CSM: Chapter 20.

20. What Could Be.

We left the MCG and walked back to the Birmingham Hotel. There were people celebrating everywhere. Disconsolate Essendon supporters were nowhere to seen. Some would’ve left early. I don’t know about others. Maybe they simply became invisible. Or, possibly, they hid their colours to escape ridicule and even abuse – not that any discriminating Collingwood supporter would ever abuse an Essendon supporter, of course.

I thought about that idiot Essendon supporter I’d argued with when Essendon had beaten us earlier in the year, how he’d said the only way Collingwood would win a flag was to return to the VFL. I wondered where he was now, whether he thought about that argument, about his words, about how Collingwood had not only proven him wrong, but at whose expense. Most of all, I hoped he choked on the outrage of it all.

I also thought about that Richmond supporter I saw following the 1980 grand final, who’d lifted his scarf aloft and shouted, ‘Just three more, Tiges!’ Ten years on, and Richmond were a debacle, nowhere near to adding to their ten flags. Carlton sat on fifteen flags, Essendon on fourteen and now, finally, belatedly, if not impossibly, Collingwood on fourteen also. You just never knew how things would turn out.

The Birmingham was packed. People drank, repeatedly sang the theme song, and relived every moment of the game. A photographer from The Age came to take some shots. Supporters danced on the pool table, which was awash in beer. I’m sure that table would never be the same again. It was a funny thing to think about with the revelry going on.

When I got the chance, I went to use the public phone, which was in the hallway, and made a couple of calls. One was to my friend Steve, a Geelong supporter, who said he’d come down to join in the celebrations if we won. Steve was apathetic towards Collingwood, but he did love beer. I also called my friend Tom, a Carlton supporter. His mum told me he wasn’t home. I learned later he’d gone bush to escape the possibility of a Collingwood win.

We hung around the Birmingham, continuing to drink for a while. Eventually, Steve arrived in a taxi, and masqueraded as one of us. He didn’t care once the beer was flowing. He even joined in conversations about the game, like he’d been there with us rooting for victory. I wonder what it felt like for him, after Geelong’s near miss the year before, (losing to Hawthorn by six points in the Grand Final). Then again, I didn’t have to wonder. I’d experienced it. All of us had. Over and over.

After a couple of hours, we started the trek to Victoria Park, a twenty minute walk. There were still Collingwood supporters everywhere – literally. They were out on the street and dancing on top of cars and thrusting their colours in the windows of anybody trying to drive through. It was impossible to stop them. Police didn’t even try.

I’d never been part of premiership celebrations before. The closet I got was with Ange and friends, trying to crash Hawthorn’s, in 1986 (principally so we could drink). We couldn’t get in, so went to Carlton’s commiseration party. Understandably, the mood was subdued. Nowhere had there been pandemonium in the streets. This was happy rioting – rioting without the assault and pillaging.

Victoria Park was also full. Various tents had been set up, one to act as an impromptu beer tent. Steve and I bought twelve beers, which cost the grand total of thirty dollars. For twelve cans of beers. You could get a slab of twenty-four at a bottle shop in the outside world for about five bucks less. It was an outrageous mark-up, but who was going to complain? There was also another pavilion, which had been set up to let people escape from the cold. Inside, people were chanting (about how it would be back to back for us next year), jumping around and hanging from the pavilion’s poles. It was like a scene from Gremlins.

The players inevitably arrived. Eddie McGuire, a young, pudgy reporter from Channel 10, was immediately amongst them. They walked right past us. Steve remarked that he thought they’d be bigger. Today – or tonight – they were giants. They went on to be presented for the fans. It seemed like a night that should never end.

In the aftermath, in retrospect, many (non-Collingwood) people considered Collingwood’s 1990 side to be the worst side to win a grand final for a number of years. Even in 1990: The Final Story, Kevin Sheedy remarks that it wasn’t really a star-studded line-up. I’ve always felt that this side has been drastically short-changed. Of course I would. But much of it again feels that typical depreciation of any Collingwood accomplishment.

Possibly a contributor to that underrating is that too many players from this side didn’t fulfil their potential, so that hurts their legacy, or at least diminishes the quality of players they were in 1990. There was a story I read from Graham Wright where, after the game, he went into the change rooms, turned to Gavin Crosisca, and said, ‘What do we do now?’ That question seemed to sum up Collingwood. Too many of the players (if not the club itself) were satiated by the success, engorged by the Collingwood Faithful with legend that they could live off forever.

