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.

CSM: Chapter 18.

18. The Finals’ Course.

The expectation was that we should beat the West Coast Eagles in the Qualifying Final. They were a good team, but as an interstater, they struggled when travelling – well, maybe struggled isn’t the right word, but they weren’t as good a side as they were at home. There were factors they had to contend with: the long plane flight from West Australia (and in the two weeks previous they’d gone to Carrera and Kardinia Park), acclimating to different weather conditions, as well as playing on a ground which they didn’t use often.

We sat in the pocket behind the goals, scoreboard end, on an unseasonally sunny day – particularly for Waverly – and expected victory. This was it. In 1988, we’d faced Carlton, who was the reigning premier and a hardened outfit; and then Melbourne, our bogey; in 1989, again Melbourne. Three tough matches where we really never found our equilibrium. This was what we needed: a gimme to ease us into finals – not that we should really need it, given we finished second that season and looked a dominant outfit. But you look for the breaks wherever you can find them.

Again, unfortunately (a word probably used too often in conjunction with Collingwood), Collingwood were flat. And inaccurate: 3.6 to 3.1 in the first quarter, and 7.11 to 6.5 at half-time. In the third quarter, West Coast took the fight right to us, the score 10.12 to 10.10. They wanted it. They desperately wanted it, and things were going right for them – including a number of running shots from outside the F50, which they nailed. We seemed inept and uninspired. Oh, that was a familiar tune in recent finals.

I could only imagine Leigh Matthews ripped into the players during the break, because they attacked frantically in the early minutes of the fourth quarter, but just couldn’t score. Then the Eagles kicked two quick goals to take a ten point lead. Although there was plenty of time, the game looked done. We were playing crap and the Eagles were full of running.

On came Brian Taylor, who’d struggled the whole year, played a lot of Reserves football, and had seemed to have fallen from Leigh Matthews’s calculations for a premiership. Taylor had struggled with deteriorating knee problems and was a one-position player – he was a full-forward or nothing, so it wasn’t like he could squeeze his way into the team in another position. With Daicos and Brown generally such a potent forward combination, Taylor had more often than not found himself on the outer.

Shortly, though, he took a beautiful mark, sticking his butt out to keep Murray Rance from the contest, then diving forward – like a slip’s fieldsman – to take the ball just inches from the ground. We waited anxiously but Taylor converted truly to bring us a goal closer. Not long after he received a free for head high contact – an amazing result. The free was there: Rance attemped to spoil and struck Taylor in the head. But Taylor was one of those players who could be mauled and he usually wouldn’t get a free. Another goal. We hadn’t deserved it the way we’d played, but were suddenly two points in front.

Then came a bit of play that was iconic – a shot from Collingwood went wide. The Eagles mopped up, kicking the ball into the pocket. Millane came barrelling in, bumping his opponent to the ground. Gavin Brown recovered the ball and measured his options. He handballed over an opponent to Millane, who was tight on the boundary. Millane handballed to Daicos, who was running out of bounds, two Eagles in pursuit, and banana-kicked it from deep in the pocket. The ball never got more than a couple of feet off the ground, bouncing on the line but sailing directly through the middle.

Like that, we were eight points up. Victory seemed assured – the great escape.

Unfortunately (see? another one), the Eagles still had plenty left. They goaled not long afterward – a snap to Karl Langdon. Then a point. The final bit of play came when Peter Sumich marked deep in the pocket. With only seconds remaining, Collingwood one point in front, Sumich lined up. He was a good full-forward and had kicked bags, but he wasn’t the most reliable kick. He didn’t let Collingwood down on this occasion: a behind.

The game was a draw.

Nobody was sure what was meant to follow as disbelief ran through the ground. Draws are so uncommon, and even unlikelier in finals. Ultimately, it was announced the game would be replayed the following week, which meant all other teams – Essendon, waiting patiently in top spot; and Melbourne, who’d defeated Hawthorn in the Elimination Final – were put on a hold.

The question was which Collingwood would emerge for the rematch? The flat Collingwood, which had a finals’ record under Leigh Matthews of zero wins, three losses, and one draw? Or was the draw the life we needed to find our footing?

Later, upon reflection, the players said the draw was some consolation, that they went into the rooms knowing they couldn’t play any worse and the Eagles couldn’t play any better – meaning we had a ton of improvement open to us.

The replay was more like Waverly weather: dark and grey and cold. The big news during the week was that the AFL had approached the Port Adelaide Magpies from the SANFL to join the competition. Collingwood’s president, Alan McAlistair, vented his indignation, saying they shouldn’t be allowed to wear their black and white stripes and they’d have to change their moniker of the magpie. The move, though, was more of a gambit from the AFL, prompting the SANFL to form a team to join the AFL – the club that would become the Adelaide Crows. So yet another club was incoming, which was exciting.

But, for now, not as exciting as the Replay.

Matthews dropped Taylor for the game, which was a cruel kick to the guts. If it hadn’t been for Taylor, Collingwood wouldn’t have come back against the Eagles to escape with a draw. He was largely responsible for keeping Collingwood’s premiership hopes alive – and at least ensuring we didn’t drop back into the First Semi Final, as had occurred in 1988 and 1981.

With a point to prove, Collingwood exploded in the first quarter of the Replay, kicking 8.1 to 2.1. This was it. This was what we’d missed the last two finals’ campaigns – Collingwood playing their naturally flowing, aggressive, running game.

The second quarter offered no relief as we kicked 4.5 to 2.4 to extend our lead to 49 points. The Eagles fought back in the third – or, likelier, Collingwood relaxed, knowing they had the game under control. West Coast kicked 5.4 to 2.3. The lead was now back down to thirty points – a manageable sum. But Collingwood were not going to let up on this occasion. They kicked 5.3 to 0.3 in the last quarter, to win by fifty-nine points, and book themselves in against Essendon in the Second Semi Final.

There was genuine excitement about our prospects now. Back in 1981, we limped into the Grand Final – both figuratively and literally. In 1980, it had been the ongoing fight of the underdog repeatedly defying the odds. In 1979, it had been the long route – drop the Qualifying Final, then rebound and win our way through. Not one of those times did we have a strong, quick, and hard side. They were battling rag-tag groups, (with no disrespect intended to them).

There was also some concern for Essendon given they’d had an extra week off – one week was perfect to refresh, get players right, and send them out with an advantage over their opposition. Two weeks? Nobody was sure how they’d come out. Was it too big a break? Would skills and tactics become rusty?

The game was held at the MCG on another sunny day in front of a crowd of 91,555. The whole stadium seemed to simmer. In all likelihood, this would be a preview of the grand final, but who’d win straight through and who’d have to take their chances in the Preliminary Final against West Coast or Melbourne?

From the beginning, Collingwood were crisper and harder at the ball, kicking 4.5 to 2.3 in the first quarter. That shift that had begun way back in Round 19 was continuing. Essendon might’ve finished top, but they were not the top team. They also seemed to want to over-finesse, usually taking the option of one handball too many – again, perhaps they were rusty and still trying to find their feet following their extra week off.

In the second quarter, Essendon tried to fight back, but could only whittle the lead away by two points. There really was a sense that they were holding on, and at some point that we’d click into gear and have one of our goal-bursts where we’d race away – although most probably wouldn’t have dared admit it, and (in typical Collingwood fashion) expected the worse.

We needed have worried. This side was different. Determined. Perhaps the draw had made them realise their mortality. They were frenetic in the third quarter, although it wasn’t the flurry of goals in a short space of time we’d expected. Collingwood ground Essendon down throughout the quarter, kicking 5.1 to 2.3, the last goal the knockout.

Madden marked the ball just inside the centre square, in front of Essendon’s centre-half back position. He should’ve gotten a fifty metre penalty as Monkhorst continually mauled him. It wasn’t to be. Madden handballed to Derek Kickett, who was suddenly corralled. Kickett handballed back to Madden, who then handballed back to Kickett, who almost spilled it. He sped away from Scott Russell, bouncing once, and then – as he was contemplating what he was going to do next – attempted a second bounce. The ball bounced oddly, Kickett missing it entirely. Russell scooped it up deftly, then charged into the forward fifty to goal. It was one of those blunders which punctured their resistance – well, not just punctured it, but popped it like a balloon.

In the last quarter, Essendon capitulated, kicking only 0.2 to Collingwood’s 5.7, Collingwood running out winners by sixty-three points. That was it. We were into the 1990 Grand Final with our best chance to win a flag since 1977.

My brother Lou immediately organised about getting tickets, which involved camping out at Northland, in front of the Myer entrance (Ticketmaster on the top floor of Myer) for a week. We were about fourth in line. Lou drew up a roster, with everybody given shifts as to when they minded our spot in the queue, but ultimately the roster was abandoned, and people would just come and go as a party atmosphere prevailed. There was always beer in eskies, and as the line grew and grew, we made other friends amongst the supporters.

Some nights were freezing and we’d escape to the movies for some respite. One night, about fifteen of us snuck in to see Die Hard 2 off the two tickets we’d purchased. It was the only way to get warm – at least for a little while.

The cold did not dampen our enthusiasm, though. There was a tribalism about what was happening, tribalism fuelled by a hopefulness that I’d never experienced before. I was too young to appreciate this when we last made a Grand Final, and right now anything seemed possible.

The following Saturday, as we camped out, Essendon faced West Coast in the Preliminary Final – a game I was indifferent to, as I was quietly confident we’d beat either in the Grand Final. Ange went and reported as far as standard went, it was one of the worst games he’d seen. Essendon won by sixty-three points – the same margin we’d beaten them by in the Second Semi.

Immediately, Essendon supporters began to line up on the opposite side of the entry to Myer for their Grand Final tickets. Somehow, they powered a portable TV and VCR, and watched the 1984 Preliminary Final – the game they smashed us in by 133 points. Some of the younger guys brought a football, and we’d play kick-to-kick with them. There was a begrudging respect that you probably wouldn’t get at a game, when you’re at odds over the contest. Here, it was about sharing the same plight to get tickets, (although they didn’t have to line up as long as we did).

Come Monday morning, Lou, and one of the other guys, Frank, bought our tickets – over thirty of them. Because it was such a large group, we couldn’t all be seated together, but were instead piled in little clusters in the same area. I was partnered to sit with Ange.

That night was the Brownlow Medal. One of Lou’s mates held a barbecue, and we watched the count. Collingwood players just don’t poll well in awards. It goes back to that universal bias, which I’m sure exists. Collingwood has always been about the love/hate relationship: you love them or you hate them. People who hate them rarely give them credit, or diminish them and their accomplishments.

As far as awards go, there have been so many games where Collingwood has smashed an opposition, and yet their players still don’t figure primarily in the Brownlow votes. We can win by nine goals, and yet somehow we don’t have the best player on the ground. It’s an amazing phenomenon. Somebody should really do a study.

Graham Wright was our big hope after having a great year. After seven rounds, he sat on eight votes, just behind leader Tony Liberatore (from Footscray), on ten votes. In Round 8, Collingwood played Fitzroy, and Fitzroy ruckman John Ironmonger had picked up Wright in a tackle and dropped him on his head. Wright had been in brilliant form up until that game, but it had then taken him a while to rediscover touch. Meanwhile, in the next six rounds, Liberatore collected another six votes.

Wright charged home strongly, but fell short by one vote. Usually, when a team does well, players can suffer because teammates will draw votes from them, which might’ve been the case here (since Collingwood had so many good players throughout 1990), but only to some small extent. Collectively, Footscray amassed 79 votes to Collingwood’s 85. Liberatore also played three less games than Wright. So Liberatore won on 18 votes, Wright on 17, which left him second – second!, just as Collingwood had been so many times in grand finals. Was it a sign? We remained ebullient, but it nagged us – if not mocked us – in the dark corners of our minds where the horrors of Collingwood grand final losses lurked.

The close of the Brownlow marked the end of everything which had built to this moment: this was it, there was nothing but the Grand Final left.

And with it, yet again, all our hopes.

CSM: Chapter 17.

17. Contenders …?

In 1990, the VFL finally became the AFL – the Australian Football League. With clubs in New South Wales, Brisbane, and West Australia, the game had gone truly national, and the league needed to represent that. Now there was talk about trying to found a club in South Australia, although the South Australians were resistant. The emergence of the West Coast Eagles had all but killed their WAFL competition, reducing it to the equivalent of what the VFA was here. Still, though, the game was growing (or being grown) to encompass all of Australia.

