In the haze of last Thursday night’s inebriated arm-wrestle against Richmond, a game between a mediocre team and a slightly worse one, where professional skill was optional and dire decision-making compulsory, Scott Pendlebury emerged from the muck, immune and unscathed, and delivered as good a handball as you will ever see.
Down 16 points with seven minutes remaining, the game slipping away, Pendlebury put his grip on proceedings. In a fast break through the corridor following the spill from a kick-in, the ball found Pendlebury and he streamed towards 50 with those famous loping strides. He calmly took a bounce, and had a brief look at the world.
Tim Broomhead was on his right, sprinting through the middle of the square, but a defender shadowed him, hovering in the space between the ball carrier and the likeliest receiver. As is his nature, Pendlebury kept on moving forward but his mind waited.
Quickly, time, so often his servant, began to abandon him. A chasing defender was closing from behind, another emerged from the wing to his left, and the hoverer still hovered, covering Broomhead. With no conceivable option, Pendlebury reached into his bag of impossible.
He double clutched the ball, as if he were normal and might be a touch unsure, lost track of Broomhead by glancing at the defender closing from the left, and then, without really looking, both bulleted and lofted a handball 15 metres across his body over and past the hovering defender, into the handful of inches that were the perfect height and distance for Broomhead to stream onto without breaking stride, before he passed the ball to Will Hoskin-Elliott who ran into an open goal.
‘Pendlebury inside to a running Broomhead’ was how the commentators described it. It was, of course, so much more than that – a champion giving life to a dead game of football, kissing away a night of confusion with a piercing, immaculate moment of clarity.
Rarely does Pendlebury produce commercial football brilliance. When Dustin Martin stiff arms opponents into Hades (which has its own brilliant poetry), the crowd roars something fierce. When Pendlebury does what he does – the clairvoyant footwork in traffic, the processing of situations quicker than Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, the low, caressed passes cutting inside – the volume of the crowd has only a wonderfully subtle spike, a delicate ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ instead of a violent cheer.
Even when he does the obviously magnificent – like his one-handed cradled hanger against Richmond – it’s so absurd that astonishment often overwhelms reverence.
His game exists in the margins, of conventional football and the time-space continuum, the lord of bullet time living in PST (Pendlebury Standard Time). He’s inconceivable, someone whose vision, poise, skill and timing feel like they can’t simply be attributed to a ‘basketball background’. The next AFL supplements scandal will involve Pendlebury and Bradley Cooper’s pills in Limitless.
His genius, though, is not contagious. There is no greater disparity in the AFL between the identity of a team and its best player, Pendlebury ethereal, Collingwood desperate and unrefined.
The Magpies’ dissociative state is becoming harder and harder to bear. The skill errors are oppressive, the decision-making frightening, and the wastefulness infuriating. Somehow their admirable endeavour only makes things more depressing. If they weren’t trying hard enough, there would be scope for improvement, for different outcomes. But if players can’t kick, or handball, or make sound decisions, then what do you do?
Rightly or wrongly, at some point during the first half on Thursday night at the MCG, disillusionment set in. I watched Hoskin-Elliott shank a regulation kick into the corridor to set up a Richmond goal, I saw Taylor Adams put on his Jarryd Blair costume, kicking the ball seemingly unaware that there is no rule saying that defending players in the vicinity aren’t allowed to interrupt the ball’s intended path, and I witnessed Alex Fasolo’s tri-annual nervous breakdown, and I figured that things, at best, were only going to be slight degrees of different this year. But at least there was Pendlebury.
Nathan Buckley holds a special place in the heart of Collingwood fans because he made a hopeless team bearable for so many years. We paid to go to the football, and the only justification for the money and the afternoon spent was that at any given moment Buckley might do something we’d never seen on a football field before.
Pendlebury is slowly approaching the Buckley dimension. These Magpies are not as grim as the Ben Kinnear and Scott Crow iterations – Adam Treloar, Steele Sidebottom, Darcy Moore and Brodie Grundy are all special players too. But Pendlebury stands above them, the one player on the team you’ll tell your grandkids about, and probably other people’s grandkids too.
The future is not bleak for Collingwood. For all the uncertainty surrounding the coach, the AFL’s only real currency is talent, and the Magpies have that, in spades of youth. There is hope, or at the very least, a notion of hope that we can talk ourselves into.
The present, though, is cluttered and exhausting. This is not a good team, but it’s not a terrible team either, and there’s enough spirit in it to make games close and to frighten the best teams. The results will typically fall on the side of those with more class and incision, those who fight with blades against Collingwood’s fists.
But Pendlebury will be there, and every time he takes the field, Collingwood fans will know that despite the gulf in class between the teams, the gulf in class between their captain and the opposition players is just as large, and we will wait, as Pendlebury so often can, for the perfect moment that makes everything worthwhile, for that one fine handball.