Many years ago I attended a footy match at the MCG I’ve long thought of as the best match I’ve ever seen. That was the 1984 second-semi between Essendon and Hawthorn.
I’d never seen a replay of it since then, though I’d tried to get my hands on a copy over the years. Yesterday I finally caught up with it and watched it again for the first time since that dim Spring day.
The match is famous not just in my household. Many proclaim one of the best finals ever, and it featured those two titans and arch-enemies of the eighties. Hawthorn and Essendon hated each other, but there was also a lot of respect. They played in three grand finals in succession, and in the years since that bitter rivalry has continued.
I’m glad to say the game lived up to my memory of it. It was fast and skilful and hard and tough. It holds up very well against modern footy, which isn’t surprising given the roll call of absolute champions playing. There’s an argument that this era of footy was the greatest because it the VFL – as it was then – was a compact twelve team competition that drew the best talent from around the land. There wasn’t the dilution of talent once the competition went national and expanded – ultimately – to eighteen teams.
It’s hard to judge eras. Football is more professional these days, and more scientific. Coaching, in general, is more advanced, and the game itself has changed – less confrontational now, but more pressure. I’m not going to buy into the general conversation because the game ebbs and flows, quality rises and falls away. I’d safely suggest that either of these two teams playing would be top four today. And I reckon the 1985 Essendon side would be premier more often than not – the best footy team I’ve seen.
But anyway, back to 1984. In 1983 Hawthorn had smashed the Bombers in the GF. I was there that day, and all the excitement of an unexpected finals run ended ignominiously with the team over-awed and out of their depth. We finished top of the ladder in ’84, but Hawthorn had beaten us twice that year and was said to have the wood on us.
They won on this day too but watching the game again it was clear the game could have gone either way. On balance I think Essendon was the more dynamic team on the day, but Hawthorn steadied went it counted. It was pulsating game though, thrilling to watch then and now.
History tells us that the Essendon players came out of that game with renewed belief: they knew they could beat Hawthorn. The next week in the prelim we made a mess of Collingwood to the tune of 133 points – their best player that day an ex-Essendon man, Ronny Andrews. That was pure footy.
In in the grand final, Hawthorn and Essendon matched up again in what was to become one of the best and more famous finals in recent times. Down by four goals most of the day, despite playing well, the Bombers stormed home in the last quarter to kick a (then) record 9.6 in the last quarter to win by four goals.
That’s a game dear to Essendon hearts, with many great and indelible moments in that last quarter. We beat them again the next year, finishing up with a new (and current) last quarter scoring record of 11.3. That was a mighty team, hard as nails, but silky skilled, like no other team in history.