CSM: Chapter 6.
6. Creating History.
A quick recap (for those who might not be in the know) – in 1980, the ladder comprised a final five. This involved the best finals system Australian Rules Football had ever seen, which worked like this:
1st gets the week-off – a rest, as a reward for finishing first.
Qualifying Final: 2nd vs 3rd
Elimination Final: 4th vs 5th. The loser is eliminated from the finals race.
Second Semi Final: 1st plays the winner of the Qualifying Final. The winner goes straight into the grand final. If 1st won (and they usually had an advantage as a side coming off a week’s rest) this would mean they had to play only one game to get into the grand final.
First Semi Final: The loser of the Qualifying Final plays the winner of the Elimination Final. The loser of this match is eliminated from the finals race.
Preliminary Final: The loser of the Second Semi Final plays the winner of the First Semi Final. The winner goes into the Grand Final. The loser is out.
Grand Final: The winner of the Second Semi Final vs the winner of the Preliminary Final.
Richmond were the powerhouse side of 1980, but lost inexplicably – were in fact smashed by 54 points, by sixth-placed South Melbourne – in Round 22, surrendering top spot and dropping to third. Geelong jumped to first, Carlton to third. North Melbourne and Collingwood finished 4th and 5th, a couple of wins behind, and (not that it mattered) Collingwood with a substantially inferior percentage.
Usually, fourth and fifth were just fillers in the finals. In the history of the final five, nobody had ever won through from fifth to make it to the grand final – that would require winning three tough matches. Winning a flag from this position was considered impossible.
But if there was one club built for the impossible, it was Collingwood.
Collingwood were the movie team for me. If you’ve ever seen any sporting movie which has involved a rags to riches story – you know the sort; a team, against all the odds, struggles to defy the odds, surpasses expectations, and emerges triumphant – that was Collingwood.
It was even ordained, given (the movie version of) David Williamson’s The Club had come out that year. The Club explored the boardroom machinations behind a football club. Graham Kennedy plays the boisterous president, Ted Parker, who champions the expensive recruitment of a Tasmanian star, Geoff Hayward (John Howard). Jack Thompson plays the embattled coach, Laurie Holden, at odds with his star recruit. The team, exemplified by captain Danny Rowe (Harold Hopkins), resents the money being paid to Hayward, resulting in team disharmony. Two board members, Gerry (Alan Cassell) and club legend Jock Riley (Frank Wilson) politick to oust Laurie and conspire to go on a recruiting spree the following season, poaching Hawthorn’ s gun coach, known only as Rostoff (John Proper), and targeting several star players.
It was a story which could’ve been told at almost any club, with events that probably resonate at one time or another in every club – particularly when they’re unsuccessful. However, Collingwood served as the backdrop, with the players playing themselves (although some of them were re-christened), Tom Hafey standing in as an assistant coach (although he is credited with writing all of Laurie’s speeches), and the media (e.g. Lou Richards, Scott Palmer) playing themselves.
It’s a movie which, for the most part, stands up today. Forget that Howard and Hopkins are New South Welshman who had probably never kicked or handballed a football in their lives (and doesn’t it show in their limp handballs and ungainly kicking); or that director, Bruce Beresford (who’d later direct Driving Miss Daisy), another New South Welshman, mightn’t have completely understood the nuances of Australian Rules, which resulted in improbabilities, such as Hayward flattening Tank O’Donoghue (Rene Kink) on the wing and yet somehow from that distance booting a flat, mongrel punt for goal (the ball would’ve had to travel one hundred meters); or that there’s several editing slip-ups in the matches, which were spliced together from actual game footage (e.g. in one scene Collingwood are in black shorts; but when they’re shown running through the race they’re suddenly in white shorts) – forget all that; it’s still an enjoyable movie, because you can take it for what it’s worth: a sports drama, in which Collingwood gets their shit together and wins a flag.
Surely it had to be sign.
In the first week of the finals, Richmond trounced Carlton by 42 points, while a wasteful North Melbourne just went down to an even more wasteful Collingwood (14.20.104 to 14.12.96). The following week, Richmond pulled away in the second half, to beat Geelong by 24 points, whilst Collingwood were scheduled to take on Carlton.
Prior to the game, I read on Carlton’s banner the boast that Carlton were the envy of Collingwood. I asked my cousin, Con, what ‘envy’ meant. He told me it was to be jealous of something, (Con adding that Carlton always had great messages on their banners). That was how I learned the meaning of that particular word, an explanation which has always stuck with me.
The game was close in the first half, Collingwood again wasteful, going into the long break 10.10 to Carlton’s 11.6 – a deficit of 2 points. You felt we could overrun them if we could just be a little cleaner with the ball. It happened in the second half, where Rene Kink exploded.
Kink was a talented footballer who’d debuted in a preliminary final at the age of sixteen in 1973. There were times he could just meander along, and there was a school of thought that he was distracted by the pursuit of building his physique, and living up to his nickname of The Incredible Hulk. However, when things clicked for him, when he got in the right headspace, he could be a devastating player, as he proved in the second half, moving onto the ball to blitz the Blues. Collingwood smashed Carlton in the second half, kicking twelve goals to four, to win by 50 points.
