The Sporting Religion

“I could read the sports section if my hair was on fire” – Jerry Seinfeld

The Tide of History – Part II

by williamschack

It was one of the most emotional days in football history. Not since the late, great, Teddy Whitten did his final lap of honour in 1995 has there been such a communal outpouring of emotion and goodwill. Back then, it was for one Bulldogs’ individual. This time, it was for the entire Bulldogs’ community. We have not seen a day like it. There are so many elements which make this premiership one of the greatest football stories ever – perhaps the greatest. Below are four moments of that premiership story.

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All day both teams had been wrestling the lead away from each other, trying to make the most of the momentum when they had it. In hindsight, the Dogs had control most of the day, except for about 10 minutes in the 2nd quarter when the Swans kicked four unanswered goals and Josh Kennedy looked unstoppable. A closer marking of him in the 2nd half by Tom Liberatore would prove to be crucial in the Dogs’ eventual victory.
Despite the Dogs’ control, the margin was never more than a few kicks, and with 8 minutes remaining in the game the margin was 1 point.
Tom Papley marked the ball on the back flank and looked up forward for his options. He hesitated for a bit before electing to kick it down the line. It was smothered by Shane Biggs who gathered the ball, tried to move it forward, but was tackled and the ball fell free to Jake Lloyd. He looked to handpass to a free Swans player but the ball was smothered again by Biggs, who was thrown over the boundary line only seconds earlier. A series of handballs, from the most handball happy team since Geelong, moved the ball deeper inside 50 for the Dogs.
The Swans resisted gallantly. First Cordy shot for goal, but he was bumped off the ball as he kicked it. The ball tumbled towards Boyd who kicked for goal, but the ball ricocheted off the back of Jake Stringer to the pocket. Biggs collected the ball again but was immediately tackled. The ball spilled free to Mills who handpassed errantly to Dunkley, who immediately passed it to Macrae.
It was as intense as football gets. No player had more than split second to gather the ball and decide what to do. The Dogs were surging forward in waves, but the Swans were holding on.
Macrae kicked the ball to McLean so quickly it seemed like he did not hold the ball. McLean tried to mark but it was spoiled. It fell over the top. Liam Picken – player of the series, whose father lost 4 Grand Finals – gathered the ball. For once a player had some space. Picken steadied himself and shot for goal. As it went up in the air the Bulldogs fans behind the goals rose. They watched it go through the middle and they felt as though the game might be turning. They felt that Sydney’s resistance might be about to crack.

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The football world was robbed of a great moment when Norm Smith winner, Jason Johannisen’s, goal was overturned. There was once a time when such a moment would turn the game against the Bulldogs. In 1997 a potential goal was called a point, and the Dogs had no opportunity for it to be reviewed. But the Bulldogs in 2016 were different to all those that had gone before them.
Between the flank and wing Josh Kennedy passed the ball to Lance Franklin, who was quiet for most of the day but played a brilliant last quarter. Franklin looked forward and threatened to run through the middle of the MCG like he has done so many times before. But coming behind him was Dale Morris – a Bulldogs veteran who had played with two broken vertebrae since round 23 – and he tackled Franklin, brought him to the ground, and dispossessed him of the ball. It fell free to a lonesome Tom Boyd, who was born on the same day as Ted Whitten’s state funeral and joined the club at the nadir of Peter Gordon’s second presidential stint. He gathered the ball, turned towards goal and kicked from inside the centre square. It bounced in the forward square and went up in the air. There were fans of another 1 premiership team watching who knew how important such a bounce could be. The ball went up and then it went forward and over the line. It was a goal. To quote Dennis Cometti, the western suburbs erupted.

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And anything from there was gravy. There would be dogs fans who would never dare celebrate until the siren, such is their tortured history, but the game was won. I’ve always been a fan of Grand Finals where one team kicks away in the last 10 minutes or so. It gives the fans and players the chance to really enjoy the moment. With only two and a half minutes to go Jake Stringer, had the chance to give the Dogs one last goal before the siren. He ran forward along the boundary line, diagonally across the field from where he ran in the last minute the week before. Similarly to the preliminary final, you could not begrudge Stringer if he had the shot, so enticing would the glory have been had it gone through. But just like the week before, Stringer centred the ball, this time to Picken. Picken’s mark was spoiled but he stood firm. The ball fell down in front of him. He ran into an open goal and booted the longest premiership drought in football into oblivion.

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Earlier in the year I wrote a post titled ‘Footy Is Not Fair’. In that article I expressed my sadness that if a player was holding a cup on the premiership dais in the tri-colours in 2016 it would not be Bob Murphy. But I had underestimated the selflessness of Luke Beveridge. After he had delivered a somewhat restrained and understated speech he asked for the injured captain to come up onto the dais to accept his Jock McHale medal, because ‘no one deserved it more’. Craig Willis then called on John Schulz to present the premiership cup to Luke Beveridge, Easton Wood, and Bob Murphy. Beveridge let Murphy and Wood hold the cup in the air and every Bulldogs fan in the world roared with joy. 62 years of pain and misery was washed away. And Luke Beveridge stood in the background with a smile on his face, gently clapping. The tide of history had finally turned in the Bulldogs’ favour.

