North Melbourne versus Essendon
7.10pm, Saturday, July 24
Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
My mate MOC (his initials are M.O’C.) has been tormenting me our whole lives. He’s a typically boastful Bomber and has been shoving the perpetual success of his football club – and the relatively humble trophy cabinet of mine – down my throat since school days in Warrnambool.
I still recall him laughing mockingly at me the Monday after the ’78 GF. We were in Grade 2. Some school yard scars never heal.
These days, MOC, wife Sandy and the kids are on the Gold Coast hinterland. His back shed is a shrine to Hirdy and the twin boys are developing their banana kick over the in-ground pool. Poly pipe goal posts lean to one side on the spare block.
Our jousting continues through regular emails and texts that refer disparagingly to the prospects and performances of our respective clubs. Until this season, one of MOC’s favourite topics was Arden Street’s down trodden look. He feels robbed of comic material by our gleaming new facilities.
Phone calls contain a minute or two of small talk - how’s life? family? work?- followed by an hour or so of footy chat, laced greedily with light-hearted jibes.
Needless to say, the Essendon v North Melbourne fixture is eagerly awaited each season and is prologued with a week long exchange of insults. It’s the one game of the year we just have to win.
Despite flicking MOC a series of texts this week predicting huge winning margins in our favour, I have a nagging doubt about tonight’s game. The Bombers have lost six in a row, and supporters and the media have turned on the coach. Nothing suggests they will win, but I can’t help think they’re due to reverse their losing trend. Beware the footy club under siege.
We disposed clinically of the Tigers last week and should win convincingly tonight. Victory will leave us out of the Eight by percentage. With upcoming games against the Bulldogs, Fremantle and St.Kilda, we cannot afford to drop this one. And we shouldn’t; but I just have my doubts. We’re a club that prefers to be the hunter, not the hunted.
Listening to pre-match on the car radio, that nagging doubt develops into a sick feeling as the withdrawals of Grima and Pratt are announced. Grima will be especially difficult to cover. Harding and debutant Speight take their places. MacMillan is also playing his first game. For Essendon, Prismall replaces Lonergan in the selected team. MOC’s pre-game text predicts a 15 point Bomber victory.
I meet up with a group of Warrnambool boys and we take our positions, standing room, ground level, northern end. An average size crowd is in, but there’s a good buzz about the place. Being the lone Roo, I would normally receive a solid verbal lashing, however, with the Bombers in equal last place on the ladder, the boys don’t fancy their chances. Much of the humour is directed towards the Bombers. Reimers receives a bit of attention when he lines up on the wing wearing pink boots.
Our task is made even more tricky when Wells injures himself in the warm-up. We start the game a player short and it’s halfway through the first quarter before Hale, who has already played four quarters today for North Ballarat, is ready to go.
North begin well with a goal to Warren in the first minute.
Essendon settle through the run of Davey and also Watson, who is winning clearances. Fletcher has started well on Goldstein in defence. Hansen hobbles off with a knee, however, comes back later in the term. He is hampered by the injury for the remainder of the night.
The Bombers kick the next four goals, including one from debutant Hardingham with his first kick, and you can see their confidence rising. Already Grima and Pratt are being missed. Edwards and Speight kick late goals to bring the margin back to10 points at quarter-time.
The Bombers look sharper in the second quarter. Watson continues to dominate; Greenwood can’t get near him. Reimers kicks his second and jokes about his footwear cease. More goals come and the Bombers around me are swapping high-fives.
North are playing fitfully. We spend most of the quarter defending. This is interspersed with passages of attractive attacking play. Edwards kicks his third and takes two hangers. The second leads to a goal to Warren on the siren and somehow we’ve outscored the Bombers and trail by 9 points at half-time.
The momentum swings back and forth in the third term. At times, Essendon threaten to take a decisive hold on the game. Watson and Winderlich run through the middle and delivery forward is accurate. Hardingham and Gumbleton mark strongly and kick goals. Reimers kicks his third. The lead extends to four goals and a better team would have put North away.
North hang in there. Swallow and Greenwood lift. Our delivery forward is scrappy at times, however, Warren seizes his opportunities and kicks his third. Late goals close the margin to three points. We have the momentum.
The last quarter is thrilling end to end stuff. Not a zone in sight. We claim the lead with the first two goals and the Warrnambool boys fear another fade-out. However, Essendon won’t lay down. Watson continues to push them forward. Hardingham kicks his fourth in a fine debut. The Bombers again threaten to pull away.
North come again. Rawlings and Thompson make desperate saves in defence. Swallow and Harvey will their limping team on. Edwards kicks his fourth. We have a goal disallowed and Boomer is dragged down running through half-forward. When Greenwood goals the margin is three points with 40 seconds left.
From the bounce, North bullock the ball forward. The Bombers rebound to the centre where Watson takes a settling chest mark. This is fitting – he’s played a magnificent captain’s game.
The siren sounds and the Bombers celebrate. I turn my phone off.
North Melbourne 3.5 8.5 13.8 18.11 (119)
Essendon 5.3 9.8 13.11 18.14 (122)
North Melbourne: Edwards 4; Warren 3; Swallow, Hansen 2; McIntosh, Urquhart, Greenwood, Smith, Speight, Adams, Greenwood.
Essendon: Hardingham 4; Reimers 3; Watson, Davey, Gumbleton, Monfries, Neagle 2; Colyer.
North Melbourne: Swallow, Harvey, Edwards, Greenwood, Rawlings.
Essendon: Watson, Hardingham, Fletcher, Winderlich, Dempsey, Colyer,
Official crowd: 30,330 at Etihad Stadium
The Jason Danilchenko Award
3 – Swallow
2 – Harvey
1 – Edwards