14. The Fight for the Finals.
986 was another year of superstitions – although they always existed in some form. By that time, being teens trying to be cool, myself, Ange, and Johnny were smoking – Winfield (Blues), for myself; Peter Jacksons for Ange and Johnny.
Prior to one game, we decided to chip in for a packet, but couldn’t decide what to get. Then we saw them: Black and White cigarettes. Well, there’s a sign. We bought them and promptly won. This became a pre-game ritual – chipping in for Black and White cigarettes, even if we already all had smokes on us. Whenever we bought them, we won. When we didn’t, we lost. Again, how do you fault the logic?
The first chink in the armour of the superstition was the one-point loss against Sydney, as the crowd became a squash and we were partly separated. That became our rationalisation: we weren’t standing together, so the magic of smoking cancer-causing cigarettes together didn’t work to help Collingwood win.
1986 was also the first season that – collectively – we got a nickname from my brother’s crew. Ange was already ‘Rooka’, and had been for years to my brother Lou and cousin Con. But for those years, we’d been kids – somebody’s little brother or little cousin. Now, though, as we were growing into teenagers, and as we became adult-size, we also became much more noticeable.
This was an era of blow-waves and highlights and pop music. Johnny and I had the best mullets, mine wavy at the back. Ange always had highlights. Ange’s other friends who occasionally accompanied us completed the set.
Thus, whenever we arrived for a game to join the crew, there’d be cries of, ‘Look! It’s Duran Duran!’
Six years of Collingwood, grand final losses, elation and heartbreak (but mostly heartbreak), and this was the indoctrination. It was a catch-cry that followed us the whole season, regardless of the game, regardless of which ground it was played at.
On the flip side, it meant something to actually be recognised and accepted from this tight-knit group. It was like a little rite of passage, to go from a nobody (or, at the best, somebody’s little brother) to an individual in your own right. It would still be another four years until I got my own nickname, though.
Following the debacle against Sydney, Collingwood sat one game outside the top five, which was quite an effort since we’d started the season with zero wins from three games. But if we could keep up the good form, if we could continue to play explosive football, then finals football would be assured, and once we were in the finals, who knew what would happen?
We followed that loss with pulverisations of North Melbourne (moving us up to sixth, but equal fifth bar for percentage), Geelong (up to fifth), Fitzroy (up to fourth), and then a narrow win against Footscray at the MCG (remaining fourth and jumping a game clear of the teams beneath us).
There’s an axiom about supporting Collingwood, about dropping games we shouldn’t, and thus sacrificing positioning on the ladder. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve spoken to friends pre-game, for the analysis of something like, ‘We should win this but …’
But. There’s always a but at Collingwood.
There’s a tentativeness there which you can’t imagine existing in any other powerful club, like a Carlton, who have probably been taught to relish crushing and humiliating lesser opposition. Not at Collingwood. At Collingwood, there’s that fear of messing up, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – as occurred in Round 22 of 1981, losing to Fitzroy and dropping from top spot and down to third on the ladder on the eve of the finals.
That’s what happened the following round, with a loss to Melbourne – second-last on the ladder – at Victoria Park. It was one of those matches where the mighty machine just never clicked into gear, and yet we still had opportunities to pinch the match, and occasionally it looked like we would. But it wasn’t to be. We went down by 13 points and not only dropped back to fifth on the ladder, but also lost our game advantage on the teams under us. This loss also smashed our superstition about the Black and White cigarettes being lucky. The superstition was discarded.
What was to follow were games against Carlton (third) and Hawthorn (first), both teams considered the serious contenders of the year. (Although Sydney Swans were second, there remained a question mark on how good they’d be away from their home-ground of the SCG, and how they’d handle the bigger MCG in finals, given the SCG is the size of a suburban backyard.) These two matches would test where we stood in the rebirth of Collingwood.
The first quarter against the Blues was close (them 5.3 to 5.2) and seemed to set the stage for a tight, tough game. The thing with good teams, though, is they have gears. We were motoring along about as well as we could, whilst Carlton had barely gotten out of second. They kicked 5.1 to 1.4 in the second, and then outscored us in the remaining two quarters to run out winners by 49 points.
From the point of view of a Collingwood supporter, the game was only notable for Denis Banks cleaning-up David Rhys-Jones during a contest on half forward, when Rhys-Jones led Banks to the ball, Banks responding with a roundhouse that knocked Rhys-Jones out (which can be seen by clicking here) – an incident Banks said was a square-up for an incident in a preview game. (Banks was considered a thug by many, but as a younger player he was a freakish talent. During a practice game in 1982, he took what I thought was one of the marks of the decade, climbing above a Hawthorn pack in the goal-square. Over the years, though, injuries progressively blunted his abilities until he became more dour than anything else and renowned for his hardness.)
