1988 brought a lot of new things to my footballing life.
One was a total lack of expectation. For the short time I’d actively followed Collingwood, there’d always been a sense of expectation attached to each season. Under Hafey, it was the expectation of a drought-breaking flag, (seemingly an inevitability when you keep making grand finals). In 1983, it was the expectation of success under a revolutionary new regime, new coach, and a new squad containing expensive recruits. In 1985, it was an expectation of putting it all together under club legend Bob Rose. At the beginning of 1986, when Matthews first succeeded Rose, it was the expectation that Matthews would reinvent Hawthorn’s success at Collingwood. As 1986 went on, it was the expectation of finals and, in 1987, the expectation we’d build on what the exhilaration of Matthews’s first year had promised.
There was always something at Collingwood and the bar was never, ever set low. You didn’t get that tumultuous ride elsewhere – or, if you did, I didn’t notice it. Carlton had two coaches from the 1980s (David Park 1981–1985, Robert Walls 1986–1989), a stable administration, and had perfected farming interstate recruits. They were a machine. You just couldn’t see them imploding – not in the 1980s, at least. Essendon had gone through a mini golden period with Kevin Sheedy (grand finals in 1983–85, flags from the latter two) and were reloading. Richmond had become a debacle, thanks to the destabilising trade wars with Collingwood, and kneejerk reactions to failure leading to a merry-go-round of coaches (Tony Jewell 1979–82, Francis Bourke 1982–83, Mike Patterson 1984, Paul Sproule 1985, again Tony Jewell 1985–87, Kevin Bartlett 1988–91) but, in itself, that had become their modus of stability. There were no highs to contrast their lows. The success and failures of other clubs simply didn’t seem as spectacular or as celebrated as Collingwood’s.
Now, though, there was quiet. Maybe the club had been humbled. They started the 1980s leading the premiership table with thirteen flags. By 1988, Carlton was on fifteen flags (13 in 1981, 14 in 1982, and 15 in 1987) and Essendon on fourteen (13 in 1984, 14 in 1985). So Collingwood no longer had that glory to hold onto or boast about. They could no longer lay claim to being the greatest. Just purely gauging that claim on flags, that was Carlton’s title – and one they looked capable of extending, whereas for us premierships never seemed more distant, and hardly the entitlement we once believed they were.
Collingwood was without hype, without momentum, without anything but an atypical (if not alien) quiet little existence. Their plan for revival – The New Magpies – had not only blown-up in their faces, but had done so yielding only one finals’ campaign (1984) and three finals, one of those being the record 133-point loss to Essendon in the preliminary final. Then there’d been the near-bankruptcy with banks suggesting they should shut-up shop, and the request for players to take pay-cuts. Maybe it was preferable to achieving the little we did, as opposed to nesting on the bottom as clubs such as Footscray and St Kilda did at the time, but the collection of failures was grandiose, if not embarrassing, and led to a reticence that was very unCollingwood, the club trying to find itself in a new era as the game began to evolve towards some semblance of professionalism, particularly in regards to players playing for more than the honour of wearing the jumper. Football was becoming more and more big business. Ruthlessness and foresight was required to survive and to succeed.
To Collingwood’s credit, they’d performed some great low-key recruiting in the off-season. The Sydney Swans had imploded in 1988, losing millions, with players asked to take a pay-cut. Incidentally, Tom Hafey – who had coached the Swans to successive finals appearances (in 1986–87) was sacked following a player rebellion in 1988, players complaining of over-training. (Hmmm, that sounds familiar.)
We picked up Paul Hawke in the fall-out, a talented accumulator who would become a mainstay for the next two years. Fitzroy, also facing financial difficulties, also offloaded players, including Doug Barwick, a tough half-forward flanker with a raking kick. Graham Wright, a wingman from Tasmania was another pick-up, albeit via the draft, and David Robertson – another wingman – also joined the Pies, although he’d been drafted in 1986, (his home club of North Adelaide refusing to clear him). Last of the recruits was Tony Elshaug, a rover with Melbourne (1979–83) and Essendon (1984–87). One of Collingwood’s issues in this Matthews’ rebuild was a lack of pacey small men, a need Elshaug addressed – well, at least to some extent.
So whilst not knowing what to expect going into 1988, I was all set for a new season. More than that, I was all set as an adult (well, mostly), which meant being able to have a drink at a game. Although I wouldn’t turn of legal age until mid-season, I’d always looked older than my years due to my shadowy, George Michael’esque growth, (a comparison I regularly got although I never tried to emulate him).
Drinking – as it would be for any teenagers hovering around legal age – became a novelty, and Ange and I would usually have at least six beers per game, (the amount depending on the ground: at Waverly, where we always arrived early in the first quarter, we had more time to drink). The fact that lots of games occurred during the winter when the temperature was freezing in no way impacted on our drinking.
