Carlton's Drought - No Reign in Sight?

If I pulled you aside in 1995 and told you it would be the last taste of premiership success for the Carlton Football Club for at least 22 years, you probably would’ve laughed at me. The Blues were a football powerhouse. All the through the 80’s, Carlton were in the mix for the flag. Names like Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley and Diesel Williams powered a machine into the 90s that looked certain to add more silverware to the trophy cabinet.

You’ve got to hand it to the Blues – there has been a distinct arrogance about the club and its supporters. They are an entitled bunch, and they dined on a buffet of success for so many years as they sipped the sweet nectar directly from premiership cups. It’s what makes the last decade so hard to stomach. They’ve gone from having their regular table at a Michelen three star restaurant to spilling two-minute Mac and Cheese down the front of their t-shirt as they slump on the couch. Really, you can live with either of those gastronomic options, but you know which you’d prefer.

Even as Carlton languished at the bottom of the table, collecting wooden spoons in 2002, 2005 and 2006 (the first three in their history) there remained some sense of certainty about them. Their supporters would smile and nod as if they knew something was brewing. Yeah, they’d been caught cheating the salary cap to pay players the likes of Stephen Silvagni, Craig Bradley, Fraser Brown, and for some reason, Stephen O’Reilly, under the table, yet the arrogance remained. They’d be back and, according to them, the competition knew it.

Only, they never really came back, did they?

Carlton’s longest premiership drought stands at 23 years. After claiming the 1915 flag, the Blues did not hold the cup aloft again until 1938. As we enter the 2018 season, and barring an absolute miracle the likes of Richmond and the Western Bulldogs combined, the current premiership drought will stretch to be their longest ever at the end of this season.

Carlton have made cameos for the past fifteen years without one starring role. They have looked as though they may be building towards something, only to fall away to either the middle of the pack, or worse, toward the bottom of the ladder. It’s not the Carlton Footy Club I grew up watching, and to a point, envied. At last, it seems their arrogance is finally giving way to a reluctant acceptance that things may never be as they once were. Carlton is no longer the AFL powerhouse. As a club, it is a shell of what it once was. There is no fear when facing the current incarnation of the Blues; there’s nothing, really. No excitement, no anticipation, and definitely no fear. They are a far cry from what they once were, and the road back is not a short one.

Membership tallies are great indicators of clubs on the rise. The drawing power of the Blues has never been an issue. Their crowds at games against Collingwood and Essendon have been huge over the years. If Richmond were always thought of as the sleeping giant of the competition, what are Carlton? The dozing behemoths? The snoozing leviathans? The Carlton fans are out there, and they are out there in large numbers - why has this not translated into memberships?

Since 2012, the Carlton membership base has increased by a total of just 4,526.

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In stark contrast, a team like Essendon, who have had their own fair share of disappointment over the past decade, have had their supporters rally around the club. When they were in the most need, their supporters stood with them. The Bombers increased their membership by over 20,000 in the same timeframe. Carlton were once entrenched in the Victorian “Big 4” clubs. It was Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond and Carlton. Currently, Carlton barely makes the grade, with Hawthorn having surpassed them.

Membership totals 2012-17

In 2009, the Blues told the competition they were coming. In 2018, we’re still waiting. Where has it gone wrong?

THE DRAFT

Let’s take a gander at the Blues drafting and not just where they went wrong, but where they went right.

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Since their last premiership, Carlton have accumulated four #1 overall picks, ahead of St Kilda, Melbourne and GWS with three apiece.  With those, they selected Murphy, Gibbs, Kruezer (in consecutive years) and Jacob Weitering. When they pick very early, they seem to pick well. Sadly, Gibbs is now gone and Kruezer’s knees hampered what could’ve been a special career. Murphy is the standout thus far, but even he has had to endure scrutiny about how hard he plays the game. His collision with Luke Hodge in 2013 left no doubt in the minds of many which player they’d prefer to have as their leader. Both men went low and hard – Hodge came off better. Murphy stayed down.

The Blues have corrected a disturbing trend of blowing mid to late first round picks (Cripps and Curnow are gems) and have managed to snag a few late round diamonds in the rough. Not mentioned in the table are Levi Casboult and Zac Tuohy who were rookie elevations.

Though they’ve had a few misses, the hits should’ve been enough to counter them.

THE EXODUS OF LEADING GOALKICKERS

Brendan Fevola had a mortgage on the goal square at Carlton. From 2003-09 he was the mainstay in the forward line, going agonizingly close to kicking a ton in 2008. Most are aware of the circumstances surrounding Fev’s departure from Princes Park that saw him head to Brisbane for an ill-fated 2010 season, but the Blues have had issues retaining their other forwards, too.

Eddie Betts wanted to head home to South Australia. He led the Blues in goals in 2010 and 2012 but was in Crow colours by 2014. Jarrad Waite led the club in goals in 2014 and signed with North Mebourne in 2015, and Andrejs Everitt was leading goal kicker in 2015 but is now retired.

Most recently, Matthew Wright and Levi Casboult have been the leading scorers.

The Blues have struggled to have a go-to scorer for several years now, and have had one player (Andrew Walker in 2011) kick over 50 goals for the season this decade. Whilst coaches will preach about spreading the load, Carlton’s load has been spread too thinly for too long.

