Paying the price

If you’re a footy fan living in Melbourne then this is a great time of year. A week out from the end of the month we’ve had three weeks of great finals and less than a week away from the big one, the grand final, which should be a cracker. There’s everything that goes with it too. Come this time of year the weather is on the improve. There’s a palpable sense of emerging from a long winter and about to enter into a period of sunny days, blue skies and warm temperatures . There’s a spring in the step, the buzz from the footy, and the anticipation of great events, and great times ahead.

There’s a lot of things associated to all of this which make it feel a different time of year. Besides the sunshine and the conversation there are the habits and rituals of the season. On Friday there will be the Grand Final parade. Thousands will flock to the city to cheer on the competing teams. I generally avoid that unless I’m in town, but I love going out for a drink on the Friday night before, Grand Final eve. There’s that vibe in the city, the day before the big day, lots of thirsty people gathering at bars around the city talking about the game to come, speculating ion what will happen or who to barrack for. Some will be attending the game itself, as I have myself now a few occasions. That’s a great feeling. If not attending the match then just about everyone will be watching somewhere, and more often than not at a Grand Final barbecue somewhere – a few beers, a kick of the Sherrin, some overcooked snags, and the big game on the big screen. That’s me again this year, and hundreds of thousands of others.

The last few years this time of year has seen broadcast on TV specially commissioned documentaries celebrating the great grand finals of the past. They go behind the scenes, interviewing players on coaches who participated, getting their insight into the lead-up to the game, the events of the game itself, and the aftermath. There are winners and losers – that’s what this is all about – stories of triumph and tragedy, ecstasy and pathos, brought back to life through replays of the footage back in the day and the reflections of the players today. It’s very well done, and for a footy tragic like me, pretty well essential viewing.

My favourite of the programs to date was broadcast last year about the 1984 granny, one of the few classic games really – which, of course, my team won. They’ve had programs on the 1979 grand final, the 1981, the famous 1966 match which the Saints won by a single point, and over the weekend the 1989 grand final.

The 1989 final is one of the best ever. It was truly epic. I remember it very well. I didn’t attend a grand final barbecue, instead I watched it by myself at my mum’s house on a bright September day. I’d been to an earlier final at the MCG and watched my team Essendon, absolutely thrash Geelong by something like 80 points in a dominant display. I went the week later to VFL Park and saw Essendon lead early until a few controversial bits of biffo helped Hawthorn over the line. I missed the Preliminary Final – fortunately – when Geelong reversed the result of a fortnight before and murdered us. Ablett was supreme on that day. And so the Grand Final was Hawthorn versus Geelong.

Being an Essendon man I had a healthy dislike for Hawthorn, and hoped Geelong would get up. Most of the footy world was the same. It wasn’t to be, but another few minutes of game time and it probably would have happened.

This is a game famous for the physical confrontations, the great comeback from Geelong, and the performance of Gary Ablett – or God as he was commonly called – who kicked 9 goals on the day. Watching the doco I relived it all. The hit on Brereton right at the first bounce, the confrontation between Dipper and sundry Geelong players, and the general biffo throughout the game. Geelong started the fight but in so doing lost some composure as Hawthorn kept theirs, which allowed the Hawk to race away to a handy 6-7 goal lead for most of the match. They were hurting though – Brereton had broken ribs and kidney problems, Dipper had to be rushed to hospital after the game, and others were concussed or played with broken bones.

It was a rugged game in the old-fashioned tradition, man to man, no beg pardons as Captain Blood might have said. Watching it again I missed it. It’s a tough game these days, as tough as it’s ever been in the sheer physical demands it places on players. As a sheer spectacle it is often exhilarating. Gone though are the gladiatorial physical confrontations which were such a signature of Aussie Rules footy. I grew up with that, and when I played I played in that spirit, giving it and taking it. I loved it, both as spectator and player. I wish it still was, but understand why it is not.

I hoped Geelong would win. Part of that was because of how they played, which was fast and high scoring. I wanted Hawthorn to lose too. They had played in the preceding 6 grand finals and like most I was sick of them. For me, and other Essendon supporters, there was the added reason that we were the most bitter rivals of the eighties. I guess the two teams hated each other, and so did the fans.

As always in situations like that there is also a mutual respect. Like two boxers who come up against each other again and again to slug it out, there is a fierce desire to prevail, but also a grudging admiration for the skill and character that has brought this opponent to face you in the ring once more. I wanted them to lose because I disliked them and because their victory was our failure. I don’t resile from any of that now, but I have to admit to an obvious respect for greats of the game who became that by going above and beyond every time. It was the basis of our battles with them. Against Geelong that day it was this quality that saw them endure when they were on their knees, when it would have been easier to give away. In the famous words of their coach, Yabby Jeans, they were willing to pay the price.