Collingwood moved into this new era, and the new decade, quietly, as had been there methodology ever since almost going bankrupt. There were several departures, including Paul Hawke – who’d been amongst our best for the last two years – and David Cloke, the only real success from The New Magpies’ extravagant recruiting. Cloke returned to Richmond after opportunities became limited with the improvement of both Damien Monkhorst and James Manson.

The intelligent recruiting continued, though – almost amazingly, given what our trade history had been like prior. Short of quick rovers, Collingwood recruited two: Scott Russell from Sturt, and Tony Francis from Norwood, both clubs in the SANFL. The story, allegedly, with Francis was that he didn’t want to come down, but Collingwood offered to settle Norwood’s sizeable debts if they convinced him.

Not that Francis had the most auspicious start, although neither did Collingwood. In Round 1 against the West Coast Eagles at Subiaco, Collingwood looked a rabble. Tony Francis was charged with kicking Eagles’ Murray Rance, although the incident was more a tap more than anything. Rance was lying on the ground, his feet tangled with Francis’s, who stood over him, Francis tapped Mainwaring (albeit an angry tap, but not really much in the way of a fully-fledged kick) in the hamstring, as if to say, Get off me. He was charged with kicking, however, and got six weeks. Brian Taylor – who was writing a diary to chronicle the 1990 season – was also injured. The Eagles won by forty-six points.

It wasn’t a very good start. There was a consensus amongst some during the off-season that coach Leigh Matthews was incapable of taking the side the next step. We’d improved, yes; we’d played finals for two years running, yes; but the club was hardly threatening to become a powerhouse, as Essendon were in 1984–85, Carlton were in 1986–87, Geelong were in 1989, and Hawthorn were from 1983–onwards. We looked a club who’d be up there, but not one who’d genuinely threaten.

Departures and injuries forced changes. We became a much more defensive side, one who played to the mandate that we’d restrict opposition to under whatever we kicked, instead of believing we could just blow them away. Taylor was struggling with arthritic knees, necessitating that Gavin Brown be moved to full-forward. Graham Wright, who’d played as a small forward, was moved to the wing. Craig Kelly settled into centre-half back. Then there was Daicos.

Daicos was 28 in 1990 and, under Matthews, had rebuilt his career as one of the best centremen in the League after battling injuries – a knee reconstruction, then stress fractures in his feet so bad that he couldn’t walk – through the mid 1980s. Now we had a burgeoning midfield: Shaw, McGuane, Millane, Francis, Russell, and Wright. Tony Shaw aside, it was also a quick midfield, (with Francis and Russell blistering).

Round 2 saw Collingwood take on Carlton at Waverly Park on a typically cold, overcast day. That’s what Waverly always seemed to deliver. It always seemed five degrees colder than the rest of Melbourne, the sky seemed always gray, and there always seemed to be a cold, biting wind. These were reasons some nicknamed it Artic Park.

Bizarrely, Matthews started Daicos at half-back. Matthews would opine that Daicos had the perfect half-back flanker’s body with the stumpy little legs, although I’m unsure whether that template has held true for over one hundred years of football.

In the first quarter, Carlton kicked 4.3 to 1.1, and by half time it was 7.3 to 6.6. Both teams were horrid. Carlton had finished 8th in 1989, were struggling, and in the midst of resettling after winning the flag in 1987. Collingwood had no system at all about the way they were playing.

In the second half Matthews threw Daicos into the forward line, where he proceeded to bamboozle various Carlton defenders to kick seven goals straight, Collingwood overrunning the Blues by (ironically) thirty-five points, (35 being the number Daicos wore). Wins against Sydney, Footscray, and St Kilda followed, the last match a nail-biter Collingwood won by one point, although their inaccuracy (12.20 to 13.13) was a contributor to the closeness of the game.

St Kilda led until late in the game, where Daicos received an unusual free kick: his opponent, Kain Taylor, lay on the ground at Daicos’s feet, whilst Daicos protested to the umpire about high contact. Although he was only about thirty metres out straight in front, Daicos’s kicking had been uncharacteristically inaccurate (2.4), and he lay-off a pass to Alan Richardson, about twenty metres straight in front. Richardson goaled. Collingwood won.

As an aside, it was amazing to hear some of the racial taunts so casually thrown around in the outer at St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar – and not just mild insults, but vitriolic attacks that were effectively considered part and parcel of the game. This was years before Winmar’s famous stance against racism. It was obviously an indictment of the time where such things were accepted.

The following week Collingwood faced Essendon. After winning flags in 1984–85, the Bombers had struggled and been reloading for their next assault. This was it. It was also another one of those signpost games for me. Since Collingwood had made finals, Melbourne, Essendon, and Hawthorn were the three clubs they struggled to consistently overcome. It was no different on this occasion. Although the match was even for the first half, Essendon pulled away to win by twenty-points.

While walking back to the car after the game, an Essendon supporter about ten years older than me mouthed off about how hopeless Collingwood were. I calmly started mouthing off back. He told me the only way that Collingwood would ever win a premiership (again) was if they returned to the VFA competition. I told him he should return to the VFA. He bumped me with his shoulder. I bumped him back. We jostled shoulders for about ten metres, him continuing to espouse Collingwood’s hopeless, me espousing his fullofshitness. Eventually, the crowd separated us, but it angered me this was the perception of Collingwood: just never quite good enough, and never a genuine threat.

Things didn’t get much better with a two-point loss to Hawthorn. We lead going into the last quarter by ten points, but just couldn’t hold on. Maybe we froze up, thinking we needed to defend our lead instead of extending it. But it was frustrating. Yet again, Hawthorn had beaten us in a close one. Just when it seemed we’d broken the back of their stranglehold – or at least put a crack in it – they re-cemented it.

The following week, Collingwood regrouped by beating Fitzroy at their home ground (as well as Carlton’s and Hawthorn’s) of Princes Park by forty-five points. Daicos kicked 6.3, Gavin Brown 3.2, and the midfielders – led by captain Tony Shaw – dominated. Tony Francis also made his return, in the Reserves, and amassed twelve tackles.

Another big win followed – an eighty point drubbing of North Melbourne, Daicos kicking 7.2 and Brown kicking 7.0. We were starting to find the right balance in the side – a fleet of tough and/or fast mids, a solid defence, and whilst we lacked a genuine quality key forward, the likes of Brown, Starcevich, and Manson were able to pinch-hit, whilst Daicos provided the class.

It was around this time I cut my hair, which usually alternated between two fashions – long, or short and spiky. Now I reverted back to the flat-top. Also, as the cold of winter set in, I started to more and more wear an overcoat – an affectation since I was sixteen. It was my trademark. As was being unshaven.

At the next Collingwood match, I finally was bestowed a nickname by my brother’s assortment of friends: Vinnie. After Ken Wahl’s character in Wise Guy, which was a popular TV show about a Federal undercover agent who infiltrates the mob, a la Donnie Brasco. Just like that, that’s what they started to call me. Although one other guy amongst this group called me ‘Drugs’, because he thought I looked like a drug dealer. So two nicknames and, I guess, finally being part of the group. It hardly seemed worth waiting for.

We won the next seven, an overall streak of nine victories, which contained some big wins (including a fifty-two point pumping of the other bogey, Melbourne) and saw Collingwood go from sixth following the Hawthorn loss, to outright top, one game clear of Essendon. A match against Footscray, a seventh-placed scrapper, was to the follow.

This was a great chance to lay claim to the top of the ladder – something we hadn’t done since 1977, and which we’d blown in 1981. Surely against a team as moderately talented as the Bulldogs we’d be able to notch our tenth victory in a row – pivotal, really, given we had a couple hard games (against Essendon, Hawthorn) – coming up, and could do with shoring up our position.

Unfortunately, and maybe typically, it wasn’t to be.

In any sport (and perhaps in any walk of life), there are times everything will go right for the underdog. Watch tennis and see some journeyman suddenly trouble a top player for five sets. Watch golf, and see some golfer go on a charmed run. Watch any team sport, and witness the underdog – regardless how gross an underdog they were – suddenly look like world-beaters and trouble a far superior side.

In the first quarter, the Bulldogs kicked 4.2 to 0.5. There was something clearly not right about Collingwood – not in a sinister way. But maybe they had been up too long. The previous week, they’d faced Sydney in Sydney, so maybe they were stupefyingly jet-lagged. Who really knows? Perhaps we were just flat and expected things to happen for us. Footscray, on the other hand, was full of run and energy.

The second quarter was little better, Footscray 8.7 to Collingwood’s staggering 3.10. So on top of how poorly we were playing, inaccuracy had become another issue. At three-quarter time, the score was 13.8 to our 7.16. So the Bulldogs had kicked 5.1 in that quarter to our 4.6. In fact, our breakdown of the game read 0.5, 3.5, and 4.6. Imagine we’d just been around average – almost fifty per cent: it would’ve been 13.8.(86) to 11.12.(78), which doesn’t look so bad. Not to be, though. Of course not. It’s Collingwood.

Damnit.

The pattern of inaccuracy continued in the last quarter, Collingwood attacking hard for little reward. Footscray began to tighten up. They kicked four behinds while Collingwood rallied to kick 5.5 – again, inaccurate, but at least there were goals – and secure a one point lead with only about three minutes remaining. Acceptance settled into the ground. This was the way it was meant to be. It had just been a matter of time. We’d see it out.

During one of Collingwood’s late forward entries, the Bulldogs rebounded. A spoil landed in the hands of Footscray ruckman Scott Wynd. Wynd handballed to Terry Wallace, who handballed to Simon Atkins at half-back. Atkins handballed wide to Leon Cameron, who sprinted down the wing and kicked the ball long to Steve Kolyniuk, who marked about sixty-five metres out in front of Graham Wright. Kolyniuk played on, wrongfooting Wright and running to within the range before nailing a goal. Footscray had the lead by five points.

Collingwood still had a couple of late chances: a running shot from Alan Richardson fifty metres out came off the hands of Footscray’s Greg Epplestun as he and Daicos contested the ball in the goalsquare. Not long after, there was a scrap twenty metres out in front of Collingwood’s goal. Kerrison roved the ball and snapped, only to miss. Shortly, the siren went. Just like that, Collingwood had lost to a minnow. It was sobering, and a reminder not to get ahead of ourselves.

The following week, Collingwood smashed St Kilda by sixty-eight points, then had to face Essendon out at Waverly in Round 19. This was first (Essendon) versus second (us – although only percentage separated us), and a game many media experts suggested would be a preview of the grand final.

The game was a sell-out, and because of the interest generated, Channel 7 (who had rights to the AFL) televised the game live – the first time a Home & Away game had been televised live in twenty years. However, perhaps because of this, only – only – 65,293 attended the game, (although the capacity of Waverly at that time was around seventy-five thousand).

As often seemed to be the case whenever Collingwood faced a test on the biggest stage, they started shakily, Essendon running over the top of them, kicking 4.4 to 0.2. Collingwood cut the lead to sixteen points at half-time, but again Essendon raced away, building a twenty-eight point lead. They looked too strong for Collingwood, and still maintained that mental ascendancy. Collingwood couldn’t get their running game going, and Daicos was well-held by Gary O’Donnell.

Then, Collingwood – as was the Collingwood way – mounted a spirited comeback in the last quarter. Essendon started to panic. It was no longer about winning. They just wanted to hold on. There’d been an important psychological shift. Even though Essendon led, even though they’d dominated passages of the game (and had won the previous encounter), Collingwood’s efforts suddenly made them realise their mortality. They were not the standalone powerhouse side they thought they were.

It was a bruising match, but now Collingwood’s desperation began to generate some fluency – that run which Matthews had instilled within the side. Collingwood kicked 4.4 to Essendon’s 1.0, to go down by six points. Essendon players celebrated once the final siren went as if they’d won a grand final. All wasn’t lost, however. We seemed to have closed the gap between ourselves and the Bombers. Next time – if there was to be a next time – we just needed to be settled from the onset.

Hawthorn pulverised Collingwood the following week by eighty-three points, a game many Hawthorn supporters (and Collingwood-haters) pointed to as evidence of Collingwood’s vulnerability against the Hawks. Whilst that was true to some extent, a big contributor (at least in my opinion) was how physically and mentally draining the game against Essendon had been. Collingwood just did not show up to play. Almost as if in support of that theory, Essendon also lost, going down by twenty points to the eighth-placed Carlton.

