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Carlton’s season has been one of the most remarkable in AFL history.
The Blues began 2023 nicely, went into a deep recession that triggered a crisis, steadied themselves and then came roaring back with a surge that sent them from 15th to fifth by the end of the regular season.
Now, they are playing Michael Voss’ old team – the club he led to three flags on the trot – at the Gabba for a grand final berth, potentially against Collingwood, after a victory that was improbable throughout the final quarter, but materialised, as if the footy Gods willed it, in the final minute and a bit, as Blake Acres delivered the winning mark and goal.
Sheer joy: The Blues react after the final siren.Credit: Eddie Jim
Collingwood versus Carlton on grand final day. Contemplate that for a second, even if the odds are against the Blues at the Gabbatoir and the Pies have yet to win a prelim.
Having hung onto pip the Swans in their first final in a decade, the Blues entered this semi-final with a high level of belief, despite their lack of September experience compared with the 2021 premiers.
For the Blues, there was never a question about their grit, or ability to win contests, even against a team with similar traits, plus more established stars – Max Gawn, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Steven May in particular – and which I fancied might have more poise when the ball was white-hot, with 96,000-plus roaring.
The sweetest victory for the Blues.Credit: Eddie Jim
Finals such as this are decided by decisions and moments. At the crunch, when reputations are made and unmade, the Blues executed better. Seasoned Dees, such as Jack Viney, did not execute with the footy.
Bayley Fritsch and Gawn were among those who missed gettable shots (Gawn hitting the post). Oliver’s superb shot from the boundary was touched on the line, possibly by Gawn.
The deciding moment came with only about a minute remaining. Sam Docherty marked strongly about 80 metres from goal, out near the edge of the centre square. Ollie Hollands, the sub with run in his legs, had booted the ball to Docherty, who did well to mark overhead given his sore shoulder.
Docherty’s team trailed by five points. Not much time. He made the right decision.
Docherty booted long to the top of the goal square, where Acres, who had already entered Carlton folklore – not quite Ted Hopkins of 1970, but making a case for posterity after his game against Sydney – leapt in a two on one and clunked what was the match’s most consequential mark.
Acres played from the goal square and, for a second, it seemed he’d missed the unmissable (and failed to milk the clock). But the rapture behind the goals signalled that the Blues were a point ahead.
Acres had floated down there from the wing. Mitch McGovern, a defender, had created a two-on one. What was McGovern doing there?
“Blakey Acres went obviously went forward was able to create a two v one with Mitch McGovern who went forward to equalise (Melbourne’s spare man),” explained Carlton development coach, and former Geelong premiership player, Tom Lonergan.
The Blues only needed a minute of ball-ups and no balls-ups. They hung on – as they had against the Swans.
The Blues had seemed destined to lose for most of the final quarter, as Melbourne owned most of the play and had multiple chances to take a larger lead – and the Demons’ lead never exceeded two kicks, as a succession of chances were botched. Melbourne’s profligacy was the story of their finals series, delivering a consecutive straight-sets exit from the top four.
The Blues lost the contested possessions (-16) and ground balls (-23). May was outstanding in out-pointing Charlie Curnow. But Carlton’s disposal efficiency was superior, and they converted timely shots.
Propelled by the run of Sam Walsh, the smarts of Adam Cerra, and defender Nic Newman’s ability to find the ball, the Blues had seemed capable of overwhelming the Dees for periods of the second and third terms. Melbourne’s counter-offensive was impressive, but their score of 4.13 from turnovers was their undoing.
Jacob Weitering represented a road block for the troubled and depleted Melbourne forward line. Joel Smith, though, stood up superbly in attack with three sorely needed goals. Fritsch and Kysaiah Pickett were much improved in the second half, though opportunities were squandered.
If Weitering was the player who encapsulated the mid-season transformation – his re-discovery of form critical to the turnaround – then the club’s most accomplished younger player, Walsh, represented the missing piece for the finals.
Walsh began the season injured with a troublesome back, recoveredand returned, but for much of 2023 he did not have that zip and zest that placed him third in the Brownlow in 2021.
He was outstanding in this final – probably best of the 46 players afield. He kept running and finding the ball, from end to end, siren to siren.
Carlton’s season, and finals series, has had the mark of the miracle. They’ve defied their position, during the season and in the finals – especially against the Demons. Somehow, they’ve found themselves in front at the siren.
As with the club hierarchy’s decision to unequivocally support Voss – a move that seems easy now – it came down to making the right calls.
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