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.

It’s a different GF this year…

It’s the day before Grand Final day here in Melbourne, which is always a big day – except, somehow, it doesn’t feel so much right now. Could be it’s the weather. It’s dreary, wet and cold, and tipped to be drearier, wetter, and colder tomorrow. Footy is a winter sport, and we’ve had plenty of cool grand finals, and yet I always think of Grand Final day as being the unofficial start of the barbecue season. Generally the weather is good, and sometimes quite warm, and almost always the mood is festive.

Not so this time, and though it seems strange to suggest, I think the ghastly events of this week might have a lot to do with it. The abduction and murder of Jill Meagher has really cast a a dark pall over the city, which the weather epitomises. We love our footy in Melbourne, and the opportunity to catch up with our mates at one of the thousands of grand final parties is always a calendar highlight. This year though we’re reminded very starkly that it’s just a game, and much more serious, much darker forces are afoot, and never too far away.

It seems the enthusiasm in the last week has dimmed, despite the prospect of a very competitive match. Hawthorn go in favourite against the Swans, but it would be no surprise to see the Swannies get up. I’m tipping Hawthorn, but actually have a feeling Sydney will win. The Hawks may be most dangerous team in the competition, but there is no better team at blunting those offensive weapons than Sydney. They’re hard, tough, disciplined, and very determined. And though they’re generally thought to be more blue collar, thy have some real silk amongst them.

It’s raining, today and tomorrow. The general consensus is that it suits the Swans because it nullifies some of the Hawks strengths – their skill by foot, their marking power up forward, and because it plays to the Swans big strength, their ability to win the contested ball. It’s probably true, but it’s a marginal advantage – the Hawks have plenty of tough in and under types of their own – Sewell, Mitchell, Lewis, Burgoyne; have a forward in Franklin as dangerous on the ground as in the air (not to mention Cyril beside him); and an undersized defence that will benefit from a slippery ball.

I’ll be at the Cheese’s as usual. No matter the weather we’ll cook up a few snags, a steak or two, and suck on the odd cold beer – not to mention a handy bottle of red or two. I hope for a compelling game, for its own sake, and because it would be good to move past this grim, sad day.

My tip? Hawks by 9 points.

Do it again

Collingwood FC lossImage via Wikipedia

How's that then – a draw!

Great game yesterday – Collingwood shot out to a good lead and the Saints reeled them in. Tough, tight, hard-fought, it had everything you want from a Grand Fnal in my op. There'll be a few ratbags out there decrying the relative dearth of goals, but that's crap. It's all about the contest, and this was one of the best.

In so many ways the result yesterday mirrored the result in 1966, lacking only a last minute behind to give the Saints the lead. They had opportunities for it, and in fact it was a long shot forward that bounced erratically through for a behind to level the scores a couple of minutes before.

What this means is that they do it all again next week. Yep, a re-match to decide the 2010 premiers. This is the third time in history that's happened, and while there are many who reckon extra time should be played to decide the big one I disagree.

Who in their right mind would really decline the chance to witness another blockbuster like that? Sure, it upsets some plans – including mine – but a competition like this deserves to be settled properly, and not in a few frenzied minutes of extra time.

It's interesting to see how the teams come up next week. History tells us that the re-match is generally an easy victory to one of the teams. It's not surprising really as the mental letdown of battling so long for no result can be hard to overcome. It can be a challenge to regain that edge and raise yourself to the necessary pitch to do it all again at the same intensity. It becomes a battle of minds now, and the coaching staff I think becomes crucial in the period between.

On that front I think the Saints have the edge. Moments after the game the Collingwood captain was interviewed and complained that the game should have been decided by extra time. In comparison a St Kilda rival shrugged his shoulders at it, it was not something they could control he said, get ready for next week. These opposing attitudes seemed to broadly reflect the two teams. One was bitter at the situation, the other positive and ready to go.

In large part I think these attitudes came out of the game. This is yet another premiership the Magpies let slip. They were well in front and in control halfway through. They might have been further in front and might have been but for some poor finishing. Then, in characteristic St Kilda fashion, they ground themselves back into the contest.

Early in the 3rd quarter I said to my companions that I thought St Kilda would win. They seemed more lively, inventive, they were playing with more intent. They outscored Collingwood 6 goals to 2 in the second half and held the lead late in the game. Had the game continued I think they would have won it, but in any case they had the momentum when the siren sounded that Collingwood had lost.

