17. Contenders …?
In 1990, the VFL finally became the AFL – the Australian Football League. With clubs in New South Wales, Brisbane, and West Australia, the game had gone truly national, and the league needed to represent that. Now there was talk about trying to found a club in South Australia, although the South Australians were resistant. The emergence of the West Coast Eagles had all but killed their WAFL competition, reducing it to the equivalent of what the VFA was here. Still, though, the game was growing (or being grown) to encompass all of Australia.
Collingwood moved into this new era, and the new decade, quietly, as had been there methodology ever since almost going bankrupt. There were several departures, including Paul Hawke – who’d been amongst our best for the last two years – and David Cloke, the only real success from The New Magpies’ extravagant recruiting. Cloke returned to Richmond after opportunities became limited with the improvement of both Damien Monkhorst and James Manson.
The intelligent recruiting continued, though – almost amazingly, given what our trade history had been like prior. Short of quick rovers, Collingwood recruited two: Scott Russell from Sturt, and Tony Francis from Norwood, both clubs in the SANFL. The story, allegedly, with Francis was that he didn’t want to come down, but Collingwood offered to settle Norwood’s sizeable debts if they convinced him.
Not that Francis had the most auspicious start, although neither did Collingwood. In Round 1 against the West Coast Eagles at Subiaco, Collingwood looked a rabble. Tony Francis was charged with kicking Eagles’ Murray Rance, although the incident was more a tap more than anything. Rance was lying on the ground, his feet tangled with Francis’s, who stood over him, Francis tapped Mainwaring (albeit an angry tap, but not really much in the way of a fully-fledged kick) in the hamstring, as if to say, Get off me. He was charged with kicking, however, and got six weeks. Brian Taylor – who was writing a diary to chronicle the 1990 season – was also injured. The Eagles won by forty-six points.
It wasn’t a very good start. There was a consensus amongst some during the off-season that coach Leigh Matthews was incapable of taking the side the next step. We’d improved, yes; we’d played finals for two years running, yes; but the club was hardly threatening to become a powerhouse, as Essendon were in 1984–85, Carlton were in 1986–87, Geelong were in 1989, and Hawthorn were from 1983–onwards. We looked a club who’d be up there, but not one who’d genuinely threaten.
Departures and injuries forced changes. We became a much more defensive side, one who played to the mandate that we’d restrict opposition to under whatever we kicked, instead of believing we could just blow them away. Taylor was struggling with arthritic knees, necessitating that Gavin Brown be moved to full-forward. Graham Wright, who’d played as a small forward, was moved to the wing. Craig Kelly settled into centre-half back. Then there was Daicos.
Daicos was 28 in 1990 and, under Matthews, had rebuilt his career as one of the best centremen in the League after battling injuries – a knee reconstruction, then stress fractures in his feet so bad that he couldn’t walk – through the mid 1980s. Now we had a burgeoning midfield: Shaw, McGuane, Millane, Francis, Russell, and Wright. Tony Shaw aside, it was also a quick midfield, (with Francis and Russell blistering).
Round 2 saw Collingwood take on Carlton at Waverly Park on a typically cold, overcast day. That’s what Waverly always seemed to deliver. It always seemed five degrees colder than the rest of Melbourne, the sky seemed always gray, and there always seemed to be a cold, biting wind. These were reasons some nicknamed it Artic Park.
Bizarrely, Matthews started Daicos at half-back. Matthews would opine that Daicos had the perfect half-back flanker’s body with the stumpy little legs, although I’m unsure whether that template has held true for over one hundred years of football.
In the first quarter, Carlton kicked 4.3 to 1.1, and by half time it was 7.3 to 6.6. Both teams were horrid. Carlton had finished 8th in 1989, were struggling, and in the midst of resettling after winning the flag in 1987. Collingwood had no system at all about the way they were playing.
In the second half Matthews threw Daicos into the forward line, where he proceeded to bamboozle various Carlton defenders to kick seven goals straight, Collingwood overrunning the Blues by (ironically) thirty-five points, (35 being the number Daicos wore). Wins against Sydney, Footscray, and St Kilda followed, the last match a nail-biter Collingwood won by one point, although their inaccuracy (12.20 to 13.13) was a contributor to the closeness of the game.
St Kilda led until late in the game, where Daicos received an unusual free kick: his opponent, Kain Taylor, lay on the ground at Daicos’s feet, whilst Daicos protested to the umpire about high contact. Although he was only about thirty metres out straight in front, Daicos’s kicking had been uncharacteristically inaccurate (2.4), and he lay-off a pass to Alan Richardson, about twenty metres straight in front. Richardson goaled. Collingwood won.
