(NB: This was written in the days after the Grand Final but was never posted because I was too miserable. My mood has thankfully lifted since then, but this truly was a Heartbreaker.)
This one hurts more than any other loss before. The day started out as a dream and ended up as a nightmare. The fourth Grand Final loss for me and my sister. My father’s twelfth. This is what my club does. I don’t know why I dared to dream of anything other than a kick from the boundary line with 1 minute 40 seconds left after a dubious non-free kick.
It sits third amongst all-time painful Collingwood Grand Final losses. 1970 is number one. 1979 due to the opponent and Harmes’ incident. I can think of no other losses that hurt more than this. We held on and on. They were dominating, but we still held on. Until we couldn’t hold any longer. And the siren sounded to conclude our 27th Grand Final defeat.
Before the game I went for a kick on Victoria Park with my fellow Pies Family. People dressed in black and white were cooking on the barbecues on the wing. Others were on the ground also having a kick. We all acknowledged each other with a “Go Pies!”.
We caught the train to Jolimont and it filled me with pride to see fathers and mothers with their sons and daughters waiting in expectation. If football has any point, then that is it. On our way into the MCG I looked to my left and saw The Macedonian Marvel, Peter Daicos. I was too scared to say anything to him. I thought to myself that maybe it was a sign of good luck. After all, he kicked the greatest goal of all time against the Eagles.
We arrived about 90 minutes before bouncedown to make sure we were all settled in our seats before the stress really kicked in. I was not drinking as I had gone without alcohol the two previous games. I figured I might as well keep the good luck running. In the pre-match entertainment The Black Eyed Peas and Jimmy Barnes’ played only a couple of songs each. I was particularly disappointed Jimmy did not sing ‘Working Class Man’. Then the main act, Mike Brady, came on and did a rousing rendition of ‘Up There Cazaly’, his final moment in the son in the busiest week of the year. At the end of his song the Eagles’ fans began chanting. They were loud and it was intimidating.
As our players prepared to come out the Pies fans began chanting Coll-Ing-Wood. It stirred up the entire stadium and made the hairs on my body stand up. Then the banner broke apart before our team had even reached the ground. My dad started visibly shaking. The Eagles fans were laughing.
Nathan Buckley’s composure to take time out of his intense schedule to hug the banner leader and wish her well is testament to his character. As was his discussion with our runner who blocked Stephenson in the third quarter. He is a great man. If you are a person who still calls him FIGJAM then you need to question what you are doing with your life and what kind of person you are.
It started out so brilliantly. A flurry of goals. Varcoe with the first, as he is wont to do in Collingwood Grand Finals. Two to Stephenson, including a brilliant running goal after a dropped mark by Thomas Cole. And De Goey with a brilliant piece of wizardry, beating three in the pocket. If the game kept on going like that, I may have calmed down by the third quarter. The West Coast Eagles, however, would not lay down and their high possession and marking game began to get on top.
We matched up badly against them and had lost the two previous contests in 2018. The first was at the MCG and after a good start we were comprehensively beaten. In the first final we played two good quarters but were overrun in the end. In both games, McGovern had periods where he completely dominated the play. That dominance continued in this game, most notably in the match winning play.
At half time we were up by two goals, but no one felt good. A sense of dread sat in the pit of my stomach, and it became more intense as the game progressed. Our flow had stopped and everything felt off.
About half way through the third quarter my Dad left the ground. He didn’t say goodbye or say where he was going. He sent a message in the last quarter with a photo of two people in the park doing tai-chi with the caption “Surrender”. A friend at work said her Dad also did not watch the final quarter. He said he had lived through too many of these to know how it ends. I guess that is my future.
At three quarter time with the Eagles having convincingly won the last two quarters, I felt like I needed to change something. I decided I would go to the bar and buy some drinks, but not drink them. On my way to the bar I walked past my sister. She had left her seat at some stage in the third quarter too. Her face looked pale, like she a had seen a ghost, and she didn’t respond to whatever acknowledgement I gave her. In the line at the bar I met an Eagles fan who was the complete opposite to me. I looked at him and shook my head and said I don’t know why I do this to myself. He responded by saying “How good is this!?”. I thought of my father who had left 15 minutes before, my sister who looked half dead, and my stomach that had been on the verge of coming up since late in the first quarter.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, you’d hate it if it was a blow out either way like the rest of the finals series”
That is exactly what I wanted. I think in 2007 Geelong fans got the experience the perfect Grand Final. The game was over by quarter time, the fans and players ready to party, with the other team never showing a whimper, and the avalanche not ending until the final siren. This game was the exact opposite. I grunted back an unconvincing “yeah”.