We rebounded the following two weeks, smashing Fitzroy by eighty-six points, and North Melbourne by eighty-nine points. The Fitzroy game was notable for Darren Millane breaking his thumb. He was ruled out for the rest of the year, but simply refused to be ousted. Instead, he would wear a cast throughout the week, then remove it for game day, be shot up with painkillers, and go out and play, re-breaking his thumb every time (and undoing any healing which occurred in that week). The North game was memorable for the fact that North Melbourne full-forward, John Longmire, needed to kick four goals to reach one hundred goals in the season, kicked two early, but managed only 2.8 for the game.

So the ladder was settled: Essendon on top, Collingwood second, West Coast third, Melbourne fourth, and Hawthorn – who’d had a bad run with injuries throughout the year – fifth.

We’d finished second in 1988, but hadn’t demonstrated the dominance we’d developed throughout 1990. Many felt it was all or nothing now – if this side couldn’t make a legitimate assault on the flag, then we never would. And, as far as Leigh Matthews went, if we couldn’t win a final – as we hadn’t in the last two years – then he was probably not the man to take us the next step.

Only time would tell.

CSM: Chapter 16.

16. Building.

1988 brought a lot of new things to my footballing life.

One was a total lack of expectation. For the short time I’d actively followed Collingwood, there’d always been a sense of expectation attached to each season. Under Hafey, it was the expectation of a drought-breaking flag, (seemingly an inevitability when you keep making grand finals). In 1983, it was the expectation of success under a revolutionary new regime, new coach, and a new squad containing expensive recruits. In 1985, it was an expectation of putting it all together under club legend Bob Rose. At the beginning of 1986, when Matthews first succeeded Rose, it was the expectation that Matthews would reinvent Hawthorn’s success at Collingwood. As 1986 went on, it was the expectation of finals and, in 1987, the expectation we’d build on what the exhilaration of Matthews’s first year had promised.

There was always something at Collingwood and the bar was never, ever set low. You didn’t get that tumultuous ride elsewhere – or, if you did, I didn’t notice it. Carlton had two coaches from the 1980s (David Park 1981–1985, Robert Walls 1986–1989), a stable administration, and had perfected farming interstate recruits. They were a machine. You just couldn’t see them imploding – not in the 1980s, at least. Essendon had gone through a mini golden period with Kevin Sheedy (grand finals in 1983–85, flags from the latter two) and were reloading. Richmond had become a debacle, thanks to the destabilising trade wars with Collingwood, and kneejerk reactions to failure leading to a merry-go-round of coaches (Tony Jewell 1979–82, Francis Bourke 1982–83, Mike Patterson 1984, Paul Sproule 1985, again Tony Jewell 1985–87, Kevin Bartlett 1988–91) but, in itself, that had become their modus of stability. There were no highs to contrast their lows. The success and failures of other clubs simply didn’t seem as spectacular or as celebrated as Collingwood’s.

Now, though, there was quiet. Maybe the club had been humbled. They started the 1980s leading the premiership table with thirteen flags. By 1988, Carlton was on fifteen flags (13 in 1981, 14 in 1982, and 15 in 1987) and Essendon on fourteen (13 in 1984, 14 in 1985). So Collingwood no longer had that glory to hold onto or boast about. They could no longer lay claim to being the greatest. Just purely gauging that claim on flags, that was Carlton’s title – and one they looked capable of extending, whereas for us premierships never seemed more distant, and hardly the entitlement we once believed they were.

Collingwood was without hype, without momentum, without anything but an atypical (if not alien) quiet little existence. Their plan for revival – The New Magpies – had not only blown-up in their faces, but had done so yielding only one finals’ campaign (1984) and three finals, one of those being the record 133-point loss to Essendon in the preliminary final. Then there’d been the near-bankruptcy with banks suggesting they should shut-up shop, and the request for players to take pay-cuts. Maybe it was preferable to achieving the little we did, as opposed to nesting on the bottom as clubs such as Footscray and St Kilda did at the time, but the collection of failures was grandiose, if not embarrassing, and led to a reticence that was very unCollingwood, the club trying to find itself in a new era as the game began to evolve towards some semblance of professionalism, particularly in regards to players playing for more than the honour of wearing the jumper. Football was becoming more and more big business. Ruthlessness and foresight was required to survive and to succeed.

To Collingwood’s credit, they’d performed some great low-key recruiting in the off-season. The Sydney Swans had imploded in 1988, losing millions, with players asked to take a pay-cut. Incidentally, Tom Hafey – who had coached the Swans to successive finals appearances (in 1986–87) was sacked following a player rebellion in 1988, players complaining of over-training. (Hmmm, that sounds familiar.)

We picked up Paul Hawke in the fall-out, a talented accumulator who would become a mainstay for the next two years. Fitzroy, also facing financial difficulties, also offloaded players, including Doug Barwick, a tough half-forward flanker with a raking kick. Graham Wright, a wingman from Tasmania was another pick-up, albeit via the draft, and David Robertson – another wingman – also joined the Pies, although he’d been drafted in 1986, (his home club of North Adelaide refusing to clear him). Last of the recruits was Tony Elshaug, a rover with Melbourne (1979–83) and Essendon (1984–87). One of Collingwood’s issues in this Matthews’ rebuild was a lack of pacey small men, a need Elshaug addressed – well, at least to some extent.

So whilst not knowing what to expect going into 1988, I was all set for a new season. More than that, I was all set as an adult (well, mostly), which meant being able to have a drink at a game. Although I wouldn’t turn of legal age until mid-season, I’d always looked older than my years due to my shadowy, George Michael’esque growth, (a comparison I regularly got although I never tried to emulate him).

Drinking – as it would be for any teenagers hovering around legal age – became a novelty, and Ange and I would usually have at least six beers per game, (the amount depending on the ground: at Waverly, where we always arrived early in the first quarter, we had more time to drink). The fact that lots of games occurred during the winter when the temperature was freezing in no way impacted on our drinking.

At the time, there was a two-can limit – cans, as opposed to beer served in a plastic cup. You could buy two at a time. The MCG was always worst for service, with lines extending into the stratosphere. Victoria Park relied on timing – when you went pre-game or during the quarter-time breaks, the lines were always huge. You always had to make a dash deep into a quarter. Fortunately, because the beer kiosk wasn’t far, you missed hardly any of the game, and usually remained close enough to check should there be any cheers. Waverly was the best. They always had so many people working the bar that lines were rarely massive and even when they were, they were whittled away quickly.

Drinking of course presented other problems. We burned through money, drinking (and smoking) so much. And then there were toilet pitstops (again, Waverly, for some reason, always the best of the facilities). But at least you could approach a game mellowed. Somewhat. Not that I’m advocating drinking as being medicinal or therapeutic, although it can be – until that drive home when you might’ve had that one too many and are just trying to survive.

But surviving was easy, because 1988 became about winning. It’s amazing how much attitude can help you handle anything thrown your way. Collingwood emerged swinging, winning the first five, which included a seventy point victory over the second-last-placed Tigers, and a twenty-eight point victory over top-of-the-ladder Carlton, Craig Starcevich kicking 1.5.

Beating Carlton during the home and away season meant little, at least in regards to it being any sort of benchmark. When both teams were up, Collingwood beat Carlton as often as Carlton beat them. Otherwise, they usually went about fifty/fifty. Sure, it was nice (if not blissful) to win against them, and we hadn’t beaten them since 1984, but I was looking for signs to legitimize our emergence as a true contender. Beating Carlton wasn’t it, (at least not in the H&A – a final, and particularly a grand final, would’ve been another matter altogether).

The real teams that became the measuring sticks as Collingwood tried to rebuild their fortunes were Hawthorn, Melbourne, and Essendon. These three were bogies. For whatever reason, Collingwood couldn’t beat them.

Hawthorn was, of course, heading towards a dynastic dominance, appearing in every grand final from 1983–1987, although they’d only won in 83 and 86. Still, though, there looked no stopping them from making yet another. Melbourne was finally on the way up, after years on the bottom, and legendary coach Ron Barassi’s ‘five year plan’ to lead them back to glory only led them to further ruin. Essendon were struggling in the wake of their grand final successes in 84–85 and rebuilding, but still had enough good players to trouble any side.

During a typically cold Waverly Saturday, Collingwood faced the Hawks in Round 6, a game Hawthorn led from the onset: twenty-two points at quarter-time, ten points at half-time, and twenty points at three-quarter-time. Collingwood mounted a charge in the last, dominating play and peppering goals. Matthew Ryan had several shots which he seemed to try guide through that were spoiled on the line, instead of just drilling them, (and he kicked four behinds for the game). Collingwood kicked 2.8 to Hawthorn’s 0.2 in the last quarter, the Hawks holding on by two points.

The following week, Essendon beat us with ease by forty-four points, and a couple of rounds later, Melbourne beat us by thirteen points. So whilst we were obviously a better side, we still really couldn’t consider ourselves amongst the top echelon. The best teams make their own fate. We couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be able to accomplish that until we could regularly beat these teams. It didn’t matter how good they were – Hawthorn was the only real power side of the three. It was a case of talent becoming commensurate with mindset to overcome current rivals. Honourable, hard-fought losses ultimately meant nothing.

Otherwise, Collingwood continued to notch up victories – amongst these another win against Carlton, this a close match until the last quarter where Craig Starcevich kicked three goals in the space of about five minutes.

The following week, Fitzroy – sitting second- last – smashed us by 90 points, in a game where (allegedly) flu ran through our side and we had several late withdrawals pre-game. We then lost against to Melbourne, this time by forty-six points, drew with North Melbourne, and – several rounds later – even managed to knock over Essendon by one point. Our final loss was in the second-last round to West Coast, going down by ten goals over in Subiaco. Due to their now being fourteen teams, the fixture no longer accommodated everybody playing one another twice, and thus we didn’t have to face Hawthorn again.

We finished the year in second position, behind Hawthorn who sat clear on top, and just ahead of Carlton, which meant the first final was Collingwood-Carlton.

Carlton were a hardened outfit, experienced finals campaigners, reigning premiers, and it showed in the Qualifying Final. They jumped us in the first quarter, kicking 7.3 to 1.0. Collingwood had too many players who suddenly looked overawed. While we pulled the deficit back to ten points at half-time, Carlton pulled away and controlled the match. Daicos, who had a brilliant year in the centre, was one of the few reasons we remained as close as we did, gathering thirty-four possessions and kicking 2.1

Melbourne had finished fifth, and beat West Coast by two points in the Elimination Final, which meant that Collingwood had to face them in the First Semi Final. Melbourne.

For some reason, in all our recent games against Melbourne, we just never showed the synergy we did against other sides. We should’ve been a better side than them. Of course, there is the qualification that some teams just match up well against you. That might’ve been the case with Melbourne. In an ugly match, Melbourne lead from the beginning, built a twenty-three point lead to half time, and whilst Collingwood battled to mount a comeback, could just never get it going. Melbourne by thirteen points.

So, just like that, Collingwood suffered the ignominy of crashing out of the finals in straight sets, which is usually considered something of an embarrassment. Of course, in what had been a developmental year, it was an amazing accomplishment that they’d finished second at all. Finally, after seven years of piddling around, there seemed the construction of something greater taking place, something that was real, (as opposed to those amorphous rebuilds during the years of the New Magpies).

In 1989, Collingwood continued its prudent recruiting, picking up an assortment of young players – such as Terry Hecker, Brendan Tranter, and Colin Alexander. Most notable was twenty-two year old Craig Kelly, a tough, bulky centre-half back from Norwood who’d impressed during an exhibition game against Hawthorn, when he’d run through Dermott Brereton. Collingwood also picked up discarded West Coast Eagles’ centreman Murray Wrensted.

Collingwood started the year brightly, beating Hawthorn at Waverly by ten points, a game in which Michael Christian took mark after mark in defence to repel Hawthorn’s attacks, and Shane Morwood gathered ten kicks in the first quarter before spraining his ankle. It was a benchmark victory, given Hawthorn – now the reigning premiers – were considered unassailable and still at the peaks of their powers.

A twenty-five point loss to Fitzroy followed, a sixty point win against Brisbane, a sixty-four point win against St Kilda, an eleven point loss to Sydney, and then, most notably, a sixty point victory against Melbourne. This was it. One thing I’ve always considered a signpost that you’re becoming a genuine power is when you start knocking off the teams who’ve bullied you for several years. First, Hawthorn. Now Melbourne. Essendon reawakened us to reality in Round 9, when they beat us by sixty-seven points. So just when it seemed I was sure of myself and where the club stood, it all unravelled.