They could’ve went onto greater things. They should’ve went onto greater things. It’s not just their faults, as if they were exclusively responsible. There were plenty of circumstances – injuries, coaching, management, attitudes, and the list goes on.

But in 1990, they showed their potential. Daicos was a brilliant small forward, one of the best ever. Gavin Brown was a champion wingman who, out of necessity, would be used as Mr Fixit for Collingwood, plugged into whatever hole needed filling that week. If he’d been left a wingman, he’d be remembered as one of the elite wingmen in the history of the game. Kelly and Christian were great key defenders, Kelly’s career hurt by a knee reconstruction a couple of years later. Similarly with Barwick – a fast, hard-running half-forward with a raking kick whose knee injury would pretty much spell the end of his career. Millane was a champion who we’d only begun to see the best of. Micky McGuane was an awesome mid with great running and brilliant football smarts whose groin injuries (probably Osteitis Pubis in an era before Osteitis Pubis became diagnosed) contributed to his destruction as a player. Tony Shaw was a gun mid who’s not given the credit he deserves because he was slow and a short kick, but I always thought he was Greg Williams Lite. Tony Francis was a speedy and hard rover who was plagued with injuries. Damien Monkhorst was a young ruck with a touch of mongrel and great hands, but would also be frustrated with injury. The list went on. Many of these players didn’t get the dues they deserved.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that then. I didn’t know anything but we’d won, and I expected more success. Why not? It had taken so long to get here, we couldn’t just let it go. There had to be more! The side was relatively young. The breakdown of ages looked like this:

    31: Denis Banks
    30: Tony Shaw
    29: Peter Daicos
    28: Doug Barwick, Shane Morwood, Jamie Turner
    27: Craig Starcevich
    26: Michael Christian
    25: Michael Gayfer, Shane Kerrison, Darren Millane
    24: Craig Kelly
    23: Gavin Brown, James Manson
    22: Gavin Crosisca, Mick McGuane, Graham Wright
    21: Tony Francis, Damien Monkhorst
    20: Scott Russell

Twelve of the twenty-two players were twenty-five or under, with the bulk of those players you’d build a side around. Also, amongst those players in the wings, were Alan Richardson, 25; and Ronnie McKeown, 23. There were also other younger players in the reserves, or who’d be recruited, (e.g. the following year, Collingwood would add Paul Williams to its ranks).

The opportunity existed to use the premiership as the foundation for something greater, to build a dynasty, as Hawthorn had enjoyed throughout the 1980s, (with grand final appearances every year from 1983–1989, and flags in 1983, 1986, 1988, and 1989). Even Gerard Healy suggested something similar in an article in the newspaper: Collingwood could be the next Hawthorn.

We just needed to keep doing what we had done. Too often in the past, the club had lost focus. The near-bankruptcy was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. It humbled us, made us realise that the supposed greatness of Collingwood was now both irrelevant and obsolete, particularly as other clubs (namely Carlton and Essendon) leapfrogged us on the premiership table. What existed now was a vacuum which ego demanded be filled with accomplishment rather than hype.

That heady period also asphyxiated us financially, so we had to demonstrate some discretion in recruiting. Best, we recruited for needs. We needed key defenders, we got them in Kelly and Christian. We needed quick mids, we got them in Russell and Francis. It was a far cry from The New Magpies, who stockpiled talent because they could, or prior administrations who were overly judicious to the extent they clung to the philosphy that players should play for the jumper, whilst clubs like Carlton raided interstate leagues to improve their playing stocks.

A superlative didn’t exist to epitomise the success of finally winning a flag and it meant that for the first time since the 1930s, the world unfolded at our feet. It wasn’t like the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s where the stigma of failure burdened every effort before we were made it, and weighed down any (Collingwood) team going into a grand final with titanic expectation. We had the flag. We’d shattered the psychological barrier. We’d made the impossible possible.

And now, we had the chance for so much more …

 

Here ends Part I of CSM.

CSM: Chapter 19

19. The Impossible Dream.

I have an admission to make. Earlier during the season, we were gathered at the Birmingham Hotel (pub) pre-game – our usual meeting place for MCG games. I was talking to one of my brother’s friends, Mouse, and was adamant we wouldn’t win a flag under Matthews. At that stage, I just couldn’t see us taking the next step.