 

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The Tide of History

by williamschack

**Editor’s Note: This post was originally to be called ‘Beat Hawthorn’, but university and work got in the way of me finishing it in time. Apologies for the focus on Collingwood at the start. The focus was originally to be on Hawthorn not winning the premiership but has changed to hoping more than anything else that the Dogs win. It’s been the best non-Collingwood finals series of my life and an emotional 5 weeks starting from round 23. One more game to go. Also, if you haven’t yet read Martin Flanagan’s article from last weekend then make sure it is the next thing you do.**

I watched a lot of football on the final round of the AFL season. On Saturday afternoon I watched Footscray v. Collingwood at Whitten Oval in a VFL game. That game was over by about 14:30 and Collingwood lost. Dad was driving to my sisters’ apartment across the road from Victoria Park so I got a lift with him and watched a few games of pub footy with some friends. Then I met up with the Roos Gal and went to Etihad to watch what was possibly – at that time – the final game in Melbourne for Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo playing for North Melbourne, and this turned out to be true. Then, on Sunday, I went to the MCG to watch Collingwood play Hawthorn in an attempt to prevent them from making the top four.

The last time Collingwood attempted to stop a team from winning four Grand Finals in a row was in 1958. It is undoubtedly Collingwood’s finest hour. Yes, The Machine of 1929 is unsurpassed in its unbeaten home and away season. But they lost in the finals and Essendon won more games in 2000 before losing to the Dogs in round 21. 1990 is so important for 32 different reasons. But the 4 premierships in a row is the one thing my club can point to that no other club in the VFL/AFL has achieved. And on a wet September day in 1958 the Collingwood spirit prevailed against the tide of history on the wide bounds of the MCG.
Melbourne was playing in its fifth successive Grand Final and attempting to equal Collingwood’s record of 4 premierships in a row. Collingwood was still looking glowingly on its golden era of the 20s and 30s and although they had only won 1 premiership in the last 20 years, it saw no reason why it could not maintain its position at the top of the premiership table. Melbourne was smack bang in the middle of its golden era, and the folk on the board saw no reason why it would ever end – no matter who was coach.
The 50s and 60s was the time when the torch was passed from Collingwood to Hawthorn and Melbourne to Carlton as the dominant duopoly of the competition. Hawthorn made their first final in 1957 and beat Collingwood at Victoria Park for the first time in that year too. Hawthorn would win 9 premierships in 31 years from 61-91. Collingwood would lose 8 before winning another.
Carlton began its renaissance when it wooed favoured Melbourne son Ron Barassi to the club as Captain-Coach in 1965. It was one of the reasons the faceless men of Melbourne used as an excuse to sack the greatest coach of all time via telegram. Thus began The Curse of the Red Fox, and Melbourne has never recovered. Carlton would win 8 premierships in 28 years from 68-95.  Melbourne would never win again.

Collingwood’s tactics in the game are famous in Collingwood lore. Acting Captain Murray Weideman understood Collingwood was the inferior team. In the words of Craig Willis, the narrator of the excellent documentary 100 Years of Football, “Collingwood baited Melbourne to play the man and not the ball”. In Weideman’s words he told his players to not worry what he and Hooker Harrison did and for the others to keep their minds on the job. “So, we went around and hit a few blokes”. Collingwood only beat Melbourne once on the MCG when Norm Smith was coach. And it was on the day of the 1958 Grand Final.

As I made my way to the MCG on that sunny August Sunday a few weeks ago, I thought of 1958 and what a momentous occasion it was. What must it have felt like to walk to the MCG with Collingwood’s legacy on the line and feeling like we had no chance? And then what must it have felt like in the final quarter when it dawned on the fans that the impossible had been achieved?
We had a chance in round 23 to not wholly protect the legacy of 4 premierships in a row, but we did have a chance to make it as hard as possible for them. If we won, Hawthorn would have slipped to 6th and had to play the doggies in an elimination final. But it wasn’t to be.

It was one of the games of the season. One which I regrettably feel proud of. When Hawthorn kicked away about half way through the last quarter, I felt like we had done our best. When Shaun Burgoyne evaded about 5 people and kicked  a goal in the last quarter I felt so angry at Port Adelaide for letting him go at the end of 2009. Imagine if they had him in the 2014 preliminary final instead of Hawthorn. But I also felt like the game was over and I am proud of the way we fought back. When Adam Treloar kicked his brilliant goal to put us back in front late in the last quarter I thought there was only 20 seconds to go and I thought we had won it. It turns out there was 2 minutes left and even if there was only 20 seconds we would not have won because the Hawks kicked the equalising goal within about 10 seconds. Jack Fitzpatrick – a man who I had no idea played for Hawthorn and who when I last saw him play he picked the ball up and threw it between his legs like a Center in American football – ran out of the centre with ball and booted a goal from outside 50. When it went through looked around like he had no idea what was going on. It was a typically Hawthorn thing to do in 2016. A team who at that point looked like it was impossible for them to lose a close game. And so they made the top four and gave themselves the best chance of equalling Collingwood’s record.  It was another painful dagger into my black and white heart.

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From then on I shifted into ‘Operation: Beat Hawthorn’ mode. Geelong are my second most hated team – they enjoyed a brief stint as number 1 circa 2011 – and have caused me more pain than any other club. But when they matched up against the Hawks in the qualifying final I was cheering for them like never before. I was yelling ‘Go Selwood’. My friend who has heard me say unspeakable things about Selwood in the past could not believe what he was hearing. It was without doubt one of the best games I have ever attended. There was so much venom in the game and it reignited the Geelong v Hawthorn rivalry which had reduced in hostility over the last couple of years as Geelong had not been as competitive.
After the Collingwood loss I texted a friend and said ‘what the hell do you have to do to beat this club in a close game?’. We found out in the Qualifying Final that you have to rely on them to miss the game winning shot. It was so frustrating watching them move the ball with complete ease from the last line of defence to the forward line in the last play of the game. Even when Luke Breust made a mistake and kicked it into the man on the mark it still worked out for them and the ball ended in the hands of Isaac Smith with a shot for goal after the siren. After he missed I found myself running into a crowd of strangers in blue and white and hugging them. Little did they know how much I disliked their club.

