CSM: Chapter 18.

18. The Finals’ Course.

The expectation was that we should beat the West Coast Eagles in the Qualifying Final. They were a good team, but as an interstater, they struggled when travelling – well, maybe struggled isn’t the right word, but they weren’t as good a side as they were at home. There were factors they had to contend with: the long plane flight from West Australia (and in the two weeks previous they’d gone to Carrera and Kardinia Park), acclimating to different weather conditions, as well as playing on a ground which they didn’t use often.

We sat in the pocket behind the goals, scoreboard end, on an unseasonally sunny day – particularly for Waverly – and expected victory. This was it. In 1988, we’d faced Carlton, who was the reigning premier and a hardened outfit; and then Melbourne, our bogey; in 1989, again Melbourne. Three tough matches where we really never found our equilibrium. This was what we needed: a gimme to ease us into finals – not that we should really need it, given we finished second that season and looked a dominant outfit. But you look for the breaks wherever you can find them.

Again, unfortunately (a word probably used too often in conjunction with Collingwood), Collingwood were flat. And inaccurate: 3.6 to 3.1 in the first quarter, and 7.11 to 6.5 at half-time. In the third quarter, West Coast took the fight right to us, the score 10.12 to 10.10. They wanted it. They desperately wanted it, and things were going right for them – including a number of running shots from outside the F50, which they nailed. We seemed inept and uninspired. Oh, that was a familiar tune in recent finals.

I could only imagine Leigh Matthews ripped into the players during the break, because they attacked frantically in the early minutes of the fourth quarter, but just couldn’t score. Then the Eagles kicked two quick goals to take a ten point lead. Although there was plenty of time, the game looked done. We were playing crap and the Eagles were full of running.

On came Brian Taylor, who’d struggled the whole year, played a lot of Reserves football, and had seemed to have fallen from Leigh Matthews’s calculations for a premiership. Taylor had struggled with deteriorating knee problems and was a one-position player – he was a full-forward or nothing, so it wasn’t like he could squeeze his way into the team in another position. With Daicos and Brown generally such a potent forward combination, Taylor had more often than not found himself on the outer.

Shortly, though, he took a beautiful mark, sticking his butt out to keep Murray Rance from the contest, then diving forward – like a slip’s fieldsman – to take the ball just inches from the ground. We waited anxiously but Taylor converted truly to bring us a goal closer. Not long after he received a free for head high contact – an amazing result. The free was there: Rance attemped to spoil and struck Taylor in the head. But Taylor was one of those players who could be mauled and he usually wouldn’t get a free. Another goal. We hadn’t deserved it the way we’d played, but were suddenly two points in front.

Then came a bit of play that was iconic – a shot from Collingwood went wide. The Eagles mopped up, kicking the ball into the pocket. Millane came barrelling in, bumping his opponent to the ground. Gavin Brown recovered the ball and measured his options. He handballed over an opponent to Millane, who was tight on the boundary. Millane handballed to Daicos, who was running out of bounds, two Eagles in pursuit, and banana-kicked it from deep in the pocket. The ball never got more than a couple of feet off the ground, bouncing on the line but sailing directly through the middle.

Like that, we were eight points up. Victory seemed assured – the great escape.

Unfortunately (see? another one), the Eagles still had plenty left. They goaled not long afterward – a snap to Karl Langdon. Then a point. The final bit of play came when Peter Sumich marked deep in the pocket. With only seconds remaining, Collingwood one point in front, Sumich lined up. He was a good full-forward and had kicked bags, but he wasn’t the most reliable kick. He didn’t let Collingwood down on this occasion: a behind.

The game was a draw.

Nobody was sure what was meant to follow as disbelief ran through the ground. Draws are so uncommon, and even unlikelier in finals. Ultimately, it was announced the game would be replayed the following week, which meant all other teams – Essendon, waiting patiently in top spot; and Melbourne, who’d defeated Hawthorn in the Elimination Final – were put on a hold.

The question was which Collingwood would emerge for the rematch? The flat Collingwood, which had a finals’ record under Leigh Matthews of zero wins, three losses, and one draw? Or was the draw the life we needed to find our footing?

