The Tide of History
**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.
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.
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.
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.
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.