Six years ago, St Kilda and Collingwood played out an epic draw. Dad was in America and we had always watched the grand final together as a family, so I thought I’d send him my version of events. I was in year 11 at the time, and the thought of sports journalism was just a seed in the back of my mind. A “wouldn’t it be amazing to be paid to watch football” type of daydream. I wish I still had what I wrote; I have a feeling it was very Sarah. A lot of seemingly random incidents that make up a football match. I do remember Dad’s response though – something about how I should consider journalism, as I captured the mood of the day for him.
Fast-forward six years, and I’ve finished school, university, and stumbled my way into a journalism internship in the beating heart of the beast – the AFL Media department. Somewhere along the line I became their second Queensland reporter, helping “our guy in Queensland” cover matches played there, via Melbourne. I’ve watched nearly every Brisbane match this year, as well as Richmond’s. It’s been a long season.
Dad’s overseas again, in Japan this time. So I thought I’d write another Sarah match report, six years later, in a position I’d only ever dreamed about.
My grand final week started at the parade, Dad, walking down the middle of Spring Street, on the tram tracks, in the middle of the day, while thousands of Bulldogs supporters strained against the barricades. They actually brought their dogs, too. I had my list of Swans players to interview at the parade, and nominated Sam Naismith as my feature. I didn’t know why at the time, just had a gut feeling there was a story there. Turns out he’s from Gunnedah and played rugby till he was 16. Always trust your gut.
We had a 15-minute window to jog up and down along the parked utes, jostling with reporters and cameras for our own snippets. You probably don’t know Harrison Marsh Dad, but he was omitted and named as an emergency, and he was on my list. I wanted to knock the tricky one over first, so made my way down the cars with one of our other reporters, who was searching for Callum Mills, an inclusion for the match. We’d nearly got to the end of the line before we stopped dead, and grimaced at each other. Some bright spark had put them in the same car.
I scurried up and down, crossing names off the list I’d scrawled on my hand. “Hi Sam, I’m Sarah from AFL Media. Did you think you’d ever be playing in an AFL grand final?”
“Hi Zak, are you well-recovered from that knock in the NEAFL?”
“Hi Toby, is it an odd to be involved in the parade as an emergency?
“Sorry, what was your name?”
“Oh sorry, I’m Sarah. Ramble ramble ramble…” Panic. Look up at him, he’s looking a little concerned (as I would be in his situation). Take a breath, look away and down at the long line of white utes, apologise, re-ask the question. “Were you worried about your spot in the team at all?”
Jeremy Laidler is a very nice and patient person, Dad.
And then, silence. The utes move on down Spring Street towards the MCG, and the crowds and marching bands follow. Sitting in a tram-stop shelter, frantically stabbing out some sort of story on my phone, transcribing hurriedly and cursing the news helicopter that drowned out any quotes from Buddy. (Buddy Franklin! I didn’t get to talk to him, but I’ve never seen anyone who has such an aura.)
I was in the office for the grand final. There were only two journos and a ton of sub-editors, everyone else was in what would have been an overflowing press box. I had my player profiles to write, so I felt like I didn’t take much of the match in, because I was looking for three people. Luckily, two of the three were Jason Johannisen and Liam Picken. Because Dad, they won the game for the Dogs. Those two, and Tom Boyd. Did you know he went to Norwood? He’d be the richest guy from around here, surely.
No one scored for nearly ten minutes. It was frantic, as only the best grand finals are. Do you know who dominated those opening five minutes? Sam Naismith. Sam Naismith was on track to win the Norm Smith, and I was on track to look like the greatest football oracle of all time. Luke Parker eventually kicked the opening goal, but not before Buddy stepped on George Hewett’s boot and rolled his ankle inwards. INWARDS. You know how much I hate watching ankle injuries, Dad. Richo was on the boundary line, and was suitably uninformative. The Swans pushed and pushed and pushed, but the Dogs went into quarter-time four points up, after Zaine Cordy kicked an unbelievable banana from the boundary, and Tory Dickson – that guy who kicked the goal after the siren to beat Richmond in the VFL last year – kicked another. The Dogs had beaten the fast starters, and the hope was there.
To be honest, I can’t really remember what happened in the second quarter, aside from Josh Kennedy. He was like a man possessed, Dad, and tore the middle apart like he has against Richmond so many times. He looked three times bigger than even Marcus Bontempelli (Bon-tem-pelli, remember), the next-generation midfielder. He had 22 disposals by half time, kicked two goals, and got the Swans right back in it. Johannisen dodged and darted and rendered the Swans defenders flat-footed. But his disposal was shocking. He was like a GD who takes amazing intercepts, cuts their way through the middle third, and promptly throws to the opposition. Over and over and over again.
I haven’t written about Liam Picken yet, but in the second half, he was amazing. I’ve always associated Picken with that Bulldogs game we went to at Telstra Dome years ago, Dad, when Picken was in his first season as a tagger, and he took on Brett Deledio. Picken irritated Lids so much they ended up wrestling on the wing, right under where we were sitting. It was the first fight I’d seen at the footy, and he’s been in my bad books ever since. But without him, there was no way the Bulldogs would have won. He was feisty and fierce and didn’t let anyone get away without a fight. His hands were quick and accurate, passing behind his head, pouncing on loose balls, and snapping goals. He ended up with three for the match.
Picken’s most important play came when there was just seven minutes left. The ball had pinballed around the Dogs’ forward-50 for close to a minute, until Picken pounced, kicking his second goal to take the margin from just one point to seven. The office, who’d all given up writing for the final minutes, erupted.
But that wasn’t the moment that summed up the grand final, Dad. That wasn’t the one you’ll see over and over again before the first bounce of next season. It came a few minutes later. Buddy, who’d been restricted by his ankle, received a handball on the Bulldogs’ side of the centre square, put his head down, and charged. But he, Buddy the superstar, was stopped by the most unfashionable of unfashionable defenders – literally playing with a broken back – Dale Morris. He ripped the ball from his hands; Boyd swooped, and kicked a bouncing goal from inside the centre square. The margin was 15, and the Dogs were home.
Boyd was incredible in the second half. He became the key forward everyone wants, literally the million-dollar man. It was like Ben Griffiths’ match against Sydney earlier this year, Dad, it was like everything clicked. He took strong contested marks, led hard, was an admirable second ruck against Tippett and kicked goals. What more would you want? I’m sure it made Travis Cloke very, very nervous.
I finished my grand final at the Swans’ post-match function. Crown Palladium is very fancy, Dad, and media passes can seemingly get you in anywhere, despite how under-dressed you are. I’d forgotten all the players’ partners were from upmarket Sydney, Buddy’s fiancée is an international model, and I was in my Melbourne black tights and boots. It was an odd vibe. The players were flat, as was John Longmire, but the supporters had seemingly forgotten they’d lost the grand final (or a day’s worth of drink had finally kicked in). When the band started playing a song containing the lyrics “dancing in September”, and I couldn’t find someone who was appreciating the irony, I knew it was time to go.
Because it was the Dogs who were dancing, Dad. The Dogs.
There’s hope for us all.