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Then it was time to jump on the Bulldogs bandwagon. The dogs are a team that barring a few omissions in my life I have had great affection for. They are almost everyone’s second team and in the semi-final there was only one non-Hawthorn person (whose name shall remain undisclosed for his own credibility) who was not cheering for the Dogs. Once again I went to the game with some friends and as our standing room spot from the week before was full, we moved around towards the flank. As the first bounce drew closer we noticed an inordinate amount of Hawthorn supporters around us. I was chatting to one beside me and he eventually asked me if I knew that I was standing in the unofficial cheer squad of Hawthorn. Once the first siren sounded there was about 100 loud Hawks supporters chanting around us 6 temporary Dogs fans. As the Hawks began to establish a lead in the 2nd quarter, I made the decision to move.
“They are going to lose if we stay here”, I said, so I walked over to near where we were the week before and straight away the momentum of the game changed. I’m not saying I am solely responsible for their comeback, but I am saying I played a pretty large role.
And in the 3rd quarter the Dogs took over and you could feel change in the winds that were sweeping over the MCG. The Dogs were changing the course of history.
Stringers’ goal made the crowd realise victory was possible. Bontempelli’s proved that the players knew this thing could be done. And Picken’s goal in the fourth made everyone realise that the thing was done. The Dogs were into their 8th preliminary final since 1961.

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The preliminary final was one of the best games in memory. Exactly the type of football I love to watch. A few Bulldogs friends of mine made the journey north and they were not disappointed. I’ve watched the final quarter 3 times now and it is still hard to believe that the Dogs came back.
Johannnisen’s run off the half back line was a sight to behold. Every other player on the field looked completely exhausted and he looked like the sub-rule had been brought back and he had just entered the field of play. Bontempelli streamed forward in expectation. Johannnisen kicked it perfectly in front of him to run on to. Bontempelli tapped it to himself, collected the ball, straightened up, and put the Dogs in front. It was football at its best.

The Bulldogs streamed forward in the final minute. The ball ended in the hands of the unfairly criticised Jake Stringer. He ran inside 50. He was within range and could have had a shot. If he kicked it he would have been the hero. Instead he passed to Tory Dickson who was free about 30 metres out. He marked. And with 30 seconds left on the clock the Dogs were into their first Grand Final since 1961.

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And so now the question is whether this is a team of destiny? In a year when the Cleveland Cavailiers won their first ever NBA Championship and won the city its first title since 1964. In a year where Leicester won the Premier League title against odds of 5000-1 and the might of behemoths whose wage bill was six times as large. Is this the year when the longest premiership drought in the league is finally broken?
I might remind you that 16 is the opposite of 61, but standing in their way is the Sydney Swans. They lost to the Dogs at the SCG earlier this year, but their form over the past 2 weeks has them as hot favourites. The Swans have been a high scoring team all year, but the Dogs do not let teams score and they do not let teams blow them out. It will be a fantastic game to watch and one that will be more keenly anticipated than any other in my lifetime.
Sydney is also team who not too long ago they were the darlings (and also ‘Ugly Ducklings’ at the same time) of the AFL who most fans loved. But their sustained success and their high-profile signings now means they are now considered a glamour club who no longer deserves our sympathy. Which is something the Dogs have been wishing for years. They don’t want to be everyone’s second club as all that means is that they have not caused anyone any pain.
But just like the Swans had every non-Eagles fan cheering for them in 2005, an entire nation of non-Swans fans will be cheering for the Dogs this Saturday. The city of Melbourne has been swept up in the emotion of this momentous occasion. Every person you talk to is on the Dogs bandwagon and is craving some more social media footage from Franco Cozzo. There are so many Dogs supporters who have been through so much pain who deserve victory this week. For so long the tide of history has gone against them, but that can all change this Saturday.

Shit People Around Me at the Footy Said in 2016

by williamschack

2016 has been a bad year for Collingwood. Outside of the Tigers last gasp win, the Cats boil over, the very strange Giants upset, and the West Cast victory, it is has largely been a year of great disappointment. In May, under the influence of alcohol and brooding from a Carlton loss, five years of frustration burst out of me and I called for Buckley’s head. Two weeks later I was calling for his extension after we beat Geelong. (I was only joking, I still want him gone). It has been one of those years. It has also been a busy year for me as second year law and semi-regular employment has begun to take its toll on my free time. As such, I haven’t written much on this blog. But I have still been going to games of football and people around me have still been saying shit.

“We’ve got 1 dickhead! I fucken dickhead saying if you don’t pay me $900,000 I am going. Well, fuck off!!”
– Collingwood fan in the toilets after the loss to St Kilda. Cloke has been somewhat of whipping boy for Collingwood fans and he is a premiership player who has been treated like dirt by Nathan Buckley. I don’t blame him for wanting to leave and I hope he helps bring the Bulldogs their second premiership.

**During the round 3 match and St Kilda sliced apart the Collingwood defence, the Richmond scores came up on big screen to reveal that Adelaide was thrashing Richmond**
Collingwood fan to Joffa: “Trout won’t be happy” (Trout from Woodend)
Joffa: “Fuck Trout! He thinks he is a radio superstar!”
– Controversy amongst celebrity cheer squad members.

“He’s taken us from fucken champions to a fucken laughing stock!”
– Every Collingwood fan this season when discussing Buckley’s term as coach.

“We must all be concentrating”
– Guy at the urinal during the North v Dogs game. No one laughed except for himself and he laughed very loud.

“Trip over and break your back”
– Collingwood fan to a Cats player as he ran in for his shot at goal after a 50 metre penalty. Perhaps an unfair reaction to a decision which the player had no choice in.

“Chewy on your boot. I hope you break your back”
– Same fan to Dangerfield as he walked into goal. Once again, probably an unfair reaction to the situation.

