I have an admission to make. Earlier during the season, we were gathered at the Birmingham Hotel (pub) pre-game – our usual meeting place for MCG games. I was talking to one of my brother’s friends, Mouse, and was adamant we wouldn’t win a flag under Matthews. At that stage, I just couldn’t see us taking the next step.
There was something about Matthews’s coaching which troubled me. Part of it was the insularity. Once you were out of the klique (as Paul Hawke, David Cloke, and Brian Taylor found out), you were gone. Maybe that was part of cultivating a contender, but it also felt exclusive in its way, as if it would be detrimental to the rest of the playing group. Another issue was his match-day coaching, which rarely seemed brilliant or innovative. I thought we’d remain thereabouts and somebody else would have to take us the next step.
The season gradually convinced me otherwise – although, regardless of the season, I always believe we are a chance. Maybe it was growing up and becoming truly aware of football during that Hafey era, where grand finals seemed an entitlement. A flag, surely, could only be a breath away. Everything else was fatalistically irrelevant.
During the year, I had a dream we did win the premiership, although the dream contained none of the details of the match. We were somewhere amongst a partying crowd – Ange, Johnny, my brother Lou, and others, and celebrating the win. That’s all I knew. I kept the dream to myself, fearing an admission would curse it from happening.
The lead-up to the actual game was filled with speculation about whether half-back flanker Alan Richardson would play. Richardson, who’d played every game of the year and had become an integral part of the defence, had broken his collarbone when tackled in the Second Semi Final.
At training, Matthews gave Richardson – and, more importantly, his collarbone – a vigorous workout. Richardson’s collarbone withstood every assault. Then, when the workout seemed done, when Richardson wasn’t ready, Matthews barrelled into him. The rationale was that the collarbone had to withstand all forms of contact, and not just contact when Richardson was expecting it and could brace himself. If there was one thing that was for certain, Essendon would test out anybody who wasn’t match-fit. Now, whatever healing the collarbone had done since the Second Semi was undone as it re-fractured. That was it for Richardson. Out of the grand final. In came Shane Kerrison. It wasn’t exactly like for like, but it was close enough.
As we gathered at the Birmingham pre-game, the mood was cautiously optimistic. We had become the form side. This was our time. It had to be. Although I worried if we lost this, there’d be no recovery from it, and it would scar another generation of Collingwood (not to mention what it would do to the supporters). You need so many things to go right to win a flag, and only one to go wrong to lose it. Unfortunately, we too often seemed to be on the latter end of that equation
We sat at the top of the Ponsford, right behind the goals. It was yet another sunny – and warm – day. Most of September had been this way. When Collingwood emerged, there was a determination in their faces and eyes, an unswerving resolution towards making this premiership a reality after thirty-two long years of waiting and eight (nine, if you count 1977 twice because of the draw) failures.
Later, lots of stories emerged about the lead-up to the game. One was how Essendon had decked out their rooms in streamers and balloons, whilst Collingwood’s remained bare, Matthews keeping everything low key and everyday. Another is how Tony Shaw got up before the playing group and told them he’d played in two losing grand finals already (1980–81) and he wasn’t going to play in a third. Then there was their resolve, which even Essendon’s Paul Salmon later remarked on, as Collingwood strode out to play.
Collingwood dominated the opening of the quarter but just couldn’t kick a goal. Then, Essendon went forward, kicked the ball long, and Salmon marked right in front of Christian. Already, Ange began to panic, telling me that Salmon was just too tall and we had nobody to combat him. Ange was one of the great panickers. Matthews was also concerned, though, as he swapped Michael Christian with Craig Kelly. Essendon went forward again and again Salmon marked. Ange’s panic almost transcended into hysteria, declaring us gone, (a common occurrence with Ange). We just had nobody to match-up on Salmon. It was over. Salmon goaled. Matthews swapped Christian and Kelly back.
Signs weren’t good for Collinwood. We didn’t need the sort of performances which had marked our finals in 1988–89, and the Qualifying Final Draw against West Coast – those flat, shellshocked, tentative efforts. Essendon were a hardened side, filled with players who’d been there and done it (1984–85). If they smelled our vulnerability, they’d kill us. Right now, we weren’t vulnerable, but we were struggling to put it together. With every moment we struggled, Essendon would gain momentum. How long could you hold out? Something had to give.