The loss to Carlton saw us drop out of the five, and fall one game behind the team who replaced us – Fitzroy. Things didn’t look as if they’d get any easier, as we faced Hawthorn, who were becoming one of the power-teams of the ’80s. They’d smashed Essendon in the 1983 grand final, lost a close one to Essendon in ’84, then got smashed in ’85, but were already loading up for another assault. It says something about the hunger and intensity of a team that keeps coming back, just as Collingwood had under Hafey. However, unlike Collingwood under Hafey, Hawthorn had a number of burgeoning stars in their line-up.
A couple of weeks earlier, Essendon had smashed the Hawks by 87 points, a result which had shocked many. Hawthorn had responded by smashing Sydney – on the SCG – by 98 points. Ange had quipped when we saw the result, ‘The Machine is back.’ Now we had to face them.
The match against Carlton had been on a beautiful, sunny day. Against Hawthorn, the rain was unrelenting. We stood in the forward pocket at Princes Park (Hawthorn’s home ground) and watched helplessly as Hawthorn dismantled us. At half-time, Hawthorn were 11.14.(80) to our 2.3.(15). Our only highlight had been when Hawthorn wingman and renowned tough nut Robert DiPierdomenico had attempted to run through Darren Handley; Handley propped and just stuck a fist out into Dipper’s ribs. Handley jogged away from the incident, while Dipper lay on the wet grass gasping for breath.
Hawthorn went into cruise control for the rest of the game, winning by 72 points – not that, Ange, Johnny, and myself saw it, as we took off. There’s a big thing about not leaving games early, about seeing the game out until the end, which I don’t understand. Do you sit through the entirety of a horrible movie? Or watch the entire run of a TV show which has suddenly gone bad? Or stick with a marriage that has turned dire and is irredeemable? Sometimes, you just need to switch off. It’s the only way to save your mental well-being.
The losses against Carlton and Hawthorn also showed that whilst we were an excellent mid-range team, there was a gulf between us and the genuine contenders, who’d treated us with absolute disdain. It was also a good lesson, though, about what it took to be a champion team, and how far we still had to go.
We now dropped to 8th although, somehow, we remained only one game out of the five, as the other teams around us also lost. We could still make the finals, although it meant we had to count on results falling our way with just two rounds left.
Essendon (two-games clear, and with a vastly superior percentage), Footscray, North Melbourne, and Fitzroy (the latter three all one game clear) sat above us, which meant we needed them to lose if we were going to breach the gap to try and get back into the five.
It was the first time I’d really paid attention to the results of the other games, and the mathematics of what those results meant to our fortunes. In a way, it was a whole new world. When you were a top team, you could – or you should – control your own fortune. We weren’t. We needed things to fall our way.
Melbourne inexplicably smashed North Melbourne, and Carlton – as was to be expected – killed Footscray. Unfortunately, Essendon and Fitzroy played one another, which meant that only one could lose. Given Fitzroy were just one game clear of us, we needed them to lose – then, if we won, we’d be equal with them on wins, and we also had a superior percentage. However, they accounted for Essendon comfortably.
We played Richmond at Victoria Park, running out winners by 101 points, Brian Taylor kicking 10.4 (to go to a tally of 98 goals for the season). We jumped back to sixth on the ladder, leapfrogging Footscray and North Melbourne, and now sitting one game behind both Essendon (4th) and Fitzroy (5th).
In the final round, we were to play St Kilda (last on the ladder) at Waverly Park (aka VFL Park). The two other games of note were Essendon versus North Melbourne, and Fitzroy versus Sydney. We really needed Fitzroy to lose, or Essendon to not only lose but to get absolutely flogged. This was our only chance of sneaking into the finals.
Historically, all the games were played at the same time, on the same day, with only the occasional game on a Friday night or Sunday (or a holiday Monday). The competition wouldn’t start staggering fixtures from Friday night to Sunday evening for a number of years. This meant that whilst you were at your own match, you might keep an eye on the scoreboard to see how other games unfolded.
Only the scoreboard – as primitive as they were – didn’t list the other matches by the names of the teams involved. Instead, each team was designated a letter – e.g. A vs B, C vs D, E vs F, all the way down to K vs L. You needed to buy a Footy Record to correspond which teams belonged to which designation that week. The only thing that was fixed was that A vs B was always the game at Waverly Park.