The other thing counting against Collingwood is confidence. They didn't countenance defeat last week. Their captain when questioned thought about it and then answered that he was certain they would win. They didn't, and into their minds their must now be that seed of doubt, particularly as they had the game in their keeping almost.

For St Kilda Hayes and Goddard were epic. In a way that counts against them. They may play as well next week, but it's hard to see them playing better, while there were a number of Collingwood players short of their best and sure to improve. Balancing that out was Riewoldt, good without being dominant, and set to break-out; and the thumping St Kilda endured on the inside 5o count which will surely be more even next week.

I feel very confident that St Kilda will win well next week. It feels as if they took everything Collingwood had and went back at them. They know they've got it in them, and you can be sure that Lyon, their coach, will be looking to patch up any gaps. They'll learn more than Collingwood will, and for Collingwood the pressure of history and the weight of expectation looms.

Yesterdays game reminded of the last drawn Grand Final. On that day in 1977 Collingwood went into the last quarter with a 4 goal lead, only to see North Melbourne storm back and take the lead before a late Twiggy Dunn mark and goal levelled the scores. Yesterday St Kilda came back from a similiar deficit half time, took the lead before the modern day equivalent of Dunn in Cloke kicked the goal that virtually levelled it.

I'm hoping that's an omen because in the replay North Melbourne were comfortable victors. Do it again Saints.

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Go Sainters!


It’s Grand Final day in Melbourne today. Even when my team is not involved – more often than not these days – it remains one of my favourite days of the year.

There’s a special vibe. The sun is out, the birds are tweeting outside, walk up the road, and there will be people bustling about getting their shopping out of the way early to leave the afternoon free or picking up some last-minute snags for the mandatory GF barbecue. Half the shops will have team colours displayed, a few will have scrawled messages urging on one or the other the teams, and the casual conversation is all about the big game. Even people who don’t really get into the footy find themselves infected and happily carried along by it.

This year it’s a little different from others. On the one hand, you have the most loved and hated team in the competition playing: Collingwood. They contest the premiership against the team traditionally associated with party-going: St Kilda (though this team is very dour).

Collingwood has a mixed history: a lot of early success, especially through the 1920s and ’30s. In 1958, when they won their next to last premiership, they were the most successful club in the comp. Since then, they’ve got to the upper reaches of the ladder repeatedly, but, excepting one occasion I can’t bring myself to refer to, they have fallen short of the ultimate prize every time. Their frailties gave rise to the famous Colliwobbles phrase, and in some way, has become part of the sports and the team’s mythology. Elsewhere I likened them to good old Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill for eternity only for it to eternally roll down again before it reaches the top.

St Kilda, in contrast, are the equal least successful club in the land. They have one famous premiership and several near misses since, most recently, last year. Importantly perhaps the single flag was won at the expense of today’s opponents Collingwood when Barry Breen famously bounced through a behind in the dying seconds to win it by a single point. There is some poetry in it to hope that St Kilda repeats the effort today, winning their second flag against the same opponent as the first, and nice to think by the same heart-breaking margin.

I am a Collingwood hater. It’s odd to think that on this occasion that Essendon and Carlton fans – the most bitter of rivals – are as one: we want Collingwood to fail once again.

You grow up with this hatred. For me, I recall kicking a football around in the schoolyard with more kids wearing the black and white guernsey than any other. The team seemed to play off every few years when I grew up, though they always found a way to lose. That early success, coupled with teasing hopes and the mythology that grew with it, created a fan base stronger than any other.

It is customary amongst supporters of other teams to deride Collingwood fans. They are feral, uneducated, dishonest, not to be trusted. And it’s all true. Well, maybe not entirely, but Collingwood fans are different. I have the occasional friend and many colleagues who are Magpie fans, and by and large, they are otherwise reasonable and intelligent people. I’ve also spent a lifetime going to the footy and encountering supporters of all breeds in their home habitat. I know different.

St Kilda fans, I always found good value. They’re good to party with. Through their many dark years, I recall how they would loyally traipse to the outer at Moorabbin and cheer on Plugger as he would do everything but carry them across the line. There was an almost cheery fatalism about it. Get us another beer, mate they might proclaim whilst having a go at some opposition pretty-boy (though the blondes all seemed on their side). They enjoyed the contest and hoped for better days but hardly expected them. Besides, there was always a party on afterwards somewhere. They were interesting characters, rough and ready at times, and often bohemian and arty.

