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.