On the day the iconic PFC monogram returned to the famous red and white jumper at Preston City Oval, the home side wondered what might have been after falling to old VFA rivals Port Melbourne 9.10 (64) to 12.8 (80), who recorded only their second win of the season.
The Northern Bullants, and a large group of past players from the glory years, welcomed back vice-captain Liam Mackie for his first game of the season in 2022, and he returned the compliment with three goals from the wing, as well as Kyle Dunkley and Zac Hart.
Tim Jones was due to return but was a late out due to illness.
Jackson Barling continued an impressive stretch of consistency and is emerging, on form, as the best inside midfielder that the 2022 Bullants have – which is quite a statement given they are blessed in this department.
Barling’s 26 disposals came alongside a game high 13 tackles, eight clearances and three inside-50’s. He would also add a goal and two behinds as well.
One of Barling’s strengths is his ability to stand in the tackle and find a teammate to avoid a stoppage, and this was on show regularly.
Will Mitchell (27 disposals), Tom Wilson (29 disposals, five clearances, seven inside-50’s), Jean-Luc Velissaris (19 disposals, one goal) were, alongside Mackie (18 disposals), the best ball winners for the Ants.
Jack Boyd, Mackenzie Doreian, Ben Hurley, Matthew King joined Mackie, Barling and Velissaris as the Preston side’s goalkickers.
In recent weeks, inaccuracy in front of goal has been a challenge – only twice have they kicked more goals than behinds – and it is true that this was a challenge on this day.
However, the difference between the Bullants and Borough on this occasion was the quality of entries into their forward 50’s, and the quality of opportunities that resulted from those forays forward.
The Preston side had 54 entries for nine goals (a conversion rate of around 17%), compared to Port Melbourne’s 12 goals from 44 entries (27%).
Borough’s Ethan Phillips was close to best on ground, not so much for his 30 disposals but for his 14 marks playing as spare man in defence in the first and third quarters (when the Bullants were benefitting from the wind).
Phillips played his role well but the Ants coaching staff must have been left frustrated that forward entries all too often benefitted the stature of Phillips, and the role he was so obviously playing.
Port Melbourne’s Eli Templeton (33 disposals), Tom O’Sullivan (28) and Marcus Lentini (27) fed goalkickers Jake Gasper (four), Fletcher Roberts (three), Anthony Anastasio, Tom Cameron, Archi Manton, Cody Szust and Corey Wagner (one each) to overrun the Bullants.
Coach Ben Hart would acknowledge that quality inside-50 entries would feature heavily in training in the coming week.
‘It’s got to start there (at training),’ he said. ‘They have to get confidence through doing, so they will repeat it with me, working harder on it – it is not quite there yet.’
Returning with the best performance for the Ants, Liam Mackie also acknowledged that quality shots on goal were scarce and that transitioning into fifty would be a priority during training.
‘We lost a fair few opportunities,’ he said. ‘Just (from) taking shots from outside fifty.’
‘We’ve obviously got some drills set up and Harty’s a good coach – (we’ll) just keep training it over and over again.’
And, on returning to the team after a six-game absence and contribute immediately:
‘Yeah, I was blowing a bit,’ he said.
‘It was good to get on the end of a couple – but still – a frustrating loss.’
The Ants took advantage of wind assistance in the first term and jumped out to a 5.2 (32) to 1.3 (9) lead. The Borough would return in kind with four goals with their turn with the wind in the second but Mackie and Velissaris would goal late for the Ants to hold a ten-point lead at half-time 7.4 (46) to 5.6 (36).
The books will record a goalless third term for the Ants but this is where the inside-50 conversion challenge was most on display.
The Preston side would have 19 inside-50’s for six behinds whilst the Borough would have four entries for two goals.
And that was genuinely a good reflection of play in the quarter – the Bullants dominated the flow but couldn’t unlock the Borough defence to create high percentage opportunities.
This led to a few examples where a Bullant, with good intentions, would unsuccessfully take a scenario on where there were other options available, in an attempt to break through.
Neither side would be happy with their care of the ball around the ground, and blustery conditions did not help. But Port Melbourne, through Templeton, were consistently better at transitioning and making the Bullants pay.
However, this is not to say that the Bullants were never likely to win – they led for three quarters of the game – but there was an inevitability once they did not take advantage of that wind assisted third quarter.
Hart saw a few positives on a frustrating afternoon as Port ran out 16-point winners.
‘We were up for the fight again, I thought out contest was pretty good,’ he said.
‘The contest was pretty strong – we base our game around that – and I think we had some really strong movements of the ball.’
‘Liam Mackie was great – first game back in. We’ve missed him as a vice captain as well. He’s kicked three goals off a wing, which is very solid for us.’
‘Jackson Barling continues his rich vein of form. He’s been great in the contest and his tackling pressure has been really good. Will Mitchell was pretty good and Mutaz, down back – strong again.’
‘We’ve got enough guys doing enough right, we just need to capitalise on the opportunity.’
But he also has clarity of why the game was lost.
‘Just that connection, some of it is completely skill error, some of it is a bit of pattern – we’ll just keep going to work.’
‘On turnover – we gave the ball back to them too often and they were able to score off the back of it, ‘ Hart said.
‘It was a pretty tight contest but, in the end, they were just too good and capitalised on some of errors.’
‘Stoppages were reasonable. They may have got the edge on us at the centre bounce. But we weren’t able to take the opportunities which has been a theme for us this year.’
Despite the disappointing result, it is important to take a step back from on field results for a moment.
When Carlton Football Club informed Preston that the alignment was not going to continue on short notice in 2020, it was assumed that meant the end of 138 years of history with barely a chance to say goodbye.
Two years later and the function centre at Preston City Oval pre match was enthralled by tales from legend Harold Martin of Preston v Port from years ago.
Above them, in the Sky Lounge, organised by Gordan Towan and a number of others, a boisterous group of past players – more than 100 in total, dating right back to 1963 VFA Division 2 premiership winner Bob Muir – breathed life into bonds that were maybe dormant but not forgotten.
The winning on the field will come, but the importance of the PFC to the local community and those who played in the jumper remains constant, as Hart has drilled into his players endlessly this week.
‘It’s fantastic to have as many past players down here at the club, ‘ he said.
‘They are the heartbeat of the club. They bleed red and white and we know their passion is unreal, so it is great to see them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the result for them but hopefully they keep coming back and they like what they see.’
Generations old and new will get the opportunity to support the Ants again at 1.05pm on Sunday May 22nd against Geelong.
Goals: Mackie 3, Barling, Boyd, Doreian, Hurley, King, Velissaris
Best: Mackie, Barling, Mitchell, El Nour, Wilson, Podhajski