“How good is footy!?” The Eagles fan said but I didn’t respond. He was not my kind of guy.
The final quarter started off brilliantly, with two quick goals to the Pies. The De Goey kick from outside 50 will remain one of the great moments of my life. We sat right behind it and it never looked like missing. I hugged everyone around me but it was not enough. My switch to drinking trick had not worked.
The last 15 minutes felt like it was all at the Eagles end. We were stagnant and could not get it past the wing. I know we had our chances in the last 5 minutes, but that all seems a blur. All I can remember is Adams having a shot that went out on the full, and Treloar kicking inside 50 with McGovern marking and setting up the match winning play. It was the latest that a lead has changed in a Grand Final for the victor since 1947. Much has been said about the non-free kick, indeed a change.org petition was even set up, but everyone knows that is not the reason we lost. We lost because we played 1 good quarter and the Eagles played 3. Even if the free kick was paid the Eagles would have likely given themselves another shot. Jack Darling gave us a glimmer of hope by dropping a mark and denying himself the opportunity to kick the sealer, but it was not to be. The siren sounded and we left immediately.
Outside it was strange. There were some Eagles fans in the marquees cheering but it was still very quiet. My sister began to cry. All of us Pies fans with pain-stricken faces looked like we were at funeral. Walking through the Fitzroy gardens I felt numb. I kept admonishing myself for daring to dream it could end any other way. A couple was having their wedding photos taken in the gardens.
The photographer asked us who won, to which we mumbled a response.
“I thought it must have been the Eagles, too many Collingwood fans walking through” she said with her a smile on her face, as though that was a completely normal thing to do.
She just didn’t get it.
We quickly drank a couple of pints at The Cricketers Bar on Spring St, the same venue that witnessed such jubilant scenes only one week before. To distract ourselves we talked about the potential appointment of a man accused of rape to the Supreme Court of the USA. We finished our beers an caught an uber to meet our respective partners at a pub. Gubby Allen, ex-player and 1990 premiership football manager, was walking out as we did. I told him we were struggling, and he said with a pained look on his face, “Yeah, what can you do?”. He gets it.
And what can you do when you love a club that hurts you time and time again? I guess that is what following a club is all about. Your love endures despite all the pain they cause you. Your love exists for no reason other than that 61 years ago some kids were singing the Collingwood theme song on their way to school, and against odds of 1 in 400 trillion you happened to be born to the person who heard those kids singing that song. Yet, despite my love I am not sure if I can go to another Grand Final. I think I finally get it. The youthful optimism that has propelled my fandom up until now has finally been beaten out of me. I’ve lived with the pain of Collingwood Grand Final losses for as long as I can remember, but I lived it through books and grainy old footage of Grand Final moments that haunt those who love Black and White. I’ve watched Bob Rose pushing his way through the crowd in 1966 to congratulate Allen Jeans. I’ve watched him try to console the desolate Collingwood team after the siren in 1970. I’ve watched Wayne Harmes tap the ball to Ken Sheldon deep – very deep – in the Ponsford Stand pocket in 1979. I’ve watched and read about all those moments. But I saw with my own two eyes Jeremy McGovern launch at a kick into our forward line and take a mark as he did so many times this season. I saw him immediately play on and kick the ball to Nathan Vardy (Nathan fucking Vardy!?) on their back flank. I saw him pass the ball to Liam Ryan on the forward flank who ran back with the flight of ball and took a mark that should have been spoiled by Langdon or Thomas. I saw Ryan play on and kick the ball inside 50. I saw Brayden Maynard get blocked by Willie Rioli and the umpire pay a mark to Dom Sheed. I saw Sheed walk in from the fence, 40 metres out, with the season on the line, and I saw him kick a goal with what must have been ice running through his veins. I know that time heals all wounds, but I saw all of that and I don’t think I can take the risk of watching something like that ever again. I don’t have the resilience of Bob Rose or Nathan Buckley, or any of the hundreds of people who have endured through the pain of loss and fronted up again for another chance at success. I don’t have any of that – I don’t know how much more of this my heart can take.