Collingwood fans are much more serious. That’s probably a combination of the teasing glimpses of success they have given their fans over the years, keeping them interested, and the different roots of the club, solidly working class. It’s bred a fanaticism in them to get all that they have been denied. More than most teams, they have supporters who seem to live on the success or failure of their football team, much like English soccer fans do: they take it personally.

They are hated and know it, and it seems to me that for many, hope in their football team is tied up in their personal hopes. For all their strength and size, the club has underperformed. For the club to overcome this history and become top dog in a way, I think, validates the hopes and expectations of so many who support her. It is this fraught passion that leads to extremes in one direction or the other. I have seen these up close and occasionally in my face, and they can be repulsive.

I reflected on this yesterday as I made my way into town. Yesterday the traditional Grand Final parade took place, and the city swelled with supporters of both sides come to cheer on their team. Walking to the office, the first thing I passed by dozens of people wearing team colours, mostly black and white. By lunchtime, those dozens had become thousands: 100,000 reports said.

I tried not to be judgemental, and in my mind, thought of Collingwood as the much less offensive Juventus. I looked at the hopeful kids and excited parents: well, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Yet the image that came to me was akin to locusts infesting the city like some biblical plague; or the godless Mongols descending upon our civilisation to rape, pillage and lay waste.

I admire the Collingwood coach and have a lot of respect for the team he has put together. I think they’ll be successful for a while and, on pure footballing terms, deserve it. An incident at the parade, though, only affirmed my dread of them winning it. Nick Riewoldt, the St Kilda captain and one of the stars of the game, stood up to address the crowd in his turn and was drowned out by the baying of the Collingwood crowd. They would not be silenced in what to me was a typically graceless gesture. Riewoldt, unable to be heard, was seen to mutter ‘respect’. If any was needed, there was more motivation.

Collingwood goes in favourites. Form and their performance over the year demand that. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking, but I actually feel like St Kilda will win. There are some solid reasons to back that if hope is not enough.

I think their close loss last year will go a long way towards ensuring victory today. The history of the AFL is replete with stories of success following failure. The bitterness of defeat is not something the players forget and, once felt, is something they’ll do anything to avoid again.

I think Collingwood is more even over the 22 players taking the field, but of the best 10 players on the ground, 6 of them are in the red, white and black, including Riewoldt, possibly the best player in the comp. If he’s at his best today, the Saints should win.

St Kilda has also been the best team in the AFL over the last 3 years and has a stellar record against the best teams and when it counts. They are a tough side, strong-willed and drilled. In Lyon, they have a single-minded coach who has prepared for this moment for 12 months. I expect they’ll be cherry ripe today.

And, if it counts for anything, I think St Kilda has had the better preparation. Collingwood has waltzed into the Grand Final without any real contest. St Kilda has had to work harder, but you would think it has helped hone their game. It will be tougher for Collingwood today, and while I think they’ll be ready for it, any small gap is critical in a game of this nature.

So, St Kilda for mine, just. The first quarter should tell the tale. Collingwood is ferocious starters, but if St Kilda is nearby or ahead, then they’ll be confident.

Saints by 11, and Goddard for the Norm Smith. Oh, and watch out for the fireworks after, win or lose, I expect some action. I’ll be at the Cheese’s watching it, as usual, a few beers, a barbecue and a kick of the footy at halftime, just like half of Melbourne.

Regardless of the result today, there is, as ever, always next year.

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The last Saturday in September…

There are some bloody big days on the Melbourne sporting calendar – Melbourne Cup, the Boxing Day Test, the Grand Prix, Australian Open final, and so on, but for me, none is bigger than AFL Grand Final day.

I’m off tomorrow to the Cheeses for the GF barbecue they have every year. We’ll have a snag or two, a few beers, a wine, a kick of the footy, and the boys will gather around the TV to watch the big game. This is a scene repeated thousands of times around Melbourne, even in non-football following households. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the result, the day is a good excuse to get social and kick back regardless of the result. It’s one of those days the whole city and much of the country stop to enjoy.

I love it. I love the whole vibe, the grand final parade, the media, the face painting, the expectation you feel in the streets, the slowly focussing curiosity on the game. Most people have an opinion, and over a beer and amongst friends are unafraid of expressing it.

My team isn’t playing tomorrow, and so I don’t have any stake in the game, and the two teams playing are reasonably inoffensive. Between them, Geelong and St Kilda have been starved of success. Geelong won a couple of years and have been the dominant team of this era, but hadn’t won since 1963; St Kilda famously won their only premiership in 1966. I hope St Kilda wins but won’t be upset if they don’t.