Perhaps because Collingwood were a much more known commodity to the competition – meaning clubs gave them much more respect – the season was uneven, and involved some heavy losses, including a sixty-six point loss to Geelong the next round, a forty-eight point loss to Footscray, a sixty point loss to Hawthorn (a match in which it felt as if the Hawks not only wanted to avenge the Round 1 defeat, but also crush any aspirations to contention from us); and then some heartbreakers, including a six-point loss to Carlton (although we were wasteful, kicking 12.18 to their 15.6), a four-point loss to Sydney and a two-point loss to North Melbourne.

Good teams don’t get smashed regularly, and they’re capable of winning the close ones. 1988 had felt like we’d taken a quantum leap from the preceding year, but now suddenly it was one giant sideways step on a slippery slope.

We finished the season fifth, facing Melbourne in the Elimination Final. It was a typically scrappy game on a blustery day where the wind cut right through you. We led by nine points at half-time but, somehow, Melbourne kicked 9.2 in the third quarter to wrest away the lead, with the last quarter offering nothing but an impasse. The Demons by twenty-three points and, for the second year under Matthews, Collingwood were straight out of the finals.

Three finals for three losses under Matthews.

We just didn’t seem to have the same verve about our gameplay throughout the year and injuries deprived us of stability. One issue was a lack of genuine pace through the middle. Brian Taylor, who was starting to have trouble with his knees, played only eleven games – although he kicked forty-nine goals. As we already had Michael Christian playing at centre-half back, Craig Kelly played centre-half forward and was just woeful – woeful in a way that you actually begin disliking a player because he seems more a liability than an asset.

Something else that was emerging was that Leigh Matthews was an intransigent coach, one who banked on the status quo to see Collingwood through. There might be the occasional Hail Mary of throwing full-back Ronnie McKeown up forward, but otherwise we banked on the existing structures.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a criticism of Matthews. A lot of successful coaches are exactly the same: they back what’s gotten them as far as it has. But for me, I was always inspired by the Malcolm Blight types who would throw players around. Fast-forwarding several years, I once went to a Geelong-Carlton match with a Geelong friend where Blight (the Geelong coach) started champions Mark Bairstow and Paul Couch on the interchange bench. For the first several minutes of the game, Carlton taggers ran around, unsure who they should match-up on given their targets were missing. The actually struggled to settle and Geelong jumped them. That’s the mindset I wanted – throw caution to the winds.

While 1988 had opened with a lack of expectation and closed with hope, 1989 opened with hope and closed with a newfound lack of expectation.

Perhaps the truth was we just weren’t good enough.

CSM: Chapter 15.

15. The Season That Wasn’t.

I played some club football in 1986, first for Thomastown U17s, where I was a half-back flanker or back pocket. Typically, because I was so shy in group situations, I didn’t do myself justice – not that I was a world-beater, but I was better than what I showed. I was also young, being only fifteen, but that’s the group I qualified for. In one game, I mouthed off at an opponent when he bumped me late, and the entire opposition spent the whole match trying to square me up. After the game, our captain told me you don’t mouth off at away games. Thanks for the support.

My cousin Mickey was captain of Croxton U15s, and he invited Ange and me to go play for them. I was actually about three days too old to qualify for the U15s, so used a friend’s name – Steve – to register. Lots of times, I’d walk around at training and people would call, ‘Steve! Steve!’ and I’d just wander aimlessly, like I was ignoring them. They must’ve thought I was deaf or arrogant.

Thomastown had barely enough players to fill a team. There were games where they had only one on the interchange bench (during a time you were meant to have two). Croxton, on the other hand, had a squad of almost forty, although lots of them were so-so.

I told the coach I wanted to play forward, and that’s where he stuck me (and Ange). In my first game, I kicked two goals, although they were by no means brilliant. One was an uncontested mark at the top of the goal-square following a snap out of the pocket. Another was crumbing the loose ball straight in front with nobody around me. The next game, I just couldn’t get into it, so I told Mickey to tell the coach to throw me into defence.

It was a move the coach said he was going to make anyway. Mickey told me that at the start of the season, he’d been one of the tallest players on the team. But as the year went on, everybody but him had growth spurts, so he ended up playing as an undersized centre-half back. My interjection into defence allowed him to play as a rebounding half-back.

I was good in my first game as centre-half back, although the opposition was horrible. I also felt more at ease playing where I already knew people, so could try be more myself. It didn’t last, unfortunately. Catching lifts to Thomastown Station, to take the fifteen minute train ride to Croxton Station, then the walk to the ground became too cumbersome. So ended my fantastic footy career. Ange also bugged out for the same reasons. I wish I’d persisted.

My brothers used to play social soccer and footy matches with cousins and other friends. Mostly, it was soccer, which I was never interested in. Following the 1986 VFL season, it was football, playing in a park with a rubber ball.

I hassled and hassled them to let me play – Ange was already playing – and they relented. In that first game, I was awful. Taking up smoking had done horrors for my fitness and I huffed and puffed from the outset. It was embarrassing to feel how much I’d deteriorated since playing for Croxton.

That week, I gave up smoking and trained – doing some light weights, but hitting the exercise bike mostly. When I was younger, my natural fitness base was awesome. I used to go jogging with John and wouldn’t blow out a candle while he’d struggle to finish our runs. Another occasion, earlier in 1986, I met up with friends in Lalor to play arcade games. They were on bikes, and when we set off to go home one friend offered to dink me. I refused and told him I’d run to keep up. He scoffed and we made a bet, but I ran the 3.5 kilometres home with ease. My friend told me to quit smoking, as I was too healthy – probably something I should’ve listened to.

In our following game, I was unstoppable, running hard and constantly finding the ball. It might’ve been just a little social game, but it feels good to be getting the best out of yourself. If I’d played with this confidence at clubs and previously at school, I might’ve been recognised as better player and might’ve played a lot more footy.

During one play, though, somebody kicked the ball high to where an opponent stood uncontested in front of goal, waiting to mark it. I bolted and leaped to spoil the ball. I fisted it away and, I would learn later, my cousin Con roved it and kicked a goal for us. But I hit the opponent in the back, my thighs connecting with his shoulder and was flipped in mid-air. All my weight came down on my right arm as I crashed down. Both bones, just above the wrist, broke. It sounded like a plank of wood snapping.

When I got up to my knees, my arm sagged bulbously at the break. The lower half of my right hand continued to contract, searing pain curling the right fingers so I couldn’t breathe.

My brothers took me to St Vincent’s Hospital, where I went through the usual process – waiting. Obviously, the bones were broken. X-rays revealed they’d crossed over to form an X. It was explained to me that once you turn sixteen, bones grow differently, so usually you’d have pins or plates inserted, but as I’d turned sixteen only a couple of months earlier, they’d attempt simply to manipulate the bones back into place.

The bigger concern became the lack of feeling in the lower half of my right hand. Fearing the plaster might be too tight, they cut it down the middle then wrapped it in bandages. The risk with such a procedure was that it would dislodge one of the bones, which it did. The next step was to have plates inserted, but the doctors’ continuing concerns were with the lack of feeling in my hand. They suggested that one of the bones had probably bounced up and down on the nerve and damaged it during my trip to hospital, (which caused the contracting and pain in the lower half of the hand).

The bones healed as well as could be expected, but the doctors were stumped by the nerve damage. The lower half of my right hand was curled and had no feeling. I could burn them with cigarettes and not feel it. I also had no control of the digits of the lower two fingers.

They tested the damage, running electricity through the nerve, and estimated it’d take about eleven or twelve months to repair, so the plan became to wait. If improvement wasn’t evident in six months, then they’d cut me open to have a look – not to fix, mind you, but just too look. As an interim treatment, they fit my right hand with a brace, which forced the digits of the two lower fingers to straighten whenever I used my hand. However, to get to this point, there were lots of tests and appointments and specialists.

Because of this, the 1986–1987 VFL off-season was peripheral to me, although it was one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in the history of the game.

The VFL had always been the elite competition in the country. Players came from other competitions – namely the SANFL and WAFL – to prove they could mix it with the best. The VFL, presumably, was also the richest competition (or at least a handful of clubs were), and always had money to throw at interstate players, whereas you never (at least not to my knowledge) saw a WAFL or SANFL club throw a ton of money to poach a VFL player.

Now, in the interests of taking their competition national, the VFL had granted licenses for new clubs to be based in West Australia and in Brisbane. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, this move was also motivated by the VFL’s need to sell multimillion dollar licenses to save a few Victorian clubs, who were struggling.)

It was exciting to think that for as long as I’d followed the VFL, I’d known only the twelve clubs, their jumpers, and their monikers, and now there’d be something new. Previously, the only real thrill in this respect was when Collingwood had a brief flirtation in the 1980s with making the numbers on the back of their jumpers appear 3D (which was done with an outline of the number). The result was an eyesore. Oh yeah, there was also South Melbourne moving to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans, but for shock, that didn’t compare to those three-dimensional numbers.

I heard during the news on radio one day that the new club from Western Australian would be called the West Coast Eagles. Hmmm. So much for excitement. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. Lots of people said it sounded too American.

Brisbane’s license was purchased by a consortium headed by Paul Cronin (who played Dave Sullivan in The Sullivans) and bankrolled by entrepreneur Christopher Skase. I’m unsure what pedigree either had to run a VFL club, but I don’t think it mattered to the VFL. The club they gave birth to was the Brisbane Bears, their moniker a koala, (which actually isn’t a bear, and about as ferocious as a ladybug).

The Eagles, coming from an indigenous Australian Rules state, drew on a lot of local players to found their club. They also had a number of expatriates who came home. The Bears weren’t so well-paced or well-organised or well-anything. The VFL had to arrange that every VFL club provide two players to help found the Bears but, unfortunately for the Bears, most clubs provided cast-offs.

One player who wasn’t a cast-off was Mark Williams. The Collingwood captain fell out with coach Leigh Matthews and the club over a contract dispute. Allegedly, Williams found out he was only the eighth highest paid player at the club, and thus began to field offers from other clubs. It was probably more a bargaining ploy than anything else. Insulted that his captain was entertaining offers from other clubs, Leigh Matthews sacked him.

Others Collingwood lost for one reason or another were Greg Phillips, Gary Shaw, Bruce Abernathy, Greg Smith, and Ricky Barham. This was on top of Raines and Richardson leaving during 1986. Darren Handley, who I thought was one of the most promising youngsters, was also chopped – allegedly because he wasn’t committed enough to football. He ended up at Fitzroy, where he had two injury-riddled years. Altogether, it was a huge chunk of experience out of the Collingwood list.

We did have a sudden influx of youth, though. The Collingwood Under 19s had won the flag in 1986, and yielded such players as Gavin Brown, Gavin Crosica, Mick McGuane and Damien Monkhorst. There was also some shrewd recruiting – well, shrewd in the sense that instead of stockpiling talent for the sake of stockpiling (not that we could afford that anymore), Collingwood addressed needs. We recruited Craig Starcevich (a centre-half forward) and Michael Christian (a centre-half back) from East Perth.

But if we expected 1987 to build from 1986, we were sadly mistaken. In Round 1, Sydney smashed us by 91 points, and Hawthorn by 77 in Round 3. We were just such a young, inexperienced side who also suffered injuries. It looked as if it would be a painful year.

Not that I saw most of it, as I took a three-month trip to Canada and Greece with my parents. Whenever I called home, I asked for updates, only to be informed we lost, and usually by big margins. There were wins in there, usually bullying teams who struggled, but for the most part it was nothing but losses.

One cousin in Canada had cable, and I watched the Round 15 Collingwood-Carlton game, explaining the rules to her as the game unfolded. Carlton overran us in the second quarter, kicking seven goals to three, to lead by 32 points at half-time. They cruised for the rest of the game.

Hawthorn did anything but cruise the following week, obliterating us not only by 125 points, but doing it at our home ground of Victoria Park, which until then had been our bastion. There were other big losses – to Melbourne by 55 points and to St Kilda by 49 points.

I returned home in time for the last round, to be played against Essendon and had planned to go, but because of jet lag slept until late in the afternoon. Collingwood won by 5 points, Peter Daicos kicking 4, and another 1986 Under 19s’ alumni, Mark Orval – who Daicos considered the most talented of that crop – kicking 4.2. Sadly, Orval’s short career was riddled with injury.