With just over six minutes remaining in the first quarter, there was a throw-in at Collingwood’s half-forward line. Craig Starcevich leaped over the top of the two ruckman and thumped it forward. The ball came off hands. Starcevich followed the ball and, sliding to his knees, punched the ball forward. As soon as Starcevich set forward, so had Daicos, anticipating the way play would unfold. He gathered the ball deep in the pocket, about forty metres out. His Essendon opponent protected space, because the natural thing for anybody to do in this is situation would be to come back into the corridor, to open the goals up. But Daicos wasn’t natural. Instead, he drifted out to the boundary. His opponent pursued. Daicos kicked on his right foot and slotted the goal through on the tightest angle. Terry Daniher, jogging towards the goal-line, watched the ball sail over his head. He then turned and threw Daicos an exasperated look, as if to say, You are seriously not meant to be kicking those.
The crowd erupted. The tension shattered. This was it. In the documentary, 1990: The Final Story, Gavin Brown talks about the relief of Daicos not only kicking that goal, but also that Collingwood had a player such as him who could produce the miraculous. You could feel the relief, too, as it permeated the stadium and the side. The engine, which had been chugging unhealthily, finally kicked over and started.
Collingwood goaled again with only twenty or so seconds remaining, Brown roving the ball in the pocket and running it in. The quarter ended with Collingwood 2.5 to Essendon 2.2 – amazing that we were in front, given we’d been floundering earlier. It was a psychological victory, that we could be dysfunctional going forward, and yet now be in front when Essendon had held the scoreboard ascendency for much of the quarter.
That was when the fight erupted on the wing. It was impossible to follow it, and to work out who was doing what, given it was just a melee of players. But it then became evident that a Collingwood player was down, although it was unclear who as he lay in a foetal position. It became a case of going through who was standing and working out who was missing: Gavin Brown. Again, Ange declared us gone. Brown was helped up, and shaky-legged, he was escorted from the ground. People around us speculated what had happened. Later, it was revealed that Terry Daniher had king-hit Brown from behind.
Again, it’s become part of folklore that Matthews told the players to settle down and play the football, as he knew the umpires would be hot on free kicks in the second quarter. Allegedly, Sheedy told his players the same thing. But when the second quarter began, it was Collingwood who regained focus, while Essendon appeared rattled and continued to flaunt their physicality. Maybe it was ingrained in them. Sheedy’s Essendon sides always contained niggle.
Starcevich marked just inside the square and was scragged. Scragging was actually a tactic Essendon (under Sheedy) had started and perfected – whenever there was a stop in play, either from a mark or free, Essendon would hold onto the player and prevent them from playing-on quickly. It was the reason the AFL introduced the fifty-metre penalty: yes, exclusively because Sheedy had innovated this tactic. Now, Starcevich was marched to about twenty in front of goal. He kicked truly.
Not long after, Crosisca goaled, roving the ball from spillage and kicking from fifty. Next, Anthony Daniher played on from the goal-line and handballed long to Ezard in the pocket – actually he handballed past Ezard. Ezard chased the ball and had no sooner gathered it when he was tackled to the ground by Scott Russell. Holding the ball. Russell tried to get up and Ezard wrestled him back to the ground. Fifty. Shane Kerrison patted Ezard on the butt to tell him well done, as did Tony Shaw who approached to pass on the same sentiment. Then, Tony Francis, who was nowhere near the free kick jogged in and tapped his forehead at Ezard, as if to say, Good on you, but perhaps not so politely. Francis almost incited another fight. Shaw and Daicos interceded and told him to move on. Meanwhile, another goal.
Next, Crosisca marked in front of goal – well, he sorta marked, not really holding the ball very long, but the umpire paid it anyway. A goal from twenty metres out, straight in front. Suddenly, we were twenty-eight points up. Just like that, the game had turned. Collingwood had fixated all their attention on the ball, whilst Essendon spent the quarter chasing them. With the umpires hot on the whistle, Collingwood benefited.
In their next assault, the ball came forward, Starcevich gathering and handballing to Francis running past. Francis tried to navigate his way through three Essendon players but was tackled. He handballed to Scott Russell. Russell tried to snap the ball, but Derek Kickett cannoned into his back. Kickett had no intention to tackle, but just hurled himself forward with a bump. Another free. Another goal.
Essendon got one back through Derek Kickett. Kickett crumbed a punch, and even as he was falling, twirled in mid-air to snap the ball through. It was a beautiful snap, surreal almost given what was happening, and probably the only way Essendon could score against the flow – through some individual act of freakishness. If anything, though, whilst Daicos’s freakishness had kickstarted us, Kickett’s probably reminded us that we couldn’t let up, not for a moment.