There was something about Matthews’s coaching which troubled me. Part of it was the insularity. Once you were out of the klique (as Paul Hawke, David Cloke, and Brian Taylor found out), you were gone. Maybe that was part of cultivating a contender, but it also felt exclusive in its way, as if it would be detrimental to the rest of the playing group. Another issue was his match-day coaching, which rarely seemed brilliant or innovative. I thought we’d remain thereabouts and somebody else would have to take us the next step.

The season gradually convinced me otherwise – although, regardless of the season, I always believe we are a chance. Maybe it was growing up and becoming truly aware of football during that Hafey era, where grand finals seemed an entitlement. A flag, surely, could only be a breath away. Everything else was fatalistically irrelevant.

During the year, I had a dream we did win the premiership, although the dream contained none of the details of the match. We were somewhere amongst a partying crowd – Ange, Johnny, my brother Lou, and others, and celebrating the win. That’s all I knew. I kept the dream to myself, fearing an admission would curse it from happening.

The lead-up to the actual game was filled with speculation about whether half-back flanker Alan Richardson would play. Richardson, who’d played every game of the year and had become an integral part of the defence, had broken his collarbone when tackled in the Second Semi Final.

At training, Matthews gave Richardson – and, more importantly, his collarbone – a vigorous workout. Richardson’s collarbone withstood every assault. Then, when the workout seemed done, when Richardson wasn’t ready, Matthews barrelled into him. The rationale was that the collarbone had to withstand all forms of contact, and not just contact when Richardson was expecting it and could brace himself. If there was one thing that was for certain, Essendon would test out anybody who wasn’t match-fit. Now, whatever healing the collarbone had done since the Second Semi was undone as it re-fractured. That was it for Richardson. Out of the grand final. In came Shane Kerrison. It wasn’t exactly like for like, but it was close enough.

As we gathered at the Birmingham pre-game, the mood was cautiously optimistic. We had become the form side. This was our time. It had to be. Although I worried if we lost this, there’d be no recovery from it, and it would scar another generation of Collingwood (not to mention what it would do to the supporters). You need so many things to go right to win a flag, and only one to go wrong to lose it. Unfortunately, we too often seemed to be on the latter end of that equation

We sat at the top of the Ponsford, right behind the goals. It was yet another sunny – and warm – day. Most of September had been this way. When Collingwood emerged, there was a determination in their faces and eyes, an unswerving resolution towards making this premiership a reality after thirty-two long years of waiting and eight (nine, if you count 1977 twice because of the draw) failures.

Later, lots of stories emerged about the lead-up to the game. One was how Essendon had decked out their rooms in streamers and balloons, whilst Collingwood’s remained bare, Matthews keeping everything low key and everyday. Another is how Tony Shaw got up before the playing group and told them he’d played in two losing grand finals already (1980–81) and he wasn’t going to play in a third. Then there was their resolve, which even Essendon’s Paul Salmon later remarked on, as Collingwood strode out to play.

Collingwood dominated the opening of the quarter but just couldn’t kick a goal. Then, Essendon went forward, kicked the ball long, and Salmon marked right in front of Christian. Already, Ange began to panic, telling me that Salmon was just too tall and we had nobody to combat him. Ange was one of the great panickers. Matthews was also concerned, though, as he swapped Michael Christian with Craig Kelly. Essendon went forward again and again Salmon marked. Ange’s panic almost transcended into hysteria, declaring us gone, (a common occurrence with Ange). We just had nobody to match-up on Salmon. It was over. Salmon goaled. Matthews swapped Christian and Kelly back.

Signs weren’t good for Collinwood. We didn’t need the sort of performances which had marked our finals in 1988–89, and the Qualifying Final Draw against West Coast – those flat, shellshocked, tentative efforts. Essendon were a hardened side, filled with players who’d been there and done it (1984–85). If they smelled our vulnerability, they’d kill us. Right now, we weren’t vulnerable, but we were struggling to put it together. With every moment we struggled, Essendon would gain momentum. How long could you hold out? Something had to give.

