The A-Grader

 


Anybody who has an opinion on football is bound to get it wrong sometimes.

At one point a few years ago I was asked about Dustin Martin. I said I didn't think he would ever be an A-Grade midfielder because he didn't have the endurance to run full games out. He had a few outings where he'd have enormous first halves, only to be unsighted from half way through the third quarter.

To Martin's credit, it was an aspect of his game he worked hard at, and he developed the motor that would not only run games out, but would enable him to dominate them down the stretch. He's now the reigning Brownlow medallist coming off one of the most complete seasons in AFL history, and I am happy to say I was wrong - dead wrong. Oops.

But I'm not the only bloke getting things wrong.

After Round 1 this season, respected journalist Mike Sheahan claimed on a radio broadcast with Garry Lyon and Tim Watson that Scott Pendlebury was no longer an A-Grade midfielder.

Mike has been around for a long while and I'm sure he's made his fair share predictions. He's a footy lover, and has lived and breathed our sport for a large part of his life. Over the journey, you'd think he has got his fair share of statements wrong, but this statement in particular jumped out at me.

In the season opener against Hawthorn, Pendlebury had his regulation 26 disposals. If you're looking at that game on paper, you'd be fooled into thinking he had the standard Pendlebury game, but Sheahan, and even the old Mongrel, in our review saw some things that were un-Pendlebury-like. He was rushed, didn't have the patented Pendlebury poise, and made mistakes at crucial points. Stats say one thing, but he simply did not pass the "eye-test" on the day. It looked like something was wrong.

The Collingwood captain went at only at 58% by foot that game, and looked pressured every time he got his hands on it. That the team didn't respond well to Hawthorn's pressure wasn't just a Pendlebury-issue, however when you are the most prominent player in the most prominent team in the land, the focus narrows on you when things go awry. Sheahan speculated on the basis of that one game, and one below-average return, that Pendlebury's time as an elite mid was coming to an end. For a man who'd been at the top of his game, averaging over 25 disposals per game for the last 10 years it must have stung a little bit.

Pendlebury confessed in an interview on SEN that same week that some of his teammates had commenced calling him "B-grader" after hearing Sheahan's comments. He laughed about it and took it on the chin as a champion does, however such a harsh assessment would have had to give him a little more impetus to prove the doubters wrong.

At times in the sport we love it's not about how you travel when you are up, but how you respond at times you're down, and after Round 1, Pendlebury was down. Social media (that bastion of truth and well thought out, polite opinion) speculated that we were seeing the demise of not only Collingwood, but of Pendlebury as well. There were questions about whether Nathan Buckley should have been sacked in the off-season, whether Pendlebury should've retained the captaincy, and just how poor the Magpies would be in 2018.

Now, 17 rounds later it all seems just a little crazy.

Pendlebury responded in Round 2 with a 30 disposal game in a tough loss against GWS at the MCG, he had 21 touches against Carlton in Round 3, and another 30 against the Crows in a surprise win at the Adelaide Oval. They followed that by belting the Bombers on Anzac Day. With the Pies at 3-2, the doubters were suddenly few and far between, and those on the Magpie wagon grew in number significantly.

Since those comments about Pendlebury's output and his standing in the game, he has been as consistent as any midfielder in the league. He has missed just one game all year, and has used that supreme vision and ability to buy time when there's none to be bought to be as important in the Collingwood midfield as he's ever been.

Still, there is something different about Pendlebury this season. There is a lightness to him, as though a weight has been lifted and he is able to be a little more relaxed about his footy.
Coincidentally, this is the first time in probably six or seven years that Scott Pendlebury doesn't have to be the best player on the ground for Collingwood to do well. The continued improvement of Adam Treloar and the developing leadership of Steele Sidebottom have meant that Pendlebury can actually cruise along the outside now and not have to be the best clearance player in the team all the time.

Whilst Pendlebury sits 37th in the competition in average clearances per game, Adam Treloar (31st) Brodie Grundy (29th) and Taylor Adams (13th) rank above him. He is getting the help he needs on the inside this season. Those three, and Steele Sidebottom also rank above him in average contested disposals as well, with Pendles slotting in at 62nd in the league.

