What a day!

by Andrew Starkie

Wednesday of preliminary final week, a line of eight chairs is roped to the back fence of Reservoir Ticketek.  Sticky-taped, scribbled signs warn: ‘Collingwood member. Don’t touch!’ The chairs are like sentries.  Or night club bouncers.  I brace myself for a Collingwood grand final.

At the 11 minute mark, second quarter of the preliminary final, the Magpies lead reigning premier Geelong by ten goals.  The Magpies have brutalised and outrun their opponents.  Ablett aside, the Cats have fretted and panicked.  A haunting, foreboding ‘COLLLLINGWOOOOD, COLLLLINGWOOOOD!’ chant rises and envelopes the MCG.  It grows so loud, even the players stop and have a look.  It’s going to be a long week in Reservoir.

After the match, I hop off the train and across the road, the party at the Reservoir RSL is in full swing.  ‘Go Pies! Go Pies!’ comes from the outdoor smoking section.  They’ve settled in for the night.  In the corner shop, next morning, Sam is jumping for joy and ribbing a customer, a Carlton man.  Sam is trying to goad the customer’s young daughter into saying, ‘Carna Pies!’

At the Preston Market, fruit sellers and forklift drivers wear black and white scarves and guernseys.  They smile and can’t see themselves being beaten next week.  Dave, a fellow Roo, and proprietor of the fruit shop I visit on a weekly basis, gives me a pained look.  They haven’t stopped carrying on all morning,he says.

The Edwardes Street shops are adorned in black and white by early grand final week.  The billiard hall, covered in balloons, looks like sideshow alley.  Shop owners and customers agree the Pies are going to flog the Saints.  Even at CERES, the community farm, mothers push prams wrapped in scarves.  Hippies in odd socks, who looked more suited to garage rock bands or left-wing revolutionary marches, sip on lattes and brush off Swan’s Brownlow loss as further proof of the umpires’ conspiracy against their team, or Pendles and Daisy receiving too many votes.

On Friday morning, the army crowds onto the station platform.  Parents count heads and mates wrestle and handball sherrins to each other.  A mother, tattoo on the inside of her forearm, sucks on a dart and fumes at the lateness of the train.

The crowd is ten deep at Gosch’s Paddock.  Young boys find vantage points in trees and halfway up poles.  The atmosphere is light and confident and the team looks great.  Players fan out and hit each other with short passes and quick handballs.  It’s more of an exhibition than a training session.  Maxwell bounces around like an excited child.  The crowd goes up when Cloke and Didak kick goals.  Ball looks fit.  I keep an eye on former Roo, Leigh Brown.  When he left Arden Street two seasons ago, the game looked to have passed Brown by.  On the eve of his first grand final, he is an example of what self-belief can achieve.

Training over, the players leave through a cheering, flag waving avenue and I’m carried by the army, back past the MCG, through Birrarung Marr and onto the city for the parade.  A beaming, excited Islamic family are draped head to foot in jet black.

On the radio, Mick Thomas is singing ‘Monday’s Experts’ and ‘Tom Wills’.  This is beautiful; this is Melbourne.

I take my position on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The crowd is the biggest I’ve seen at a parade and the 12.15pm service has been cancelled.  City streets are blanketed in the colours of the two clubs.  Workers watch from the domed roof of Flinders Street Station and from office windows.  Two nuns walk past and a bloke is flogging dodgy grand final t-shirts from the back of his ute.  Only 10 bucks, mate. And the band plays Waltzing Matilda.

I chat to a crimson haired, middle-aged Saint, from Adelaide.  This the tenth journey she and the family have made this season.  They’ve missed out on grand final tickets.  It’s worth the trip for the parade, she reassures.  They’ll watch the game on the big screen, St. Kilda foreshore.

On the stage in front of Treasury Place, the players are presented.  Many are filming the crowd on their mobile phones.  The parade is more about the fans than the players.  Nick Riewoldt is booed by the Magpie fans when he attempts to speak.  I sense he is storing this for tomorrow.  He and Maxwell lift the cup and the Magpie captain wears a broad grin.  Riewoldt, a stiff, serious expression.  He and his Saints are driven by the memory of last year.

Mike Brady closes proceedings with ‘Up There Cazaly’ and ‘One Day in September’.  The crowd sings along and I wonder why we don’t hear Mike belt out these anthems on the MCG every grand final day.  The crowd drifts away and most are resigned to watching their stars on TV tomorrow, with so many tickets swallowed up by the corporate animal.

On grand final morning, I meet with fellow almanacker, Craig Little, in a hole in the wall cafe, off Smith Street.  He’s happy with Judd’s Brownlow, yet isn’t too sure how it reflects on the rest of the Carlton team, many of whom failed to catch the umpires’ attention.  Amongst other things, we discuss St. Kilda’s decision to drop ruckman, McEvoy, and the lack of a curtain raiser for today’s game.  Determining not to dwell on the negatives, we finish eating and head off.  Smith Street is bathed in gentle sunshine and Magpie supporters sit outside cafes.  With flags hanging from the front walls, the Grace Darling Hotel resembles Magpie HQ.

It’s carnival time in the MCG carpark.  Somewhere between Derby Day at Flemington and The Simpsons Superbowl episode.  Groups of people are gathered around spitting barbecues and tubs of beer.  A van painted in black and white stripes is attracting passing worshippers.  Two guys are on the roof, waving a massive flag.  They’ve gone hard early and may not make the first bounce.  Renditions of Good Old Collingwood Forever can be heard above the chatter and laughter.  Desperate fans hold Tix wanted signs.