With just over six minutes remaining in the first quarter, there was a throw-in at Collingwood’s half-forward line. Craig Starcevich leaped over the top of the two ruckman and thumped it forward. The ball came off hands. Starcevich followed the ball and, sliding to his knees, punched the ball forward. As soon as Starcevich set forward, so had Daicos, anticipating the way play would unfold. He gathered the ball deep in the pocket, about forty metres out. His Essendon opponent protected space, because the natural thing for anybody to do in this is situation would be to come back into the corridor, to open the goals up. But Daicos wasn’t natural. Instead, he drifted out to the boundary. His opponent pursued. Daicos kicked on his right foot and slotted the goal through on the tightest angle. Terry Daniher, jogging towards the goal-line, watched the ball sail over his head. He then turned and threw Daicos an exasperated look, as if to say, You are seriously not meant to be kicking those.

The crowd erupted. The tension shattered. This was it. In the documentary, 1990: The Final Story, Gavin Brown talks about the relief of Daicos not only kicking that goal, but also that Collingwood had a player such as him who could produce the miraculous. You could feel the relief, too, as it permeated the stadium and the side. The engine, which had been chugging unhealthily, finally kicked over and started.

Collingwood goaled again with only twenty or so seconds remaining, Brown roving the ball in the pocket and running it in. The quarter ended with Collingwood 2.5 to Essendon 2.2 – amazing that we were in front, given we’d been floundering earlier. It was a psychological victory, that we could be dysfunctional going forward, and yet now be in front when Essendon had held the scoreboard ascendency for much of the quarter.

That was when the fight erupted on the wing. It was impossible to follow it, and to work out who was doing what, given it was just a melee of players. But it then became evident that a Collingwood player was down, although it was unclear who as he lay in a foetal position. It became a case of going through who was standing and working out who was missing: Gavin Brown. Again, Ange declared us gone. Brown was helped up, and shaky-legged, he was escorted from the ground. People around us speculated what had happened. Later, it was revealed that Terry Daniher had king-hit Brown from behind.

Again, it’s become part of folklore that Matthews told the players to settle down and play the football, as he knew the umpires would be hot on free kicks in the second quarter. Allegedly, Sheedy told his players the same thing. But when the second quarter began, it was Collingwood who regained focus, while Essendon appeared rattled and continued to flaunt their physicality. Maybe it was ingrained in them. Sheedy’s Essendon sides always contained niggle.

Starcevich marked just inside the square and was scragged. Scragging was actually a tactic Essendon (under Sheedy) had started and perfected – whenever there was a stop in play, either from a mark or free, Essendon would hold onto the player and prevent them from playing-on quickly. It was the reason the AFL introduced the fifty-metre penalty: yes, exclusively because Sheedy had innovated this tactic. Now, Starcevich was marched to about twenty in front of goal. He kicked truly.

Not long after, Crosisca goaled, roving the ball from spillage and kicking from fifty. Next, Anthony Daniher played on from the goal-line and handballed long to Ezard in the pocket – actually he handballed past Ezard. Ezard chased the ball and had no sooner gathered it when he was tackled to the ground by Scott Russell. Holding the ball. Russell tried to get up and Ezard wrestled him back to the ground. Fifty. Shane Kerrison patted Ezard on the butt to tell him well done, as did Tony Shaw who approached to pass on the same sentiment. Then, Tony Francis, who was nowhere near the free kick jogged in and tapped his forehead at Ezard, as if to say, Good on you, but perhaps not so politely. Francis almost incited another fight. Shaw and Daicos interceded and told him to move on. Meanwhile, another goal.

Next, Crosisca marked in front of goal – well, he sorta marked, not really holding the ball very long, but the umpire paid it anyway. A goal from twenty metres out, straight in front. Suddenly, we were twenty-eight points up. Just like that, the game had turned. Collingwood had fixated all their attention on the ball, whilst Essendon spent the quarter chasing them. With the umpires hot on the whistle, Collingwood benefited.

In their next assault, the ball came forward, Starcevich gathering and handballing to Francis running past. Francis tried to navigate his way through three Essendon players but was tackled. He handballed to Scott Russell. Russell tried to snap the ball, but Derek Kickett cannoned into his back. Kickett had no intention to tackle, but just hurled himself forward with a bump. Another free. Another goal.

Essendon got one back through Derek Kickett. Kickett crumbed a punch, and even as he was falling, twirled in mid-air to snap the ball through. It was a beautiful snap, surreal almost given what was happening, and probably the only way Essendon could score against the flow – through some individual act of freakishness. If anything, though, whilst Daicos’s freakishness had kickstarted us, Kickett’s probably reminded us that we couldn’t let up, not for a moment.