TRADES/SIGNINGS

You can’t speak about this topic without broaching the Chris Judd deal. Judd returned to Melbourne and commenced with Carlton in 2008, replacing the retiring Anthony Koutoufides as the face of the club. He was a huge fish, and the Blues had to give up plenty to get him. Sadly, a potential huge fish in his own right was part of the deal.

Josh Kennedy is now one of the best forwards in the caper – an area in which Carlton is woefully undermanned. Judd may have won another Brownlow with Carlton, but Kennedy has been involved with a successful team, regularly playing finals.

Despite his own excellent play, Judd was unable to deliver what Carlton supporters craved so badly – team success. With Judd already retired for a couple of seasons, Kennedy continues to thrill for the Eagles. Throw in Pick 3 (the Eagles took Chris Masten but both Patrick Dangerfield and Cyril Rioli went in the top 12) and the fact that Kennedy is a dual Coleman Medal winner, it looks apparent that the deal is weighted heavily in West Coast’s favour. Hindsight…

The Blues took some punts along the way. They grabbed Brock McLean from Melbourne, but parted with Pick 11 to get him in 2009. He was serviceable without ever being spectacular. They acquired Lachie Henderson in the trade that sent Fev to Brisbane, but then lost him to Geelong for the 2016 season.

The Blues lost Sam Jacobs to Adelaide for two draft picks that turned out to be Patrick McCathy and Andrew McInnes who played a combined 18 games. Ouch.

On two really positive notes, they picked up failed Bulldog forward, Liam Jones, and turned him into a defender. Jones has excelled and will continue in the role in 2018. He only cost them Pick 48. Sam Docherty made his way from Brisbane back to Victoria, signing with the Blues for the 2014 season and having his best season for the club in 2017. His price – Pick 33.

 

COACHES

David Parkin enjoyed a prosperous run through the 90s with the Blues. He stayed in the job for ten years before making way for Wayne Brittain. Remember him? Brittain sat in the chair for a couple of seasons before the Dennis Pagan experiment began.

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Pagan had already covered himself in glory with two flags at North, and joined the Blues just as they were penalised for their salary cap infringements. Instead of a new crop of high draft picks to deal with (indications are that Carlton would’ve selected Brendon Goddard and Daniel Wells with Picks 1 and 2), Pagan found himself desperately having to top up the list, even turning to old warhorse, Mick Martin to hold down the full back position.

It would’ve been disappointing to be promised the world when joining Carlton, and be handed an atlas when you got there, but that’s the position Pagan found himself in. It was his last AFL coaching job. Interestingly, the story goes that Cory McKernan had high-tailed it out of North Melbourne at the conclusion of the 2001 season, largely to get away from Pagan. He won Carlton’s Best and Fairest in 2002 and led the goal kicking at the club, only to learn when returning from a post-season trip that Pagan had been appointed coach of his new team.

Unsurprisingly, McKernan’s stats fell away in 2003, and he left to head back to Arden Street at the conclusion of that season.

Brett Ratten appeared to be instrumental in turning around the Blues’ fortunes. He took the helm for six winless games in 2007 before showing vast improvement the following year. Carlton made the finals three straight years under Ratten from 2009-11 and looked to be threatening before falling out of contention and the eight in 2012. It was the death knell for Ratten, but it ushered in coaching legend, Mick Malthouse.

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Mick was a little bit salty, having been forced to hand the reins over at Collingwood to Nathan Buckley. If ever a man was pushed whilst being told he was jumping, it was Malthouse at the Pies. He came to the Blues with a chip on his shoulder, and Daisy Thomas on the other one.

Malthouse’s first season at the Blues (2012) yielded similar results to Ratten’s last, the team narrowly missing the finals. They snuck into the final eight in 2013, but it’d be the last time they’d see September action. Malthouse was gone eight games into 2015 and John Barker filled in before Brendan Bolton was appointed. Bolts boasts a current record of 13 wins and 31 losses. Given Carlton’s non-tolerance for under-achievers in its coaching ranks, one wonders just how long he’ll last?

 

So where to now for the Blues?

Their lone All-Australian, Sam Docherty, is already sidelined for the year with a knee, putting a dampener on the club’s prospects for 2018. Continued development from Patrick Cripps in the middle, and Charlie Curnow wherever they choose to play him are reasons enough to keep Carlton supporters interested. Ditto for Jacob Weitering across half back.

Curnow could be the key to Carlton's future. He is strong overhead and could become a Kouta-like player in time. If he could even approach the level Koutoufides did, Blues fans would be smiling. 

Marc Murphy remains captain and is coming off his second B&F and career best season, stat-wise, edging close to 30 touches a game. They’ve thrown a lifeline to Aaron Mullett, who was delisted from North Melbourne, and have taken a gamble on Jarrod Garlett in the hope that issues that saw him leave Gold Coast are behind him.

Carlton have continued their pillaging of those leaving GWS, managing to add Matt Kennedy to their list this season, joining former teammate, Lachie Plowman. Matthew Lobbe comes in as insurance for Kruezer’s knees, Darcy Lang heads up from the Cattery, and they do have two Silvagni boys on their list, albeit only one from the direct Serge-Stephen link.

Sadly for Carlton supporters, you are about to witness your team enter its longest ever premiership drought. In times where teams believe they can win a flag from 8th or climb from 13th the year before to sit atop the league, it’s just too big an ask for the Blues.

There’s some pain to come yet. It’s been nine years since you told us you’re coming. Let us know when you’re close so we can start preparing for your arrival.

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