We take our seats ground level, centre wing, Members’ enclosure, and are joined by another mate, Justin.  We endure the pregame ‘entertainment’ and again, can’t resist regretting the lack of a curtain raiser.  Although Corey Jones isn’t present, the parade of retiring players is as good as usual.

Collingwood start with the intensity they have shown for most of the season.  Swan makes the first clearance and Jolly goals.  Didak scores from the boundary line.  Thomas miskicks a torpedo punt, however, it goes through.  A few minutes later, he confidently clears from defence with an over the shoulder pass.  The Saints are under pressure and Dal Santo is unfit.  Milne kicks their first.  Late goals reduce the margin.  Collingwood look the better team.

The Magpies control the second quarter.  They work harder – more numbers at the ball, harder bodies at the contest.  Swan and Thomas feature.  Maxwell is loose in defence, repelling St. Kilda’s attacks.  Goddard is trying to do the same.  He is keeping the Saints in the game.  When O’Brien goals, Collingwood celebrate like it’s the final siren.  I can’t help think they’ve gone too early.  Cloke misses two just before half-time.  Mooney! A Saint behind me calls out.  The lead is four goals.  It should be more.  The Magpie army cheer their team off, while Saints fans wear worried looks.

I love how grand finals reveal so much about the character of players and clubs.  You can’t hide in grand finals.  Hayes and Goddard are heroic in the second half.  They simply refuse to lose.  Hayes dumps Swan in a big tackle and wins stoppages from all parts of the ground.  It seems that every kick he has is under pressure.  Every Goddard possession is telling.  He marks and goals.

Riewoldt lifts.  He pushes himself to contests.  Montagna tackles.  Gilbert goes forward and goals off a step.  Collingwood are slowing.  The run and confidence of the first half are waning.  Thomas has time to straighten.  He tries to be pretty and blasts wide.  Soon after he marks inside fifty, hesitates, passes to first year player, Blair, who hits the post.  Being the more experienced player, Thomas should have taken the shot.  The margin is 8 points at three-quarter time and a match that looked decided at half-time has come alive.

There’s no more vulnerable or honest place than a three-quarter time huddle, grand final day.  I watch each coach and guess what they’re saying to their players.  Lyon must be drawing on the devastation of 2009.  Don’t let it happen again.  Trust your yourself and each other.  Malthouse’s inexperienced team is looking to him.  We’ve been the best team all year.  The best team today.  Believe.

The final quarter is as tense as the last of the 2005 grand final.  The lure of the prize at the end of the day won’t allow either team to surrender.  Davis, unseen all day, swoops, goals.  Collingwood by 14 points.  Hayes is exhausted.  His long set shot is carried through by the football gods.  Riewoldt shovels from the pit of a pack and the ball rolls towards the goal.  Maxwell chases, dives and saves on the line.  Hayes kicks to the goal square and Goddard rises ahead of former team mate, Luke Ball, and marks.  It’s a sensational moment for timing and skill that will be remembered forever like Leo Barry’s mark.  This is why we love this game.  Goddard goals and punches the club crest over his heart.  St. Kilda lead for the first time.  The young woman beside me applies lip balm.

Collingwood are in trouble.  Thomas commits his body.  He has grown today.  Maxwell marks and the Magpies go forward one last time.  Shaw drops the mark in the goal square.  Dawes handballs to Cloke who goals.  Pies by a point.

With a minute left, Hayes again drives his team forward.  The ball evades Milne and goes through for a behind.

Swan and Gram attack a loose ball on the wing.  It spills out of bounds.  The ball comes to ground  from the throw-in.  Siren.  Players slump to the turf.  Shocked.  Exhausted.  Coaches and officials run to the players.  Someone places a microphone on the ground.

The crowd is silent.  We don’t know how to react.  Eventually, an appreciative applause spreads around the ground.  We’ve been privileged today.

The Saints are first to make sense of it all.  Goddard, already thinking of the replay, gathers his team.  The Magpies form small groups.  Maxwell describes the replay ‘a joke’.  Hayes is awarded the Norm Smith Medal.  He has lost his voice and his acceptance speech can be barely heard. The only person smiling in this chaotic scene is CEO Demetriou.  Another grand final is cream on the cake for the AFL.

Both teams depart from the far side of the ground as their Northern Stand rooms have been flooded.

We head to the bar to calm our nerves.  Amidst the tight throng of shaking heads and bewildered expressions, I reveal I can’t attend the replay next Saturday, due to a mate’s 40th on the Gold Coast. Justin and Craig spend the next two hours trying to convince me otherwise.  I’m satisfied, I’ve been a part of history today.

As the bar closes and we prepare to depart, a mate of Justin’s joins us.  See that bloke over there, he says, pointing to a cool looking dude in a pink blazer and old-fashioned hat.  He’s an original member of Puppetry of the Penis.  His specialty was ‘The Windsurfer’, which involved a skateboard and a large fan.’

Gold.

What a day.  What a week.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Magnificent Andrew.

    A long week in Reservoir indeed.

  2. David Downer says:

    Sensational report Andrew. Great read.

    Your comment here re Hayes and Goddard echoed mine word-for-word post-match Saturday: “they refuse to lose”

    Dave

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