Shortly afterwards, Barwick marked forty metres out, straight in front. Bewick – arriving on the scene just a second late – thumped Barwick in the ribs. At no point was Bewick’s intention a spoil; it was a cheap shot on Barwick and nothing else. Another fifty. Barwick goaled from straight in front.

At half-time the score was 8.9.(57) to 3.5.(23) – a handy leady, although you couldn’t call it unassailable after the events of the 1970 grand final (where we lead by forty-four points and still lost). Trepidation filled the MCG. If Essendon could get early goals in the third quarter, doubts might creep in for Collingwood. I was confident, though. This wasn’t the same group that had played in previous losses. They were a mentally strong side, driven by guys who’d experienced failure and refused to relive it (Shaw and Daicos), players who’d been tempered by successive finals campaigns (and probably also driven by those failures), and, collectively, a group fuelled with a hunger to break the drought..

Early in the third quarter, Starcevich marked on the wing. Terry Daniher came in late and whacked him across the head, almost knocking him out. Collingwood was awarded fifty metres. Starcevich, who had arguably been Collingwood’s best up to that point (maybe that’s why Daniher had targeted him), was taken from the ground. The ball was given to Mick McGuane, who goaled. Forty points up.

Then Gavin Brown returned.

He bolted right up to Terry Daniher at full-back and began chesting him and getting in his face. You could see Daniher was actually panicked. This was a guy he’d king-hit, who he’d knocked out, and who was now bouncing in front of him. Surely, Daniher would’ve feared retribution. He certainly looked as if that was the case. Mark Thompson, who approached from nearby, also showed a mixture of concern and disbelief that Brown was not only up and about, but in their faces.

The game went back and forth, Essendon struggling to find a way through but to no avail. With about eleven minutes remaining in the quarter, Millane kicked the ball long. The ball bounced in the pocket, took an awkward bounce. Daicos roved it, ran across the pocket, turned his back to goal, and banana’ed it through.

Essendon got the next two – marks to Peter Sommerville, then David Grenvold, straight in front. The lead was cut back to thirty-four points – still a formidable margin, but not unmanageable. It was the first chink in Collingwood’s assault, the first doubt – however minor – that Essendon might have something left, and that Collingwood might fear their own inevitability. It could be so easy to add to the string of tragedies and improbable capitulations.

Collingwood went forward. Jamie Turner grabbed the ball from a pack and snapped it to the top of the goal square. Brown, being held by one arm, tried to mark it but failed. The ball rebounded to Mark Thompson, inside the goal-square. Doug Barwick closed on him. Thompson got a loose handball away out of a tackle – straight to Gavin Brown at the top of the goal-square. He snapped. Goal.

At three-quarter-time, it was 11.10.(76) to 5.6.(36). Much later, it was revealed when Sheedy addressed his players (during the break), he brought up that a couple of quick goals could sew doubts into the mind of the Collingwood players, but the Collingwood resolve stood. Essendon had a couple of chances – Madden hit the post and also kicked one into the man on the mark, both basically from straight in front. Collingwood kicked two more. The first was a snap to Barwick. Given the margin and that it was the last quarter, the players could’ve been forgiven for celebrating (the victory). They didn’t, though. They just marched back into position. The second goal came from a set shot to Monkhorst straight in front. It was the latter goal – the last for the game, with only minutes remaining – that Matthews said convinced him that we had it.

Ange and me left our seats and joined the group, who’d huddled together. There were grown men around us in tears. I was too young to truly appreciate the Hafey era – and what had come before it – but, still, I could feel it: it wasn’t elation (or just elation), but relief. A loss could’ve devastated the club, could’ve just added fuel to the stigma and propagated it. But this was it. We’d finally – belatedly – done it. In the post-match celebrations, president Alan McAlistair called it ‘the impossible dream’. After so many attempts, after so many failures, after so much heartbreak, he was right.

The final play was a kick-out from Mick McGuane to Darren Millane, deep in the pocket. Millane turned, considered his options. The siren went. Millane tossed the ball in the air. Celebrations ensued. Tony Shaw was awarded the Norm Smith Medal for best afield, although until Terry Daniher knocked him out, that was probably an honour that belonged to Craig Starcevich. In that moment, though, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about individual accomplishments.

After thirty-two years and a string of heartbreaking failures, Collingwood finally had their flag.

 

Note: For those interested, one of my short stories – ‘Love and Blinding’ – has been published in the online journal Running out of ink.