Carlton set for agonising AFL season denouement after latest heartbreak

<span>Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Football, the historian Manning Clark once said, is “an emotional bath of agony and ecstasy”. For Carlton, this week’s bath was run on Thursday night, with a two-hour soliloquy from a crack QC. It bubbled over 48 hours later, at the City Road end of the MCG, with the son of a stand-up comedian sinking them at the death.

The Blues had it in the bag. They were a dozen seconds away from finals. “Did you see that?!” Luke Darcy kept squawking in the commentary box. We’ve been seeing it for a quarter of a century, the chalk white Carlton fans would have told him.

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With this game, as with so many classic matches played this year, it’s hard to know where to begin. But Thursday night’s tribunal appeal is as good a place as any to start. No-one on the Carlton payroll, with the possible exception of Patrick Cripps, has worked harder and hit more targets than Christopher Townshend QC. He claimed the initial tribunal decision was “infected with error.” He didn’t draw breath for nearly two hours. If only some of Cripps’s teammates had his chops.

But it was bewildering for the rest of us. It’s bewildering to love a sport, and to really have no idea what its rules are. It’s bewildering to listen to three hours of miked up umpires bellowing like trumped up corporals, and barely hear a word from their bosses all year. It’s bewildering that the fortunes of a season, and the significant emotional investment of far too many of us, can rest on the skills of a Queen’s Counsel.

Heading into Saturday night’s game, Carlton seemed to be spluttering to the line. They seemed to be out of petrol, out of luck and out of midfielders. George Hewett, Matt Kennedy and Adam Cerra were all unavailable. Jack Silvagni – exquisitely bred, one-paced and much maligned – was charged with second ruck responsibilities.

But with Cripps, there was hope. Few individual players mean more to their team than the Carlton skipper. He has been carrying them for years. He carried them to the point where he broke his back. At times, he has looked like a footballer who’s been asked to do too much. On Saturday night, he licked his palms, rubbed them together and went to work. For much of the first half, his stats outnumbered the collective IQ of those booing him. He’s a heavy haulage player, the way Chris Judd was in his Carlton years. But his field kicking was sublime.

Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons kicks a goal to win the game.
Kysaiah Pickett of the Demons kicks a goal to win the game. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

For a while, Melbourne’s plan, like the QC on Thursday night, seemed to consist of boring the opposition into defeat. But the game caught fire in the second half. It seems unfair to regulate Melbourne in this analysis, and to make it all about Carlton. Jake Melksham, whose football career could have been scripted by Clark, played the game of his life. Angus Brayshaw had nearly 40 touches, and there were few cheap ones among them. “We shat the bed last week,” Christian Petracca said afterwards. This week, they controlled their bowels, kept their heads and secured the double chance.

But the story of the night was Carlton, and what could and should have been. “Nothing helps,” Clark said, “except the siren.” On Saturday, that siren seemed an eternity away. When Curnow finally kicked straight and put them eight points up, that should have been it – that should have been finals. When they were chipping around on the members wing, that should have been it – that should have been finals. But in the final excruciating minutes, there was a sense of impending doom.

Michael Voss said it was a matter of “detail”. It was detail that Matthew Owies’ kick got to Adam Saad on the first bounce. It was detail that they kicked down the line to a team that gobbles those sort of kicks better than any other. It was detail that Jesse Motlop, in his 11th game and weighing all of 11 stone, was caught one-on-one with May in the final 30 seconds. As Melksham shovelled the ball to Kysaiah Pickett, there was an inevitability to the whole thing.

“One of the many virtues of the Carlton players over the years,” Clark said in 1981, “is that they give their supporters years in which they can convalesce and strengthen themselves for another bout of the strange malady.” But modern-day Carlton players and fans don’t have that luxury. They have to dust themselves off, ignore the free kick differential, and look ahead to one of the most highly anticipated home-and-away matches in years against Collingwood.

They also have to turn their eyes to Tasmania, and to the early game next Sunday. No-one knows what’s going on with the Western Bulldogs this year. Their game on Saturday was a ghastly affair. If they lose to the Hawks, Carlton are in. But we won’t know for sure until about 4pm. In the meantime, 90,000 people are expected to trek to the MCG. It’s a date with a bitter rival whose bubble finally burst yesterday. As season denouements go, it doesn’t get much more appetising, or more agonising.