As an aside, it was amazing to hear some of the racial taunts so casually thrown around in the outer at St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar – and not just mild insults, but vitriolic attacks that were effectively considered part and parcel of the game. This was years before Winmar’s famous stance against racism. It was obviously an indictment of the time where such things were accepted.
The following week Collingwood faced Essendon. After winning flags in 1984–85, the Bombers had struggled and been reloading for their next assault. This was it. It was also another one of those signpost games for me. Since Collingwood had made finals, Melbourne, Essendon, and Hawthorn were the three clubs they struggled to consistently overcome. It was no different on this occasion. Although the match was even for the first half, Essendon pulled away to win by twenty-points.
While walking back to the car after the game, an Essendon supporter about ten years older than me mouthed off about how hopeless Collingwood were. I calmly started mouthing off back. He told me the only way that Collingwood would ever win a premiership (again) was if they returned to the VFA competition. I told him he should return to the VFA. He bumped me with his shoulder. I bumped him back. We jostled shoulders for about ten metres, him continuing to espouse Collingwood’s hopeless, me espousing his fullofshitness. Eventually, the crowd separated us, but it angered me this was the perception of Collingwood: just never quite good enough, and never a genuine threat.
Things didn’t get much better with a two-point loss to Hawthorn. We lead going into the last quarter by ten points, but just couldn’t hold on. Maybe we froze up, thinking we needed to defend our lead instead of extending it. But it was frustrating. Yet again, Hawthorn had beaten us in a close one. Just when it seemed we’d broken the back of their stranglehold – or at least put a crack in it – they re-cemented it.
The following week, Collingwood regrouped by beating Fitzroy at their home ground (as well as Carlton’s and Hawthorn’s) of Princes Park by forty-five points. Daicos kicked 6.3, Gavin Brown 3.2, and the midfielders – led by captain Tony Shaw – dominated. Tony Francis also made his return, in the Reserves, and amassed twelve tackles.
Another big win followed – an eighty point drubbing of North Melbourne, Daicos kicking 7.2 and Brown kicking 7.0. We were starting to find the right balance in the side – a fleet of tough and/or fast mids, a solid defence, and whilst we lacked a genuine quality key forward, the likes of Brown, Starcevich, and Manson were able to pinch-hit, whilst Daicos provided the class.
It was around this time I cut my hair, which usually alternated between two fashions – long, or short and spiky. Now I reverted back to the flat-top. Also, as the cold of winter set in, I started to more and more wear an overcoat – an affectation since I was sixteen. It was my trademark. As was being unshaven.
At the next Collingwood match, I finally was bestowed a nickname by my brother’s assortment of friends: Vinnie. After Ken Wahl’s character in Wise Guy, which was a popular TV show about a Federal undercover agent who infiltrates the mob, a la Donnie Brasco. Just like that, that’s what they started to call me. Although one other guy amongst this group called me ‘Drugs’, because he thought I looked like a drug dealer. So two nicknames and, I guess, finally being part of the group. It hardly seemed worth waiting for.
We won the next seven, an overall streak of nine victories, which contained some big wins (including a fifty-two point pumping of the other bogey, Melbourne) and saw Collingwood go from sixth following the Hawthorn loss, to outright top, one game clear of Essendon. A match against Footscray, a seventh-placed scrapper, was to the follow.
This was a great chance to lay claim to the top of the ladder – something we hadn’t done since 1977, and which we’d blown in 1981. Surely against a team as moderately talented as the Bulldogs we’d be able to notch our tenth victory in a row – pivotal, really, given we had a couple hard games (against Essendon, Hawthorn) – coming up, and could do with shoring up our position.
Unfortunately, and maybe typically, it wasn’t to be.
In any sport (and perhaps in any walk of life), there are times everything will go right for the underdog. Watch tennis and see some journeyman suddenly trouble a top player for five sets. Watch golf, and see some golfer go on a charmed run. Watch any team sport, and witness the underdog – regardless how gross an underdog they were – suddenly look like world-beaters and trouble a far superior side.
In the first quarter, the Bulldogs kicked 4.2 to 0.5. There was something clearly not right about Collingwood – not in a sinister way. But maybe they had been up too long. The previous week, they’d faced Sydney in Sydney, so maybe they were stupefyingly jet-lagged. Who really knows? Perhaps we were just flat and expected things to happen for us. Footscray, on the other hand, was full of run and energy.
The second quarter was little better, Footscray 8.7 to Collingwood’s staggering 3.10. So on top of how poorly we were playing, inaccuracy had become another issue. At three-quarter time, the score was 13.8 to our 7.16. So the Bulldogs had kicked 5.1 in that quarter to our 4.6. In fact, our breakdown of the game read 0.5, 3.5, and 4.6. Imagine we’d just been around average – almost fifty per cent: it would’ve been 13.8.(86) to 11.12.(78), which doesn’t look so bad. Not to be, though. Of course not. It’s Collingwood.
