Let me pose a hypothetical for you (and please, stay with me on this).
Let’s say that, with a touch over four minutes left in the first quarter of Saturday night’s pulsating semi-final between Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs, after taking advantage from a free-kick at half-forward, Lachie Neale runs inside 50 and, instead of turning the ball over at the top of the goal square, kicks a goal – the Lions second in the last twenty seconds. Let’s go further and say that, after a nice string of possessions, Zac Bailey’s 15m pass, instead of going over the head of Neale, finds him in space 30m out from goal, directly in front. Neale then does what all good players do and kicks truly.
Remaining with the hypothetical, and going further still, let’s say that halfway through the second quarter, Oscar McInerney takes a mark inside 50 instead of dropping it, and his resulting shot at goal (from about 45m out and straight in front) is good. Let’s say that McCluggage’s entry inside 50 with less than five minutes of the second quarter remaining hits Charlie Cameron on a lead 40m out straight in front, instead of going over his head. Cameron’s fourth for the half puts the Lions in a commanding position.
On and on our hypothetical could stretch, all throughout the rest of the game, correcting several blatant Lion errors. Kicks that fall short of an intended target, go over a teammates head, or turn the ball over entirely now end up in teammates arms. Simple marks that are dropped are now held on to. Balls that are fumbled at ground level are now picked up in one smooth motion. The result, we would all have to conclude, would be a Lions win. Despite a free-kick count that favours the Dogs 28-19, the Lions are victorious and are now preparing to play Port Adelaide on Saturday night.
This didn’t happen, of course. The Bulldogs won, not the Lions, and it is their season, not Brisbane’s, that continues for at least a few more days.
In the aftermath of the match, media sites (including The Mongrel Punt) have been inundated with fans arguing about the umpires’ perceived bias towards the Bulldogs. These people will point to free-kick counts as their one (and only) source of proof, believing that a lop-sided count is clear indication of bias. Alex Docherty’s column yesterday, “Free Kick Bulldogs” Is A Myth, sparked furious debate online, with one commenter unfavourably comparing ‘Doc’ to Andrew “I’ll do whatever Daddy Murdoch tells me to do” Bolt and others arguing that umpire favouritism benefits the Dogs by at least three goals a game.
Unfair comparisons aside (I’ve not met ‘Doc’ – this is the time of COVID and we’re an online publication – but I’ve interacted with him enough to feel pretty confident in saying that he is not a racist, misogynistic xenophobe yearning for a return to the 1950s), what struck me most was the vehemence with which so many people were willing to believe that the umpires, with malice aforethought, deliberately favour one team over another. ‘What is it’, I wondered, ‘that makes people so convinced that there is some nefarious, ulterior motive at play?’.
Quickly after this thought came the realisation that these beliefs are everywhere. It is, after all, just another conspiracy theory. There’s COVID conspiracies, 5G conspiracies, 9/11 conspiracies, QAnon, Climate Change deniers, Elvis is really alive, JFK conspiracies, Lizard People, and the mother of them all, the Moon Landing conspiracy. There are conspiracies for every man, woman and child alive, and then some. That we have an umpiring conspiracy to add to this is not a surprise at all. These conspiracies grow out of a distrust for those in power, and despite how well the AFL has managed football in COVID, it seems that distrust in those that run our game is higher than it’s ever been. Perhaps it’s our current environment that has seen these beliefs grow in fervour? We are living our lives online more and seeing less of each other, and without that human interaction we are grasping for anything that binds us.
Conspiracy theories are nice, after all. They make us feel good. They place the individual along with everyone and everything that the individual loves, all of their beliefs, attitudes and values, at the centre of the universe, and says that everything outside of that centre is trying to beat you, dehumanise you, and worst, kill you. Conspiracy theories allow us to believe that we are the hero of our story, that we matter. In fact, they allow us to believe that we matter so much that this huge unseen, unfeeling force wants to destroy us. In light of this, every personal loss we endure is pre-destined, it was always going to happen. But every personal victory we have is all the sweeter because we have prevailed against the forces of the universe, the almighty powers that be, the unknown ‘they’.
It’s argued that conspiracy beliefs are an evolutionary by-product of our desire to see patterns – to see that all events are related. The human brain is equipped to look for existing patterns because establishing the true cause-and-effect relationship between people and events is indispensable for survival. In the context of football, this makes sense – player A infringes against player B, the umpire awards a free kick to player B. The problem, however, comes when people perceive patterns that do not exist – the umpire awards player B a free kick because player B and the umpire both have blue eyes. Of course, this is absurd, and I’m sure that if you were sitting next to anyone espousing this view, you would quickly move seats, lest they talk your ear off about how the world is secretly run by a cabal of blue-eyed lizard people hell-bent on re-shaping the world in their image.
Nevertheless, I am certain that every single one of us has, at one point or another, opined that ‘they don’t want us to win’ when watching our team give up a crucial free-kick in front of goal. It’s easy and absolves our team (and the players we love) of any blame, and instead pins the blame on the umpires and, more broadly, the AFL. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I have never seen a game of football where umpire mistakes have mattered more than player mistakes. As comforting as it can be to believe in the existence of an umpiring/AFL conspiracy, the simple fact is that it doesn’t exist.