“If we win I will scream the hardest I have ever screamed in my life. Even harder than I did at One Direction”
– Cats fan during the Cats’ comeback. It feels good being able to make fun of a Geelong fan.

“Ok (insert pause for effect) I will have one of everything”
– Pies fan as she approached the bar in The Outer Bar (unofficial Collingwood social club bar). She laughed a lot at her statement.

“Gee I reckon I am about to unload 3 litres into here”
-Collingwood fan in the bathrooms at the newly renovated Westpac Centre. There is no urinal and many fans expressed their discontent with this throughout the night. He was referring to the sink and I assume he was boasting about the amount of urine his bladder could hold.

“That sink is looking alright, isn’t it?”
– I overheard another Collingwood fan saying this later in the night as I was in the cubicle.

“The little SOS is playing! The Frankfurt! We hate you Frankfurt! …Let’s snap the little Coxtail Frankfurt [sic] in half!!”
– Collingwood fan in front of me in the first quarter against Carlton in round 15. It was Jack Silvagni’s first game and this fan made it his mission to make Jack feel uncomfortable. In what was one of the least satisfying Carlton victories in living memory this guy brought me much enjoyment. He was sweating within 10 seconds of the first bounce and I think there may have been some external factors that contributed to this. He is a Legends member, but usually sits many rows back from us. He bumped into the guy in front of us one too many times and the guy’s mother eventually called security to have him removed from the seats.

“Stick your hand up your arse!”
– Collingwood fan behind me unhappy with an umpiring decision. Quite an extreme request to make of an umpire at any time let alone during a game.

Guy behind me: “Chicken with crumbling! You can’t stuff that up!”
Me: **I have no idea what that means**
Guy in front of me turns around: “I can’t even cook soup mate!”
– Strange exchange during that same Carlton game.

“Cooooooxxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyy Ssssnnnnnnoooooottttttt”
– Same guy in front of me during Carlton game. Not sure what he meant here.

“You’re the ugliest player in the league Sicily!”
– My friend to James Sicily during the Hawks game. The amount of hatred that I feel for James Sicily is disturbing given that I had not seen him play against Collingwood until last week.

“You are a wanker!”
– About 200 Collingwood fans chanted this to a Hawthorn fan in the final round before he was eventually kicked out. He came down to the second row and starting chanting Four-Thorn and holding up four fingers. The cheer squad and those around them didn’t react kindly to this.

And that was the season that was.

Footy Is Not Fair

by williamschack

Football isn’t fair. Last weekend I watched St Kilda slice apart Collingwood’s defence – if you could call it that – and felt the mood of the Ponsford Stand change from optimistic to depressed as the shadows lengthened on the MCG. We played well for the first ten minutes. Jeremy Howe’s first act in Collingwood jumper was a tackle inside 50 which resulted in a Tom Langdon goal. After a while, however, St Kilda began to control the game and they eventually dominated. Collingwood supposedly recruited well in the off-season and some people even tipped we would make the top four. The first three weeks have indicated that we will be lucky to make the top eight and if we do then we won’t advance. As I sat in the Imperial with my sister after the game drowning my sorrows, nothing that had happened seemed fair.

But I know it felt fair to the St Kilda faithful who turned up to cheer on their young team and commemorate the 50th anniversary of their 1966 premiership. Before the game, the surviving premierships players entered the field before the current day players. I clapped them quietly. I could see only one other Collingwood fan in my vicinity doing the same. During the week before the game there was talk in the media about St Kilda’s lack of success and that fabled last Saturday in the September of 1966. One of the discussions I enjoyed was surrounding the commentary from the game. I’ve always been angry at how biased the commentary was in that game, but as I have entered quarter-middle age (I bought a pair of Crocs the other week) I have mellowed out in regard to the grudges I hold. Firstly, football coverage was in its infancy and objectivity, or at least the façade of objectivity, was clearly not yet established. Secondly, when one club playing is as hated as Collingwood who already had thirteen premierships and the other is St Kilda who were flagless, I can understand why Ted Whitten yelled, “hit the boundary line!”.
The St Kilda Football Club was established in 1873. They have been in existence for 143 years and have won 27 Wooden Spoons, more than double the team who has won the second most. They have played in 7 Grand Finals, 8 if you include the 2010 Grand Final replay. And they have won one premiership by one point. Now, that is unfair.
Why should one club have to endure so much heartbreak and disappointment, whilst others can enjoy so much success? Why should a person who chooses St Kilda as their team as a child, either through parental coercion or no wrongdoing of their own, have to suffer through such adversity?
Of all the Collingwood Grand Final losses during the 32 year premiership drought, it is the St Kilda loss than I can accept the most. If they were still in existence now without a single premiership, and if they had to go through their subsequent 4 losses without the knowledge that they had won at least one, the weight of the St Kilda cross surely would be too much to bear.
The heartbreak they have endured in the past 20 years must be particularly painful. I have asked a few St Kilda friends if they would like to write about it, but so far all of them have politely refused. Perhaps the pain is still too raw. They have been in 3 preliminary finals and 3 Grand Finals and lost them all. Each Grand Final has a particular story with varying degrees of pain.
At risk of offending St Kilda fans with an opinion on their pain, the 2010 Grand Final would be the easiest of the three to take – and by easiest I mean the most bearable of one of the most difficult pains imaginable. The 2009 Grand Final they should have won. They were the best team all year and were easily the best team on that day. It was one of the best Grand Finals of all time but their poor kicking let them down. But, in my non-partisan opinion, the 1997 Grand Final must have hurt the most. They were easily the best team that year, but they lost to a team that won only 13 games in the home-and-away season, lost their first final, and also were down by five goals in the preliminary final. And it is the fact that Adelaide was even playing that makes the 1997 Grand Final so tragic, for had they not been, it would have been the dream match-up of St Kilda v Footscray. The two tragic teams of the VFL/AFL who only had one flag – at least one of them would have come away with two. But as fate would have it, a kick that looked like it was a goal was called a point. And Darren Jarman was playing for Adelaide. And the Crows won their first Grand Final in only their sixth year in the competition. And they won their second the the following year while St Kilda is still waiting for their second in their 143rd year. Football isn’t fair.

