AFL Finals series: Pies provide a lesson in faith

By Phil Dimitriadis

This is a reflection of the brittle faith expressed by a small group of Magpie fans at the MCG last night.

The cliche ‘cut-throat’ final seemed appropriate halfway through the first quarter. The Crows have made a number of deep incisions into the weakening Collingwood body and are two goals away from capturing the jugular at quarter-time.

Morale is low in the camp that includes my brother Tim, nephews Nick and Mark, and fellow Almanacker James Gilchrist. We find ourselves sacking Malthouse … again … and installing Bucks as coach for 2010.I emphahise: “WE WILL NOT WIN A PREMIERSHIP WHILE MALTHOUSE IS COACH!”

Cheesy O’Bree is one clanger away from being lynched by a furious Mark. A conspiritorial rhetoric of Toovey ‘having photographs’ emerges as the only reason for getting a game every week. Nick and Tim wonder how Macaffer got a game. “He is useless,” Tim laments. “He has no idea,” Nick complains. The boy really seems out of his depth.

The inquisition begins in earnest. Why are they playing Medhurst, who is clearly not fit? Why is Jack Anthony still getting a game? And what the hell is wrong with Didak and Davis? Are they nothing more than home and away champions? These questions, among others, infiltrate the tormented minds of the group as if the future of Western civilisation depended on their immediate resolution. It feels that serious.

“Looks like an early night,” says Tim. “Yeah, we’ll be out of here by three-quarter-time,” says Nick. “But we outscored them in that quarter,” I offer in desperation. The boys shake their heads, unconvinced, non-verbally implying that I should know better. They are right. We just don’t have enough class. But, if we can kick the first couple in the third we could get some momentum.

Hope is a dangerous thing in these situations.

We sit down for the third quarter with little faith in our coach or our team. It is here that the gods begin to test our lack of belief. Dick, Johnno, Clokey and Swan get a succession of goals and we are up at three-quarter-time. Incredible!

Adelaide seem lost, mesmerised by a suddenly fast and skilful Collingwood side led by a defiant teenager named Steele Sidebottom. If only our nerves resembled his name.

The game fluctuates like the wind, oscillating wildly from one team to another. When Tippett kicks a goal from a free on the boundary I surrender to the cruel synergy. We started the season with a defeat to Adelaide by less than a kick and that’s how it will end. James has his hands in his face, Tim’s glasses have fogged up, Nick is shaking his head ruefully and Mark is paying out on the ump. It was meant to end this way. We shouldn’t be surprised.I curse O’Bree, I curse Malthouse, I curse barracking for Collingwood. Why do I take this game so seriously. I am a 40-year-old man, for God’s sake!You’d think I’d know better by now.

As the ball is bounced I fear the siren will plunge me deeper into misery at any tick. Somehow Maxwell gets his kick forward, but alas, Otten marks uncontested. Game Over.

But wait! The umpire is gesticulating. The same maggott who paid two softies to Tippett minutes earlier. It’s Jack’s kick, 35 metres out on the slightest of angles! I hope for a point and extra time. No way could Jack handle the pressure when he’s barely handled the ball all night. He takes his time and coolly slots it. Pandemonium erupts around me. Strangers are high-fiving me while my group leaps simultaneously, embracing each other and generally engaging in a masculine expression of love that would seem dodgy in most other social surrounds. Elation has overtaken despair. The catharsis will only be complete when the final siren goes.

We just need a clearance. I hear Ted Whitten’s voice saying, “Hit the boundary line”.

I need not worry. Cheesy O’Bree has locked the ball in and the siren has gone. Mark has me in a bear hug while James is slapping my back with a mixture of relief and jubilation. Nick and Tim are doing a random version of Zorba and I am just absorbing all that I’ve thought, felt and seen in the last three hours.

We sing the song with verve and finally there is peace. No more twisted and broken thoughts, no anger, frustration or pain. Mick is a genius … again … good on him for showing faith in young blokes like Macaffer and Toovey. I can’t even hate O’Bree. It’s a miracle!

The world has regained its equilibrium. There is no recession, no global warming, no third world poverty. It is a magical place of mystery, wonder and the prospect of playing for a place in the Grand Final next Saturday against the Cats. I dare to dream. The irrational takes control. If things go right we can beat Geelong. The conversation on the train home revolves around booking tickets, the fitness of Fraser, Pendles and Beams and the possibility that Didak, Davis and Cloke might play blinders next week and get us through.

The footy fan’s imagination is his worst enemy and his most powerful ally.

Can a game of footy really do this to a person? My word it can, if you believe.

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Phil,

    I’m not a Pies fan, but you’ve certainly captured the emotion of the game and the goings-on in the stands. It’s a fantastic report.

    I hate, absolutely HATE, the way Malthouse coaches Collingwood to play. The suggestion of him going to Richmond during the mid-year coaching speculations made me twitchy.

    But there is something about those tense, wrung-out, low-scoring finals that Collingwood have played in recent years that provides the most intense experience as a spectator.

