I think I’d personally rather that whole ‘us against the world’ vibe.

For the record, I’ve grown up for years being told that the Bulldogs are everyone’s second team and I am bloody sick of hearing about how they have been everyone’s ‘second team’ because they can’t get anywhere near a flag.

Times are changing, and I’d rather see social media blow up at watching the Bulldogs team allegedly ‘cheat’ to win a flag as opposed to being the team that everyone has a soft spot for. Mostly because I think it is hilarious to see them get revved up with a statement that just ends up being incorrect by some margin.

“Free Kick Bulldogs” is more than just a myth. It’s a weak excuse by those who lose.


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