And that brings us to the Bulldogs, who last week played the triple-reigning premiers, Hawthorn, in a classic contender versus champion match-up. The Hawks and Bulldogs both entered the VFL in the 1925 and both struggled early. The Bulldogs managed to win their first flag in 1954. The Hawks didn’t even make the finals until 1957. In 1961 both teams faced off in the Grand Final and the Hawks won their first premiership. Nobody could begrudge Hawthorn at the time given their lack of success. In the 54 years since, the Hawks have progressed their premiership tally to 13, and Footscray hasn’t made another Grand Final. They’ve played in 7 preliminary finals and lost them all. Now, that is unfair.
The Bulldogs most recent successful period was from 2008-2010 where they made the preliminary final three years in a row, losing to St Kilda twice. Since then they have been largely uncompetitive until Luke Beveridge was named coach and they made the finals in his first year. This year, they have been the talk of the competition as they play an exciting type of football and have a team filled with idiosyncratic and lovable players. None more loved than Bob Murphy.
He started playing for the Dogs as a scrawny kid in 2000 and has since become the embodiment of the modern Bulldogs in much the same way as Hawkins did before him, and Whitten and Sutton before him. He has lived through some successful periods, but as the Dogs slipped down the ladder following their three consecutive preliminary final appearances, it seemed like his career would end without success. Then all of sudden the Dogs rose and the spirit of the Western suburbs was carried not just by Bob, but also by Luke and everyone else determined to Be More Bulldog.
The game against Hawthorn was one of the highest quality. The Bulldogs proved that they are a genuine contender as they took it up to the champions and were able to obtain a 20 point lead by three-quarter time. The Hawks came back, as we all knew they would, but the Dogs were still in front with 90 seconds in the game to go. The Hawks pushed the ball into their forward line and Bob was running back with the flight to prevent a Hawthorn player marking the ball. His knee buckled as he turned and he fell to the ground. James Sicily marked the ball, kicked the goal, and Hawthorn won by 3 points. The Dogs lost by much more, however, as the next day it was confirmed what Bob’s face had told us as he sat on the ground holding his knee: his ACL was torn and he would require a knee reconstruction.
In a season where the Bulldogs might finally win their second premiership, Bob won’t be playing. If a premiership cup is held on the dais by a person wearing the tri-colours at the end of 2016, sadly it won’t be Bob Murphy. He has given so much to his club, and I can’t think of any current captains who deserve a premiership more than him. His Indian Summer has ended cruelly, and now he will spend the Melbourne winter trying to get his body right for 2017. I hope he can make it back and enjoy success. It shouldn’t end like this. Life is unfair.

Returning to the Footy

by williamschack

On Tuesday last week my father headed back to our family home in South West Victoria after a month in Melbourne. He had been staying at the Austin hospital and then at nearby accommodation following liver transplant surgery. Last August he was diagnosed with liver cancer after doctors noticed that his blood readings were unusual. He received treatment in December, and was put on the waiting list for a donor only a couple of weeks before undergoing the transplant surgery.
When he initially received his diagnosis, Collingwood’s season had fallen apart and was about to end as 8 other lucky teams were set to play finals. We’d recently suffered a humiliating loss to Richmond which made me question every decision the club had made since 2011. The awareness of my father’s mortality, which strangely was something I had never really considered before, enabled me to have some perspective on the relative insignificance of another failed Collingwood season. But it also made me aware of how important Collingwood is to (most of) my family, as some Collingwood success would have been a welcome distraction. Thankfully, all has gone well thus far, and his return home last week marked somewhat of an end to a difficult period for my father and his extended family and friends. Just in time for football season.

Over summer to fill the football void in my life I spent a lot of time watching old matches on Fox Footy, whose summer viewing was much better than previous off-seasons in which the home and away season was just repeated and repeated and repeated. I also read a great book that I received as a Christmas present, Time and Space by James Coventry, which I have written about previously. That book’s discussion of the 1970 Grand Final then lead me to Martin Flanagan’s treatise on the match. I searched for it online but found it was out of print, and I tweeted that it was my life’s mission to obtain a copy. I was surprised the next day when Martin sent me direct message letting me know he probably had a copy lying around. About a week later the book was in my hands.
It is a book that all football fans should read, for it is one of the most important games ever played. I find it strange that it is rarely mentioned when people talk of the greatest Grand Finals of all time. It is as though people are incapable of compiling a list that includes Grand Finals before 1989.
Both Time and Space and 1970 make it clear that the game was not the catalyst for a new era of football, but the culmination of years of innovations by different coaches, not just in the VFL, but across the land of Australia. Lesser football historians have suggested that Barassi had some sort of epiphany at half-time and advised his players to handball having never considered it before. Despite the fact that he had done it before and that Len Smith had suggested all coaches do so in his coaching manual years before. And despite the fact the SANFL had been in a battle of aggressive versus traditional down the line play for 2 decades. Regardless of this, the 1970 Grand Final is a clear demarcation of football moving into what was then known as the modern era. Football, of course, would continue to change, but this game was the affirmation in the general populous’ minds that aggressive and attacking football could succeed. Two years later Barassi was gone, but Carlton upset Richmond in the Grand Final with the highest ever Grand Final score in the highest scoring Grand Final.
Carlton’s poaching of Barassi, Melbourne’s favourite son, would mark the beginning of Carlton’s era of success and professionalism in which they would be rivalled only by Hawthorn by winning 8 Premierships in 27 years. This one, however, was the club’s and Barassi’s finest.
And it is the darkest day in Collingwood’s history. Flanagan interviewed almost everyone who played in the game and their pain is evident years later. Some players have bitterness toward the club, who felt that it was behind the times and reliant on methods no longer relevant to the game that was revolutionised by Hawthorn’s fitness and the professional focus of clubs like Carlton. Mostly though, there is sadness.

