Where to next for Carlton?

Since coach Brendon Bolton arrived at IKON Park in 2015, the Blues have made a staggering 42 list changes. Think about that - an entire list worth of players gone in 3 years. It’s hard to fathom. By comparison, Hawthorn, a team widely acknowledged to have made the biggest and most ambitious rebuild in the modern game have made just 24 (inclusive of 6 rookie listed players who never represented the club at senior level who chose to leave of their own accord).

It follows a period of list management infamy that saw the likes of Eddie Betts, Josh Kennedy and Jarrad Waite flourish at other clubs for little compensation in return, amidst a flurry of first round draft picks who, if labelled duds, would be an unfavorable comparison to other dud picks of draft history. As footballers, they perhaps have done themselves proud as today’s late-night delivery drivers for Dominos.

Under Bolton’s tenure, no other club has received more Rising Star nominations than the Blues. Cripps, Fisher and Curnow are some of the future stars of the game. Cunningham, Marchbank, Petrevski-Seton and Weitering were showing promising signs also. It has been strongly suggested from the club during this season that, in light of such heavy turnover in the past few seasons, a similar offload will occur at the end of season 2018.

However, several recruiting blunders, both on-field and off-field put the club in a precarious position. A two-horse race remains for the wooden spoon between the Blues and the long-suffering Brisbane Lions. Also finding themselves in a precarious position are seventeen players still out of contract at IKON Park, few of which would justify an extension based on form to date. 

Kade Simpson

Perhaps an unfair call on the Blues’ veteran. If all had gone to plan this year, Sam Docherty would have continued to take ownership of the Blues’ backline and Ciaran Byrne and David Cunningham would’ve continued to develop in their respective roles. Simpson could have been used as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ scenario had things fallen into place.

Instead, with injuries to Docherty and Byrne, and Cunningham remaining an unpopular selection with the Blues’ coaching staff, Simpson remains a constant in an inconsistent Blues backline.
You have to wonder whether Simpson was Andrew McKay and Stephen SIlvagni’s first choice for the role, having been one of the last contracts to be signed before the deadline for lists to be finalized for season 2018.

Throughout the season, there were links between the Blues and Swans veteran, Jarred McVeigh. There was talk that a Victorian club, rumoured to be Carlton, had made an offer for Geelong champion Jimmy Bartel to come out of retirement. An offer that Bartel was reportedly taking seriously. An oft-used example by the AFL in championing the mid-season draft has been a hypothetical scenario where Carlton would have been keen to give another season to recently retired Saint, Leigh Montagna in light of the season ending injury to Docherty. It’s not even without merit to suggest they had a chance in obtaining the services of Luke Hodge to perform the role he currently serves at the Brisbane Lions. This is made more plausible given his relationship with Bolton, former teammate-now assistant coach, John Barker and the newly appointed backline coach of the Blues, Cam Bruce.

Instead the Blues gave Simpson the chance to play an extra season and bring up his 300th game. Perhaps scarred by the backlash of supporters after the club delisted the popular Brad Fisher on 99 games in 2011, the club baulked at a similar response to dumping a club favorite over an import from a rival Victorian team.

Whilst Simpson’s run and carry provided by a player of his age remains phenomenal, he is a liability by foot, with turnovers far more commonplace than not. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest a free pass is given by the Blues’ faithful given his iconic status at the club as an honest trier with oodles of courage to spare.

Simpson’s competition for spots in lieu of the injured Docherty and Byrne has come from delisted free agent pickups over the off-season in Aaron Mullett, Cam O’Shea and Matt Shaw.
They appear at this point to be pickups made for the wrong reasons - a fear of a gap in the mid-20’s demographic in the list. Perhaps in O’Shea’s case a smaller form of sentimentality and gratitude, for having performed admirably with the clubs’ VFL affiliate, the Northern Blues. They are a club that’s struggled to compete with its counterparts for attracting AFL-level quality to its list and compete with clubs prepared to put the money down that local footy is offering, or a pathway back onto an AFL list that Footscray and Port Melbourne have shown in recent years. It is also widely believed that the battle for the last spot on the Blues’ list between Matt Shaw and former first round draft pick, Blaine Boekhorst was made all the easier for the club, after Boekhurst arrived at a crucial pre-season training session prior to final list lodgement, having caught a red-eye flight from a music festival in WA directly to training.