Later, upon reflection, the players said the draw was some consolation, that they went into the rooms knowing they couldn’t play any worse and the Eagles couldn’t play any better – meaning we had a ton of improvement open to us.

The replay was more like Waverly weather: dark and grey and cold. The big news during the week was that the AFL had approached the Port Adelaide Magpies from the SANFL to join the competition. Collingwood’s president, Alan McAlistair, vented his indignation, saying they shouldn’t be allowed to wear their black and white stripes and they’d have to change their moniker of the magpie. The move, though, was more of a gambit from the AFL, prompting the SANFL to form a team to join the AFL – the club that would become the Adelaide Crows. So yet another club was incoming, which was exciting.

But, for now, not as exciting as the Replay.

Matthews dropped Taylor for the game, which was a cruel kick to the guts. If it hadn’t been for Taylor, Collingwood wouldn’t have come back against the Eagles to escape with a draw. He was largely responsible for keeping Collingwood’s premiership hopes alive – and at least ensuring we didn’t drop back into the First Semi Final, as had occurred in 1988 and 1981.

With a point to prove, Collingwood exploded in the first quarter of the Replay, kicking 8.1 to 2.1. This was it. This was what we’d missed the last two finals’ campaigns – Collingwood playing their naturally flowing, aggressive, running game.

The second quarter offered no relief as we kicked 4.5 to 2.4 to extend our lead to 49 points. The Eagles fought back in the third – or, likelier, Collingwood relaxed, knowing they had the game under control. West Coast kicked 5.4 to 2.3. The lead was now back down to thirty points – a manageable sum. But Collingwood were not going to let up on this occasion. They kicked 5.3 to 0.3 in the last quarter, to win by fifty-nine points, and book themselves in against Essendon in the Second Semi Final.

There was genuine excitement about our prospects now. Back in 1981, we limped into the Grand Final – both figuratively and literally. In 1980, it had been the ongoing fight of the underdog repeatedly defying the odds. In 1979, it had been the long route – drop the Qualifying Final, then rebound and win our way through. Not one of those times did we have a strong, quick, and hard side. They were battling rag-tag groups, (with no disrespect intended to them).

There was also some concern for Essendon given they’d had an extra week off – one week was perfect to refresh, get players right, and send them out with an advantage over their opposition. Two weeks? Nobody was sure how they’d come out. Was it too big a break? Would skills and tactics become rusty?

The game was held at the MCG on another sunny day in front of a crowd of 91,555. The whole stadium seemed to simmer. In all likelihood, this would be a preview of the grand final, but who’d win straight through and who’d have to take their chances in the Preliminary Final against West Coast or Melbourne?

From the beginning, Collingwood were crisper and harder at the ball, kicking 4.5 to 2.3 in the first quarter. That shift that had begun way back in Round 19 was continuing. Essendon might’ve finished top, but they were not the top team. They also seemed to want to over-finesse, usually taking the option of one handball too many – again, perhaps they were rusty and still trying to find their feet following their extra week off.

In the second quarter, Essendon tried to fight back, but could only whittle the lead away by two points. There really was a sense that they were holding on, and at some point that we’d click into gear and have one of our goal-bursts where we’d race away – although most probably wouldn’t have dared admit it, and (in typical Collingwood fashion) expected the worse.

We needed have worried. This side was different. Determined. Perhaps the draw had made them realise their mortality. They were frenetic in the third quarter, although it wasn’t the flurry of goals in a short space of time we’d expected. Collingwood ground Essendon down throughout the quarter, kicking 5.1 to 2.3, the last goal the knockout.

Madden marked the ball just inside the centre square, in front of Essendon’s centre-half back position. He should’ve gotten a fifty metre penalty as Monkhorst continually mauled him. It wasn’t to be. Madden handballed to Derek Kickett, who was suddenly corralled. Kickett handballed back to Madden, who then handballed back to Kickett, who almost spilled it. He sped away from Scott Russell, bouncing once, and then – as he was contemplating what he was going to do next – attempted a second bounce. The ball bounced oddly, Kickett missing it entirely. Russell scooped it up deftly, then charged into the forward fifty to goal. It was one of those blunders which punctured their resistance – well, not just punctured it, but popped it like a balloon.