As I read the book whilst Dad was going through the process of being tested and analysed before being put onto the transplant waiting list, I thought of how intertwined Collingwood is with our relationship. He was outside the MCG in 1970 listening on the radio, and although I was born 17 years after the game was played, it has been something that I have always felt connected to and affected by. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Ted Hopkins was and how many goals he kicked in the second half, or what Barassi’s instruction was at half-time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a pain in my chest or a sadness wash over me whenever I see footage of the game, or hear it spoken about. It is in my DNA, and it was passed on to me from my father.

It is probably a disturbing reflection of my obsession with Collingwood that when I first heard of my father’s illness, one of the things that passed through my head was that at least he was able to see Collingwood win a Grand Final. It would be a cruel world if one had to live through 13 losses and 2 draws, rather than 11 losses, 2 draws and 2 wins. But it is also a reflection of how connected Collingwood is with our relationship. If he was to sadly pass away, and I realise now that this is something that is eventually going to happen, many of the memories I have of him would be Collingwood related.
There is my first memory of attending a football game, bawling my eyes out as he forced me to leave Waverley Park early. I was convinced we could come back and beat the Cats, but decades of disappointment had taught him we were going to lose. We lost by 8 points. There is the first time I saw Collingwood beat Carlton when Peter Daicos did a lap of honour after retiring the year before and Mick McGuane kicked his famous running goal. There is when we watched Collingwood beat the all-conquering Lions at the MCG in the 2003 Qualifying Final. There is when we watched the Lions dismantle us three weeks later in the Grand Final at the house of fellow Collingwood supporter, and dad’s late friend, Bernie Slattery. There is when we went to the 2010 Grand Final together, only to have the game be a draw and him miss out on the replay as he had a trip planned to America. There is when we watched the Collingwood lose yet another Grand Final the next year. And there is the week before when we beat the Hawks by 3 points in the preliminary and the first people I thought to contact were him and my sister. The list goes on.
Of course, there is more to our relationship that football – particularly music, another thing in which we have bonded over time – but football has been there since the start. And this Friday night I will head to the MCG with my sister and father to watch another Collingwood game. Last weekend’s performance indicates that this season may be another disappointing one, but almost every football season is and we all still come back. It feels good to have football in our lives again, and another opportunity to hope for success together.

Book Review: Time & Space

by williamschack

“Nothing’s new in life, son. It’s all been done before.”
– Jack Oatey

Time and Space is the story of the tactical evolution in Australian Rules football. The book is the result of what must have been exhaustive research by ABC journalist, James Coventry, and provides a surprising and insightful analysis of the Australian game’s development from its amateur and rugby roots, to the top tier state competitions that dominated the minds of Australian sports fans west and south of the Barassi line in the 20th century, to the professional and national game it has become in the 21st century.

For the non-football fanatic, the early chapters may seem quite tedious, but fanatics will find it illuminating to read of some of the early developments. It was surprising to find out that whilst there was no explicit reference to an offside rule in the original rules, it was expected that the players adhere to it. The opening chapter, aptly named ‘Breaking the Line’, shows that when the games’ founder Tom Wills broke that unwritten rule he was roundly criticised as ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike. How lucky we are that he did, for it is our game’s singular feature that distinguishes it from rugby and soccer, and in this writer’s opinion, the great trump card it holds over the other codes.

The book suggests that most things in football have been done before, as the epigraph at the beginning of the book explains (see above), and that each development is usually a reorganisation of something that has been tried by another coach. The spare man in defence is something that is often derided by commentators as a modern invention that means contemporary players are incapable of competing man-on-man. Yet as far back as 1894 it was used as a tactic by Geelong to stop the all-conquering Essendon’s Albert Thurgood. Furthermore, the incessant complaining by fans, commentators and administrators about the state of the game, has been said time and time again as football has developed and changed. There are numerous passages taken from the opinion pages of old newspapers which were written decades ago, but the reader could have sworn were discussed at a round table on Fox Footy last year with Adrian Anderson, David King, Mick Malthouse and Gerard Healy.

This suggestion, however, does not mean that football should stand still. The fans who complain that we should leave the rules alone and let football change itself need to understand that it has never been thus. From its very inception Australian Rules was an evolving beast and along with tactical masterminds, the rule makers have played a large part in that evolution. There are many rule changes that the book highlights as being for the betterment of the game. The most obvious and commonly cited in contemporary times is the introduction of out-of-bounds-on-the-full rule in 1969. Another lesser known one is the introduction of the 10 yard mark rule in 1897, which had previously been 2 yards. A tactic known as ‘little marking’ had crept back into the game where a series of short kicks – that were usually poorly disguised throws –  were used to transfer the ball forward. It is peculiar to think that it ever existed, but it did and the rule makers recognised that by extending the required distance for a mark that play would open up and be a greater spectacle for fans.

The book uses the central characters involved in tactics to help propel the narrative from the 1850s through to today. It is the structure that gives the book its greatest strength. For whilst it is interesting to learn the details of game plans which we never knew of before, it is even more interesting to read about the likes of Tom Wills whose story is one that every Australian should know. Or Geelong identity Hermann Reichmann, whose name when typed into google shows up nothing except a reference to his name in a review of this very book.