We finished the season 12th – in previous years a wooden spoon. Only in 1976 had we finished as low (to win our inaugural wooden spoon). Now, though, with the addition of the two new clubs, it was a fourteen-team competition, so we were third-last.

Surely the future had to be better than this.

CSM: Chapter 14.

14. The Fight for the Finals.

986 was another year of superstitions – although they always existed in some form.  By that time, being teens trying to be cool, myself, Ange, and Johnny were smoking – Winfield (Blues), for myself; Peter Jacksons for Ange and Johnny.

Prior to one game, we decided to chip in for a packet, but couldn’t decide what to get.  Then we saw them: Black and White cigarettes.  Well, there’s a sign.  We bought them and promptly won.  This became a pre-game ritual – chipping in for Black and White cigarettes, even if we already all had smokes on us.  Whenever we bought them, we won.  When we didn’t, we lost.  Again, how do you fault the logic?

The first chink in the armour of the superstition was the one-point loss against Sydney, as the crowd became a squash and we were partly separated.  That became our rationalisation: we weren’t standing together, so the magic of smoking cancer-causing cigarettes together didn’t work to help Collingwood win.

Hmmm.

1986 was also the first season that – collectively – we got a nickname from my brother’s crew.  Ange was already ‘Rooka’, and had been for years to my brother Lou and cousin Con.  But for those years, we’d been kids – somebody’s little brother or little cousin.  Now, though, as we were growing into teenagers, and as we became adult-size, we also became much more noticeable.

This was an era of blow-waves and highlights and pop music.  Johnny and I had the best mullets, mine wavy at the back.  Ange always had highlights.  Ange’s other friends who occasionally accompanied us completed the set.

Thus, whenever we arrived for a game to join the crew, there’d be cries of, ‘Look!  It’s Duran Duran!’

Six years of Collingwood, grand final losses, elation and heartbreak (but mostly heartbreak), and this was the indoctrination.  It was a catch-cry that followed us the whole season, regardless of the game, regardless of which ground it was played at.

On the flip side, it meant something to actually be recognised and accepted from this tight-knit group.  It was like a little rite of passage, to go from a nobody (or, at the best, somebody’s little brother) to an individual in your own right.   It would still be another four years until I got my own nickname, though.

Following the debacle against Sydney, Collingwood sat one game outside the top five, which was quite an effort since we’d started the season with zero wins from three games.  But if we could keep up the good form, if we could continue to play explosive football, then finals football would be assured, and once we were in the finals, who knew what would happen?

We followed that loss with pulverisations of North Melbourne (moving us up to sixth, but equal fifth bar for percentage), Geelong (up to fifth), Fitzroy (up to fourth), and then a narrow win against Footscray at the MCG (remaining fourth and jumping a game clear of the teams beneath us).

There’s an axiom about supporting Collingwood, about dropping games we shouldn’t, and thus sacrificing positioning on the ladder.  I cannot count the amount of times I’ve spoken to friends pre-game, for the analysis of something like, ‘We should win this but …’

But.  There’s always a but at Collingwood.

There’s a tentativeness there which you can’t imagine existing in any other powerful club, like a Carlton, who have probably been taught to relish crushing and humiliating lesser opposition.  Not at Collingwood.  At Collingwood, there’s that fear of messing up, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – as occurred in Round 22 of 1981, losing to Fitzroy and dropping from top spot and down to third on the ladder on the eve of the finals.

That’s what happened the following round, with a loss to Melbourne – second-last on the ladder – at Victoria Park.  It was one of those matches where the mighty machine just never clicked into gear, and yet we still had opportunities to pinch the match, and occasionally it looked like we would.  But it wasn’t to be.  We went down by 13 points and not only dropped back to fifth on the ladder, but also lost our game advantage on the teams under us.  This loss also smashed our superstition about the Black and White cigarettes being lucky.  The superstition was discarded.

What was to follow were games against Carlton (third) and Hawthorn (first), both teams considered the serious contenders of the year.  (Although Sydney Swans were second, there remained a question mark on how good they’d be away from their home-ground of the SCG, and how they’d handle the bigger MCG in finals, given the SCG is the size of a suburban backyard.)  These two matches would test where we stood in the rebirth of Collingwood.

The first quarter against the Blues was close (them 5.3 to 5.2) and seemed to set the stage for a tight, tough game.  The thing with good teams, though, is they have gears.  We were motoring along about as well as we could, whilst Carlton had barely gotten out of second.  They kicked 5.1 to 1.4 in the second, and then outscored us in the remaining two quarters to run out winners by 49 points.

From the point of view of a Collingwood supporter, the game was only notable for Denis Banks cleaning-up David Rhys-Jones during a contest on half forward, when Rhys-Jones led Banks to the ball, Banks responding with a roundhouse that knocked Rhys-Jones out (which can be seen by clicking here) – an incident Banks said was a square-up for an incident in a preview game. (Banks was considered a thug by many, but as a younger player he was a freakish talent.  During a practice game in 1982, he took what I thought was one of the marks of the decade, climbing above a Hawthorn pack in the goal-square.  Over the years, though, injuries progressively blunted his abilities until he became more dour than anything else and renowned for his hardness.)

The loss to Carlton saw us drop out of the five, and fall one game behind the team who replaced us – Fitzroy.  Things didn’t look as if they’d get any easier, as we faced Hawthorn, who were becoming one of the power-teams of the ’80s.  They’d smashed Essendon in the 1983 grand final, lost a close one to Essendon in ’84, then got smashed in ’85, but were already loading up for another assault.  It says something about the hunger and intensity of a team that keeps coming back, just as Collingwood had under Hafey.  However, unlike Collingwood under Hafey, Hawthorn had a number of burgeoning stars in their line-up.

A couple of weeks earlier, Essendon had smashed the Hawks by 87 points, a result which had shocked many.  Hawthorn had responded by smashing Sydney – on the SCG – by 98 points.  Ange had quipped when we saw the result, ‘The Machine is back.’  Now we had to face them.

The match against Carlton had been on a beautiful, sunny day.  Against Hawthorn, the rain was unrelenting.  We stood in the forward pocket at Princes Park (Hawthorn’s home ground) and watched helplessly as Hawthorn dismantled us.  At half-time, Hawthorn were 11.14.(80) to our 2.3.(15).  Our only highlight had been when Hawthorn wingman and renowned tough nut Robert DiPierdomenico had attempted to run through Darren Handley; Handley propped and just stuck a fist out into Dipper’s ribs.  Handley jogged away from the incident, while Dipper lay on the wet grass gasping for breath.

Hawthorn went into cruise control for the rest of the game, winning by 72 points – not that, Ange, Johnny, and myself saw it, as we took off.  There’s a big thing about not leaving games early, about seeing the game out until the end, which I don’t understand.  Do you sit through the entirety of a horrible movie?  Or watch the entire run of a TV show which has suddenly gone bad? Or stick with a marriage that has turned dire and is irredeemable?  Sometimes, you just need to switch off.  It’s the only way to save your mental well-being.

The losses against Carlton and Hawthorn also showed that whilst we were an excellent mid-range team, there was a gulf between us and the genuine contenders, who’d treated us with absolute disdain.  It was also a good lesson, though, about what it took to be a champion team, and how far we still had to go.

We now dropped to 8th although, somehow, we remained only one game out of the five, as the other teams around us also lost.  We could still make the finals, although it meant we had to count on results falling our way with just two rounds left.

Essendon (two-games clear, and with a vastly superior percentage), Footscray, North Melbourne, and Fitzroy (the latter three all one game clear) sat above us, which meant we needed them to lose if we were going to breach the gap to try and get back into the five.

It was the first time I’d really paid attention to the results of the other games, and the mathematics of what those results meant to our fortunes.  In a way, it was a whole new world.  When you were a top team, you could – or you should – control your own fortune.  We weren’t.  We needed things to fall our way.

Melbourne inexplicably smashed North Melbourne, and Carlton – as was to be expected – killed Footscray.  Unfortunately, Essendon and Fitzroy played one another, which meant that only one could lose.  Given Fitzroy were just one game clear of us, we needed them to lose – then, if we won, we’d be equal with them on wins, and we also had a superior percentage.  However, they accounted for Essendon comfortably.

We played Richmond at Victoria Park, running out winners by 101 points, Brian Taylor kicking 10.4 (to go to a tally of 98 goals for the season).  We jumped back to sixth on the ladder, leapfrogging Footscray and North Melbourne, and now sitting one game behind both Essendon (4th) and Fitzroy (5th).

In the final round, we were to play St Kilda (last on the ladder) at Waverly Park (aka VFL Park).  The two other games of note were Essendon versus North Melbourne, and Fitzroy versus Sydney.  We really needed Fitzroy to lose, or Essendon to not only lose but to get absolutely flogged.  This was our only chance of sneaking into the finals.

Historically, all the games were played at the same time, on the same day, with only the occasional game on a Friday night or Sunday (or a holiday Monday).  The competition wouldn’t start staggering fixtures from Friday night to Sunday evening for a number of years.  This meant that whilst you were at your own match, you might keep an eye on the scoreboard to see how other games unfolded.

Only the scoreboard – as primitive as they were – didn’t list the other matches by the names of the teams involved.  Instead, each team was designated a letter – e.g. A vs B, C vs D, E vs F, all the way down to K vs L.  You needed to buy a Footy Record to correspond which teams belonged to which designation that week.  The only thing that was fixed was that A vs B was always the game at Waverly Park.

Collingwood’s match against St Kilda begun.  The other point of note was whether Brian Taylor would get the two goals needed to kick one hundred goals for the season – an extraordinary milestone for any player.

Taylor kicked one late in the first quarter, but otherwise struggled to get in the game.  He looked slow and cumbersome.   Although he’d kicked any number of bags for the season and there was an expectation he should get this second goal, there was sudden trepidation that he wouldn’t.

Taylor was no favourite of the umpires.  He regularly talked back to them, and also got into the face of his opponents.  However, about midway through the second quarter, he got a cheap free for being scragged by St Kilda full-back Danny Frawley, about thirty-five metres out, directly in front of goal.

The crowd started onto the oval in anticipation.  Taylor slotted the ball through.  The crowd ran on, ostensibly to congratulate Taylor, but most just because they wanted to be able to run on the ground.  Some even had a quick kick.  Ange, Johnny, and myself ran on, although we got separated.  Danny Frawley was in tears.  Ricky Barham barked at supporters to get off, although not so diplomatically.  Eventually, the crowd dispersed, returning to their seats.  Taylor limped off.  It was revealed later he’d done his hamstring earlier during the match, which is why he’d looked so ginger.

Despite the fact that St Kilda were last on the ladder, they were competitive, and the game was close for the first half, going basically goal for goal.  We were following the scores of the two games which mattered to our position – and particularly the one match that mattered most: Fitzroy versus Sydney.  If Fitzroy lost and we won, we were in the finals.  A simple swap.  Essendon not only had to lose, but had to lose unrealistically big.  It was too much to ask.

Unfortunately, Fitzroy raced to a twenty-four point lead in the first quarter, and the scoreline – 4.9 to 1.3 – suggested they were dominating, since they’d had thirteen shots to four.  Essendon, on the other hand, had kicked just 0.1 in the first quarter to North Melbourne’s 8.5.  Maybe there was a chance?

At half-time Fitzroy were 5.12 to 4.7, so the Swans had fought back.  So did Essendon, kicking 4.4 in the second quarter to North’s one behind.  We joked we might get the right results, but screw it up by losing ourselves.  It was the Collingwood way, after all.

It was at this time that Ange produced a pearler, as he was always renown for the occasional unwitting slip of the tongue.

Consulting his Footy Record, he correlated the scores of C vs D, E vs F and so on, but A vs B was blank on the scoreboad.  He frowned.

‘Who’s playing at Waverly today?’ he asked.

We were, of course, sitting in Waverly at that very moment.

In the third quarter, Collingwood had one of their explosive bursts, kicking 7.7 to 1.1.  Sadly, Fitzroy also edged away from the Swans, 3.5 to 1.2, to lead by twenty-four points.  North outscored Essendon in the third, to lead by thirty-six points.  It looked as if, in all likelihood, the Bombers would go down, but not by anywhere near enough to suit us.

