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?
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.