After the drudgery of the poorly-attended, lopsided split opening round, round two saw things looking up for footy fans. The crowds were better and there was some nice footy played, yet a remarkable amount of bandwidth was occupied by outpourings of vitriol for Jack Watts and his inability to execute a basic skill: the chest mark. Likewise, Bryce Gibbs was shut out of Carlton’s clash with Richmond by Brandon Ellis, which prompted some rather frank and scathing judgements of his character by passionate Carlton fans.
In among some good footy and contests, we were observing the timeless ritual of disappointed footy fans turning on their own kind. In attracting the ire of their own fans, Watts and Gibbs were performing a role as vital to the team as that of a centre half-forward (which Watts, decidedly, is not), or a ball-winning midfielder (which Gibbs, decidedly, is not): they were performing the ancient role of the whipping boy. So what does a whipping boy look like? And what does a player have to do to earn the title?
A popular choice for a whipping boy, the Head-Scratcher has bags of talent, but seemingly no clue on how to correctly harness it. Gold Coast, understanding the importance of an elite, experienced whipping boy, poached Jared Brennan from local rivals Brisbane. Like all Head-Scratchers, Brennan could do outrageous things on the football field, both in a good way, and in a ‘sell-it-under-the-counter-in-a-brown-paper-bag’ way. Head-Scratchers are forever ‘turning the corner’, playing ‘breakout’ games, and threatening to ‘put it all together’. They break our little hearts.
Draft Day Disappointments
When it comes to playing the role of the whipping boy, high draft picks have it easy. All they have to be is not quite as good as the bloke picked after them, and bingo: the ideal whipping boy, offering an intoxicating combination of disappointment, regret, and an underwhelming match-day experience. Jack ‘Not Nic Naitanui’ Watts is a prime example, but Richard ‘Not Buddy’ Tambling during his Richmond days is perhaps the greatest recent example of this type.
Toilers tend to be popular targets among fans of the competition’s also-rans. They’re good honest triers, but when the supporter looks at the toiler, all he can see is his club’s inadequacies. The good-but-not-quite-good-enough Brent Reilly is a perfect example, mirroring the anxieties of Crows supporters regarding their team.
A popular sub-genre of toiler is the ‘Achilles Heel’, a very good player with a glaring weakness that holds them back – think Brent Stanton (runs and carries 50 metres, lets himself down with some bizarre decision-making) or Matthew Priddis (wins 50 contested possessions, shanks all his disposals by foot). Tantalisingly close to being the complete package, it’s the hope that kills you with Achilles Heels. Funnily enough, Achilles Heels tend to make popular whipping boys in very good sides with a glaring weakness that holds them back.
Needless to say, the bestowing of whipping boy status is not always fair, and Dodgy Trades get a rawer deal than most. Kyle Cheney is a trier, and has never pretended to be anything more than that. Likewise Beau Maister, for all his limitations, is the Saints’ only viable second tall forward option. Neither was born in the club colours, though, so they get none of the leeway that a similarly limited native son might. They also cop it because these sorts of mid-weight trades simply aren’t sexy, and because blaming them is a lot easier than heckling the head recruiter.
Most football fans would give anything to represent their club, which is why Cream Puffs tend to attract the greatest anger among fans. The popular conception of the Cream Puff is that he has talent, but no appetite for the contest. The Cream Puff might be goal-hungry, averse to the hard stuff, defensively suspect, prone to drifting out of games, or a downhill skier. He might be none of the above: merely fond of manscaping, or fake tan, or wearing his hair in a topknot. Or he might be Bryce Gibbs.
Gibbs, of course, has left no stone unturned in his quest to be Carlton’s ultimate pantomime villain, killing it across half-back, going missing in the midfield, wearing a headband, even going so far as starting a t-shirt label – a fatal move for a borderline Cream Puff. I doubt he stitches them himself, but still: what’s he playing at?
By their nature, turncoats tend not to stay whipping boys for long, because they tend not to stay at the club for long. Tom Scully was the most notable recent example of this type. Bomber Thompson tried to turn Gary Ablett into a whipping boy, but Ablett was just too damn good, with too many years of distinguished service, for the ploy to work. Given the advent of free agency, I suspect that turncoats will become a less fashionable candidate for whipping boy status as they become more common.
The multi-faceted Bryce Gibbs, though, is bucking the trend. Of course, Gibbs should be free to explore his market worth as he enters restricted free agency, but it’s a pretty bold move for someone who still hasn’t delivered on his potential, and who is getting paid at the upper end of their market worth.
Once your card is marked, it’s hard to change perceptions. The shanked kick will be remembered after the smother is forgotten. Kick a big bag of goals? You didn’t do it when the game was on the line. Picked up thirty possessions? You didn’t hurt the opposition enough with them.
So, is it fair to single blokes out and spew vitriol? Not really. Is it cruel? Absolutely. Is it the inevitable consequence of assembling en masse along tribal lines and then pinning your collective hopes and dreams on the outcome of an extremely complex process in which the arbitrary bounce of an oval ball can override skill, endeavour and courage? Definitely, but that’s for footy for you: we’re only doing it because we love you.
Who is your club’s whipping boy?
Adelaide: Brent Reilly (Toiler)
Brisbane: James Polkinghorne (Head-Scratcher)
Carlton: Bryce Gibbs (Turncoat/Cream Puff/Draft Day Disappointment)
Collingwood: Marty Clarke (Toiler)
Essendon: Brent Stanton (Achilles Heel)
Fremantle (predicted): Colin Sylvia (Dodgy Trade)
Geelong: Travis Varcoe (Cream Puff)
Gold Coast: Tom Murphy (Dodgy Trade)
GWS: Toby Greene (Achilles Heel)
Hawthorn: Kyle Cheney (Dodgy Trade)
Melbourne: Jack Watts (Draft Day Disappointment)
North Melbourne: Robbie Tarrant (Cream Puff)
Port Adelaide: John Butcher (Head-Scratcher)
Richmond: Tyrone Vickery (Head-Scratcher)
St Kilda: Beau Maister (Dodgy Pick-up)
Sydney: Heath Grundy (Toiler)
West Coast: Matthew Priddis (Achilles Heel)
Western Bulldogs: Jarrad Grant (Head-Scratcher/Cream Puff)