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.