And so it ends..
Despite the weekend's result, Carlton's 2011 season has been one of improvement, excitement and encouragement for the future. Having had the best return of wins in a decade, the way forward is looking brighter than it has for a long time.
A season which culminated in Saturday night's fingernail-gnawing last gasp final, had take Blues fans on a roller coaster ride of highs, lows and bewildering umpire decisions. The off-the-mat performance at Patersons Stadium was befitting of a Carlton team that has seen its past three finals, all played interstate, escape by a total of 15 points. Hardly a disappointing way to bow out of a race, however races are there to be won. And Carlton hasn't won a race for 16 seasons now. The team must now be an even-priced favourite for the next round of heats in 2012.
From the moment that the boys arrived arrived in Perth late last week, there was a sense of purpose and entitlement, that has been (justifiably) missing over the past few years. Carlton had arrived in September to play, and showed this by tossing aside worthy opponent Essendon in Finals Week 1. Essendon mercilessly had the door on it's season slammed shut by the rampant Blues, who had next victim's scalp in its sights by games end.
Watching the game from Visy Park, via an over-sized TV screen with 4,500 other die-hard supporters, there was a feeling that something special may be about to happen. The pre-game burst of Carlton's theme song in place of our country's anthem may have been a sign of what was to come. Saturday's game began as Brett Ratten had hoped; with a flurry of forward salvos, intended to stupefy the home crowd. The plan worked, albeit in as much as you can silence a 43,000 strong support group, and Carlton were off to the start it wanted.
Alas, before the first quarter siren had sounded, the game had taken a turn, and the Eagles were beginning to find ways to bother the scorekeepers. The margin remained relatively close for the remainder of the match, and despite the Carlton boys' spirited efforts until the end, the Eagles were able to finish with their beaks in front. As I tweeted after the final siren, the Visy-based fans rose as one to applaud their heroes once the immediate disappointment of the loss had begun to soften.
As the supporters peeled away from the training ground, there were a few comments made about how the season had been a good one. There was an air of optimism regarding where the coach was heading with the playing group, and mention of some of the 2011 highlights.
Coach Brett Ratten, who as I write, had still not put blue pen to paper for a contract extension, has performed an exceptional job this year in guiding Carlton to its first finals win in over a decade. This, despite seeing some of his most important warriors fall as the September action neared.
Of course, Ratten had complimented his entourage by including proven and experienced footballing personnel, but he is still the man with the plan, and should be acknowledged for the role he played in transforming the team.
After all, do you remember when they told us that Carlton's back line was brittle? That our best scoring options had disappeared along with Fev, and that our one elite player Judd was doing all of the midfield work and would wear himself ragged? I also recall the suggestion that the Blues' list was inferior to that of Melbourne, Richmond and Fremantle! Well that wasn't very long ago now, was it? Who said that anyway, and where are they hiding? I'll like to have a chat..
Ratten's hand in the recruiting of both Jeremy Laidler and Nick Duigan was the shot in the arm that Carlton has needed for years. Both players flourished at their new club, and instantly became fan favourites. Andrew Walker and Lachie Henderson passed each other as they switched ends this year, and the Blues were so much stronger down the spine because of it. Another role reversal that paid dividends was the permanent marching forward of much-maligned defender Bret Thornton, who must have wondered why he hadn't suggested this move himself, years ago.
The transformation of last year's small forward Chris Yarran to running defender, gave the fans another reason to stand to their feet throughout the season, as did the rapid improvement of Mitch Robinson from gutsy cameo roles to gutsy play-maker. Mitch just got better with each week.
So credit where credit is due, and I'm happy to make my bank cheque out to a Mr B Ratten.
We should look back on this season as a successful one for the club. There have been so many wonderful moments. The unofficial mark of the year, the trouncings of the old enemy Essendon, the satisfying wins on the road, including a long overdue defeat of Sydney, close defeats at the hands of Geelong and Collingwood, and individual recognition given to many of Carlton's star players at year's end. I believe that there are even better days ahead!
Who knows - it may be Blue in 2-0-1-2 !!