9. Good old Collingwood.
It’s worth mentioning that Collingwood was eliminated from the 1981 Escort Cup by North Melbourne in a quarter-final. However, there was a vast indifference to the result – even the club itself seemed ambivalent, as if the tragedy (yes, it was a tragedy, damnit!) in the 1980 Grand Final had tarnished Collingwood’s approach to the night competition. Although there were some rough years which followed for the club, they didn’t seem to take the competition seriously again for another twenty years, by which time it was fast evolving into the spectacle of practise games it would become.
So now it was only the real stuff, and despite the hiccup against Essendon (who went on to win fifteen games straight, the victory against Collingwood second in that streak), Collingwood continued their dominant season, juggling top spot with Carlton. With the way the Final Five system was structured, top spot was the key, and could make all the difference between a premier and a runners-up.
One of my highlights for the year was Collingwood’s Round 10 clash against Richmond at Victoria Park. After winning the flag the previous year, Richmond had struggled due to a combination of injuries and that lessening of desire which is so common to many reigning premiers.
The game was purely the Peter Daicos show. My cousin Ange, who knew Daicos well, was keeping tabs of the scores in his Record, and kept turning to me in disbelief as Daicos kicked goal after goal. Some were truly incredible, including one where he faked several Richmond players, who fell over empty air, before slotting it through. It’s a shame when they perform retrospectives of Daicos’s career that there aren’t more goals shown from this early part of his career, as there are some which beggar belief. (However, the one I’m referring to can be seen by clicking here, from the 26 second mark – as an aside, commentator Peter Landy gets the margin wrong.)
Daicos ended with 9.2 in Collingwood’s 55-point win against the Tigers. The next day in the papers, there was a picture of him sitting in the change rooms, holding up all five fingers of one hand and four fingers of the other. It would be his best return for another decade.
The following week, though, Collingwood were thumped by Hawthorn (sitting third on the ladder) at Waverly Park by 46 points in a game notable for its attendance of 92,935 people, (which was meant to surpass the ground’s capacity). You can generally estimate what attendance a game might receive. But every now and again, there’s games where the people simply come. You don’t anticipate it. Can’t anticipate it. It just happens.
Collingwood beat Footscray – sitting second-last – by 5 points the next round at Footscray’s home ground of the Western Oval. Footscray led at three-quarter time by 15 points, but Collingwood rallied in the last quarter. This was my introduction to the Western Oval – and an introduction to scrappy, close games that the ground would host. I just never expected to beat Footscray comfortably there, regardless of ladder standings.
But that was how home ground advantages worked: the home team had intimate knowledge of the ground’s dimension; they understood its nuances, the best areas from where to kick goals, where there were wind pockets, etc.; they (usually) had the crowd on their side, a chorus that can be as buoyant and encouraging to them as it can be flattening and dispiriting to the visiting team. Every club got some advantage out of playing at their home suburban grounds – which some teams still get today (e.g. Geelong, the interstaters). You cannot underestimate how much a benefit a home-ground advantage is.
Next was St Kilda at Victoria Park. My cousin Ange, his friend Johnny, and I sidled down Daicos Hill to the front of the fence, where we proceeded to watch the Reserves. The crowd built. Shortly, a St Kilda supporter about our age was standing alongside us. Then a woman – another St Kilda supporter – perhaps in her twenties. Throughout the game, we occasionally spoke with them.
During this era, St Kilda, Footscray, and Melbourne were mired on the bottom of the ladder, and you could usually expect any game against them to result in a big win, one which would boost your percentage.
This was no different, and throughout Ange, Johnny, and I joked about St Kilda’s ineptitude. There was nothing crass about our remarks. For kids who were ten years of age, they were funny, (or as funny as they could be). The woman smiled at us, either finding our attempts at humour funny, or finding it funny that ten-year-olds were attempting to be humorous – I’m unsure which. The St Kilda kid wasn’t happy, though.
When the final siren went, Collingwood had amassed a 57-point win. Without warning, without any preamble, with no indication whatsoever, the St Kilda kid punched me in the stomach, then turned and bolted. I doubled over, winded. Ange tended to me while Johnny pursed the assailant, only to lose him into the departing crowd.
It was my first encounter with any sort of violence in a football crowd, something which made me mindful of the future. I could joke that it was characteristic of St Kilda’s thuggery – there had been the John Greening incident almost ten years earlier. Greening, a champion and one of the best players in the competition, was decked behind play by St Kilda’s Jim O’Dea, leading to Greening losing consciousness and being comatose for fourteen days. Greening would make a comeback almost two years later just to prove he could, but his heart never really seemed in it subsequently and he gave it up shortly afterwards – a champion who never got to realise his potential, or win the accolades he deserved, due to a moment of behind-the-play barbarity.