At the time, there was a two-can limit – cans, as opposed to beer served in a plastic cup. You could buy two at a time. The MCG was always worst for service, with lines extending into the stratosphere. Victoria Park relied on timing – when you went pre-game or during the quarter-time breaks, the lines were always huge. You always had to make a dash deep into a quarter. Fortunately, because the beer kiosk wasn’t far, you missed hardly any of the game, and usually remained close enough to check should there be any cheers. Waverly was the best. They always had so many people working the bar that lines were rarely massive and even when they were, they were whittled away quickly.
Drinking of course presented other problems. We burned through money, drinking (and smoking) so much. And then there were toilet pitstops (again, Waverly, for some reason, always the best of the facilities). But at least you could approach a game mellowed. Somewhat. Not that I’m advocating drinking as being medicinal or therapeutic, although it can be – until that drive home when you might’ve had that one too many and are just trying to survive.
But surviving was easy, because 1988 became about winning. It’s amazing how much attitude can help you handle anything thrown your way. Collingwood emerged swinging, winning the first five, which included a seventy point victory over the second-last-placed Tigers, and a twenty-eight point victory over top-of-the-ladder Carlton, Craig Starcevich kicking 1.5.
Beating Carlton during the home and away season meant little, at least in regards to it being any sort of benchmark. When both teams were up, Collingwood beat Carlton as often as Carlton beat them. Otherwise, they usually went about fifty/fifty. Sure, it was nice (if not blissful) to win against them, and we hadn’t beaten them since 1984, but I was looking for signs to legitimize our emergence as a true contender. Beating Carlton wasn’t it, (at least not in the H&A – a final, and particularly a grand final, would’ve been another matter altogether).
The real teams that became the measuring sticks as Collingwood tried to rebuild their fortunes were Hawthorn, Melbourne, and Essendon. These three were bogies. For whatever reason, Collingwood couldn’t beat them.
Hawthorn was, of course, heading towards a dynastic dominance, appearing in every grand final from 1983–1987, although they’d only won in 83 and 86. Still, though, there looked no stopping them from making yet another. Melbourne was finally on the way up, after years on the bottom, and legendary coach Ron Barassi’s ‘five year plan’ to lead them back to glory only led them to further ruin. Essendon were struggling in the wake of their grand final successes in 84–85 and rebuilding, but still had enough good players to trouble any side.
During a typically cold Waverly Saturday, Collingwood faced the Hawks in Round 6, a game Hawthorn led from the onset: twenty-two points at quarter-time, ten points at half-time, and twenty points at three-quarter-time. Collingwood mounted a charge in the last, dominating play and peppering goals. Matthew Ryan had several shots which he seemed to try guide through that were spoiled on the line, instead of just drilling them, (and he kicked four behinds for the game). Collingwood kicked 2.8 to Hawthorn’s 0.2 in the last quarter, the Hawks holding on by two points.
The following week, Essendon beat us with ease by forty-four points, and a couple of rounds later, Melbourne beat us by thirteen points. So whilst we were obviously a better side, we still really couldn’t consider ourselves amongst the top echelon. The best teams make their own fate. We couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be able to accomplish that until we could regularly beat these teams. It didn’t matter how good they were – Hawthorn was the only real power side of the three. It was a case of talent becoming commensurate with mindset to overcome current rivals. Honourable, hard-fought losses ultimately meant nothing.
Otherwise, Collingwood continued to notch up victories – amongst these another win against Carlton, this a close match until the last quarter where Craig Starcevich kicked three goals in the space of about five minutes.
The following week, Fitzroy – sitting second- last – smashed us by 90 points, in a game where (allegedly) flu ran through our side and we had several late withdrawals pre-game. We then lost against to Melbourne, this time by forty-six points, drew with North Melbourne, and – several rounds later – even managed to knock over Essendon by one point. Our final loss was in the second-last round to West Coast, going down by ten goals over in Subiaco. Due to their now being fourteen teams, the fixture no longer accommodated everybody playing one another twice, and thus we didn’t have to face Hawthorn again.
We finished the year in second position, behind Hawthorn who sat clear on top, and just ahead of Carlton, which meant the first final was Collingwood-Carlton.
Carlton were a hardened outfit, experienced finals campaigners, reigning premiers, and it showed in the Qualifying Final. They jumped us in the first quarter, kicking 7.3 to 1.0. Collingwood had too many players who suddenly looked overawed. While we pulled the deficit back to ten points at half-time, Carlton pulled away and controlled the match. Daicos, who had a brilliant year in the centre, was one of the few reasons we remained as close as we did, gathering thirty-four possessions and kicking 2.1
Melbourne had finished fifth, and beat West Coast by two points in the Elimination Final, which meant that Collingwood had to face them in the First Semi Final. Melbourne.
