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 …