8. Cause and effect.
Going into any new season, there’s always a sense of optimism. Even if you’re the worst possible team, you can always hope that things will get better. That mightn’t actually be the case, or the season might quickly disabuse you of that notion, but initially your expectations are pristine.
When you’re a grand finalist – even a pummelled grand finalist – the hope burgeons. (Well, usually.) You know you’re thereabouts. But for a bit more luck, an absence of injuries, younger players improving, and an injection of new talent, you have all the ingredients which suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, you might be able to go one step further.
1981 was also my first real season. 1980 I jumped in late. But now, I was hopping on the ride from the beginning, ready to see where it would take me – like there could be any doubt at that point. With Collingwood, there could only be the expectation of greatness.
It was part of football’s growing influence on my life. It seemed all around me. I also started playing for my primary school, although I was only a so-so player, too diffident to assert myself and really stand out. But it was something to be part of a team, to play weekly, to experience firsthand what it was like to be part of a team, even if that team simply was primary school.
Classmates’ allegiances shone out to me. The captain of the football team, Joey – who shared my table in class – was a proud Carlton supporter. As was his best friend, Michael. My best friend, John, was a Collingwood supporter. Ian was a Hawthorn supporter. Another friend, Bill, was a Richmond supporter. Often, during recess and lunchtime, Bill and I would sketch football pictures – usually involving somebody taking Mark of the Year. Our inspiration was Michael Roach’s 1979 Mark of the Year (which can be seen by clicking here), the still of which was – at least at that time – immortalised.
When it came to attending matches, there were also a few changes. My brother John – with whom I’d gone up to this point – was going overseas, so I started to go with my brother Lou. This also meant I got to hang out with my cousin Ange, who was about my age, and part of the group Lou picked up along the way, (including our cousin Con, and a friend known as Mizza).
Lou also had an army of friends. I don’t know where they all came from. But they were all shapes and sizes, and came with such resplendent nicks as Pumpkin, Worm, Mouse, Bozo, and Whale – just to name a few. My brother was Uncle Lou to them – don’t ask me why. Con was ‘Connells’. (I wouldn’t get one nickname until five years later, and another until ten years later.) But every game, they’d congregate, bit by bit, until they occupied an entire section of the ground.
Some of them were scary to look at, in the way you might cross the street if you saw them on a dark night coming from the other way. The others looked like everyday people, until they congregated. Then there was something about them – although none of them ever behaved threateningly towards anybody, and the bulk of the time they were the source of some cracking one-liners.
They had set spots at each ground where we watched. At Victoria Park, it was on a section they called ‘Daicos Hill.’ This was a sharp dirt slope on the half-forward line. We stood right on its furthermost right edge, which had been curtained in a wall of rocks concreted together, their heads jagged and bulbous along the topmost perimeter. A rickety wooden railing ensured nobody tumbled from the hill, such were the awesome safety regulations. A race separated Daicos Hill from the Ryder Stand. Directly behind us were a set of toilets. A little further down opposite them was a fast food kiosk. Then there were the gates where we entered – and from which the players and media would enter. To our left, Daicos Hill continued to unfold, levelling to the scoreboard which towered above the forward pocket, and then the Yarra Falls end goals.
Daicos Hill became our fortress. Opposition supporters would appear at their peril – not that violence was likely, but you did feel the animosity and condemnation and ridicule, (which is good; that’s the way you should feel going to an opponent’s home ground, damnit – something which has become lost to the bulk of Victorian clubs). There were times opposition supporters would show up, and within fifteen minutes would realise it was prudent to be standing elsewhere. Of course, that pretty much summed up Victoria Park.
Our first game for the year, however, was against Fitzroy at Fitzroy’s home ground of the Junction Oval. We always went early, arriving in the first half of the Reserves (sometimes very early in the first half).
I got up in the morning and dressed hurriedly – duffel coat, Collingwood jumper, and because everything else was dirty, I dug out of the closet a pair of black cords I’d gotten for my birthday the previous year (seven months earlier).
The cords were too small. I had to struggle for minutes, writhing on the bed, to get the zip up, and even longer to button them up. They were skin-tight, strangled me for breath, and cut into my crotch. But we beat Fitzroy comfortably (and would’ve smashed them by even more, had we kicked straight – 20.13 to 22.27), which meant the cords had to stay.
I don’t know how it got in my head that something could be lucky that way. Maybe it was something I picked up subconsciously from one of my brothers, or maybe it developed organically. Lots of people have superstitions. So maybe its programmed into all of us, some holdover from tribal ancestry where we observed rituals for fortune and prosperity.
In Round 2, we played Footscray at Victoria Park, smashing them by 94 points. Oh, you can talk about coaches, tactics, recruits, fitness, et al – everything which contributes towards making a successful football team, but surely my cords had to be doing their bit, too. How could you disprove it? Two appearances, for two wins.
This became my ritual. The whole week at school I’d wear anything but my cords – they were just too bloody painful. Come Saturday, I’d go to the wall closet in the hall, open the door, and fish them out. Then I’d struggle into them. When I came into the kitchen, my mum would remonstrate with me, telling me they were too tight. As I walked stiff-legged to my breakfast, I’d tell her they were fine. What do mums know about fashion?