Picking a winner is tough and something I’ve been pondering all week long. St Kilda has been the best-performed team all year, Geelong the next best but with a wealth of experience behind them. Drawing a line through recent form is tough too. Geelong had a very good win running away against a very disappointing Collingwood in their preliminary final. St Kilda had a much narrower win against far superior opposition in the Bulldogs. That was a quality but low-scoring game that meant that the Saints needed to pull out all stops to win – and did.

Both teams are littered with great players playing well but have contrasting styles. The Saints are quite possibly the best defensive team of all time. Geelong, at their best, play breathtakingly audacious football. St Kilda goes wide, Geelong goes through the middle. In large part, that will be the tale of the day – will St Kilda shut down Geelong, or will Geelong break free.

Looking at the teams’, St Kilda has the better big forwards in Riewoldt – possibly the best player in the comp – and Koschitzke, compared to the erratic Mooney and the pup Hawkins. Schneider and Milne are handy small forwards, but Johnson and Chapman at the Cats are all class. 

The midfield of both sides are great, but again there is a contrast in how they play. Geelong has great inside players with outside flair – Ablett (probably the best player in the comp), Bartel and Selwood. By contrast, the Saints have very damaging outside players – Del Santo, Montagna, but Hayes is their only real inside player, though he’s a beauty. Both have great stoppers in Ling and Jones. It’s a good battle in the rucks, though the St Kilda pairing of Gardiner and King just shade Blake and Ottens. Ottens ability to go forward and be dangerous could prove critical on the day.

Both have fantastic back-lines. Scarlett for Geelong is the best defender in the league. Mackie, Enright and Milburn are all superb. Taylor is their weak point. St Kilda don’t have the big names, but it is a great unit – Dawson has been great, Gilbert excellent, and both Fisher and Goddard are stars. Minimal advantage either way – so where is the difference going to come from?

There are a few variables to consider. Which team did have the better preparation? I’m inclined to think St Kilda. They had a much tougher match but an extra day to get over it. Geelong’s win looked impressive and was, but it was against a team that barely gave a whimper after halftime. On the back of returning injured players and patchy form, a good solid workout might have been better for them. And the lack of pressure is poor preparation for the big game against a team renowned for their pressure game.

Injuries are the next variable. There have been ongoing queries about Riewoldt’s knee, but I don’t think it’s an issue given he’s been the best player of the finals series. I think Johnson from the Cat’s is a much bigger concern. He played very well last week after 4-5 weeks out, but in my experience, it’s often the second game back a player struggles. He’s an important player, but I think he’ll be quieter this week.

The third variable is the weather. For the first time in many years, we look like playing a Grand Final in the rain. This definitely suits Geelong more. They are the bigger-bodied team with great finals experience. They are more used to playing in the wind and rain down at Skilled Stadium than St Kilda playing under the roof at Etihad. And St Kilda relies more on their tall marking forwards.

So what does all this point too? A draw just about, and I think it will be close whichever way it goes. It may be the wild-cards that get one team or the other over the line. So what are the wild cards?

For Geelong, it’s Ottens. He’s a quality player coming back from a long term injury. He has the ability to go forward for Geelong and take the game by the scruff of the neck. I don’t think he’s ready yet, and the weather won’t suit him, but it’s possible.

My St Kilda wild-card will surprise many. I think it’s Goddard. He is so important delivering the ball with precision out of the back-line, but I actually think we might see him swung forward where he can do some damage, particularly on a wet day and with his kicking skills.

Most people are leaning towards Geelong, and I think more has to go right for St Kilda for them to win. If Riewoldt kicks 5 goals, they’ll probably win, but if he doesn’t, it doesn’t mean they’ll lose. I think Koschitzke needs to present, though, and their out of form small forwards fire – if Milne and Schneider kick 5 goals between them, then the Saints are home – that’s my tip.

In the end, I’m going with the Saints. I think they’re ready, and I still have a feeling that the Cats aren’t quite right yet. There’s no doubt their best is better than St Kilda’s, but these days their best is only rarely seen. I think it will be close all day; Geelong will surge occasionally, while the Saints will be steady, and in the end, get over the line by about 9 points, with Riewoldt kicking the sealer at the 29-minute mark of the last quarter.

Final score, just for the hell of it, St Kilda 13.9.87 to Geelong 11.12.78.