There’s something exciting that being able to follow multiple games simultaneously, knowing you’re reliant on certain outcomes to benefit your side.  That doesn’t happen anymore, obviously, since games are played in so many different timeslots.  But there’s something novel about watching you own match, and yet being equally – if not more – interested in another game taking place elsewhere, and only being able to follow it via score updates.

In the last quarter, we were more interested in the way Fitzroy-Sydney progressed.  Sydney did stage a comeback, kicking 3.6 to 1.2, but it wasn’t enough.  They lost by ten points.  Essendon also staged a mini-comeback to lose by 22 points.  We won by 52 points, but by then – other than for the personal satisfaction of victory – it was irrelevant.

That was it.  Fitzroy jumped to fourth position on thirteen wins and with a percentage of 100.2.  Essendon fell to fifth, on twelve wins, with a percentage of 120.3.  We sat in sixth, also on twelve wins, with a percentage of 109.2.

Everybody wants to make finals – even if they’re absolutely no chance of winning the flag.  There’s a number of reasons.  One, simply, is that if you are there, you just never know what might happen.  Second, being in the finals – especially when you’ve missed out for several years – signals your re-emergence as a club.  You’re no longer a dreg.  You’re amongst the best.  You belong.  Finally, it’s simply good experience for the players, to show their wares on the biggest stage.  It hardens them, makes them realise what’s required of them.

Had we made the finals, realistically, we were no hope against Hawthorn or Carlton, although we probably would’ve beaten either Fitzroy and Essendon, and even given Sydney a good run (at the MCG).  Of course, that would’ve set us up for either Hawthorn or Carlton.  I could imagine (again, being the Collingwood way) upsetting one with a Herculean effort, but not both.

Still, finishing sixth – after the mess the year had been with the losses, the replacement of the coach, the turnover in the administration, the salary cuts and losing Raines and Richardson, and blooding so many young players – was encouraging.

Surely, 1987 had to promise something better.

CSM: Chapter 13.

13. Yet Another New Beginning.

Essendon humiliated Hawthorn in the 1985 grand final by 78 points.  It was Leigh Matthews’ last game. Matthews, a four-time premiership player, a premiership captain, eight-time Hawthorn Best & Fairest, the inaugural Players’ Association Most Valuable Player, and one of the best (and some consider the best) and toughest players to play the game, was then appointed assistant coach of  Collingwood.  He was to serve an apprenticeship under Bob Rose for two years, and then eventually take over.

Well, that was the plan.

Essendon smashed Collingwood in Round 1 of 1986 by 65 points.  Without taking credit from the dominant Bombers, it was a performance endemic of what Collingwood had become – listless and without much purpose or fire.  The following week, Sydney defeated Collingwood by 35 points at the SCG – a game Collingwood were never in.  Already, despondency was setting in.  However, in the first half of Round 3, against North Melbourne, Collingwood played brilliant, attacking football.   At half-time, we led by 22 points.  Maybe this is what we’d been waiting for and working towards.   Nope.  The trite was back in the second half.  North overran Collingwood, to win by 43 points.

The 0–3 beginning to the season coincided with the club imploding, revealing they were massively – hideously – in debt.  President and head of The New Magpies, Ranald McDonald, resigned.  Senior vice-president, Allan ‘Big Al’ McAllister took over.  It was also enough for Rose.  He’d only really been serving as interim coach, but the game – and the game’s demands – had gone past him.  He had nothing left in the capacity as coach.  Matthews took over.

It was revealed much later that the financial situation was so dire that the banks recommended to Collingwood that they should close-up shop.  Just like that.  It was a humiliating position for a club as proud (if not arrogant) as Collingwood, and who’d experienced such penultimate success in recent years.  How that couldn’t be parlayed into the foundation of a powerhouse is an indictment of the recklessness, if not the irresponsibility, of those who’d come to govern to club and believed they could indiscriminately buy success.

Supporters rattled tins to raise money.  Players were asked to take twenty per cent pay cuts.  Geoff Raines and Mike Richardson refused.  They left Collingwood to join Essendon.  To fit them in, Essendon cut a couple of premiership players, including Peter Bradbury, who was integral to the 1984 come-from-behind win to take the flag.  Ironically, he then joined Collingwood.  Such was the shenanigans of trading during the home and away season.

I’ve always wondered about the chemistry of putting together a football side.  The New Magpies had thought you could buy one.  But that had only succeeded in landing any number of players who had no real interest in the club, of bleeding for the club, and simply playing for the dollars.  That’s fine, if you can find the right mercenary, e.g. Greg Williams.  Williams went unashamedly wherever he was offered most, but wherever he did (first jumping ship from Geelong to Sydney and then, when Sydney hit the wall, to Carlton) he gave everything he had.  Many players simply wouldn’t put their heart in it.  Others come to adopt the club, to become part of the club’s family.  Some never click, though.

It’s little wonder (Collingwood) teams didn’t knit, or create a culture where there was a common pursuit.  The (quality of) players were there.  Those sides contained guns aplenty – enough that they should’ve done better than they had.  Hafey probably would’ve killed for a Cloke at centre-half forward and Raines in the centre.  In fact, a couple of players like that would’ve tipped the line in several grand finals.  But it took virtual bankruptcy to find players who weren’t at Collingwood just for the money and wanted to help build something greater.

Round 4 involved Collingwood (10th) vs Geelong (12th), both teams winless.  Later, it was revealed that Rose had timed his exit, so that Matthews could face a weak opponent in his first game and – in all likelihood – score a victory.  It was a selfless gesture, and one which would inaugurate Matthews with the Collingwood faithful and kickstart his senior coaching career.

Sure enough, Collingwood won by 45 points.  Bryan Taylor kicked 8.6.  But the match was memorable for an incident on the members’ wing where one Geelong player unwittingly tackled a teammate.  A free kick was paid to Collingwood.  Regardless, the victory was a relief.  Another new dawn at Collingwood.  Another new era.  Seemingly, we were on our way.

As a player, Matthews was hard, if not brutal, and unrelenting.  He demanded the same of the players at his disposal.  Somebody like Bruce Abernathy, who was more of a linkman, started hurling himself into packs.  There was a newfound fierceness and determination.  For probably the first time since 1981, you could see (or I saw; I don’t know how others felt) that there was some real Collingwood about Collingwood.

Matthews was also uncompromising.  Ange, Johnny, myself, and some of Ange’s friends would regularly attend training, sitting behind the goals in the Sherrin Stand, (a members’ areas during games, but open to the public for training).  Matthews was a stern taskmaster who enforced that things were done his way.  One example involved a scratch-match, where Taylor marked on the lead about thirty meters directly in front of goal.  Matty Ryan streamed past and Taylor fed him the handball.  Ryan goaled.  Matthews blew his whistle and went ballistic at Taylor and Ryan, telling them in no uncertain terms that if you have a direct shot from such a distance, you take it, you don’t throw it away when you don’t know what’ll happen next.  It was a small demonstration of the newfound intensity and purpose at work.

But training was like that – intense and willing.  For fans, also, there was always something almost reverential about the training sessions, because you could get on the ground before the players had run out and have a kick.  There’s something about being on the same ground that actual players use, a sense of – simply – magnificence, as if you’re privileged to walk on hallowed ground.  There’s also something about the ground itself – or, to be more precise, the grass.  It’s not like a backyard lawn.  Or a high school oval.  Or the oval of a local club.  You can feel the grass underfoot at all these places, but also the hardness of the soil.  Not on an actual football ground used by the VFL.  It felt like walking on a thick rug lying on nice carpet.

We’d kick the ball back and forth, me always flying for marks – because I was a good mark, and playing with friends I was confident and exuberant in a way I usually wasn’t when I’d played at school, (although I did kick seven goals in one match resting at full-forward, and took Mark of the Year).  I always nurtured a little fantasy that somebody would see me flying for marks and decide to give me a tryout, (although in terms of ability, Ange was a natural footballer, who had skills on both sides of his body, and always had time and space when he had the ball).  One could dare to dream, though.  It was no different to when I was younger, wanting to get home from games so I could kick the ball around and, in 1986, footy wasn’t about drafts.  It was zones – if you lived in a certain area, you were allocated to a certain club, (and where I lived was a Carlton zone).  But you could be discovered just like that – almost randomly, as it were.  So why couldn’t it be me? 

Something was always happening at training also.  At another session, Matty Ryan would kick the ball out from goals, chase it down, then have shots back on goal.  The thing that was impressive about this is he used to commentate as he was doing this, stuff like, ‘Ryan picks up the ball, sidesteps, snaps, it’s a goal!’  That was gratifying to see, since I used to do similar stuff, and sometimes still did when we played matches in the street.  The line from street footballer to league football seemingly wasn’t as distinct as I would’ve thought.  Or maybe football, for all its professionalism, really involves adults who remain kids at heart, (or at least in some capacity).

The best (or at least funniest) training session involved just Ange and I.  We arrived early and sat in the Sherrin Stand, watching as the players emerged from the race and began to warm-up.  Warm-ups usually involved a bit of passing and a lot of shots on goal.  Then Matthews would stride out, blow on his whistle, and the players would jog back to the centre of the ground to huddle around him.  The trainers would then gather all the practice balls they’d kicked.

On this occasion, though, they overlooked one, which landed in the drainage guttering that circled the ground.  Ange and I talked about how good it would be to own a real Sherrin – again, at a time Sherrins were a fortune and the footballs you could buy were always lacking (well, at least in comparison).  When we played our matches or kick-to-kick, we just used a rubber footy.

Ange encouraged me to jump the fence to get the ball.  I told him he should do it.  Back and forth we went.  Finally, Ange jumped the fence, grabbed the ball, and handballed it to me.  I was off.  This was no time to waste.  I ran back through the Sherrin Stand, down one of the walkways.  Ange was right behind me.  We continued to handball the football back and forth, as if it was too hot to handle and neither of us wanted to hold it too long.

We streamed through the walkways that ran around the ground and emerged into the executive parking lot, thinking we were free – we had a football!  The perfect crime!

‘Hey, you, boys!  Stop!’

It was Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne – who worked at the club in some capacity – dressed in slacks, shirt, and tie, clutching a stack of paperwork and clipboards to his chest, chasing after us.  Panicked, I turned and fired a handball to Twiggy.

‘Here you go, Twiggy!’ I said.

Dunne caught the ball, but all his paperwork splattered to the ground.  Ange and I kept running until we were away, (which involved about a fifty metre sprint down the street) and joked the club must be in dire financial straits if they weren’t willing to surrender one practice football.  So much for our Sherrin.  And so much for being discovered.  It was also our last training session (for a while).

As the season began to unfold under Matthews, you could feel the urgency impressed into the players.  You could also feel their apprehension, which (I imagine) they wouldn’t have felt since Hafey.  I remember Graeme Allan’s comments about messing up with his kick across goal against Footscray – if it was Hafey, Allan said he would’ve jumped the fence and kept on going.  Cahill – for whatever reason – didn’t inspire the same awe or fear.  I doubt Rose did at that time – at least not during this stint as coach.  Matthews did.  Coaching has evolved and changed, but the coach should – for whatever reason – be held in a sense of awe.  That ensures players will listen to him, that they’ll hear his message, and that they’ll push themselves above and beyond to get the best out of themselves.

There was a real system developing in the way Collingwood played, in the way they streamed from defence in a line, each player feeding it to the next in the chain.  There were also some unlikely heroes, such as young Darren Handley, who wore 49.  Handley had a mullet of peroxide hair and looked like a stereotypical lout from Broadmeadows, but he was fast, hard, and had good skills.  He looked like he’d be a great player.  Amongst others to debut in ’86 were Shane Kerrison and Michael (Mickey) Gayfer.  Shane Morwood, who’d been one of those players you loathed because he seemed so inept and you couldn’t fathom why he was getting a game, also suddenly developed incredible composure and showcased beautiful skills.

Collingwood was becoming something, and developed the capacity to blow open games, kicking a number of goals in short bursts.  Round 12 – against reigning premier Essendon (although they’d slumped to sixth on the ladder) – was a prime example.  After an even first quarter, Collingwood kicked ten goals to three in the second, to blow the game apart.  Ron McKeown kicked 8.1 (for the match), whilst Brian Taylor – becoming the league’s premier full-forward (at least in 1986) – kicked 5.6.

The following game was a test of the new Collingwood against second-placed glamour-child Sydney, at Victoria Park.  Sydney had come under the private ownership of Dr Geoffrey Edelstein, had bought up big on players, and now had Tommy Hafey as coach.  Again, Collingwood seemed to blow the game away in the second quarter, kicking 5.4 to 2.6, to lead by 22 points at half-time.  It wasn’t a huge lead, but Collingwood was in control of the game – in control until the uncontrollable happened.