Football – or any sport, for that matter – is amazing in the way it can infuse somebody with the passion to forget all reason, to contemplate crossing any boundary, to behave in ways that are primal and cross all the boundaries of social norms.
Three weeks later, Collingwood played Carlton at Victoria Park. I spent the entire night before shredding newspapers and stuffing it into my duffel coat pockets. I would throw it, like confetti, whenever Collingwood kicked a goal.
However, in the first quarter, there was no goal to be seen, Carlton kicking 3.3 to Collingwood’s 0.4. Perhaps keen to atone for being pulverised early in the year, Carlton were determined, and extended their lead to twenty points at half time, Carlton 5.9.(39) to Collingwood’s 2.7.(19).
A lot of games, Ange and I would get as close to the fence as possible to watch. Other games, it was just too packed to do so and we’d sit on the rickety wooden railing that ran down Daicos Hill. It actually wasn’t allowed, and whenever attendants saw us they’d come around and tell us to get down. Once they were gone, we’d climb back up. Being ten, we were too short to see over all the heads when the ball went down the Yarra Falls end (to our left), although to our right we had a clear view thanks to the race and the fact that it was reserved seating.
At one point, somebody clambered through the railing to jump down into the race – people were always doing that to get to the toilets or the fast food kiosk. They struck me and I went flying from the railing. I landed on the edge of Daicos Hill, (which had a trim of small rocks concreted together), bounced off and landed in the race – luckily, right on my feet. My cousin Con remonstrated with the offender, who was apologetic. I climbed back up to watch the rest of the match.
Collingwood gradually worked their way back into the game. Craig Davis and Peter Daicos were great, but the player who really stood out was full-back Peter McCormack. McCormack had come to Collingwood as a full-forward, but had been swung to the other end of the ground by coach Tommy Hafey. He was often unheralded as a full-back and a great stopper. This game, he was a wall. If it were not for McCormack, Carlton’s lead could’ve become unassailable.
Late in the last quarter, we got in front by 1 point and I kept turning to the timeclock, waiting for the hand to tick to the thirty-minute mark. Of course, the quarters had variable lengths, but once you got to thirty minutes then you knew the siren was near.
Sure enough, the siren sounded, Collingwood escaping with the narrowest victory. That was twice we’d beaten Carlton in the H&A – a little more investment in the karma bank. The win also meant we pushed two games clear on top. It was the perfect bridge going into the finals. We could finish top, get the week’s rest, and come out refreshed and face whoever in the Second Semi Final. Given that was likely to be Carlton or Geelong – both teams we’d beaten in the H&A – we could expect an immediate berth in the grand final, while our opposition trudged it out in a preliminary final (having to play three finals in the process), before arriving in the grand final tired, battered, and with little endurance left in reserve.
Perfect. Book it in.
Collingwood lost the next two games, though – to South Melbourne over at the SCG by 18 points, and to Essendon at the MCG by 19 points, allowing Carlton to reclaim the top spot on percentage. In Round 20, though, we regained it when we beat Richmond by 5 points at the MCG, and the rampaging Bombers beat Carlton by 1 point at Princes Park. We were back on top! All we had to do was win our next two games – which we should, against seventh-placed Hawthorn and fifth-placed Fitzroy.
We squashed Hawthorn by 73 points. A premiership beckoned – top spot was seriously worth that much.
The final round at Victoria Park involved nothing but rain. I stood, bedraggled, two women nearby offering that I could come stand under their umbrella. By that time I was soaked, so saw no point. And it was only rain. There was something much more important at stake – a win would secure the minor premiership (top spot) and be a giant stride in a premiership assault.
For the first half, Collingwood went goal-less, kicking just 0.2 to Fitzroy’s 5.9 – a deficit of 37 points. In the third quarter we got our first goal, whilst Fitzroy extended their lead to 44 points. I waited and waited for the Collingwood I knew, the one who’d come back against Carlton, the one who could switch it on and overrun teams, and we did make a belated fist of it, but never really genuinely threatened. In the end, Fitzroy won by 26 points. Carlton beat Richmond by 27 points to reclaim top spot. We dropped to second, a spot we knew all too well.
Just like that – just as I was finding we were good at – we’d taken what should’ve been a sure thing and kicked it in the teeth.
Good old Collingwood.