It is also refreshing to read a book that acknowledges the great debt the games owes to the other states who played Australian Rules. The VFL and latterly the AFL would like to take the credit for every invention in the game and rewrite history. The book shows that some of the most influential figures in the trajectory of the game came from outside the borders of Victoria and its passages on the political manouvering of the State competitions in the now defunct Australian Football Council are fascinating.

To analyse the details of the tactical changes is beyond the scope of this review, but it is interesting to note that revolutionary ideas often come from the clubs that weren’t successful, as they needed to innovate to compete with the clubs with the best players. It made this reviewer think that along with increased professionalism in football, perhaps one of the reasons that there is now so much innovation and tactical change in modern football, is that because there has now been a socialist system in the AFL for almost 30 years. With the reverse draft and a salary cap, the gap between the top and bottom is nowhere near as large as it used to be, and so all clubs feel the need to innovate, even when they are at the top.

This book has highlighted some people I was unaware of in regard to their impact on the game, and changed my opinion on some issues surrounding its current status. It is recommended to anyone who has an interest in how the game arrived at its current destination, even if you’re only interested in the recent history then I’d still recommend it just for the final chapters. The very recent tactics aren’t analysed in great depth, which apparently was due to not too many current coaches wanting to reveal their inner secrets. Hopefully another book like this is written in 100 years to document the developments of this century. For, as Gerard Wheatley writes on the back cover, this is ‘not just the tales of the men who pushed and prodded the Australian game. It’s the story of footy itself’.

Time and Space is published by HarperCollins

Life is Better Without Review

by williamschack

Sunday, August 7, 2005. The fourth day of that year’s second Ashes Test. At the beginning of the day Australia required 107 runs to win. England required three wickets. The batsmen at the crease were Shane Warne and Brett Lee, with Michael Kasprowicz waiting in the rooms.
On the second last ball of the match Brett Lee played the ball through the covers. The Australians in the crowd didn’t see the fielder near the boundary and initially cheered as though it was going for four. It was swept up by the fieldsmen and Lee and Kasprowicz swapped ends for a single.
Harmison ran in to bowl the next ball. The crowd was relatively quiet and subdued. The English fans had arrived that day expecting to see England quickly take the last two wickets and the series levelled. Instead they had witnessed a gritty fightback from Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz.
The ball wasn’t particularly brilliant: it wasn’t fast and it was probably too far toward leg stump. However it rose on Kasprowicz awkwardly and he badly fended it off. The ball caught his glove on its way past and Jones leapt for it. He had missed many throughout the day, but not this one.
He appealed. England appealed. Billy Bowden rose his crooked finger. And an entire country erupted.
For so long England had been bullied by the “convict colony”, but now they had fought back and won in one of the greatest Test matches ever played. Order, in their imperial eyes, was on its way to being restored.

* * * *

Australian cricket fans were filled with sadness last week when Mitchell Johnson announced his retirement. We were sad that we’d never again be able to experience the thrill of watching Johnson rip through opposition batting line-ups. There were a couple of positives, however, as it prompted me to read as many current and past articles about Super Mitch, and it also meant that I had a reasonable excuse to be able to spend a somewhat unhealthy amount of time watching YouTube clips of old Johnson performances. And all of the articles, and all of my YouTube surfing, led to one place: the Adelaide Oval.

Just from writing the name of the ground, anyone with a passing interest in cricket knows what I am referring to. Finishing with figures of 7/40, including a spell of 5 wickets in 24 balls, this was match in which Johnson confirmed that the 2013/14 summer would forever be remembered as The Summer of Mitch. He had performed brilliantly in the first Test, but many thought he was favoured by the Gabba pitch and that the old Mitchell Johnson who inspired a song about bowling to the left and the right would be seen on the batsmen’s paradise that is the Adelaide Oval. But that Mitchell Johnson would never be seen ever again. This was Super Mitchell Johnson, and not the one which the English fans sang ironically about.
On the second day of the Test I arrived home from my shitty job and grabbed a beer from the couch and eagerly awaited the beginning of the English innings. Such was the excitement that Johnson has caused in the previous Test, a success starved nation was keenly interested in cricket and wanted to know what would happen when we next saw him. It was exhilarating.
Almost every ball was 145+ km/ph, many were 150+. Alistair Cook, the king of patience and restraint, was nervously swinging at the balls he would normally watch pass him by. The ball to which he would eventually lose his wicket to was the perfect ball. It was fast and moved just enough for Cook to miss it. It was not perfect in the sense that Ryan Harris’ first ball wicket in the third Test was perfect, as that truly was the ball you would pick if you only had one ball left to try and win a match, but perfect in the sense that it was the perfect ball for Mitchell Johnson to bowl to send a message to the England team that his performance at the Gabba was not a fluke. When you combine all of that with a lot of pace and an agitated Cook you arrive at the perfect storm and you end up with this:


Johnson’s ball had something that Harris’ did not: brutality. After the Harris ball you can imagine Cook saying, “Fair play to him, even Bradman would be in the same position as me if he faced that ball”. But after the Johnson ball all I can imagine him saying was “Fuck me! I’m scared! Get me off this tour!”
The Cook dismissal was the catalyst for the devastation that occurred the following day. This Test confirmed that there was nothing Cook and his team could do. They just had to ride out this series and hope that Johnson landed awkwardly on a cricket ball one morning before a Test.

I listened to the spell on the third day whilst travelling on the train to my sister’s house. I was jumping around in my seat. I wish I was there. The excitement of that day has been captured brilliantly two great articles by Jarrod Kimber and Geoff Lemon. I might be a loser with an unhealthy obsession with sport, but the last paragraph of Kimber’s article physically moved me. Not in the George Costanza eating a mango kind of way, but in the hairs on your arms standing up and shivers down your spine kind of way. It is a lengthy article that I recommend you all read, but in the interest of time, here is the final paragraph:

Stuart Broad saw something. Perhaps he just didn’t want to look at Johnson. Not square in the eyes, at least. He pointed to a shiny bolt and turned a ravenous crowd into a screaming beast.