For some reason, in all our recent games against Melbourne, we just never showed the synergy we did against other sides. We should’ve been a better side than them. Of course, there is the qualification that some teams just match up well against you. That might’ve been the case with Melbourne. In an ugly match, Melbourne lead from the beginning, built a twenty-three point lead to half time, and whilst Collingwood battled to mount a comeback, could just never get it going. Melbourne by thirteen points.
So, just like that, Collingwood suffered the ignominy of crashing out of the finals in straight sets, which is usually considered something of an embarrassment. Of course, in what had been a developmental year, it was an amazing accomplishment that they’d finished second at all. Finally, after seven years of piddling around, there seemed the construction of something greater taking place, something that was real, (as opposed to those amorphous rebuilds during the years of the New Magpies).
In 1989, Collingwood continued its prudent recruiting, picking up an assortment of young players – such as Terry Hecker, Brendan Tranter, and Colin Alexander. Most notable was twenty-two year old Craig Kelly, a tough, bulky centre-half back from Norwood who’d impressed during an exhibition game against Hawthorn, when he’d run through Dermott Brereton. Collingwood also picked up discarded West Coast Eagles’ centreman Murray Wrensted.
Collingwood started the year brightly, beating Hawthorn at Waverly by ten points, a game in which Michael Christian took mark after mark in defence to repel Hawthorn’s attacks, and Shane Morwood gathered ten kicks in the first quarter before spraining his ankle. It was a benchmark victory, given Hawthorn – now the reigning premiers – were considered unassailable and still at the peaks of their powers.
A twenty-five point loss to Fitzroy followed, a sixty point win against Brisbane, a sixty-four point win against St Kilda, an eleven point loss to Sydney, and then, most notably, a sixty point victory against Melbourne. This was it. One thing I’ve always considered a signpost that you’re becoming a genuine power is when you start knocking off the teams who’ve bullied you for several years. First, Hawthorn. Now Melbourne. Essendon reawakened us to reality in Round 9, when they beat us by sixty-seven points. So just when it seemed I was sure of myself and where the club stood, it all unravelled.
Perhaps because Collingwood were a much more known commodity to the competition – meaning clubs gave them much more respect – the season was uneven, and involved some heavy losses, including a sixty-six point loss to Geelong the next round, a forty-eight point loss to Footscray, a sixty point loss to Hawthorn (a match in which it felt as if the Hawks not only wanted to avenge the Round 1 defeat, but also crush any aspirations to contention from us); and then some heartbreakers, including a six-point loss to Carlton (although we were wasteful, kicking 12.18 to their 15.6), a four-point loss to Sydney and a two-point loss to North Melbourne.
Good teams don’t get smashed regularly, and they’re capable of winning the close ones. 1988 had felt like we’d taken a quantum leap from the preceding year, but now suddenly it was one giant sideways step on a slippery slope.
We finished the season fifth, facing Melbourne in the Elimination Final. It was a typically scrappy game on a blustery day where the wind cut right through you. We led by nine points at half-time but, somehow, Melbourne kicked 9.2 in the third quarter to wrest away the lead, with the last quarter offering nothing but an impasse. The Demons by twenty-three points and, for the second year under Matthews, Collingwood were straight out of the finals.
Three finals for three losses under Matthews.
We just didn’t seem to have the same verve about our gameplay throughout the year and injuries deprived us of stability. One issue was a lack of genuine pace through the middle. Brian Taylor, who was starting to have trouble with his knees, played only eleven games – although he kicked forty-nine goals. As we already had Michael Christian playing at centre-half back, Craig Kelly played centre-half forward and was just woeful – woeful in a way that you actually begin disliking a player because he seems more a liability than an asset.
Something else that was emerging was that Leigh Matthews was an intransigent coach, one who banked on the status quo to see Collingwood through. There might be the occasional Hail Mary of throwing full-back Ronnie McKeown up forward, but otherwise we banked on the existing structures.
Maybe that shouldn’t be a criticism of Matthews. A lot of successful coaches are exactly the same: they back what’s gotten them as far as it has. But for me, I was always inspired by the Malcolm Blight types who would throw players around. Fast-forwarding several years, I once went to a Geelong-Carlton match with a Geelong friend where Blight (the Geelong coach) started champions Mark Bairstow and Paul Couch on the interchange bench. For the first several minutes of the game, Carlton taggers ran around, unsure who they should match-up on given their targets were missing. The actually struggled to settle and Geelong jumped them. That’s the mindset I wanted – throw caution to the winds.
While 1988 had opened with a lack of expectation and closed with hope, 1989 opened with hope and closed with a newfound lack of expectation.
Perhaps the truth was we just weren’t good enough.