Round 3, we travelled out to Moorabbin, St Kilda now captain-coached by ex-Carlton legend (and coach of Carlton’s 1979 premiership team against Collingwood) Alex Jesualenko. We staked out our claim, right behind the goals, and settled in for the match.
The day was ultimately notable for two things:
- during the Reserves, somebody had a shot, the ball landing equidistant between me and somebody twice my age. I caught the ball and spun away from him – the first time I’d ever touched the ball, even if it was in a Reserves game. The thrill, though, was to hold that match-day Sherrin. This wasn’t some cheap footy, like we would kick around in the streets. This was the best type of footy you could hold.
- Jeff Fehring’s goal, from the center of the ground (link), which we were right behind. The beauty of the torpedo is that when the kicker truly gets hold of them, they just seemed to continue propelling through the air, especially if there’s a good wind behind them.
And, of course, we won.
As we did in Round 4 versus Geelong at Kardinia Park, beating the Cats by 8 points; then smashing Melbourne at Victoria Park by 63 points.
Part of the reason for Collingwood’s dominance had been the recruits – Michael Taylor had become a solid, reliable back pocket, Graeme Allen was a handy half-back flanker, whilst Mark Williams was a tough, unrelenting centerman (whose form was so good he would earn State selection for Victoria). Craig Davis was also having an exceptional year. Although undersized for the role, he held down full-forward, Collingwood now devoid of any legitimate key-forwards.
Another contributor was the emergence of Peter Daicos. Daicos had always been a talented prospect, but in 1981 – as just a nineteen-year-old – he began realising his potential, becoming a mercurial half forward with some valuable stints in the midfield. He was as skilled a player as there was in the competition, with beautiful balance, amazing poise, and the ability to produce the mercurial. His goal returns to this point looked like this:
- Round 1 – 6.4
- Round 2 – 6.4
- Round 3 – 6.1
- Round 4 – missed with an ankle injury
- Round 5 – nothing, (although he still looked restricted through injury).
In Round 6, Collingwood took on archrival Carlton at Princes Park (Carlton’s home ground), 1st (Carlton) versus 2nd (Collingwood), both teams undefeated.
There are games when things just click. This was one of them. After leading at the end of the first quarter by 10 points, Cartlon capitulated to a brilliant Collingwood performance, led by Daicos, who kicked 7 goals straight on Cartlon legend Bruce Doull. Daicos was unstoppable and the team rode the fortunes of whatever karma gods serve football, (probably putting a little in our bank, to be debited at a later date). In the end, Collingwood trounced Carlton by 57 points.
The following week we smashed South Melbourne by 65 points, (Daicos kicking a meagre two goals). After seven rounds, we now sat on top of the ladder with seven wins; Carlton second with six wins; North Melbourne, Hawthorn, and Richmond all on five wins. Essendon, who we were playing next, sat ninth (from just twelve teams), with just three wins.
Former Richmond great Kevin Sheedy had taken over as coach of the Bombers at the beginning of 1981. Some believed that Essendon had a talented list, just ready to blossom, but so far that hadn’t been apparent. The Bombers had looked hopeless and Sheedy – who’d finished up as a player in 1979 – had threatened to pull the boots back on and come out of retirement in an attempt to resurrect Essendon’s fortunes.
Getting up that morning, I traipsed to the hallway closet, opened the closet door, and searched for my cords. Nothing. I rifled through the remaining clothes. Still nothing. I bolted into the kitchen to ask my mum where they were.
She told me she’d thrown them because they were too small.
Screaming and crying, I ran into the garage. We had an old closet in there into which we threw old clothes, storing them there until there were collections. I found my cords, buried amongst a whole load of other old clothes. I recoiled. They were probably fine. Probably. But being thrown here into the garage, amidst all the other discards, they’d probably become dirty, maybe even flea-ridden. They’d have to be washed, but there wasn’t time. Oh well, I’d just have to wear something else. It was only Essendon.
The game was to be played out at Waverly Park (also known at various times as VFL Park and, later, AFL Park), which – given our location – was always an adventure to get to, involving over an hour’s drive. We got there early. I bought a Footy Record, as had become my habit, keeping track of the scores the Collingwood players kicked. We took our place in Bay 36 (on the wing) and lay out various scarves and jackets to mind seats for the friends who would join us later.
Then we waited for the game to start.
I wish it hadn’t.
Essendon jumped Collingwood, kicking six goals to two in the first quarter. Collingwood mounted several spirited comebacks, but the Bombers would always gallop away. Essendon ruckman/forward Simon Madden – a player many consider one of the greatest ruckmen of the modern era – was magnificent. Every time the ball went forward, he seemed to take a contender for Mark of the Year.
I started crying. It wasn’t meant to be this way. I took my pen and scribbled out Essendon’s team list in the Footy Record. I scribbled and scribbled until the paper was shearing, and I’d decimated their side of the page. At one point, a couple of people in front of me turned to ask who a particular Essendon player was, but then saw my Record – Collingwood players lined up on one side, a pen-scribbled-incision on the other.
Madden ended with 7.3, (Daicos kicking only the one), the Bombers winning by 57 points.
As we walked back to the car, I was despondent, thinking that this wouldn’t have happened if I’d worn my cords. I was sure of it. It’s indisputable that this was the first game for the year I hadn’t worn them, and this was the first game for the year we’d lost. People might call that superstition. But it’s not. That’s just science. Cause. Effect.
It was an important lesson: don’t mess with things which work.