None of these acquisitions have come on as hoped. O’Shea’s continued selection ahead of David Cunningham only raises more questions about what Cunningham has done or is not doing to miss selection, following some woeful turnovers on O’Shea’s behalf week in week out that aren’t befitting of AFL standard. Matt Shaw continues to perform manfully in a poor Northern Blues side without giving off any impression he will force his way into a side that is 0-6. While Mullett appears the best of the lot, with decent run and carry and a big body around the stoppages, question marks about his decision making and turnovers in crucial parts of the ground remain a concern.

Liam Jones

The renaissance story of 2017 has failed to live up to the lofty standards he set himself last season. Constantly throughout this season, we’ve seen Jones fail to gel and communicate effectively with his backline counterparts, often spoiling to the advantage of roving opposition small forwards, or as was the case often against the Western Bulldogs, getting in the way and colliding with Sam Rowe.

The decision to give a two-year extension to Jones rather than one appears unnecessary, and has the potential to see panicked list decisions at season’s end as there’s simply too many defensive talls to be given an opportunity to show their merit.

It reeks of the scenario that saw Sam Jacobs depart the Blues at the end of 2010, despite a phenomenal end to the season. A rookie listed player, the Blues saw him as the most expendable and least likely to come back to haunt them, in comparison to the #1 pick, Matthew Kreuzer, top 20 selection Shaun Hampson, and Robbie Warnock who was lured to the Blues from Fremantle on big money.

We’ve seen Alex Silvagni promoted to the leadership group of the club on the back of a great performance on Buddy Franklin, and subsequent injuries preventing him from getting his turn in the Blues’ backline this season. We’ve seen Sam Rowe return successfully from an ACL injury.  Both are out of contract at the end of this season, as is the rookie-listed Jesse Glass-McCasker who has shown plenty at VFL level, and deserves a chance late in the year to show his merits for a senior list upgrade.

By contrast, we’ve also seen a backward step in the developments of Lachie Plowman and Jacob Weitering respectively. Both appear uncertain when to zone off and when to guard Liam Jones’ opponent when he instead zones off. I suspect both would benefit from the absence of Jones and allowed to do what comes naturally to them.

There’s perhaps an argument that of the three uncontracted tall defenders, Jones may warrant being delisted ahead of Rowe and Alex Silvagni. I’m not convinced, but it would have been handy to have the flexibility to make that call without an unnecessary payout to Jones.

David Teague and Cam Bruce

The Blues were able to secure the signings of the two most highly rated assistant coaches in the entire competition over the off-season. Teague, a former Blues Best & Fairest was highly touted for his work in developing the Eagles’ “web” under Adam Simpson that saw an unlikely Grand Final berth in 2015, and for adding the missing pieces to the Adelaide forward line that took them to a spot in last year’s Grand Final. Bruce, the senior assistant of the Hawthorn Football Club, having overseen 4 grand finals himself, was given the opportunity to take over from the retiring Neil Craig as senior assistant.

Whilst both handy additions to any coaching box, one wonders what this impact has had on the authority of Brendon Bolton. Was it wise to add two coaches who could easily command a senior coaches’ position to a coaching box of a coach yet to stamp his authority on a playing group?
Was it the right move to continue on with Bruce’s appointment to oversee the backline, after Docherty’s season ending injury? Having been robbed of his two biggest weapons, with Bryce Gibbs being traded to the Crows also, Bruce was given an unfairly tough first assignment, featuring a makeshift backline of delisted free agents and a handful of players with barely fifty games between them. Was it also fair on the young group to take on a new coach they would have had no exposure to prior? Why not the incumbent and long-serving Blues assistant John Barker?

Already the wolves are out for Bolton from the Blues bourgeoise. Tom Elliott has gone as far to say on radio he believes Brett Ratten is the best person for the job despite sufficient evidence to the contrary from his previous stint. By adding two very strong alternatives, are you not adding credibility to the impatient with too much money?

The top-end talent on the Blues’ list isn’t the issue. You could reasonably suggest there was as many as 11 in the team that went down to the Bulldogs that could feature in the club’s next Premiership side. Another six on the list that didn’t play on Friday night, that could also feature in their side. But week-in, week-out, the constant scores against stemming from the bottom five’s skill errors and turnovers that don’t belong at AFL level is hard to compensate for.

Head coach at Carlton is arguably the plum coaching job in the competition. This off-season though appears to be two steps backward at the worst possible time.

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