There is a broad view from many Collingwood supporters that they are often on the wrong end of umpiring decisions.  Actually, supporters from lots of clubs feel similarly – that the umpiring fraternity often wrongs their club.

Collingwood is the biggest football club in Australia.  People either love them or hate them.  In my time supporting the club, I’ve often encountered numerous (innumerable?) supporters who wish Collingwood to fail, or who loathe Collingwood.  When questioned why, most have no genuine reason.  It’s a tall poppy thing – people want to cut them down, want to hate them for the sake of hating them.

Fast-forwarding a number of years, I was talking to a friend, who said he had worked in an office with an umpire.  This umpire blatantly admitted his hatred for Collingwood and said that he’d been given a Collingwood game that week and would do his best to maul them – which is exactly what he did that weekend.

Maybe my friend’s an exaggerator who fabricated this story.  Maybe … although this umpire was one supporters regularly dreaded, as we often  seemed to get a raw deal from him.  I don’t volunteer these insights as a conspiracy to undermine Collingwood.  It’s something much more subtle, something as simple as questioning whether umpires carry prejudice – consciously or unwittingly – into their jobs.

I know they’re being paid to be impartial and they’re meant to be professional, and most are.  However, there are always exceptions to the rules.  How can lifelong prejudices not at times influence split-second decisions?   I can admit that if I was an umpire, and I umpired a Carlton match, they’d probably definitely get the occasional raw decision from me.  How can’t prejudice exist?  Why is it supporters of certain clubs always feel hard done by a specific umpire?  Again, fast-forwarding, recollect James Hird’s outburst on The Footy Show when he labelled umpire Scott McLaren a ‘disgrace’, the Bombers feeling McLaren regularly mistreated them.  Is that just coincidental time after time?  Possibly.  Stranger things have happened.  Or, possibly, there might be bias.  It’s human nature – no different to a teacher who has favourites in class and kids he doesn’t like so much.

The umpiring in the second half against Sydney was a farce – the hair-trigger stuff which would make players wary of tackling or going for the ball for fear of being penalised; and double standards, where certain frees went one way but not the other.

My belief has always been that singular incidents can shapes the way games unfold – they can change momentum, they can get in the heads of players (inspiring or dispiriting them), they can ultimately have a butterfly effect which changes the whole evolution of the game.  You also have to consider when and where free kicks are paid and how they directly impact on the game at that moment.  The Swans got them when they needed them.  Momentum changed.  Collingwood’s composure was rattled. 

Sydney won by 1 point.  The crowd erupted and streamed onto the ground (at a time crowds were still allowed to stream onto the ground the moment the final siren went).  Police had to escort the umpires – who strode haughtily away, as if they knew they’d done a good bit of business – through the congestion.  A fight broke out in front of us between Collingwood supporters and Sydney supporters.  Eventually, emotion settled as the shock of the improbable loss set in.  We had a kick of our football for a while, but then somebody shouted that the umpires were trying to sneak out through the executive parking lot.

People ran.  We ran to see what would happen.  Nothing did.  I guess everybody ran just to see why everybody else might be running.  There were people gathered in the lot, including Darren Handley, who had a trio of the biggest, scariest looking friends we’d ever seen.  The great umpiring farce was defused.  Maybe we’d just lost because we simply weren’t good enough.  We accepted it.  We didn’t like it.  But what could you do?

Time to move on.

CSM: Chapter 12.

12. Trading: Part II (1983 – 1985).

In my earliest years of high school, other things diluted my focus from football: beginning to socialise, girlfriends, schoolwork, just that whole angry, independent teenage thing where you start thinking about stuff for yourself. For a short period there (two-three years), whilst I still followed Collingwood, the fanaticism plateaued.

Of course, this could’ve had more to do with Collingwood themselves plateauing. I’d been introduced and apprenticeshipped to Collingwood during a period they were regularly making grand finals, as if it was their birthright, and a time they were headed by the t-shirted Tommy Hafey, and led by a group of players who were now either gone (e.g. Peter Moore, Ray Shaw) or on their way out.

Collingwood had almost become something else with the new coach and turnover of players – not just a different team, nor a differrent club, but a different entity. That mystique was gone. Maybe I was a bandwagoner. Or, possibly, 1982 – with its magnificent implosion, following a succession of equally magnificent failures – had broken it, because I found it harder to believe in the infallibility of the club (as an on-field entity). Their stature became a shadow of what it once had been and, when it comes down to it, it’s hard to follow shadows.

The New Magpies were trying their best to shake things up, whilst building a successful base to carry us into the future. If the old Collingwood administration represented the old establishment, an anchor to the past and the way things had been done traditionally at Collingwood, the New Magpies attempted to be progressive. Some of their decisions included:

  • extending the length of Victoria Park, so that it mirrored the MCG, where the bulk of finals were played. There was a school of thought that while we were masters of Victoria Park, we struggled on the open spaces of the MCG, so it was best to play on a home ground comparable in size as a matter of acclimation. (Of course, this school of thought never explained why we won a ton of other finals on the MCG.)
  • they replaced the rickety wooden balustrade on Daicos Hill with a sturdy metal railing, which was hell to sit on. Fortunately, I was growing taller, and sitting on it less.
  • they recruited – recruited anybody not nailed down, pried lose players nailed down, and did so indiscriminately, the way you imagined survivors were shoved into lifeboats right at the end of the Titanic’s sinking.

Amongst the players recruited in 1983 were:

  • Richmond champions’ David Cloke (who’d also been Richmond captain the year before) and Geoff Raines, both of whom cost a ton of money. Pilfering these two began the trade wars with Richmond, who tried to raid Collingwood players in return. However, they never succeeded in nabbing any players of a similar calibre, (or any who gave them the same service as David Cloke gave Collingwood).
  • Gary Shaw, from Claremont, West Australia. Shaw, a pacey rover with a wealth of curly hair, had played in the Victoria vs West Australia State match in 1982 and absolutely blitzed, marking himself a hot property. In 1982, there was a rudimentary draft, for which Shaw was eligible. Collingwood (allegedly) paid the two clubs (which was legal at the time) who had finished beneath it (St Kilda and Footscray) $50,000 each to overlook Shaw, so they could nab him with the next pick.
  • Mike Richardson, a talented half-forward/onballer from Swan Districts, Western Australia.
  • Greg Phillips, from Port Adelaide, South Australia. Phillips, a centre half-back, was a tree, and equally adept off both sides of his body.
  • Shane Morwood, from South Melbourne. Morwood was the youngest and most uncoordinated of the four Morwood brothers and had refused to relocate to Sydney when South Melbourne became the Sydney Swans.

There were also a number of younger players Collingwood brought through. These ranged from guys who’d debuted in the debacle of the previous season and were trying to forge careers for themselves in the new Collingwood era, or were brought through this year, such as stylish wingman Phillip Walsh. Walsh was brilliant in his debut season.

Later, some of the players would remark of their first training session in 1983 that there was no real bond, that they looked around and didn’t know half the people there. Perhaps that was more an indictment of where the club was at. Most of the veterans and leaders were gone or going. Moore, the captain in 1981-82, was now at Melbourne. Mark Williams, who’d only arrived in 1981 (and had a connection with John Cahill, through their time together at the SANFL Port Adelaide Magpies) was named his successor.

Still, the thought of all those new players, of talents such as Cloke and Raines (who were absolute guns), of Phillips who had a tremendous reputation in the SANFL, and Gary Shaw who’d turned it on in a State match, was exciting. Other clubs had reaped the benefits of success through recruiting. Granted, they usually recruited for needs, whereas we recruited because it was a tool to be used (and exploited). Still, why couldn’t we be successful?

1983 also marked the first year I started going to games with my cousin Ange, and his friend Johnny. We’d catch an early train to Victoria Park – so early, we got there at least half an hour before the Reserves began. The stadium itself was just across the road – the closest any stadium was to public transport – and we’d line up outside the gates with other early-comers. Once the gates opened, we’d charge in, and grab a seat (on Daicos Hill) on the railed seating that lined the perimeter of the ground.

At that time of day, seating was a luxury. You had plenty of space to yourself – enough room to stretch your arms and wave your elbows like chicken wings, if you wanted to. But as the day progressed the crowd began to fill, and more people would squeeze into that limited seating. Ultimately, by the time the Seniors started, you were squashed to the point you were almost pushed out of your seat. It was a futile exercise.

The season had little to redeem it, too – well, at least from the lofty expectations of anybody supporting Collingwood. Possibly a more experienced coach might’ve known how to knit such a disparate group of players together immediately, because there were talented players there. But there was never any real sense of unity or purpose. Perhaps that’s endemic of the fact that too many players were there because of money, and not for the love or betterment of the club. Or maybe I’m being too hard on Collingwood, because of that expectation. We won twelve games, only to finish 6th.

In 1984, the turnover of players continued. Richmond nabbed Phillip Walsh from Collingwood, although he never recaptured the same form he displayed in his debut season. Of course, it probably didn’t help that Richmond were a rabble at the time. Rover John Annear and utility tall Craig Stewart joined him. Billy Picken went to the Sydney Swans. Rene Kink had already gone to Essendon in 1983 (only to play in their losing grand final side; he played in the 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1983 losing grand final sides – an unenviable record). Craig Davis retired. More and more of the Collingwood I’d known was disappearing.

Of course, we had more players coming in. They weren’t as notable as the previous crop, but there were still some interesting inclusions:

  • Bruce Abernathy, originally from SANFL Port Adelaide, who then played at North Melbourne in 1982–1983. Abernathy, a wing/flanker, was a beautiful kick, and still a proponent of the occasional drop-kick, which virtually nobody used anymore. Possibly his most impressive facet was we thought he had the best hair of any player. (We were fourteen, so things like hairstyles, blow-waves, et al, were really becoming features of our lives.)
  • the twenty-nine-year-old Ron Andrews, a tough mongrel of a centre-half back from Essendon, who’d missed out on selection of their 1983 grand final side.
  • Glenn McLean, a hot ruck prospect from Melbourne, who cost the world to secure … and did nothing. Ever.
  • Dale Woodhall, a Queensland full-forward who’d led the goal-kicking (in the QAFL) three times.

Again, there were also a number of young players brought through, including Darren Millane (who’d initially trained with Hawthorn, but hadn’t gelled with the club and asked to be cleared, so he could come to Collingwood), Jamie Turner, Ian McMullin, and Ron McKeown – just to name a few.

The Collingwood side did improve and there were times they played good football. For the entire year, they sat somewhere in the middle of the top five. They never looked a dominant side – not like Essendon or Hawthorn, who were the league’s powerhouses – but they did look a step above the sides outside the eight. So, what it really came down to was that for all our recruiting, for all the New Magpie’s revolution, for all the money that had been spent, we were mid-range.

Most of the time, I’d still catch trains up to matches, although with some grounds that was quite an adventure. Getting to somewhere like Princes Park required a train and a tram. Getting to Waverly required a train into the city (a 45-minute trip), another train to Glenn Waverly (another forty minutes) and then specially assigned buses to the ground (about fifteen minutes).

1984 was also notable for several games, including the Round 10 clash against Footscray at the Western Oval, where Dennis Banks took the Mark of the Year. I think every game I ever attended at the Western Oval was on a crap, overcast day, and resulted in a scrappy, ugly match.

Briefly, this game teased being something different, as Collingwood built a 29-point lead at half-time. But Footscray, in their first year under new coach (and recently retired Ricmond premiership player) Mick Malthouse came back hard, to trail by only 11 points at three-quarter time. Collingwood struggled to hold them off, leading by only one point in the last minute of the game.

The ball went into Footscray’s forward pocket, where Graeme Allan was awarded a free for being pushed in the back. Allan turned and tried to pass across the face of goal to a teammate. Footscray full-forward Simon Beaseley intercepted, marking on the top of the goal square. Footscray captain, Jim Edmond, let Allan know in no uncertain terms of his error. Beaseley goaled and Footscray won with the last kick of the game. Later, Allan said that had Tom Hafey still been coach, he probably would’ve jumped the fence and left the ground rather than go back in the change rooms.

