10. Cakewalk …?
Finishing top in the Final Five system was a massive advantage. All you had to do was win one final and you were into the Grand Final. That meant, as a grand finalist, you’d played one game in three weeks, whilst your opponent would’ve played three. Your side had a chance to rest and your players had additional time and less duress to recover from injuries. On the flip side, your opposition was going through the wringer, playing hard finals filled with pressure, the threat of elimination constantly looming over them. It was brilliant, and the way finals should work: finishing top should come with benefits no other finalist receives.
Almost as good a pathway was finishing second or third, winning your way through to the Second Semi Final, winning that and getting into the Grand Final. That way, you had a week’s break whilst your opponent was pitched into the Preliminary Final and suddenly had all the pressure on them to not drop straight out of the finals’ race.
After blowing top spot, this was the pathway Collingwood would have to pursue, facing Geelong in the Qualifying Final. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Whilst Collingwood started brightly, kicking 5.5 to 2.5 in the first quarter, Geelong overhauled the Pies to lead by 14 at half-time and 26 points at three-quarter-time. Again, I awaited the great comeback. No such luck. Geelong by 14 points.
Geelong’s big men had a field day. Geelong ruckman Rod Blake amassed 45 hit outs, relief ruck John Mossop kicked 7.3, and little known eighteen-year-old Stephen Reynoldson proved a handful. It was one of those games where the opposition got everything right and players played out of their skin while we got everything wrong. To compound matters, Collingwood captain Peter Moore had done a hamstring.
Fitzroy had eliminated Essendon by 15 points in the Elimination Final, and now faced Collingwood in the First Semi Final. Given what had happened in the final round of the Home & Away season, and how flat Collingwood had looked in the Qualifying Final against Geelong, nobody was very confident.
Collingwood, however, ground out a 38-point lead at half-time, which would seem to ensure victory. We relaxed. Fitzroy came back hard, though, whittling the margin to just 14 points at three-quarter time. In the final quarter, they took the lead, and led by 10-points at the 29-minute mark. As was becoming a common theme, I was in tears. Other Collingwood supporters streamed from the MCG, eager to avoid the traffic and witnessing firsthand the ignominy of bombing out of the finals in straight sets.
But Collingwood fought back, Craig Davis spoiling Garry Wilson following a Collingwood kick-in to kick the ball long to Ross Brewer on the wing. Brewer paddled the ball along, took control, and remained calm to slot a pass to Daicos, about forty out. Daicos goaled, to reduce the margin to four points. Shortly afterward, Collingwood had gone forward again, Davis kicking long into the goal square. The ball spilled off hands right on the line, and Brewer snapped it over his head. Collingwood in front by 2 points.
Fitzroy won the next centre clearance, Lee Murnane streaming from the centre and kicking the ball long and straight. Peter McCormack got a hand on it to deflect it through for a point. For the next couple of minutes, Fitzroy kept the ball locked in. Whenever Collingwood managed to navigate the ball out of defence, an errant kick would turn over the ball across the half-forward line. Fortunately, Fitzroy’s kicking wasn’t much better, and their next several sallies were intercepted. Shortly, the siren went: Collingwood winners by 1 point.
Geelong had lost easily to Carlton in the Second Semi by 40 points, which had them facing Collingwood in the Preliminary Final for the second year running. Again, there was that air of doom hanging over the match given what had happened only a fortnight earlier.
It was a tight game, with the lead alternating. A couple of notable highlights, though: Rene Kink providing a shepherd, leaping and thrusting his shoulder into Neville Bruns’s face. Bruns’s head was split open and he had no idea where he was. The umpire gave a free to him while Kink protested he’d legally used the shoulder. I mention this not to revel in the barbarity of it all (although there is a coolness in the barbarity of football), but just as a contrast to the way the game has evolved. The other highlight was Daicos, who lined up from a set shot in front of goal from about sixty-five metres out. He walked in, handballed the ball over Ian Nankervis (who stood on the mark), ran around the unsuspecting Nankervis, paddled the ball along, recovered it, and slotted it through. The Sun the next day featured a panel of photographs showcasing his brilliance at work. Again, as mentioned earlier, it’s one of his phenomenal goals which just doesn’t get played whenever they show highlights of Daicos. In the end, Collingwood won by 7 points.
Which meant a Collingwood-Carlton Grand Final.
There is an underlying malevolence about the Carlton Football Club, an entitlement as if they deserve greatness, and can gorge from the misery of others to achieve it. It’s an arrogance which is both ruthless and dismissive, and nurtures a casual disregard for their contemporaries, (and sometimes for authority). I don’t say any of this condemningly: you have to admire a club that will do whatever it takes to win. But given their stature, and Collingwood’s failures in 1979 and 1970 against them, there was a trepidation in facing them in a Grand Final.
We’d beaten them twice during the season, but that meant little. This was an entirely different set of circumstances. The psychic in The Sun again tipped Collingwood – I took less comfort from this prediction than I did the previous year. On World of Sport, Lou Richards – a Collingwood legend and premiership captain – tipped that Collingwood would win to protect their premiership tally. If Carlton won, they’d equal Collingwood on thirteen flags.
That had to add some pressure to Collingwood’s cause, as did the need for this squad to break through and finally win a Grand Final. Already, they’d failed to win Grand Finals in 1980, 1979, and 1977 (twice), and the club hadn’t won a flag in twenty-two years, despite having eight opportunities to do so. The expectation was terrific, as was the foreboding of potential failure.