In the last quarter, Essendon capitulated, kicking only 0.2 to Collingwood’s 5.7, Collingwood running out winners by sixty-three points. That was it. We were into the 1990 Grand Final with our best chance to win a flag since 1977.

My brother Lou immediately organised about getting tickets, which involved camping out at Northland, in front of the Myer entrance (Ticketmaster on the top floor of Myer) for a week. We were about fourth in line. Lou drew up a roster, with everybody given shifts as to when they minded our spot in the queue, but ultimately the roster was abandoned, and people would just come and go as a party atmosphere prevailed. There was always beer in eskies, and as the line grew and grew, we made other friends amongst the supporters.

Some nights were freezing and we’d escape to the movies for some respite. One night, about fifteen of us snuck in to see Die Hard 2 off the two tickets we’d purchased. It was the only way to get warm – at least for a little while.

The cold did not dampen our enthusiasm, though. There was a tribalism about what was happening, tribalism fuelled by a hopefulness that I’d never experienced before. I was too young to appreciate this when we last made a Grand Final, and right now anything seemed possible.

The following Saturday, as we camped out, Essendon faced West Coast in the Preliminary Final – a game I was indifferent to, as I was quietly confident we’d beat either in the Grand Final. Ange went and reported as far as standard went, it was one of the worst games he’d seen. Essendon won by sixty-three points – the same margin we’d beaten them by in the Second Semi.

Immediately, Essendon supporters began to line up on the opposite side of the entry to Myer for their Grand Final tickets. Somehow, they powered a portable TV and VCR, and watched the 1984 Preliminary Final – the game they smashed us in by 133 points. Some of the younger guys brought a football, and we’d play kick-to-kick with them. There was a begrudging respect that you probably wouldn’t get at a game, when you’re at odds over the contest. Here, it was about sharing the same plight to get tickets, (although they didn’t have to line up as long as we did).

Come Monday morning, Lou, and one of the other guys, Frank, bought our tickets – over thirty of them. Because it was such a large group, we couldn’t all be seated together, but were instead piled in little clusters in the same area. I was partnered to sit with Ange.

That night was the Brownlow Medal. One of Lou’s mates held a barbecue, and we watched the count. Collingwood players just don’t poll well in awards. It goes back to that universal bias, which I’m sure exists. Collingwood has always been about the love/hate relationship: you love them or you hate them. People who hate them rarely give them credit, or diminish them and their accomplishments.

As far as awards go, there have been so many games where Collingwood has smashed an opposition, and yet their players still don’t figure primarily in the Brownlow votes. We can win by nine goals, and yet somehow we don’t have the best player on the ground. It’s an amazing phenomenon. Somebody should really do a study.

Graham Wright was our big hope after having a great year. After seven rounds, he sat on eight votes, just behind leader Tony Liberatore (from Footscray), on ten votes. In Round 8, Collingwood played Fitzroy, and Fitzroy ruckman John Ironmonger had picked up Wright in a tackle and dropped him on his head. Wright had been in brilliant form up until that game, but it had then taken him a while to rediscover touch. Meanwhile, in the next six rounds, Liberatore collected another six votes.

Wright charged home strongly, but fell short by one vote. Usually, when a team does well, players can suffer because teammates will draw votes from them, which might’ve been the case here (since Collingwood had so many good players throughout 1990), but only to some small extent. Collectively, Footscray amassed 79 votes to Collingwood’s 85. Liberatore also played three less games than Wright. So Liberatore won on 18 votes, Wright on 17, which left him second – second!, just as Collingwood had been so many times in grand finals. Was it a sign? We remained ebullient, but it nagged us – if not mocked us – in the dark corners of our minds where the horrors of Collingwood grand final losses lurked.

The close of the Brownlow marked the end of everything which had built to this moment: this was it, there was nothing but the Grand Final left.

And with it, yet again, all our hopes.