Collingwood finished the season 4th – equal third with Carlton, but for percentage. It was a meritorious return to the finals, a reclamation of that birthright. For some clubs, making the finals is a boon – such a rarity (or irregularity) that they greet the prospect with exhilaration. For Collingwood (and teams like Carlton, Richmond, Essendon) it was simply a matter-of-fact … until it wasn’t, just as it hadn’t been for the last two years.

In the Elimination Final, Collingwood had a close game with Fitzroy for three quarters, before blowing away the Lions in the last to win by 46 points, whilst Hawthorn accounted for Carlton in the Qualifying Final by 30 points. In the First Semi Final, Collingwood actually looked as if they had too much talent for Carlton, Mike Richardson kicking 4, and Peter Daicos kicking 7.4. Collingwood ran out 25-point winners, to set-up a Preliminary Final against Essendon, who’d lost by 8 points to Hawthorn in the Second Semi Final.

It looked as if Collingwood was setting themselves up for a repeat performance of 1980, when they’d won their way through from the Elimination Final into the Grand Final. If any side could achieve such impossibilities, if any team was destined for such great things (only to fail at the last hurdle), it was Collingwood. Perhaps this time, with all our new recruits, a new coach and new gameplan, a whole new attitude, we could go one step further. What could stop us? Really?

Essendon.

They obliterated us in the Preliminary Final. At half-time, they led by 84 points. Announcements were made over the PA system at Waverly Park AT HALF-TIME that buses were ready to take Collingwood supporters back to the station. Whilst Collingwood had a few injuries (including captain Mark Williams), the Bombers were way too good. Essendon ran out winners by 133 points, (and would later win the flag).

You have to wonder what such losses do to a club. For Collingwood, it was the end of another mini-era, as John Cahill – who’d never seemed comfortable in Victoria, or in the VFL – decided to return to South Australia.

Collingwood floundered for leadership, and into the breach stepped club legend, Bob Rose. Rose had already coached Collingwood from 1964–1971, (which obviously included the 1964, 1966, and 1971 grand final losses). During that time, he’d implored the club to recruit. Now, the thought process must’ve been if he could get battling Collingwood sides to grand finals, what could he do with a much more talented list?

The recruiting madness had relaxed, although there still remained a heavy turnover of players. Going into 1985, Collinwood picked up Brian Taylor from Richmond, Greg Smith from Sydney, and continued to introduce a number of young players, amongst them centre-half forward/ruckman James Manson and rover Matthew Ryan.

But Collingwood struggled much of the year, their highlight a Round 8 victory against Hawthorn (who’d go on to play in the grand final) by 11 points, James Manson kicking five goals. Many would’ve been forgiven for thinking that would be the springboard for greater things, but it wasn’t to be. We finished seventh, four games out of the Top 5, and with seemingly very little clear vision of where the club was meant to head.

In many ways, we’d become an extravagant version of the lowly clubs, seemingly with money to splurge, but no actual direction – not like a Carlton, or a Hawthorn, or an Essendon, who recruited to address deficiencies and strengthen their team, cultivated from within, and built towards a purpose. We tried to emulate their method, it seemed, but just without the method itself. The result was this soulless entity.

It was three years of Collingwood in purgatory, perhaps still reeling from a succession of grand final losses and thinking that it – it being success – would just happen for them if they threw money (and players) at the issue.

It wasn’t to be, and would lead to one of the club’s darkest ever chapters.

CSM: Chapter 11.

11. Maybe.

I went to school Monday, dreading facing the humiliation of it all. This wasn’t just a loss, the sort you might have some friendly banter with your friends over. Nor was it a night grand final defeat in controversial circumstances. This is what football’s about: premierships. And Collingwood had lost it, blown yet another opportunity.

Some people don’t understand what that means. It’s just a game, they’ll tell you. Yes, the act of what happens on the field is a game – kick ball, chase ball, kick goal. But the rest is an investment – you invest time and energy and resources to follow your team. In that investment, you create the hope of something better for your team. The culmination of it is all is winning a flag. To blow that means more than to lose a game. You lose everything you put in. It’d be like taking the year to build a house, and then trashing it when you’re a doorknob away from finishing it.

When I got to school, Joey was in his Carlton jumper, and striding up and down the walkway to our portable bearing a Carlton flag. I hated him then. Well, not him specifically, but what he represented – and that wasn’t even a Carlton victory. It was simply the loss, the failure, that a whole year (or another whole year) had been for naught. Fortunately, Joey didn’t crow – not too much. Nor did any of the other Carlton supporters.

Whereas the off-season between 1980 and 1981 had been filled with optimism and hope, there was no such positivity about the off-season between 1981 and 1982. Everything felt flat. Colourless. Black and white. How often can you climb that mountain? Even at eleven, going on twelve, I knew something had changed, and not for the better. It’d had been amazing – superhuman – for Collingwood to rebound for as long as they had. But everybody has their breaking point. Even supporters feel it, after a time.

Compounding the disappointment of it all, former captain, Ray Shaw, had a falling out with the club. Shaw had struggled in the second half of 1981, but he was a pacey rover with good skills – the sort of player Collingwood should’ve considered it could ill-afford to lose. However, lose him it did. Shaw didn’t have the heart to play against Collingwood, so bypassed all the VFL clubs and joined Preston in the VFA. (At the time, the VFA was a decent competition which got respectable crowds – possibly equivalent to what the SANFL and WAFL are now to the AFL, if not even a closer relation.)

Collingwood did recruit Graham Teasdale, though. Teasdale had started his career at Richmond and moved to South Melbourne, where he’d become a champion and won the Brownlow medal in 1977. He did start having injury concerns later in his career, which is when – naturally – Collingwood decided to move heaven and Earth to land him.

At least it was a change and change can offer hope, no matter how small. Who knew what we might accomplish with Teasdale in the ruck and Moore up forward? Maybe something could be born from the ashes.

Maybe. That’s all that was really left. No certainties. No purpose.

Maybe maybe maybe.

1982 marked my first year of high school, which also meant – for the most part – a whole new group of people, and a plethora of new allegiances. Also, as I got older (and as is the natural progression of things) my awareness of the club, of opposition, of players, et al, was heightening – not that that means anything overly significant, but only serves to demarcate my increasing understanding of the game. It was no longer just a matter of going to the game and blindly expecting us to win because that was the objective.

Round 1 was against Geelong at Waverly Park. You could see immediately that something had changed. Whatever had knitted these players together, whatever had fuelled them, whatever belief they’d had in themselves that they could pursue and accomplish victory, could aspire to dominate the competition, could dare to secure a flag, was gone.

It was amazing to think you could have the same coach, largely the same personnel, and yet such a different result in what’s exhibited on the field. How does it change that radically? You think about what makes a great team – some of the ingredients are obvious: a good coach, good players, a good gameplan, et al, but there’s something else, something that interweaves that all, that knits it together and becomes the physiology of a club – the lifeblood, the heart, the soul.

When I was five, one of my grandfathers had died, and I’d gone to the funeral where they had an open-coffin service. I kissed him on the cheek, and recollect how cold his skin was. There was also him, lying there, in his suit, eyes closed, as if he was asleep. But what constituted his life was absent. There are all the clichés in death about the ‘spark’ being gone, about the body just becoming a shell, but it’s true.

Something – no, not just something, but the one thing that offered life, operated life, was life – was gone.

This was Collingwood now. Geelong trounced them by 88 points.

Maybe out of dented pride or simply because they were playing a side which was woeful – in Footscray – Collingwood came out the following week and scrapped out an ugly victory at the Western Oval by 12 points. Here was another maybe: maybe we were just going to be slow starters to the year, and take a while to find our bearings. Maybe coach Tommy Hafey simply had to put this side back together again. Like Humpty Dumpty. He was fine afterward, wasn’t he?

But it was a fool’s hope. We lost the next eight, although this patch did contain the season’s highlight for me – the Round 5 loss to North Melbourne, at North Melbourne’s home ground of Arden Street – a game that was notable because Phil Carman played for the Kangaroos. (He would kick 4.2 for the game.)

At half-time, North literally led by 9 behinds (7.14 to 7.5), and – as was the pattern – it looked as if Collingwood was struggling to hold on. Early in the third quarter, the ball went forward, about thirty-five metres from Collingwood’s goals. A pack formed and Collingwood’s Murray Weideman fired out a handball, which sped unwittingly at umpire Vas Vasilou. Vasilou ducked, trying to evade the ball, only to headbutt it to Daicos, running by. Daicos snapped to goal – his first of six for the quarter. Collingwood would lead by 1 point at three-quarter-time, but would lose by 17 points.

These losses became pretty standard. There were some narrow defeats, although a few of these were against horrible opposition whom we would’ve crushed the previous season. Then there were also some uncharacteristic pulverisations. Injuries didn’t help (Teasdale amongst them!), although they weren’t the cause. We dropped to second-last on the ladder, with only the single victory to our names.

In any such situation, the coach is on a hiding to nothing. He can say all the right things, as can the club in supporting him, but pressure snowballs. As it grows, it’s harder to withstand. People bay for change because they think change will address the issue. Media pick at the carrion before it is carrion, intensifying the pressure. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It’s like having a noose around your neck and standing on a rickety chair.

Sure enough, Collingwood sacked Hafey and appointed Reserves coach, Mick Erwin, to be the caretaker coach for the rest of the season.

It would seem unfair on Hafey, given his record to that point. He’d taken over the 1976 wooden spooner, and had gotten them into a grand final the following year. Of the five full seasons he’d coached, he’d failed only the once to make a grand final. But for a bit of luck or a better playing squad, if not for administrators celebrating grand final victories at three-quarter time and congratulating players and prematurely inflating their heads (a la 1977), if we’d simply been a club who did what was required to secure success, Hafey might’ve won a flag or two. Who knows? If he’d won an early one, possibly the shackles would’ve been broken, and we could’ve used that success to build a dynasty, as clubs had done in that era.

There were (at the time, but substantiated in the future) rumours of a player revolt, led by captain Peter Moore. Hafey had apparently gone too hard on the players in the wake of the 1981 grand final loss and lost them – lost their faith and belief in him. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like for anybody involved, to lose four grand finals, three of them from winning positions. I can’t imagine the pressure a club like Collingwood – with its mammoth supporter base, and the way it polarised football fans across the country (you either loved them or hated them, there was no middle ground) – would’ve felt to win a flag, or how that pressure would’ve increased, like a tightening noose, with every flop.

Erwin coached Collingwood to a 36 point victory against the inept Saints the week Hafey exited. But if fans expected a belated awakening, some late, mad dash to the finals, some of the fighting Collingwood spirit, they were royally disappointed. Collingwood managed only another two wins for the year – against Footscray, and against Geelong (who had their own horror year, finishing ninth).

There were further rumblings, though, as the club disintegrated. The Melbourne Football Club offered Peter Moore a million-dollar-contract to change clubs. Moore considered his relationship with Collingwood fractured following the 1981 grand final. Although later, he would regret not remaining a one-club-player, he jumped, which was the bitterest irony – allegedly, he spearheaded the move to have Hafey sacked, and then left himself.

Meanwhile, the administration was challenged by a group called The New Magpies, led by newspaper chief Ranald McDonald, his ticket including racing driver Peter Brock. The New Magpies promised everything – sweeping reform; an imperative to drag the club into the twentieth century, out of outmoded, if not provincial forms of thinking; and to recruit the players required to win a premiership.

It was really the latter that appealed to masses. Carlton were demonstrating how to pillage interstate leagues for champions. Richmond had netted themselves Maurice Rioli. Collingwood just didn’t have the same flair – as landing Teasdale illustrated. The odd exception aside (e.g. Mark Williams, Michael Taylor), too many of Collingwood’s recruits were past it, injury-riddled, or simply solid, dependable types.

The New Magpies pursued John Kennedy Sr as coach. Kennedy had coached Hawthorn form 1960–1963, and 1967–1976, winning flags in 1961, 1971, and 1976. He offered experience and a hard approach, and could’ve been the man to mould a new Collingwood from the turmoil that had plagued the club throughout 1982. Unfortunately, the deal fell through. (He would go on to coach North Melbourne, from 1985-1989, with only moderate success.)

Instead Collingwood ended with SANFL Port Adelaide coach John Cahill, who’d led Port to flags in 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981 – all the years Collingwood had lost grand finals. Maybe that would be an omen. Maybe that’s what Collingwood needed, somebody who knew recent success. If he could just translate that ethos to Collingwood, maybe we could recapture our former glory.

Maybe.