What is interesting to note is that after Treloar went down with his double hamstring injury against Carlton in Round 14, Pendleburys contested possession totals rose. As the team adjusts to compensate for the loss of Treloar, the Collingwood mids have made the necessary adjustments to fill the void for the hard-running Treloar. After a combined 20 contested disposals against Carlton and Gold Coast, he collected a season-high 19 contested touches against the Bombers, and added 10 and 11 against West Coast and North Melbourne respectively. On that smaller sample size, he'd sit 16th in the league overall. He has modified his game accordingly, and become the player doing what is necessary for his team to succeed.

As if he was ever anything different

In Sheahan's defence, if we're looking solely at the disposal stats, Pendlebury is averaging 27.56 touches per game in 2018. That figure is the lowest he's averaged since his 2010 campaign; a year that saw him average 26.58.

However, when you are talking numbers, there's another one that leaps out. This season Scott Pendlebury is travelling at almost 80% disposal efficiency. When he gets the ball he is hurting opposition teams. He may be getting it a little less, but he is hurting a little more. Roughly 4% more if you want numbers. He has also been dangerous going forward. As the season got into full swing, Pendlebury rattled off eight-straight games where he had at least 20 disposals and a goal to his name.

The defensive side of his game continues to be outstanding with the last two years seeing him average more tackles than he has at any point in his career. He currently sits 17th in the league for tackles per game,  and is the number one ranked Magpie in this category. As tackling has become more and more important, Pendlebury has read the game as he always does, and as such, he has stayed ahead of it.

In the stat-driven world of AFL-analysis, we often look to Champion Data to ensure we are on the right track when we talk about people performing above average. As it stands Scott Pendlebury is rated 'elite' in several offensive categories, two of those being handballs, disposal efficiency. But it is the amount of categories where he is rated above average that you really see him stand out.

Pendlebury is rated by Champion Data as above average in 16 categories including score launches, goal accuracy, contested possessions, overall disposals and stoppage clearances.

As we enter Round 19 and what will be Pendleburys 269th game as a Collingwood player, talk of whether or not he's an A-Grader has been well and truly put to bed. he has once again proven to be more than just a star midfielder; he's proven to be a leader.

As this stage of the season, there are only a few contenders who could actually be considered for the position of All-Australian Captain. Though Alex Rance was awarded the honour last season, that position usually goes to an existing AFL captain who is picked in the side. Shannon Hurn has a legitimate claim this year. As does Joel Selwood. And Pendlebury's name is right there amongst them, currently.

He's the leader of one of the best-performed teams in the league, and remains crucial to their finals aspirations. He has had better season to date than Trent Cotchin, despite the arguments from Richmond supporters to the contrary, and he is probably contending for the same spot in the AA side as Selwood. It would be a remarkable achievement for Pendlebury to rebound and take his place as the leader of the AFL's team of the year after a three year absence, but one that is not too far beyond the realms of possibility.

The three captains 2018

As we wind down 2018, Pendlebury has a legitimate chance at securing his second premiership with the Pies, and his first as Captain. In what will likely be his last year at the helm before handing the reins to Steele Sidebottom, Pendles finds himself in a wonderful position to secure his already-lofty standing in the game. Head to head with Richmond in one of the biggest home-and-away games of the year, his team, and Pendlebury himself, have the opportunity to make a statement.

Are Collingwood serious contenders? Can they shake the seemingly-unshakeable Tigers in front of a packed MCG? And can Scott Pendlebury prove once again, that he is the classiest midfielder in the game?

It will take a monumental effort from Pendlebury to combat the rugged Richmond midfield. Their pressure and attack on both the man and the ball are outstanding. Pendlebury is a master of creating time and space - it's as though he exists in a parallel dimension where he sees the game in slow motion, and looks like he does what he does so easily. But Richmond defend on fast forward, and time to use the ball well rapidly diminishes when you have a wave of yellow and black closing in on you from all angles.

There comes a time in every season when teams and players have to make a stand. After Mike Sheahan's comments about his supposedly diminishing status in the game, Pendlebury has been making that stand all year long. Against Cotchin and his Tigers, he has the chance to put an exclamation point on it.

If he can do it, and drag his surprising team to a win over the premiers, we may not be talking about whether or not he remains an A-Grader. He may move beyond that.

We may have to start handing out A+ grades.

 

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