Tuesday, 26 February 2013

49 straight in 2000: I was not the only one!

Back in 2000, I was convinced by Round 10 that not only would Essendon go undefeated, but that they were so good that North Melbourne’s World War I-era VFA record of 49 straight wins including three perfect home-and-away seasons would be likely to go in 2001. (Had Essendon gone through unbeaten until after the 2001 Grand Final, they would have had 50 straight wins and 51 straight home-and-away wins).

Most people around me in 2000 thought that even when Essendon had won twenty in a row that “49 straight” talk was ludicrous; however, I thought that Essendon were just too good to be stopped before 2001. Only two teams had pushed them within 24 points; whereas St. Kilda, Carlton, Richmond, Essendon and Geelong had all pushed Collingwood. Essendon in 1950 were flattered more by their 19-1 record for reasons we will soon discuss.

One major North Melbourne fan said to me about whether the 49 straight was threatened:
“Could Essendon have gone another 30 games had they not lost to the Dogs that weekend? History tells us it’s a moot point but it’s fun to hypothesise. My guess is no but that’s probably based on what happened in 2001. They began that year where they left off but after their big comeback against us [North] the wheels fell off. Distractions, injuries and form issues hit and by Grand Final day that year the very same list that powered through the second half of 1999, all of 2000 and the first half of 2001 were clear underdogs and were overrun by a new power and the Bombers have not been anywhere near a flag since. Nonetheless, did I consider that our record was under serious threat? Not really. No VFL/AFL team had ever gone more than 26 games undefeated - so there’s a reason why getting to 49 has never been approached and that is what eventually did happen to Essendon in 2001 (and Brisbane after 18 wins in 2002 and St. Kilda after 19 last year [2009]). Too much has to go too right for too long for one slip up not to occur.”
It was thus a surprise to me when I found Australian writer Michael Davis had said in effect (probably having never heard of North Melbourne’s VFA record) that 49 straight was not out of the question for Essendon, saying that not only was it virtually certain they would be the first undefeated VFL/AFL team, but also that they had a good chance of again finishing unbeaten in 2001 - which would have seen them hit fifty straight in the Grand Final.

Paul Salmon and some other Australian journalists, whilst they never talked about Essendon winning fifty straight, did say that they were producing a new era in football, although exactly what the 2000 Bombers brought that was totally new to AFL is not clear - whereas with many other famous teams it is possible to see how they influenced football, from the relentless attack of Richmond in the 1960s to West Coast’s super fast and tough defence in the 1990s.

What Salmon did not know, but which I have come to realise, is that data on standard deviations of club winning percentages in the AFL suggest strongly that the replacement of Waverley by Docklands made it easier to obtain very high winning percentages. This is not so much because what Salmon called “suburban slagheaps” (though the winter of 1929 was actually quite dry) can undo good teams, but because the elimination of the influence of rain and more especially wind tends to reduce the value of men of short or average height and/or speed. Windy weather on dry days actually requires shorter people with the skill of kicking low (like the ancient stab kick) in a way wet weather does not because a ball kicked as it is at Docklands would go backwards!

To some degree such differences were why St. Kilda, predicted to finish in the top four or five before the 2000 season opened, were dead last four and a half games behind second-last Collingwood. They were used to the leisurely speed of Waverley and were too soft for the less-skilled but harder play of Docklands. They also were, in a way I did not realise, devoid of taller players with mobility, and perhaps I should have been less critical than I was of their failed recruitment of over-the-hill Collingwood ruckman Damien Monkhorst - who in his prime would have been exactly the player needed at Docklands.

Closed roof stadiums instead increase the value of exceptionally tall people who are very scarce in the general population. When one depends on a small population, the skill level of the players can vary much more and results thus are more predictable. This allowed Essendon and Brisbane - both teams based on tall, mobile players in the last years of Waverley - to dominate the competition as nobody did in the 1990s. It has more recently allowed Geelong and Collingwood to do the same for seasons or parts thereof because other teams can no longer gain access to players of requisite talent.

It is by no means implausible that an undefeated AFL team will be seen soon - and seen without any expectation they would be the best ever - because of the influence of Docklands. Still, I will say that Docklands would not have meant doing 49 straight in the AFL of 2000 or 2013 would not constitute a greater feat than doing it in the second-tier VFA of World War I: the opposition was so much better and the game so much more professional!

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