Collingwood’s match against St Kilda begun. The other point of note was whether Brian Taylor would get the two goals needed to kick one hundred goals for the season – an extraordinary milestone for any player.
Taylor kicked one late in the first quarter, but otherwise struggled to get in the game. He looked slow and cumbersome. Although he’d kicked any number of bags for the season and there was an expectation he should get this second goal, there was sudden trepidation that he wouldn’t.
Taylor was no favourite of the umpires. He regularly talked back to them, and also got into the face of his opponents. However, about midway through the second quarter, he got a cheap free for being scragged by St Kilda full-back Danny Frawley, about thirty-five metres out, directly in front of goal.
The crowd started onto the oval in anticipation. Taylor slotted the ball through. The crowd ran on, ostensibly to congratulate Taylor, but most just because they wanted to be able to run on the ground. Some even had a quick kick. Ange, Johnny, and myself ran on, although we got separated. Danny Frawley was in tears. Ricky Barham barked at supporters to get off, although not so diplomatically. Eventually, the crowd dispersed, returning to their seats. Taylor limped off. It was revealed later he’d done his hamstring earlier during the match, which is why he’d looked so ginger.
Despite the fact that St Kilda were last on the ladder, they were competitive, and the game was close for the first half, going basically goal for goal. We were following the scores of the two games which mattered to our position – and particularly the one match that mattered most: Fitzroy versus Sydney. If Fitzroy lost and we won, we were in the finals. A simple swap. Essendon not only had to lose, but had to lose unrealistically big. It was too much to ask.
Unfortunately, Fitzroy raced to a twenty-four point lead in the first quarter, and the scoreline – 4.9 to 1.3 – suggested they were dominating, since they’d had thirteen shots to four. Essendon, on the other hand, had kicked just 0.1 in the first quarter to North Melbourne’s 8.5. Maybe there was a chance?
At half-time Fitzroy were 5.12 to 4.7, so the Swans had fought back. So did Essendon, kicking 4.4 in the second quarter to North’s one behind. We joked we might get the right results, but screw it up by losing ourselves. It was the Collingwood way, after all.
It was at this time that Ange produced a pearler, as he was always renown for the occasional unwitting slip of the tongue.
Consulting his Footy Record, he correlated the scores of C vs D, E vs F and so on, but A vs B was blank on the scoreboad. He frowned.
‘Who’s playing at Waverly today?’ he asked.
We were, of course, sitting in Waverly at that very moment.
In the third quarter, Collingwood had one of their explosive bursts, kicking 7.7 to 1.1. Sadly, Fitzroy also edged away from the Swans, 3.5 to 1.2, to lead by twenty-four points. North outscored Essendon in the third, to lead by thirty-six points. It looked as if, in all likelihood, the Bombers would go down, but not by anywhere near enough to suit us.
There’s something exciting that being able to follow multiple games simultaneously, knowing you’re reliant on certain outcomes to benefit your side. That doesn’t happen anymore, obviously, since games are played in so many different timeslots. But there’s something novel about watching you own match, and yet being equally – if not more – interested in another game taking place elsewhere, and only being able to follow it via score updates.
In the last quarter, we were more interested in the way Fitzroy-Sydney progressed. Sydney did stage a comeback, kicking 3.6 to 1.2, but it wasn’t enough. They lost by ten points. Essendon also staged a mini-comeback to lose by 22 points. We won by 52 points, but by then – other than for the personal satisfaction of victory – it was irrelevant.
That was it. Fitzroy jumped to fourth position on thirteen wins and with a percentage of 100.2. Essendon fell to fifth, on twelve wins, with a percentage of 120.3. We sat in sixth, also on twelve wins, with a percentage of 109.2.
Everybody wants to make finals – even if they’re absolutely no chance of winning the flag. There’s a number of reasons. One, simply, is that if you are there, you just never know what might happen. Second, being in the finals – especially when you’ve missed out for several years – signals your re-emergence as a club. You’re no longer a dreg. You’re amongst the best. You belong. Finally, it’s simply good experience for the players, to show their wares on the biggest stage. It hardens them, makes them realise what’s required of them.
Had we made the finals, realistically, we were no hope against Hawthorn or Carlton, although we probably would’ve beaten either Fitzroy and Essendon, and even given Sydney a good run (at the MCG). Of course, that would’ve set us up for either Hawthorn or Carlton. I could imagine (again, being the Collingwood way) upsetting one with a Herculean effort, but not both.
Still, finishing sixth – after the mess the year had been with the losses, the replacement of the coach, the turnover in the administration, the salary cuts and losing Raines and Richardson, and blooding so many young players – was encouraging.
Surely, 1987 had to promise something better.