It is in this spirit that I went back and re-watched the game last night. What I saw was not a clear display of bias – by my count, the umpires had a clear hand in five goals; two for the Lions, and three for the Dogs – but instead I saw a pretty good umpiring performance. There was a mixture of really good decisions made by the men in green, and some bad ones, but nothing really that would suggest favouritism. Before I start below, I just want to make it clear that I’m only interested in free kicks that had direct involvements in goals, as in they played a part in the chain of possessions that led to a goal.
Early on, McInerney threw his weight around in the ruck, taking makeshift Dogs ruckman Lewis Young behind the woodsheds as the Lions took a two goal lead into quarter time. This lead probably should have been as great as four goals if the Lions had fully capitalised on their pressure and the momentum that they built towards the end of the first term. The Lions benefited directly from a dubious free-kick late in the term, with the umpire determining that Lincoln McCarthy was infringed by Ryan Gardner as the Dogs defender ran back with the flight to spoil. Replays suggested that any contact was minimal. Earlier, both teams opened their scoring with goals that were the culmination of scoring chains beginning with correct free-kicks.
Early in the second term, the Lions’ Jack Payne went down with concussion, robbing them of their second tall forward option, while Tim English’s longer stints in the ruck seemed to not only quell the influence of McInerney, but also helped the Dogs mids begin to wrestle back some control. By half-time, the Lions were left to rue more missed opportunities – McCluggage missed Cameron wide open inside 50 and Zac Bailey missed a snap from 25m out – as the Dogs took a one-point lead into the long break. The Dogs’ first two goals of the quarter came as a result of scoring chains starting with high contact free-kicks inside Brisbane’s forward half, including one that could have been avoided entirely if Payne hadn’t dropped a mark inside 50 (prior to being concussed).
The third quarter saw the Lions get out to a match-high three goal lead following a Ryan Lester goal with four minutes to go. To this point, the Lions had kicked the last four goals of the game, including the only three of the third quarter, and with a home crowd behind them, it seemed one more goal would have iced the game. A quick centre clearance for the Dogs ended in a goal to Jason Johannisen, and with two more behinds the close out the quarter, the Bulldogs managed to pull back Brisbane’s lead to ten points at the final break. The only umpire decision that had a direct impact on the scoreline was the overruling of Marcus Bontempelli’s goal with just over six minutes remaining. Replays suggested that Lions defender Darcy Gardiner had got a finger to it, so the decision was overturned and a point awarded.
Before we have a look at the last quarter, I thought I’d let you all know something. I got in contact with Champion Data (the AFL’s data provider) yesterday and asked for any information they had around the ‘expected scores’ for the Lions v Dogs game. For those of you who don’t know, Champion Data’s expected scores metric looks at every shot at goal in a game, taking into account who the player is, where they are shooting from, and how much pressure the player is under. Based on this, they work out the likelihood of that player scoring a goal. Using the information they provided, the expected score at three-quarter time was a Lions lead of seven points – 62 to 55 (in actuality, it was a Lions lead of ten points, 63 to 53). The last quarter is where Champion Data’s expected scores and the actual game scores start to differ. Based on everything outlined above, Champion Data scored the last quarter 24 to 16 in the Lions favour, meaning that expected scores for the match indicated a Lions win – 86 to 71.
Don’t worry, Dogs fans, I’m not saying you didn’t deserve to win. Quite the opposite, in fact. That the Dogs did win, despite history suggesting that they shouldn’t indicates that Bailey Smith may actually be right – they may have ice in their veins.
The Dogs quickly hit the front in the last quarter, and when Smith kicked the first of his two last quarter goals, putting the Dogs eight points up, they had answered Brisbane’s earlier run of four goals in a row with their own run of four in a row. The last few minutes of the match did produce some notable decisions (or non-decisions, as the case may be), though only one had a direct score impact. With just over four and a half minutes remaining, Caleb Daniel tried soccering the ball forward but the Sherrin had other ideas, skewing off the side of his boot and bouncing out of bounds. The commentators had quite a bit of trouble getting their heads around this decision, but really I had no trouble with it. Daniel didn’t do enough to keep the ball in play and a free kick was awarded. Neale’s resulting snap at goal missed, levelling the scores.
Two minutes later, Bailey Dale performed the football equivalent of hatching an egg; grabbing the ball, pulling it in under himself and sitting on it. That the umpire didn’t award a free kick for holding the ball was a clear error. However, the impact of the error was mitigated by the fact that it was caused by a Brisbane skill error – Dayne Zorko’s handball to Daniel Rich landed at Rich’s feet. Both teams kicked a goal in the final two minutes of the game, and before the siren sounded, Brisbane had two final half-chances to win; the first with half a minute to go found Cameron unable to get a handle on the ball running back towards goal, while the last chance was a hack kick forward from Zorko that, on another day may have found a teammate inside 50. This one didn’t, it travelled out of bounds on the full, and that was all she wrote.
I’m sure that there will be plenty of people who don’t read beyond the first few sentences and remain convinced that Gillon McLachlan, Matt Stevic and everyone else in the AFL get together and plan ways in which they can screw over specific clubs for myriad reasons. I feel sorry for these people, because in all of the hysteria, all of the angst about free-kick counts and favouritism, they’ve lost sight of what matters.
Saturday night was one of the best games of football I’ve seen this year. It was fast, attacking, skilful, highly pressured, and had some of the best players in the competition challenging each other to take their games to new heights. And at the end of the day, that’s what we all love, isn’t it?