That last quarter of the 1989 GF is one of the great quarters of football. Down by over 5 goals Geelong were the stronger team, and with nothing now to lose they began to play with the freedom that made them such an intimidating attacking force. Through the early part of the final quarter they chipped away at the margin, but as the quarter went longer they gained confidence as Hawthorn weakened. They were at their most irresistible in the last 5 minutes, and finally reduced the margin to a single goal with a minute to play. It was not enough.

What a great game. I watched the program absolutely mesmerised by the memories evoked, and by the stories of the participants. Sport is drama, and this was the most famous of dramas.

Nearly 25 years ago – strange to think. I suppose I should feel old. I watched at the same age as many of the key players – I think there is a year between Dermie and I. A lot of the players present a very different physical profile 24 years later – you wouldn’t recognise them in the street. Others, the fitter types, seem more compact versions of their AFL self. Me, I’m not much different.

Memories are made of this

It’s an immense time of year here in Melbourne, always is. Sometimes you forget, but then September rolls around again and it comes back to you all: the hype, the excitement, the anticipation, the wonder, not to mention the parties. AFL finals series is like that. No question it’s the biggest game in town through winter, and maybe more than that. Is it a bigger sport than cricket? Not quite, not yet anyway. Cricket has it over footy because it’s the only real national sport we have. But footy is big because it is so passionately felt.

For some reason I don’t write about footy much here. I don’t know why that it is. It’s that I’m not passionate about it – fuck, I am. There are weeks I live and die on the weekends results. Not a week goes by without a keen dissection of the game in general, much discussion, and often times some bitter – though mostly good natured – banter with rival team supporters. I don’t know how many live games I’ve attended over the years – certainly in the hundreds; and I figure I know as much about the game as anyone going around. Then again, everyone in Melbourne is an expert.

So it’s finals time. My team isn’t there – next year maybe. Disappointed I might be, but not for a moment does my interest wane. If you like footy through the home and away rounds then you have to love finals footy because it is the best there is. It’s got all the skill you’ve become used to, but added into the mix is the fierce nature of the contest. It’s a mighty hard game that becomes a battle of wills as much as of skill and athleticism. The teams that win at this time of year are those most committed to win the hard ball, and to deny it to the opposition. It is about preparation and discipline, playing to instructions, and as a team; and not once taking a backward step. It’s marvellous to watch no matter who you barrack for. It may be the most spectacular sport in the world, but at this time of year it also becomes the toughest.

So it has been the last couple of weeks of finals footy. There have been some mighty battles. The best of the games have been like contests between an irresistible force and an immoveable object. Which can prevail?

Today I watched a program that reviewed one of the more famous grand finals of the last 30 years, the 1984 game between Hawthorn and Essendon. I remember it very well. Essendon is my team, and the year prior I had rolled up to the MCG with my dad to attend my very first VFL/AFL grand final. We were smashed. In 1984 we couldn’t get tickets to the game, and so I watched it with my dad at my old home in Lower Plenty. It was a great game.

I had a powerful sense of nostalgia as I watched today. I’ve probably watched this grand final from start to finish a half dozen times, and seen the iconic moments of the game replayed a hundred times or more. I know the game so well, and so returning to it today was like opening up a favourite novel you know back to front, but are happy to return to again and again because the story is so compelling.

What made this program different was the interviews with some of the great players who took part in the game from both sides. It’s always fascinating to get the insights from those who competed, and to learn of some of the back stories. I was riveted from start to finish. As the game unfolded I felt it swell in me again as it did that first time live, and as it has every time since in replay.

Things like this become a part of your story, especially when you are a kid, as I was then. You’re just a spectator, but you’ve put your faith and hope in a set of colours, a tradition you hope to be part of, and a bunch of men, young mostly, who come to personify all that hope and all those beliefs and, ultimately, all that love. You never forget them when they’ve done you proud.

It was like that as I watched, becoming emotional at the moments which are inscribed in my memories so vividly. It’s the story of me as much as it is a story of the game and those who participated in it. And my story is multiplied hundreds and thousands of times, each story different, but with the same genesis.

I remember that night rocking up to the club with my dad. We were social club members as it was then, and so gained entry inside. Funnily enough my memories of that are vague. I remember a sense of turbulent celebration, people everywhere jammed together calling out and cheering. And I remember the players there. They seemed numb with pleasure, the gods of the day justly feted by the likes of us mere mortals. Memories.