Shortly afterwards, Barwick marked forty metres out, straight in front. Bewick – arriving on the scene just a second late – thumped Barwick in the ribs. At no point was Bewick’s intention a spoil; it was a cheap shot on Barwick and nothing else. Another fifty. Barwick goaled from straight in front.
At half-time the score was 8.9.(57) to 3.5.(23) – a handy leady, although you couldn’t call it unassailable after the events of the 1970 grand final (where we lead by forty-four points and still lost). Trepidation filled the MCG. If Essendon could get early goals in the third quarter, doubts might creep in for Collingwood. I was confident, though. This wasn’t the same group that had played in previous losses. They were a mentally strong side, driven by guys who’d experienced failure and refused to relive it (Shaw and Daicos), players who’d been tempered by successive finals campaigns (and probably also driven by those failures), and, collectively, a group fuelled with a hunger to break the drought..
Early in the third quarter, Starcevich marked on the wing. Terry Daniher came in late and whacked him across the head, almost knocking him out. Collingwood was awarded fifty metres. Starcevich, who had arguably been Collingwood’s best up to that point (maybe that’s why Daniher had targeted him), was taken from the ground. The ball was given to Mick McGuane, who goaled. Forty points up.
Then Gavin Brown returned.
He bolted right up to Terry Daniher at full-back and began chesting him and getting in his face. You could see Daniher was actually panicked. This was a guy he’d king-hit, who he’d knocked out, and who was now bouncing in front of him. Surely, Daniher would’ve feared retribution. He certainly looked as if that was the case. Mark Thompson, who approached from nearby, also showed a mixture of concern and disbelief that Brown was not only up and about, but in their faces.
The game went back and forth, Essendon struggling to find a way through but to no avail. With about eleven minutes remaining in the quarter, Millane kicked the ball long. The ball bounced in the pocket, took an awkward bounce. Daicos roved it, ran across the pocket, turned his back to goal, and banana’ed it through.
Essendon got the next two – marks to Peter Sommerville, then David Grenvold, straight in front. The lead was cut back to thirty-four points – still a formidable margin, but not unmanageable. It was the first chink in Collingwood’s assault, the first doubt – however minor – that Essendon might have something left, and that Collingwood might fear their own inevitability. It could be so easy to add to the string of tragedies and improbable capitulations.
Collingwood went forward. Jamie Turner grabbed the ball from a pack and snapped it to the top of the goal square. Brown, being held by one arm, tried to mark it but failed. The ball rebounded to Mark Thompson, inside the goal-square. Doug Barwick closed on him. Thompson got a loose handball away out of a tackle – straight to Gavin Brown at the top of the goal-square. He snapped. Goal.
At three-quarter-time, it was 11.10.(76) to 5.6.(36). Much later, it was revealed when Sheedy addressed his players (during the break), he brought up that a couple of quick goals could sew doubts into the mind of the Collingwood players, but the Collingwood resolve stood. Essendon had a couple of chances – Madden hit the post and also kicked one into the man on the mark, both basically from straight in front. Collingwood kicked two more. The first was a snap to Barwick. Given the margin and that it was the last quarter, the players could’ve been forgiven for celebrating (the victory). They didn’t, though. They just marched back into position. The second goal came from a set shot to Monkhorst straight in front. It was the latter goal – the last for the game, with only minutes remaining – that Matthews said convinced him that we had it.
Ange and me left our seats and joined the group, who’d huddled together. There were grown men around us in tears. I was too young to truly appreciate the Hafey era – and what had come before it – but, still, I could feel it: it wasn’t elation (or just elation), but relief. A loss could’ve devastated the club, could’ve just added fuel to the stigma and propagated it. But this was it. We’d finally – belatedly – done it. In the post-match celebrations, president Alan McAlistair called it ‘the impossible dream’. After so many attempts, after so many failures, after so much heartbreak, he was right.
The final play was a kick-out from Mick McGuane to Darren Millane, deep in the pocket. Millane turned, considered his options. The siren went. Millane tossed the ball in the air. Celebrations ensued. Tony Shaw was awarded the Norm Smith Medal for best afield, although until Terry Daniher knocked him out, that was probably an honour that belonged to Craig Starcevich. In that moment, though, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about individual accomplishments.
After thirty-two years and a string of heartbreaking failures, Collingwood finally had their flag.
Note: For those interested, one of my short stories – ‘Love and Blinding’ – has been published in the online journal Running out of ink.