Here we are again

It's a sunny saturday morning, the first day of October, and here we are again expectantly waiting to find who the 2010 AFL premiers will be.

It's been a week in footy. Somehow the grand final re-match has been overshadowed by the big news events off the field. It's added another layer on what would have been an unusual week in any case. Now it's saturday there's only one story in town: who's going to win?

As I did last week I'm tipping St Kilda, for much the same reasons plus an added few. They have the momentum and the belief I think, and quite likely history on their side. I tipped Goddard last week for the Norm Smith, and though acclaimed by most as BOG he lost out to Lenny Hayes, a great warrior. This week I'm picking someone else. I figure the game is all set-up for Nick Riewoldt. He was good last week without being great. His opponent Brown did everything he could to contain him, and did a reasonable job. The thing is though I can't see him doing it two weeks running against arguably the best player in the comp. Riewoldt is a player of steely resolve and he'll have set himself for a big game.

History has been a recurring topic all week, but with only two previous grand final draws I doubt anything conclusive can be drawn from them. The consensus is that will be a more open game. It may well be. In the two previous re-matches one team has drawn away from the other earlier and won easily. I expect there will be more space in the result this time – well there has to be, hasn't it? – and in my mind see St Kilda winning by about 22 points without being seriously challenged after the half.

The last draw and re-match was in 1977, and I remember it well. It was the first grand final to be broadcast live. We had one of the few colour TV's in the street so my mate and I sat down in front of it two weeks running. We were just kids. I remember the players well, the key moments, my determination even then that Collingwood shouldn't win it (in a time when the supporters were less feral I think). My mate, Peter Woody, was by contrast a Collingwood supporter, and was gutted by the ultimate result. Like kids everywhere, I danced all over his disappointment, gleeful that the dreaded Maggies had lost once more.

As I did last week I'll be at the Cheeses for lunch: this week it's hamburgers I believe. I'm taking over some cheese and some party pies to chew on at half time for traditions sake. I have to dash off afterwards. This was to be a dirty weekend for me, but I cancelled because of the grand final. The only part of the original deal was the dinner booking at Maze, and I'm going with a different woman now. It will be different today and, for the inportance, lower key I think. I may be wrong, but I don't expect the tension and drama of last week. (Famous last words?) Regardless I'm looking forward to it, as i always do.

One last note. For years the AFL has been concocting pre-game entertainment that verges on the embarassing sometimes. The NRL, a much inferior sport and poorly administered never fail however to put on a much better spectacle than their rich cousins the AFL. The problem is that the AFL have had a cool bypass. They are stuck in another era that seems pretty well irrelevant now,

Last week it INXS. Twenty years ago it would have been pretty groovy, but someone ought to tell Andrew Demetriou that Michael Hutchence is no longer with us. For the re-match they hastily engaged – wait for it – Lionel Ritchie. Now nothing against Lionel, but even in his heyday he wasn't really happening. His heyday is 20 odd years ago. He was probably sipping on a Long Island Iced tea enjoying a fruitfuil retirement when the AFL gave him a call. Dance on the ceiling? Yeah right.

Good luck to him, he might be great, but next year let's avoid the bland, innoffensive option and go for some excitement, let's go for someone who is current and happening. Let's get a vibe going. If this is not the premier sporting event in the country it's close to it – it deserves much better.

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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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Saturday morning before the big game

Statue of Essendon's greatest, Dick Reynolds a...Image via Wikipedia

It's Saturday morning as I write this, just before midday. I have an egg boiling on the stove which I'll curry shortly and stick into a roll for my lunch. It's dim outside, and wet. It rains even as I speak, a steady pattering on the roof that is comforting when indoors, though not so much out. It is what we used to think of as being typical footy weather – wintry, wet days when we would journey out to the suburban grounds the game was played on then and watch the players perform on a variety of surfaces, from slippery ice-rinks to the puddles and bog of Moorabbin. Those days are gone, and even the weather that was once so normal is now odd. And there are places they under a roof, as they will today at Docklands.

Not so the MCG, where I'll be today. It's a big game, the last round of the regular season and the last before the finals begin next week. My team, Essendon, play Hawthorn, last years premiers, in a game weighted with meaning. Not only do these teams have a bitter rivalry going back to the mid-eighties when they swapped titles (the Lakers/Celtic of the AFL), the winner of today's game will play again next week with a chance to play on the last day of September. The loser bows out, always next year.

For me a couple of hours before the first bounce I feel something very familiar. I have experienced this hundreds of times in my life, the anticipation, the expectation, the countdown to the siren blowing with all sorts of things going through my head. Today it is slightly more fraught than most because so much more rides on the result, but all in all I am pretty calm. There is nothing I can do but cheer on the team. I may get l;oud at the footy sometimes, and it's pretty common to share a few words with opposition supporters, but by and large I am a very focussed and unflustered follower of the team.

Today I am going with an English girl foir just a second game of footy. Arriving here she had been told she should barrack for the Saints, not surprising considering the largest concentration of English backpackers live in St Kilda. She went to her first game a few weeks ago to watch St Kilda take on Essendon. She found as that exciting game progressed that she was instinctively following the underdogs Bombers against the unbeaten Saints. That was a great and exciting game, a perfect introduction to AFL, and on that day a brave and daring Essendon team inflicted on the Saints their first loss of the year (decided after the siren). And so she was set, an Esendon supporter.

This will be her second game. I'll take her into the MCC members where I sit and look to instruct her in the finer points of the game, but I dare say there will be moments when I get carried away in the action. And I must remember to bite my tongue for a change.

It should be a great game. The weather will suit our opponents more, but I have a lot of faith in my team. In two years they will be the champion team every other wants to beat. For now that is a little while away, they are young and inconsistent but capable on their day of beating any team in the land. That is what I'm counting on.

Soon then I'll eat my roll and then climb into the jacket I normally take with me skiing. I'll board a tram, meet with my English lass and then together we'll enter the modern Colosseum that is the MCG, and watch the action unfold…

We win, well I'll be there again next week and will happily enjoy an ale or two after the game today. If we lose, well, the ale won't taste so sweet, but there is always next year after all.

Go Dons!

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