Dustin Martin owed AFL nothing but his Richmond return had everything | AFL

ORn those rare occasions when things aren’t going Dustin Martin’s way on the football field, he repeats three words to himself: Strong. Aggressive. Unstoppable. It’s staggering, really. He has all the talent, all the medals, and all the money in the world. An entire football club was built around him. An entire competition was unable to lay a glove on him. He had an oaken constitution, and the perfect physique for his sport di lui. Even in the ad breaks, he was swanning about in his underwear di lui, seemingly without a care in the world. Turns out he was like so many of us – riven by anxiety, propping himself up, blocking out the noise. Though it’s hard to imagine two more different men, one is reminded of an old Paul Keating quote. “Underneath it all, I’m really scared. My knees are knocking. I’m like a bowl of warm spaghetti. “

Martin began the 2021 season being talked about in the same breath as Matthews, Carey and Ablett. He finished it on the boundary line at the Gabba, in child’s pose, being misdiagnosed by the physicians at Channel 7. If you’ve played footy at any level, it was one of those incidents where you thank Christ you’ve hung up the boots. Kidneys don’t take kindly to laceration. He spent a week in hospital, subsisting on bananas, dates and YouTube clips. He lost about two stone. By year’s end, he was mourning his dad about him. At 30, there was a very real chance he was lost to football. The gossip columnists licked their chops. But the club, and football fans generally, gave him space. He owed the game nothing. There was nothing more to achieve, or prove.

On Saturday however, he was back. As always, he didn’t exactly present like a man whose knees were knocking. As always, there was a certain insouciance, a hint of menace. He looked like he’d spent the last month squatting and scowling. He doesn’t get out of bed to play Gold Coast at the Docklands in front of 9,000 desperados on a weekday night. This was more like it. A red-ball game on a Saturday afternoon. A proper rivalry. A fixture with real weight.

The Collingwood coach says his charges are eight dates into a relationship, whilst the Tigers are married with three kids. The Pies have limitations on every line, but they’re an honest side always looking to attack. There’s no dinky, sideways action anymore. Some of kids they’re pinning their future on are a bit like Dusty in his younger, dumber, full-throttled days. Martin himself now possesses an innate sense of when to turn up the wick and when to dial it back; of what moment is important, and what is inconsequential. His game di lui oscillates between the savage and the surgical – a 90-degree pass here, an interventionist’s appearance in a melee there, a martial art shove to the windpipe when required. But every time Collingwood threatened, Dusty stood a little more erect – step out of my way, young upstarts, this is my moment, my arena, my competition.

Photograph: Joel Carrett / AAP

The player of the match was Tom Lynch. But it was Dusty’s day. Following his first goal di lui, after his teammates had finally demobbed, he slapped the black tape on his lower deltoid. Dusty is loathe to let us in. But his talent about him, and even his grief about him, were on full display. You have to strain a bit harder to see the doubt. But it’s there, apparently. As hard as it is to believe, when Dusty swaggers down to the goal-square, he’s muttering bromides to himself. It gives hope to the rest us. It’s probably scant consolation for the poor bloke manning him.

When the MCG is heaving on a Saturday afternoon, the other fixtures tend to recede. Further up the eastern seaboard, the Swans again succumbed to the Suns, GWS barely gave a yelp in Canberra and the Eagles didn’t have a prayer in Brisbane. But there was a lot at stake at the Docklands. The Bombers spent the best part of the evening doing what they’d done all year – fluffing about, playing polite, short-back-and-sided football, sending their supporters spare. All year, there’s been no spark, no point of difference, no depth, no luck. There’s been the usual schadenfreude, for Essendon is always a polarizing club. There’s been immense pressure on the coach.

It’s been hard not to feel for Ben Rutten. He’s affable, well paid and highly regarded for his footy smarts by him. But sometimes you look at coaches under the pump and you think, why would you bother? He has to keep a bloodthirsty media at bay. He has to somehow placate and engage a supporter base that’s at the end of its tether. He has to get his players to defend at a team, and find their inner mongrel. At three-quarter-time, his cause di him looked hopeless. He had Keating’s spaghetti legs. Team, coach and club were all on their final warning.

Half an hour later, he was on the boundary line, laughing his lungs out. Maybe they’d started reciting Dusty’s mantras. Maybe they’d finally learned how to tackle. Maybe Hawthorn simply wasn’t much chop. The Bombers rattled on seven unanswered goals. The club suddenly had a pulse, and a hell of a weight off its back.

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