THERE is always a moment within a successful season which defines direction. For Carlton, the moment came post round 10.
The Blues had just lost their fifth match of the previous six, kicking just seven goals against hated rival Collingwood, amid a sequence which would contain six consecutive defeats, and eight losses in nine.
As everyone around him became swamped with panic, Blues president Luke Sayers stayed calm. Without a hint of ambiguity, he publicly backed embattled coach Michael Voss.
"Vossy is our coach through to the end of next year," he said.
That was on May 22, the Monday after round 10, and another pivotal moment came just seven days later.
This time, Sayers accepted the resignation of board member Craig Mathieson, who after another loss - to Sydney at the SCG - went on a dressing room rant in front of players' partners and club officials. Read whatever you like into the resignation, Sayers wasn't tolerating such behaviour, no matter how much access to money to which the Mathieson connections have.
The losses kept coming. Melbourne in round 12, Essendon round 13. But the speculation around Voss had ceased after Sayers' backing. Then came the second quarter against Gold Coast in round 14 at the MCG, when Carlton slammed on nine goals. The opponent was hardly high quality, but at least the losing had stopped just before the bye.
Voss took off, solo, to the Gold Coast for a few days, overwhelmed by the support of Sayers and everyone else in power at Carlton. Despite the losses, the win against the Suns gave him reason to believe his system would eventually work. The ocean views and Main Beach surf helped reinvigorate him. He returned to Melbourne hopeful of being competitive, but not even his wildest thoughts in that short Queensland break had the Blues winning nine consecutive matches, let alone an elimination final.
The 2023 season is now a success for Carlton. From 15th on the ladder after round 15 to a semi-final booking against 2021 premier Melbourne at the MCG on Friday night.
Yet the Blues will not be satisfied if 2023 ends in week two of the finals. They have beaten four (Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney) of the five teams which remain as competitors for the flag. They are not settling for anything less than a Grand Final.
Jack Martin (suspension) and Harry McKay (concussion) will need to be replaced for the Demons match. While Martin will head to the Tribunal this week after his hit on Nick Blakey, his only real hope is to have two matches reduced to one.
If Jack Silvagni is anywhere near being fit after an absence due to a knee injury, well, what a replacement for one of Martin and McKay. The three Carlton emergencies for the elimination final were all unlucky to be excluded. One of Zac Fisher, Ollie Hollands and Paddy Dow will likely be called up.
Carlton ruckman Marc Pittonet on Sunday said the Blues' passage to Friday night's semi-final was a two-year journey under Voss.
"You talk about a 10, 12-week period, we look at it more as an 18-month period; you look at everything we did last year, the experiences we went through as a group, how the season ended, and then coming through that period this year, we have built that much resilience that has set us up for where we are going right now," Pittonet told the Sunday Footy Show.
"One of the things we wanted to do was make finals, but finals wasn't enough. We want to impact. We are starting to impact. We want more.
"(Voss) has been an unbelievable leader. The whole way through the year he was about building a system that could stand up, and I think that is what we are starting to see. He had faith. And he is an unbelievable leader of people and a motivator, and his role in this has been phenomenal in urging our leadership group to stick fat."
Just four matches ago, in round 22, Carlton beat Melbourne by four points. Its game stands up against the best. In round 20, it defeated the Pies by three goals.
The Demons have big problems, too, in heading into Friday's match. Angus Brayshaw won't play, nor will Jacob van Rooyen, after he made head contact with Daniel McStay in a qualifying final.
If Sayers hadn't acted with authority back in round 10, Voss appeared headed to join David Teague, Brendon Bolton, Mick Malthouse, Brett Ratten and Denis Pagan as a sacked Blues coach.
Instead, he was empowered to work his way through adversity and lead the Blues to their first finals win in 10 years.
To use casino vernacular, Carlton is betting with house money now.