    Or is it just the fact that there are so many Collingwood fans? Every Collingwood game has an edge because of the numbers and volubility of the fans.

    On the other hand, I love, absolutely LOVE, the way Bomber Thompson coaches Geelong to play. I think the Cats rescued footy in 2007 with their spitfire movement through the centre.

    I actually think Bomber receives too little credit for what he’s done with Geelong, and his legacy to footy at large.

    So, in my mind, Geelong and Collingwood have polar opposite approaches to the game, which only fuels the anticipation before this weekend’s game.

    Bring it on.

  2. Paul

    The Malthouse legacy is certainly a debatable one at all three clubs he’s coached.

    You can’t dispute his record in dragging Footscray, West Coast and Collingwood out of mediocrity and turning them into regular finalists, and, briefly, in West Coast’s case, the competition benchmark.

    The contrary view is that by focussing so much on negating the opposition and defensive solidity, he actually prevented his teams from achieving their potential.

    The Eagles’ premierships were arguably forged as much by the maverick brilliance of Matera, Sumich and the like as the steely defence of Jakovich, McKenna and Worsfold. I think these players lost their lustre after years of playing under a grim defensive regime and as such, the Eagles of the late 90s were competent, solid, but rarely top quality.

    The big question about Collingwood is whether their era under Malthouse will end with the same description. Ironically, it may be Geelong, the side that so often played Washington Generals to West Coast’s Harlem Globetrotters, that provides the definitive answer this week. They just got away from Collingwood’s suffocating pressure in 2007, but, two years on, I wonder if the Magpies have improved and Geelong have declined just that little bit?

    Ironically again, it may be Collingwood’s “spark” players – Didak and Davis – who are instrumental in their progress or otherwise. Both have been very low key in the finals thus far. Perhaps they’re awaiting their big stage?

  3. Stainless,

    I agree with all of the above, especially the part where Geelong have declined and Collingwood have improved. I don’t tip the Cats this week with any conviction.

    I remember watching the West Coast teams of the 1990s and thinking what an absolute waste it was that Chris Lewis played in those teams. Lewis was an artist, capable of creating victory. Under Malthouse he was forced to sit out wide on a half-forward flank and play the role of Oliver Twist, heading up to the dinner table with an empty bowl after every goal and asking, “More please.”

    I used to wonder how Lewis would have gone if he played at Geelong under Blight. I imagine he would have flourished. It pained me to see a player who should have been a star of the game, considered among the best players of his generation, suffocated out of the game by his own coach.

  4. Andrew Fithall says:

    Well done Phil. Captured the thoughts and feelings of many a Collingwood supporter very well.

    I was there with my Geelong supporting wife Helen. The Collingwood supporters nearby were very negative, with one in particular giving me the “irrets”. I was pleased he didn’t reappear for the second quarter. When he did come back after half time and continued his tirade, I turned around and told him to go back the bar. And Helen told him to watch his language. Not another peep from him until the end of the game.

    However, regarding your line “If only our nerves resembled his name”, I am not sure what it is like to have “nerves of sidebottom”.

    Andrew

  5. Andrew

    Agree with you about negative. There was a group just near me that, as one, got up and walked out when Tippett kicked his last goal. Sure, it looked like being the matchwinner but there was ONE POINT THE DIFFERENCE! I really hope they missed seeing John Anthony performing his heroics.

    The fact that there were only 62,000 at the game probably says something about the mindset of the Collingwood “faithful”. Bet you they’re all back on the bandwagon this week.

  6. Lucas Garth says:

    Mick at WCE I think you’ll find was curtailed just as much by an AFL rule forcing finals to be played in Victoria, even when the Eagles had earned a home advantage (a massive one travelling eastwards).

    One might criticise his treatment of Lewis (but do they criticise his loving care and protection of serial under-achiever but prodigiously talented Leon Davis) but you must recognise his ability to get the absolute best of honest plodders like Paul Harding, Peter Wilson and Don Pyke.

    They won two GFs simply because they unlike Geelong of that age were bred for September and nothing else. They probably didn’t achieve brilliant results later in the 90s because the travel just wore them down. These were the days before the manipulated draw gave them one travel every 2nd week. In 1990 they had to travel 5 weeks in a row to Waverley and for the Prelim copped a pilots strike sending them via Mildura.

    So, though Mick probably should have got more out of a state team, it’s fair to suggest his efforts were still decent, particularly with regards to the fishbowl of the media in Perth circling the players.

    On the game style, I couldn’t agree more about Bomber Thompson’s flood busting tactics. But there’s something uniquely special also about a gripping man-on-man game ala the 2005 grand final. Flooding is ugly, but now I’m finding the uncontested flip flip handball handball more boring than the gripping Magpies style.

    Andrew I know you’re just joking but “nerves of Steele” was just what the Magpies little champ had. Wonderful game from the kid.