Johnson was already in his dream over with two earlier wickets. He had already bowled his dream ball to Cook the night before. He had already played his dream Test the match before.

Broad wasn’t delaying a ball, he was delaying inevitability. Certainty.

Johnson delivered a fast ball on leg stump. There were days, whole seasons, perhaps even whole years, when the same ball would have been flicked to the boundary. Broad would have fidgeted with his gear while Johnson put his hands to his head.

Now England believed every ball would be a wicket, and so did Johnson, so did everyone.

Broad hopped away from the ball, Broad’s leg stump hopped too.

Mitchell Johnson ran frantically down the pitch. Like he was in the world’s greatest dream.

No one watching this spell could actually believe he was doing this. Let alone the bloke bowling it. He couldn’t believe how easy it had become.

It is a beautiful piece of writing that captured the moment so well. Given the delay in sorting out the sight screen issue, the ball was actually called by Mark Nicholas from the boundary as he was conducting an interview and didn’t have time to go back upstairs to the main commentary team before the ball was bowled. His call is one of my favourite pieces of commentary ever.
“The crowd are with Johnson. This is like the days of Lillee and Thompson. In comes Mitchell Johnson now. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! How about it?! How about it?! It’s barely believable! The Adelaide Oval has gone off! And so must Stuart Broad!”

It was barely believable, but it was real. All cricket loving Australians will die a little bit happier because of that wicket. It put Johnson on a hat-trick that sadly did not eventuate.

Reading all of the Johnson articles over the last week has been so enjoyable because they all convey the magic of cricket. The thrill of The Summer of Mitch can never adequately be replicated in words, but writers can try. That summer is something that the cricket loving nation of Australia will never forget. Just like we will never forget Bodyline. Just like England will never forget the 05 Ashes, and Botham’s Ashes. And reading all of these Johnson articles over the last week or so has been extra enjoyable because they left out something that was so common throughout the Summer of Mitch: the incessant referrals to the third umpire to check Johnson’s front foot.

I don’t have the resources to check how many of Johnson’s wickets in The Summer of Mitch were referred to the third umpire to check his front foot, but from my memory it was a lot. (Side note: Can someone please make a DVD that is just made up of Johnson’s spells in this Ashes series? I would buy that DVD and I would pay a lot of money if it had special comments from Super Mitch). It definitely happened in the Adelaide Test, and it happened in the three most memorable wickets. Cook, Broad and Anderson.  Thankfully Johnson’s foot was behind the crease on all occasions and those beautiful wickets retained their status. But, for a few moments the sporting nation of Australia drew its collective breath as it considered that all its raw and unbridled joy at those wickets may be taken away. For a few moments, the magic of cricket stopped.

* * * *

There are not many things that I like about the BCCI, but I do respect them for their refusal to use the DRS technology. The ICC was basically forced into the decision to use technology such as hotspot as it became embarrassed by TV stations showing that an umpiring decision was incorrect, with their being no recourse available in the game. India refuses to use the DRS as it doesn’t trust the technology.

Last summer it was great watching cricket and seeing an LBW and not having to worry about the player reviewing the decision. We were free to celebrate without the expectance of a review. Of course, there was still the annoying referrals by the umpire to check the front foot on some dismissals. But the experience was still at least half better.

Once you introduce technology it is hard to ever reverse that decision, but when cricket is fighting for the attention of audiences around the world, administrators should be looking to retain the advantage it has over other forms of entertainment. Sport is best when watched live, and the reason for this is because it is unscripted so when something magical happens like Johnson bowling Broad after everything that came before, it really is “barely believable” and our primal emotions surge through us. But checking that his front foot is behind the crease when the umpire standing less than 2 metres away can’t tell, diminishes the moment. It removes the element of unexpectedness and instinctive emotion. It makes it less magical and more like everything else.

People don’t watch cricket with the hope that by the end of the day they will be able to say that the right umpiring decision was made 100% of the time. And if they are, they have never been satisfied in the 150+ years that cricket has been played. People watch cricket with the hope that they will witness something thrilling, brilliant, and unexpected, something that jolts them out of their seat and something they will remember for years to come. The DRS and video reviews can either diminish those moments, or remove them from the history books before it is even written.

* * * *

After Jones caught Kasprowicz, the English players all jumped into each others arms. Not before Harmison, then Flintoff went to Lee and Kasprowicz to console them for their loss. Flintoff’s embrace of a devastated Lee is an iconic image of modern cricket.

lee
But if that game was played in 2015, it is likely the photo would never have been taken. For if it was in 2015, Kasprowicz may have had a review left, and if he did he would have used it. Regardless of whether he thought he hit it or not. And that raw emotion of an entire nation would have been put on hold for a while as they checked the video to see if it hit Kasprowicz’s glove.
If he was found to be confirmed out, England still would have celebrated and it still would have been a fantastic match, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Flintoff’s consoling of Lee and Kasprowicz wouldn’t have meant as much because the adrenalin wouldn’t have been running through his body in the same way.
And if it was 2015 and Kasprowicz reviewed the decision, the third umpire would have given him not out. The ball did hit his glove, but his glove was not touching the bat. If that happened then Kasprowicz and Lee may have scored the remaining three runs and Australia would have been 2-0  and all but retained The Ashes. But if that happened then we would have missed out on one of the greatest series ever. We would have missed out on the photo of Freddy. We would have missed out on the unencumbered English celebration. And whilst the correct decision would have been made, cricket would have been much the poorer.