GOLD Coast coach Rodney Eade has lamented his team's lack of available leaders and key midfielders following the Suns' 34-point loss to fellow cellar dweller Carlton at Etihad Stadium on Sunday night.
The Suns have battled a lengthy injury list all year and that had an obvious detrimental effect against the Blues, particularly in the midfield, with Carlton dominating clearances 46-24 (including 15-5 in centre clearances) and uncontested possessions 277-164.
Eade's men started the match positively, but fell away after quarter-time with the Suns coach saying his younger players had their worst game for some time.
"I thought we were OK for a quarter-and-a-half and then, for various reasons, I thought we struggled to run. And I think once Carlton got a sniff that we were struggling to run, they obviously grew a little bit," Eade said.
"In the last three or four weeks (our run) has been pretty good, normally on the back of our contested ball but we got smashed in that area as well. We really need to be tight in that (area) but we weren't.
"Most of our injuries have been to runners. At various times over the past four or five weeks we've had five of our best six midfielders out – some are back, some are underdone.
"We always knew we were going to struggle in that area … That's why we needed to win contested ball and kick the ball, but we didn't use it that well when we had it, and we didn't win enough of it.
"Once you lose it inside and they get it out, we were obviously always going to struggle."
Despite the loss, which still anchors the Suns to the bottom of the ladder, a game behind the Brisbane Lions, Eade believes there is "no doubt" his team is making incremental improvements.
"Apart from injured players getting back, and the ones that have returned to actually get some match fitness, there's a lot of things internally which we're working on, and we've seen some real growth which people don't see externally (like) leadership and professionalism," he said.
"Today, our inexperienced players probably (had) their worst game for weeks, (and we) didn't have enough leaders there as well to carry the can. Obviously Charlie (Dixon) hurting himself hurt as at the same time. It was mainly in the midfield – that's where it's won and lost – and we just didn't have enough options."
Dixon kicked three goals but was substituted out of the game late in the third quarter after aggravating a problem in his left ankle and could miss next week's clash with North Melbourne at Metricon Stadium.
"It's been there for a while so it's going to be ongoing," Eade said. "He'll miss some and play some – that's probably why he's played 10-12 games a year. He jarred it again today so I would think he'd be doubtful for next week."
Suns skipper Gary Ablett might finally return after overcoming his ongoing shoulder issues, with Eade saying: "We hope so. He said that he was going to. At this stage I think he will."
Suns acting captain Michael Rischitelli was understandably flat post-match.
"It's pretty disappointing. We've been really good the last month, especially against some good sides, but that wasn't good enough today," he told AFL.com.au.
"I'm sure all the boys will be hurting tonight and a bit tomorrow, but you've just got to lick your wounds, learn from it and respond. That's what footy's all about."