5. Night Robbery.
People are always saying that ‘the game’s changing.’ That’s partly correct. The game has evolved. Players have gotten fitter, stronger; their kicking (generally) sharper, longer; their capacity to play in various positions more flexible. So, in those ways, the game has changed.
Fundamentally, though, the game itself has remained the same. It’s still about winning the ball, about being first to it, about pressuring the opposition when they have it, about finding your way to goal, and about kicking a better score than your opposition. None of that’s changed. None of it ever will.
Attitudes have, though. Take State footy, for example. There was a time that its existence was almost integral to the competition; that it was almost a necessity to find who the best State in the country was. Players waged war, taking State footy about as seriously as they would a grand final. Play it nowadays, however, and I’m sure a lot of players would have it in the back of their minds not to get injured, and that’s definitely what the bulk of fans would be praying for – that players from their clubs survive unscathed.
The pre-season competition is something else which has changed drastically. Now, most clubs play it at a canter, using it as an means to trial young players, to experiment with positions and gameplans, and to give the squad a tune-up before the real stuff begins. The AFL, on the other hand, use it to experiment with new rules – most of them rules nobody wants.
Back in 1980, there was no pre-season comp. It was simply the Night series – obviously because it took place at night (and before night games became a common fixture) and it ran concurrent to the Home & Away Season. There was a lot more prestige invested into matches, too, and fans took it far seriously. It was also extravagant, involving thirty-four clubs – which included a number from interstate. They usually got knocked out relatively early, though. Games were fixtured for Tuesday night and whilst your team would rest a handful of players, most of the mainstays would play. That also meant they were a little bit flat the following Saturday, (Saturday afternoon being the only time H&A games were played).
The competition would never compare to the real thing, but neither was it the absolute training run the pre-season competition is nowadays.
Collingwood won in 1979, defeating Hawthorn in a scrappy game. In 1980, they had a chance to go back-to-back – which hadn’t been done – playing North Melbourne in the grand final.
Some clubs had stature (e.g. Richmond); some clubs resonated malevolence (e.g. Carlton); but I wasn’t sure what to make of North Melbourne. I knew of only one North Melbourne supporter, a girl Simone, who was in the same class as me. And that was it. Even though they’d won a couple of flags in the last five years, and even though they’d beaten us in the 1977 grand final (as if that was some exclusive club), they just didn’t have the same weight or foreboding as your Carltons, Essendons, and Richmonds. All they really had was the ubiquitous Xavier Tanner.
This was the first time I’d watched a game with a completely vested interest. I’d watched the previous year and been tense throughout, but now I was actively following Collingwood. I didn’t go, though, instead watching the game at home with my parents and brother. My two oldest brothers, John and Lou, had gone.
The game came down to the dying minutes. Collingwood had a seven point lead, before Malcolm Blight roved and snapped right in front of goal, to bring the margin to just one point. Collingwood dominated the next couple of minutes; a quick shot from Allen Edwards about fifty out, straight in front, was punched through; the ball went up to the wing and Collingwood harassed it back down to the forward line. A running snap from Ray Shaw deep in the pocket resulted in another point.
Two chances to bury the game gone. Collingwood also played the last few minutes as if they were behind, and took every opportunity to play-on as quickly as possible. Today, players would slow the game down and chip the ball around.
North Melbourne’s Daryl Sutton kicked out long to the half-forward line. Xavier Tanner (who else?) dropped the mark, but was given a free because Paul Hannerberry brushed against his side. It was the softest free kick, especially since an assortment of pushes had been let go. Tanner kicked deep into the centre, where Malcolm Blight used his body to shove Billy Picken under the ball. Blight marked. Turned. Played on. The siren went. Elation! Blight ran on. The siren’s gone! Elation flattening. Blight kicked to Kerry Good, leading out of the goal-square. The siren’s gonegonegone! Good marked. Dread replaced elation. I waited and waited for everybody else to click. Commentator Bob Skilton started talking about how the siren had already gone. The crowd ran on. Good lined up and, to his evil credit, he waltzed in and slotted it right through the middle as thousands of Collingwood supporters converged on him. Bob Skilton continued to go on how he had no doubt the siren went well before Blight’s kick, but then rationalised that the game’s not over until the umpires have registered the siren.
I got up, tears in my eyes, and without addressing anybody else in the dining room, retreated to my bedroom, wallowing in the injustice of it all, suddenly unsettled at that misery of a loss. Like that, we’d gone from the best in the (Night) competition to the second best. Worse, we hadn’t just lost. In fact, we hadn’t lost at all. We’d been robbed. There had to be some way to amend the result. I thought about Simone, and how she might gloat tomorrow at school. People love Collingwood failures.
I went to bed, still tears in my eyes. When I woke up in the morning, I found that it was official: Collingwood had lost. So there went all hope of some post-game correction. Thankfully (← facetiousness), the VFL discussed ways of ensuring that such a travesty never occurred again, including using a ball that exploded when the final siren went. That would’ve been something to see.
When I got to school, I saw Simone and pre-empted any gloating by asking her what we were meant to do when the umpire didn’t hear the siren. She didn’t really saying anything, though. That was gracious of her, all things considered. Or maybe she just didn’t realise the life and death nature of football.
Still, it was official:
Grand final heartbreak: ☑
Tragic circumstances: ☑
I’d become indoctrinated to Collingwood.
15 July 1980
Escort Cup Grand Final
North Melbourne 8.9.(57)