The pattern of inaccuracy continued in the last quarter, Collingwood attacking hard for little reward. Footscray began to tighten up. They kicked four behinds while Collingwood rallied to kick 5.5 – again, inaccurate, but at least there were goals – and secure a one point lead with only about three minutes remaining. Acceptance settled into the ground. This was the way it was meant to be. It had just been a matter of time. We’d see it out.
During one of Collingwood’s late forward entries, the Bulldogs rebounded. A spoil landed in the hands of Footscray ruckman Scott Wynd. Wynd handballed to Terry Wallace, who handballed to Simon Atkins at half-back. Atkins handballed wide to Leon Cameron, who sprinted down the wing and kicked the ball long to Steve Kolyniuk, who marked about sixty-five metres out in front of Graham Wright. Kolyniuk played on, wrongfooting Wright and running to within the range before nailing a goal. Footscray had the lead by five points.
Collingwood still had a couple of late chances: a running shot from Alan Richardson fifty metres out came off the hands of Footscray’s Greg Epplestun as he and Daicos contested the ball in the goalsquare. Not long after, there was a scrap twenty metres out in front of Collingwood’s goal. Kerrison roved the ball and snapped, only to miss. Shortly, the siren went. Just like that, Collingwood had lost to a minnow. It was sobering, and a reminder not to get ahead of ourselves.
The following week, Collingwood smashed St Kilda by sixty-eight points, then had to face Essendon out at Waverly in Round 19. This was first (Essendon) versus second (us – although only percentage separated us), and a game many media experts suggested would be a preview of the grand final.
The game was a sell-out, and because of the interest generated, Channel 7 (who had rights to the AFL) televised the game live – the first time a Home & Away game had been televised live in twenty years. However, perhaps because of this, only – only – 65,293 attended the game, (although the capacity of Waverly at that time was around seventy-five thousand).
As often seemed to be the case whenever Collingwood faced a test on the biggest stage, they started shakily, Essendon running over the top of them, kicking 4.4 to 0.2. Collingwood cut the lead to sixteen points at half-time, but again Essendon raced away, building a twenty-eight point lead. They looked too strong for Collingwood, and still maintained that mental ascendancy. Collingwood couldn’t get their running game going, and Daicos was well-held by Gary O’Donnell.
Then, Collingwood – as was the Collingwood way – mounted a spirited comeback in the last quarter. Essendon started to panic. It was no longer about winning. They just wanted to hold on. There’d been an important psychological shift. Even though Essendon led, even though they’d dominated passages of the game (and had won the previous encounter), Collingwood’s efforts suddenly made them realise their mortality. They were not the standalone powerhouse side they thought they were.
It was a bruising match, but now Collingwood’s desperation began to generate some fluency – that run which Matthews had instilled within the side. Collingwood kicked 4.4 to Essendon’s 1.0, to go down by six points. Essendon players celebrated once the final siren went as if they’d won a grand final. All wasn’t lost, however. We seemed to have closed the gap between ourselves and the Bombers. Next time – if there was to be a next time – we just needed to be settled from the onset.
Hawthorn pulverised Collingwood the following week by eighty-three points, a game many Hawthorn supporters (and Collingwood-haters) pointed to as evidence of Collingwood’s vulnerability against the Hawks. Whilst that was true to some extent, a big contributor (at least in my opinion) was how physically and mentally draining the game against Essendon had been. Collingwood just did not show up to play. Almost as if in support of that theory, Essendon also lost, going down by twenty points to the eighth-placed Carlton.
We rebounded the following two weeks, smashing Fitzroy by eighty-six points, and North Melbourne by eighty-nine points. The Fitzroy game was notable for Darren Millane breaking his thumb. He was ruled out for the rest of the year, but simply refused to be ousted. Instead, he would wear a cast throughout the week, then remove it for game day, be shot up with painkillers, and go out and play, re-breaking his thumb every time (and undoing any healing which occurred in that week). The North game was memorable for the fact that North Melbourne full-forward, John Longmire, needed to kick four goals to reach one hundred goals in the season, kicked two early, but managed only 2.8 for the game.
So the ladder was settled: Essendon on top, Collingwood second, West Coast third, Melbourne fourth, and Hawthorn – who’d had a bad run with injuries throughout the year – fifth.
We’d finished second in 1988, but hadn’t demonstrated the dominance we’d developed throughout 1990. Many felt it was all or nothing now – if this side couldn’t make a legitimate assault on the flag, then we never would. And, as far as Leigh Matthews went, if we couldn’t win a final – as we hadn’t in the last two years – then he was probably not the man to take us the next step.
Only time would tell.