    Back to the OP I enjoyed the post, it was a special match. (I had Mick “sacked” at quarter time also before cutting him some slack and yes he got the tactics right in the last half thank goodness)

  7. great stuff phil.
    in the words of a great magpie icon ‘this was a victory for the true believers.’
    i’m afraid i wasn’t one of them last week.
    but i celebrated long and hard nonetheless.
    (even after friday night)

    hb.

  8. Andrew Fithall says:

    I think Steele Sidebottom lives in the Williamstown house owned by Collingwood FC. It is just around the corner from my house. Given the history involving Sidebottom and Collingwood-Geelong preliminary finals, should I offer to drive him to the game?

  9. Phil – I didn’t see the Pies/Crows clash. Good luck to the Pies and well done for sending the marauding South Australians back to their humble colonial backwater.

    But I love the way the Pies supporters are saying that Jack Anthony got the kick 35 out at the last moment. It was via a free kick so I have been informed. A bit of a soft free kick I’ve heard. Were the Crows robbed? Would the Pies have been robbed if it weren’t paid? Will the Crows be able to rightfully claim that they would have won it if they had a few more seconds (a bit like the misguided Pies’ belief surrounding the 2007 Prelim). Will the Crows feel the umps ruined them? Will the Crows actually believe they won the game in a few seasons’ time? Poor troubled Crows.

    I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Just a thought.

  10. Lucas,

    Good comparison re- Chris Lewis and Leon Davis. Never thought of that.

    I can’t say I’ve ever wondered about Leon at another club, either.

    I’d say he’s got the best out of himself under Malthouse at Collingwood. He just needs to do something this week or his reputation will go back a few steps.

    And, yes, Malthouse’s every move with the Eagles went towards creating a premiership unit, as opposed to Geelong, who were more a bunch of talented individuals, and he achieved his aim admirably. I just wanted to see Lewis express himself somewhere else.

  11. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks for all your comments boys,

    writing this was a hell of alot easier than living it. Daff, I agree with the Chris Lewis observation. I see similar things with Heath Shaw, Didak and Thomas. I reckon Heath is our best attacking midfielder, but because Mick wants to save games he never gets a run in the middle. Didak and Thomas should be at virtually every centre bounce along with Pendles. Alas, he chooses O’Bree and Toovey who couldn’t get a clearance into a handerchief.

    I don’t know if we are better than ’07. That night we had Clement, Buckley, Burns and a fit Rusling,Rocca and Medhurst. Mick is building a squad, I can see that, but will there be enough class to win the big ones? This has been Collingwood’s biggest yoke since the 50s, always just short of class when it counts. Don’t see much difference with Malthouse’s sides.

  12. Dips

    As a neutral observer, I thought it was a pretty soft free kick considering the point of the game, but to be fair the umpires were paying them in the forward 50 all night and the replay certainly showed some holding on.

    It would be intriguing to hear views about which team would have won if Anthony had missed and the game had gone to extra time. For mine it would have been the Crows. They were actually looking more composed and purposeful in the last few minutes and were desperately trying to attack when the siren sounded.

  13. Dips,

    That was a free. I applaud the fact that it was paid.

    Nerveless kick, too.

  14. Andrew Starkie says:

    Phil,

    I was privileged to be there on Saturday night. At quarter-time, I sent a text to a Collingwood mate living in Hong Kong: ‘Gone’. Normally, I would never do this so early in a game. Years of watching and playing the game have taught me it ain’t over until it’s over. However, I was so sure the Crows had you. They were brilliant and made the Pies look slow and second rate.

    But, footy continues to produce the unexpected. The Pies dried up the Crows scoring in the second term and launched during the third. But, you were gone again the last quarter! And came back – again! Thanks to a great game and career saving goal from ex-Roo, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Anthony’s goal was excellent, especially considering he had a poor game.

    The reaction of the Collingwood crowd was great to watch. The army was in raptures. The noise matched anything I’ve experienced at the ‘G.

    Great win, Pies. That’s why we go to the footy. To be shocked, inspired and to see the impossible.

    Can’t wait for the prelim.

  15. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks Andrew,

    It was roller coaster stuff. Whether we win the flag or not, no one can take away that experience in the last few minutes. It was rare.

    Leroy has gotten better throughout the year. He does many things off the ball to create space and uses his body well. He could be a dangerous smokey in the forward line this week. Maybe that goal will give him some much needed confidence. Hope so!

  16. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Regarding the free- the tragedy was (for Crows fans and Collingwood haters)- Rutten didn’t need to do it- Anthony didn’t look like he was going to mark the ball. And the annoying thing is – this arm holding business has beeh going on ALL YEAR- so obviously players are instructed to do it, and/or think they can get away with it when the umps can’t see them.Very negative and not in the spirit of the game.

  17. The even greater tragedy was that Otten’s opponent Medhurst was much closer to the ball than Rutten and Anthony but had basically given up even trying to contest the mark.

    If he holds his place in the team this week, he owes his team and his coach big time.

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