Nobody really believed we were a chance the following week against Geelong, who’d finished minor premiers (on top). Collingwood had already had a tough two games, so how long could they last? However, going into the last quarter, Collingwood led by a couple of goals. Daicos took a screamer over Malcolm Reed about thirty metres right in front and could’ve sealed the game, but sprayed the kick. Geelong came back, to within a kick, spearheaded by wingman Michael Turner, who’d blitzed Leigh Carlson the whole game, and had easily been best on ground. In the dying minute, the ball was contested on the wing between the two – if Turner won it, as he’d won every other contest against Carlson, he could drive Geelong forward and give them a last chance at victory. Carlson stood-up heroically, though, shepherding Turner away and keeping the ball in dispute just long enough for the siren to go. Collingwood by 4 points and into the grand final.
If they weren’t much of a chance against Geelong, they were given no chance against the Tigers. Most seasons do produce a power side, and whilst Richmond had slipped to third at the end of the H&A courtesy of that loss to South Melbourne, they were it in this year. Of course, power sides don’t always win flags. But in this case, Richmond were awesome, and Collingwood were coming off the back of three tough finals. How much longer could they keep going? How long could they stay up psychologically? That was the biggest question – and what experts considered as the biggest reason clubs couldn’t win the flag from fifth: it was just too exacting a toll to be asked to come up week in, week out, for four weeks.
The newspaper, The Sun, had a psychic write a column about the grand final. He predicted that it would be an ugly day (this before seven-day forecasts became common), that the beginning of the game would be delayed, but that Collingwood would emerge triumphant after a tough struggle.
There it was: a Collingwood win. How could you argue with a psychic?
We parked some distance from the MCG and started the walk to the ground amongst a ton of other fans. In The Sun, they used to have a premiership posters for each team before the grand final. Ours showed the trademark fighting magpie caricature, with ‘1980’ emblazoned under it. A milk bar proprietor already had one pasted up on the window of his shop. I nodded. A good omen.
The crowd that day was 113,461 – a figure I’ve always remembered; (I was the one). That was the biggest crowd I’d seen (and, to this day, have ever been a part of). There were people everywhere. Worse, there was yellow everywhere. Like with my first game against South Melbourne, where the red seemed everywhere so, too, did Richmond’s yellow, an acidic assault on the eyes. The day itself was bleak, overcast – the psychic had gotten that right. And the disassembly of the stage of the pre-game entertainment did briefly delay the beginning of the game. In the end, they wheeled it off and disassembled it in the race – right in front of us. Again, the psychic was right.
For about the first twenty minutes, it was a close tussle, both sides wasting opportunities right in front of goal, although there was a sense that Richmond just had to slip into gear. They looked a little sloppy, which might’ve been a result of them coming off the week’s break and just needing to find touch. Could Collingwood stop them from doing that? Could they scrap out a fight?
In the last five or so minutes of the first quarter, Richmond kicked away. From there, they proceeded to disassemble Collingwood. They were too fast, too strong, too powerful, and too energetic – the latter really stood out. Goal-sneak Kevin Bartlett killed us, kicking seven goals. Barlett – like many small forwards – had an irritating, gloating, smug personality on-field (or at least he seemed to). If you didn’t support Richmond, you were bound to hate him, (as most small forwards are hated by opposition supporters). His opponent, Stan Magro, got into an altercation with him at one point when Bartlett turned him inside-out. For a moment, it looked like Magro would thump him. I wanted Magro to thump him. I think Bartlett realised he might be thumped. This could be our only victory on this day. Perhaps that’s a deplorable attitude, but nobody cared about how Collingwood were being thumped – and thumped they were. Once the scuffle was broken up, the carnage continued. Hafey threw Billy Picken forward, and Picken did well, kicking 3.4, but it wasn’t enough – nowhere near enough. Richmond led by 23 at quarter-time, 43 at half-time, 59 at three-quarter-time, and ran out winners by 81 points – a record.
There was no individual seats at the footy in 1980. They were instead benches with planks – like a park bench – with little white markings and a number allocating the individual seat. After one Richmond goal, my brother John got up and, enraged, thrust the heel of his boot into a plank, shattering it. For years and years afterward (until those planked benches were replaced by individual chairs) I would test those planks, feeling how firm they were underfoot, and be at a loss to fathom how much rage and strength must’ve been in that stomp. The planks seemed unbreakable. But for a Collingwood grand final loss.
We sat quietly during the presentations. Our players sat on the MCG grass, shoulders slumped, heads downcast. My brother Lou said, ‘Shit. Imagine how the players must feel.’ Who could really know, other than other players who’d gone through the same wringer? As a supporter, though, it was devastating – a whole year and a courageous finals campaign, only to meet this grisly end.
Following the presentations, a Richmond supporter in front of us got up by the race and thrust his arms up in the air, holding his scarf aloft like the Richmond standard.
‘Just three more, Tiges!’ he shouted.
Three more. In 1980, Collingwood led the premiership table with thirteen flags. Carlton, Melbourne, and Essendon were next on twelve. This win made it Richmond’s tenth flag. I recoiled at the prospect of them overhauling us. Just three more flags. I was sure they could whittle it away just like that. Three was such a small number, after all.
We walked solemnly back to the car. There was the premiership poster in the window of the milk bar again. The proprietor had taken a thick black texta and turned the ‘0’ in ‘1980’ into a ‘1’ to make it ‘1981’. 1981? Could we …? Of course we could. We would. 1977, 1977, 1979, and now 1980 – we were a grand final-making machine.
Winning them was another matter. Unless it was in a movie, like The Club.
I’d thought that had been a sports drama.
I realise only now it was magical realism.