A Night to Remember
Goodness. Where did this all come from? In round one this year Mason Cox played one of the worst games of Australian football I have ever seen a professional play. There were audible groans every time he went near the ball and inevitably dropped it. The perennially entertaining Facebook page ‘Footy Fighting Scenarios’ summed it up best when a group member posted: Basic AFL Skills v Mason Cox (Still the 2nd best Cox to ever play the game terrain).
There were all the old familiar signs of a team who had no game plan. Stagnant play off the half back line. Looking around for a short pass. Hoping someone would lead into space. Seeing no-one moving. Eventually giving up on anything imaginative and kicking it up the line to the wing hoping a teammate will mark it even though it never happens. We still only lost by 4 goals to Hawthorn.
The next week we played GWS and saw one of the most the horrific injuries you will ever see on the football field. Tim Broomhead’s leg wrapped around the goal post and gave a new meaning to the words broken leg. We played better on this day but lost by 15 points.
In round three we played the old enemy Carlton. Before the game David “Champion Data Stats” King wrote that Carlton were closer to a flag than Collingwood. Carlton kicked the first three goals then Collingwood kicked the next 10. Something clicked on that evening. We were suddenly making sharp passes at 45-degree angles. Running and handpassing in patterns that did break down on the wing. Whatever was that Collingwood had been trying to do for the last 3-4 years suddenly worked.
When we lost dismally to Carlton in round 7, 2016, I had lost the faith. After about my tenth beer for the day I got on to Facebook as every good drunk person does and demanded Buckley to be sacked. There is a reason why best practice in corporate governance does not involve social media and alcohol. The post has certainly not aged well, particularly given we only lost by 15 points, and thankfully people more temperate than me are in charge of the club. Despite being posted while drunk it was at least considered. My bio on this blog since day one has read ‘it is his dream to see Nathan Buckley holding a premiership cup’. I just had reached a point where I did not see that dream as a possibility. Every week we would watch our team play and in 1 in 10 games the ball would move well. The rest of the time the play was stagnant and based on luck.
All I want from my football club is to be able to attend the game every week with some sort of optimism. They don’t always have to bring me joy, but I just want to see them improving and playing good football, so that I don’t dread going to ground. That is why I was fed up in 2016, I no longer enjoyed watching them play. To try and mitigate some of my foolishness, however, I must note that I agreed with the contract extension last year. If we had been through all of that and had not sacked him by that stage, then we might as well see it through to the bitter end. I did not expect this.
This home and away season’s highlights for me were the Adelaide, ANZAC Day and Queen’s Birthday games. The main thing though was that we were playing well despite all the bad injury luck. Of the losses, the two Richmond games were most encouraging, but I was not prepared in any way for what happened on Friday night.
It was a match made in heaven. Richmond v Collingwood. Suburban rivals for more than a century, but never good at the same time for the last 35 years. The two biggest supported clubs on the best night to watch football – Friday night, Preliminary Final weekend.
Before the game the city was electric. It seemed like everyone in the world was excited about the game, not just those in our sparsely populated State on our giant island continent. At lunch time I was wearing my scarf and a tradie from the construction site next door grunted at me, ‘Carn the Tigers’. My colleague said a Tigers fan hissed at her on the train. Walking to the ground, the enormity of the challenge stood before me. The MCG, the ground on which Richmond had won its last 22 games, glowing in the distance. I could not help but think of the possibility of winning. Yet the very likely chance of losing strangely tempered my nerves.
Once the game started, the chances of winning grew. It was incredible. With each goal the roars of the crowd got louder. We were all high fiving and hugging each other. Knowing how Richmond had played us twice this year we were all cautious of getting carried away. At quarter time people were smiling in surprise and shaking their heads. As if they were trying to shake out of them any thought that we could actually win, for fear of the heartache a loss would then cause.
The second quarter was something to behold. Mason Cox played as good a quarter of football you will ever see played. Those audible groans that went around the ground whenever he went near the ball in round 1 had turned into cheers of expectation. He just could not drop the ball. Thankfully, he also kicked straight. Chants of USA! USA! USA! went around the ground. I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it.
The Tigers wrestled back the momentum for the last 10 minutes or so of the half, but Jack crisp’s second goal against the run of play steadied and cemented our dominance. I’ve watched the replay about 4 times now and Bruce had an all-time performance on this night. His response to this goal is my favourite but had me retrospectively worrying about his health. Ominously the margin was 44 points at half-time. There may have been a time when a Collingwood fan felt comfortable with that lead, but those days are dead and buried.
The Tigers won the third and all those worries and stresses increased when they got within 21 points in the final term. Then Mason Cox took a steadying mark on the wing, leading to Adam Treloar kicking a goal. And finally, Brodie Grundy, who with a finals record of 56 hit-outs absolutely dominated Toby Nankervis and Shaun Grigg all night, dominated them once more. He rucked the ball in the front pocket, tapped it, roved his own ball and booted Collingwood into a Grand Final.
It was only then that anyone relaxed. I hugged my sister and father. Strangely, it was the first Preliminary Final I had attended with them. Dad is not quite as boisterous as me at the football but it looked like he had a good time. All night his eyes just kept getting wider and wider with surprise and by this time he could even smile. I’ve since read that the crowd noise reached 126 decibels. 120 is the sound that a jet makes at take-off. It was just glorious. Kicking the sealer into a raucous Ponsford Stand is as good as it gets. My contribution to the 126 decibels was yelling over and over “It’s Grundy!!”. And then the Coll-Ing-Wood chant started.
Exactly where it stands in the history of Collingwood upsets I am not quite sure yet. The 2002 Qualifying Final against Port Adelaide without Buckley was probably more of an upset, but it was the dominance that makes this win against the Tigers stand out. 1958 still stands out alone, but the physical tactics used on that day are not as noble as this complete dismantling of Richmond. What happens on Saturday might determine how we view it in the future.
After the game we stood outside the Ponsford Stand for a while, soaking in the atmosphere of the celebrations. Then we walked up to the Cricketers Bar on Spring Street to meet some friends. All the Colllingwood fans in the bar had smiles beaming from their faces. Still in disbelief. One person started singing the Collingwood theme song and everyone in the bar joined in unison. Then we all started chanting Coll-Ing-Wood. The replay came on the TV and we all just took it in. In the second quarter Mason Cox started marking everything that came his way. The crowd in the bar began chanting USA! USA! USA! The world had become a strange and enjoyable place. It was a Preliminary Final night to remember.