On paper, Carlton’s was the star-studded side. Collingwood’s only genuine gun at this point was Peter Moore – an athletic ruckman who was a beautiful mark and had great skills. Unfortunately, he’d done his hamstring three weeks earlier, although the plan was to play at him full-forward in the hope he’d cause some headaches. Peter Daicos was on his way to becoming a gun, Mark Williams had a great year, and there were a few very good players (like Michael Taylor, and Ricky Barham, but Barham also went into the game injured, with several fractured ribs). Otherwise, it was a team full of solid types, plodders, and recyclables.
It was a close game for the first half, with both sides threatening at occasions to break the match open. Barham’s ribs were tested out early and Daicos landed awkwardly in the second quarter, looking like he’d done his knee. He recovered, but struggled throughout the rest of the game. Wayne Johnston decked Graeme Allan behind play and broke his jaw. Allan took no further part in the game. It was a devastating blow for a team with injury concerns (and this occurring when you had only two on the interchange). Moore was problematic at best, and Carlton had instructed his opponent, Scott Howell, to run off him at every opportunity. Moore was unable to follow. Carlton’s Bruce Doull was brilliant down back and almost unpassable.
At quarter-time, Collingwood led by 2 points, and at half-time Carlton by 1 point. For the first ten minutes of the third quarter, Carlton dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard. Collingwood were wasteful and (without citing it as an excuse) Carlton won some questionable frees. They had opportunities to bury the game but failed to capitalise. It really looked as if Collingwood were struggling to hold on and just like a matter of time before Carlton nailed a goal or two, which would open the floodgates and signal the end.
Instead, Collingwood clicked, a series of goals amounting to a 21-point lead at the 29-minute-mark of the third quarter. Carlton looked spent suddenly – such is the case with momentum. I could smell the victory – just like most Collingwood supporters could. It was right there. Just as we’d beaten them twice in the home and away season, it seemed we had their number. Collingwood had opportunities to extend their lead but fluffed them.
Then, in the space of a couple of minutes, Carlton got two goals, slashing the lead to 9 points. That was it. Right then and there – even as a dumb 11-year-old – I knew the game was over. In football – in most sports – momentum can fuel you like adrenaline. You can be exhausted, can have had the worst lead-up to the contest, but get on the momentum and ride that wave and it can take you places nobody ever imagined, washing out the opposition in the process. We’d ridden the swell but fallen off. Now Carlton were paddling towards it.
Still, I had to nurture some fatalistic hope. We dominated the opening minutes of the last quarter, kicking a point early. Then, David Twomey went on a run and kicked the ball long from half-forward. It was going through for a goal. Peter Moore, basically standing right on the line, went for the mark. He fumbled it – which had been his speciality in the second half. He couldn’t run, he was constantly led to the ball, but there was any number of times he actually got to the contest only to drop a mark he otherwise might’ve taken. The ball went through for a point.
From there, Carlton overran Collingwood. In fact, they overran Collingwood through inaccuracy. If they’d kicked straight they could’ve won by seven goals or so. Collingwood just never had another look-in. Carlton were too good.
Years after the game, there were any number of reasons that were espoused as being the cause of or contributing to Collingwood’s loss. The most obvious was Collingwood’s hard run through the finals – being smashed by Geelong; then draining close matches against Fitzroy and Geelong, while Carlton had only the one match (in three weeks) – a comfortable victory against Geelong. Players also complained that Hafey – as was his wont – trained them way too hard in the lead-up to the Grand Final. Ricky Barham cited that they ran out of legs and couldn’t keep up with the fresher Carlton, and at three-quarter-time Carlton coach David Parkin and player Jimmy Buckley both crowed that Collingwood were exhausted. Carlton players have pointed out that Collingwood players were arguing at three-quarter time and recriminations were flying. Parkin spoke with the incredulity about the way Collingwood brought injured players (Moore and Barham) into the Grand Final – Moore largely ineffectual. Another bit of folklore is that at three-quarter-time, Collingwood administrator, Thorold Merrett, took a shot at Ricky Barham for not going hard enough at a contest. Tony Shaw claims it was deflating to team morale to have some suit – who’s watching the game from a private box – take a shot at the players who are busting a gut.
In the grand scheme of winning premierships, there are circumstances you can control, there are circumstances you can navigate, and then there are circumstances that you can do nothing about, or which you let control you.
There was an amalgamation of issues which hurt Collingwood’s chances, but the reality is they still had it in their power to win the game. They didn’t need to play Moore, (although Moore claims that depth was non-existent at the club, and worse than playing injured players). If Carlton players were getting violent, they could’ve taken a stand. And in terms of performances, far too many name players did very little or nothing.
As I was learning, there was always something at Collingwood: here, it was Thorold Merrett blasting Ricky Barham; in 1979 it was Wayne Harmes tapping the ball in from over the boundary; in 1977 it was Phil Carman’s suspension; in 1970 it was Peter McKenna and Des Tuddenham colliding and knocking one another out.
The other complaint is how average their teams have been. Even Peter Moore has said that no coach other than Tom Hafey would’ve carried Collingwood as far as he did. We lacked the star power when it matters, others have said – which might be true, but ignores the fact that we’ve still had the players to get us that far, we’ve had the players to win the other finals to put us in a Grand Final, and we’ve had the players to put us in winning positions in most of our Grand Final appearances since 1958 (64, 66, 70, 77, 79, and 81, with only 1960 and 1980 being the exceptions).
The truth is whenever the club is landed a violent blow, instead of riding it and rising up in spite of it and doing what’s required, they must worry about the wound being mortal – at least on some subconscious level – and spiral into a self-defeating realm where they insulate themselves with justification as to why they might fail.
1981 was just another example.
Carlton did what was required. Collingwood didn’t.
And it spelled the end of this Collingwood.