Mick-Malthouse

When analysing the 18 football clubs before the impending football season begins, Carlton and all that they encompass looks as if it will be one of the more fascinating stories to unfold in 2014.

When the Blues ambitiously head-hunted Mick Malthouse at the end of 2012 it seemed as if the onerous membership slogans that promised plenty but failed to deliver were over and the boys from Visy Park were on the precipice of building towards their next premiership.

As it turned out, the Blues landed in ninth spot, and due to the expulsion of Essendon from the finals series they were gifted an elimination final birth. They managed to topple the Tigers in spectacular fashion but it is imperative that they build on that opportunity as the season draws ever closer.

While it is easier to gauge trendlines on teams such as Hawthorn and St Kilda, when analysing Carlton’s list their form seems a little more complicated.

The 2014 season presents an opportunity for Carlton in which they can go one of two ways. The Blues can either build on the elimination final win last season or the gap between their emerging younger generation and the ageing bodies proves to be too great and they regress. They now lie in a fork in the road and it is up to them to choose their 2014 destiny.

On the left side of the road to the Blues’ next premiership is a path where the future looks bright. The capture of Mick Malthouse along with the emergence of the younger generation of Carlton stars could see them charge towards the top four in 2014.

The NAB Challenge and its pre-season status should never be used as a clear indicator of form but the continual development shown by Patrick Cripps highlights the bright future for the Blues. In the second of two pre-season games, Cripps gathered 14 disposals with half of them being contested despite being on the ground for just 46% of the match. The 18-year-old from East Fremantle impressed and despite being in pre-season, his ability to win the ball despite the limited game time should hold him in good stead as the season proper draws closer.

Coupled with Cripps, the 22-year-old Tom Bell also impressed at that particular game at Etihad Stadium on a warm Monday night. Bell showed promised in 2012 and the two finals games ensured he knows what it takes to make the next step. If Carlton is to succeed in 2014 and beyond, Bell will be a large part of that success. At 22, he is at the right age to make the step from promising youngster to a player that Malthouse doesn’t think twice about before picking his 22 each weekend.

The final piece that can deliver Carlton’s next premiership push is Dylan Buckley. While he only played just the single game in 2013, his pre-season form highlights the potential that he possesses. He gathered 16 touches against Adelaide in the aforementioned pre-season game and if he can sew up his spot in the side and is able to bounce back from his niggling shoulder issues, the young midfielder adds a speedy and unique element to Carlton’s midfield.

Add to that the likes of Jaryd Cachia, Levi Casboult and the recruitment of Dale Thomas, the future looks bright.

Conversely, the other side of the road is a path shrouded in mystery. This road is littered with a litany of sceptics who see the next five years at Carlton as another rebuild. As the games and seasons pass, many believe that the time is ticking on the next Carlton premiership and as many older players begin to retire, it may be a case of planning for the future once again for the Blues.

When analysing their list, the likes of Heath Scotland, Chris Judd, Jarrad Waite and Andrew Carrazzo are on the wrong side of 30 while Kade Simpson hits 30 in the next few months. That is over 1000 games of experience entering the twilight of their career and as each moment passes, they get closer to retirement.

The worry for Blues fans is that they still heavily rely on Judd in midfield and Waite up front and questions need to be asked as to who will replace them when they call time of their decorated careers. Rumours are circling that Judd will end his illustrious playing career at the end of this season and if all the spin and hype is stripped back, one must wonder whether he truly reached his potential in the navy blue.

As well as the ageing list, the path of uncertainty at Visy Park is compounded by the loss of Eddie Betts to the Crows. While often mocked for his alternative on-field attire, the simple facts state that he kicked 48 goals in 2012 and while a little down on form in 2013, Betts still booted 27 majors. Questions still remain of the make-up of Carlton’s forward line and if they are to progress in 2014, the midfield will have to chip in to offset the loss of Betts and his crucial goals.

Carlton now teeters on either the brink of premiership success or the dawn of another rebuild. All the pieces of the puzzle are in place and it’s hard to remember a more crucial season looming. Which path with will be taken this season and beyond?

That’s the million dollar question.