3. Some ruminations.
I was still too young to truly appreciate where Collingwood stood in the grand scheme of things – that they were coming off another grand final loss, and what that meant, or that it was their second loss in three years (or third failure to win a grand final in three years, if you include the 1977 draw). I knew these defeats existed, but was just a stupid kid too young to understand their significance.
There’s something to be said about innocence. And stupidity.
If I was older, I would’ve understood that the 1970s marked a decade of the grandest failures. The 1970 grand final wasn’t just a loss. Many felt it scarred that generation of Collingwood. In 1973, Collingwood finished the H&A season on top, two games clear of second place, and crashed out of the finals in straight sets. In 1976, they won their first wooden spoon ever. Then there were the 1977 and 1979 grand final losses, both capitulations from strong positions. Maybe the thing about the scarring was true. Of course, 1970 would’ve only compounded what had begun to develop since the 1930s – because, in my humble opinion, that’s when it all began.
You look at Collingwood and up to 1936 – just forty-four years into their existence – they had eleven flags. Eleven. One every four years. Their record at that point was 11-9. Then there were losses in 1937, 1938, and 1939, and not another grand final appearance until 1952 (another loss). Then, whilst there were victories in 1953 and 1958, there were losses 1955, 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1966 and then, of course, 1970, 1977, and 1979.
Their record between 1936 –1979 is 2-11, for a total (up to this point, mind you) of 13-20 and one draw. That’s just going into 1980. (If I flash forward to 2013, you can add another 2-5 to that record, for a total of 15-25 and two draws.)
What happened? How do you manage 11-9 in forty-four years and (again, flashing forward) 4-16 for the rest?
There are obvious factors, horror stories of the club refusing to pay players their worth, and losing stars to VFA and country leagues. Some argue we just weren’t good enough, fielding battling sides which were only ever strong enough to be competitive (at best). One of Collingwood’s greatest players ever, Bob Rose, left the club at 27, because he had a better offer to captain-coach country team the Wangaratta Rovers. He wasn’t the only one. There was a prevailing attitude that players should play for the jumper which, while noble, created an inequality. Other clubs were paying guns to stay, and paying overs to secure guns. Our attitude was you played for the jumper and in doing that, I guess, that virtue should’ve aggrandized their talents and that nobility should’ve realised ultimate rewards.
Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale. Just ask my grey hair.
Perhaps these attitudes are indicative of the greatness – or at least the sense of greatness – which must’ve immersed the club. At the very least, I often think complacency must’ve set in. How could it not? Nobody’s close to you. It’d be impossible not to cushion yourself in your own hype. I recall an interview with a former Collingwood administrator who said they use to misplace flags back then (in the 1930s), there were so many of them. So maybe they got comfortable, thinking success would always be there and forgot that it’s something that has to be fought for, earned, and won.
How does a club handle such failure? Even if players change, how does the weight of expectation affect them? Or do they go into grand finals feeling almost an entitlement – a largesse that they will win, because that’s what they had done before in the distant past – which undermines them, however unwittingly (and psychologically), undercutting their efforts? Or do the losses simply burden them, incapacitate them when it matters?
Maybe some will think I’m reading too much into it. But look at the record. Something happened.
As a nine-year-old going into 1980, I didn’t understand this. I knew we were a successful club but had lost lots of grand finals, and our last one was back in 1958 – twelve years before I was born. And I also knew that footy was becoming more noticeable in my life.
At one point, my brothers took me to watch Collingwood train at Victoria Park. I didn’t really understand the significance of the stadium. It could’ve been any other football oval, other than for the rows of seatings and stands. The names on the stands meant nothing to me. Nor the history that must’ve been ingrained in the place, the wars the ground must’ve seen and remembered, stained in the roots of the grass and the grain of the wooden seats. It would be another couple of years before the ground meant anything to me, and another decade before I looked it as a fortress.
Still I was excited, although I was unsure what I was expecting. Watching the players run drills back and forth wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be. In the end, I wanted the players to get off, so we could get on the oval and have a kick of the footy I brought.
After they were done, we went onto the oval, where my brothers spoke to a very young Peter Daicos, who was a second cousin. Daics (whom I didn’t know at all), grabbed my footy at one stage and had a shot at the goals at the Sherrin Stand end.
Buy a cheap footy today, and you’re bound to get something which is a perfect shape and weight. Back in 1980, cheap footies were, well, cheap. They usually weren’t perfectly oval, and were bound to be bulbous somewhere or other. A lot of them were weird weights, too, either too heavy or too light.
There was no way to gauge the distance that night. Again, a different time, so there were no fifty metre arcs. But we were standing forward of centre. And Daicos didn’t turn around, line up, focus, and poise himself. He pretty much just turned around and kicked it. His kick must’ve sailed, oh, geez, at least 120, 130 meters – at least that’s the way it looked to me. The goals seemed tiny and the ball sailed through at post height. The ball had travelled further than I was capable of running uninterrupted. I had no idea that such a feat foreshadowed the career he would have.
A little later in the year, Wayne Harmes and a group of Carlton players came down to run a footy clinic at our primary school. I wore my long-sleeved Collingwood jumper, (again, not really understanding the full significance of the Collingwood-Carlton rivalry).
During a drill, somebody kicked the ball miles over my head. I went up for it one-handed – it really was my only option. Harmes barked at me to use both hands, that the ball wasn’t a teddy bear. I need a bug-eyed emoticon here. I don’t know what that was about. But I did manage to snare the ball. Maybe Harmes was just snapping at me because of the Collingwood jumper. I should’ve kicked him in the crotch. Who’d hold that against a ten-year-old?
But little events like this signalled the leap I was taking. I crossed from a casual observer into an active supporter and as I did that, I began to study the team, began to memorise names and numbers.
The 1980 side comprised a handful of guns, a lot of plodders and recyclables from other clubs. Coach Tom Hafey had coached Richmond to four flags between 1966 and 1976. He’d taken over Collingwood’s inaugural wooden spoon side in 1976, and brought us to the 1977 and 1979 failures. Oh the fairy tales that they could’ve been. The dynasties which could’ve been born. But this is Collingwood.
Again, a lot of history I didn’t really understand at the time. I just expected to win – and not even because we were Collingwood either (and regardless what’s said, regardless how opposition supporters descry it, there is an inherent majesty about Collingwood). I just expected to win because being a kid, that’s all you know and expect. That innocence isn’t robbed of you until later.
Of course, maybe that expectation developed because we had been successful at that time, because we did win more often than we didn’t. I wonder what it would’ve been like to support a team which was crap at that time, like Footscray. Would I have had an expectation to lose, to not play finals? It’s amazing how supporting a team can shape so much of your life around you – attitudes, friends, enemies, and who you kill and dismember after a grand final loss and bury under a tree in the parking lot. (Not that I’ve ever done that, of course.)
But it’s something that a lot of people either don’t think about, or which they take for granted.
Footy can really shape your life.