1981 Revisited – Finals Week 1: ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’



“This isn’t how it was supposed to be,” I muse to myself as I take my seat on the outer wing at VFL Park.  It’s a great vantage point but I’m feeling pretty flat.


When I sent off my mail order for the VFL Park finals series tickets back in July, I fully expected to be watching my Tigers in action. Back in 1981, neutral venues for finals were the rule. Richmond were required to play any final other than the Grand Final at VFL Park, so it was an easy call for me to select my ticket preferences. But now here I am at Waverley on this sunny September day, and the Tigers are already in mothballs! As I enviously watch Fitzroy take the field, the 11th hour interlopers who’ve pinched the finals’ spot that I thought was ours, my only consolation is the prospect of seeing the Lions being thrashed by Essendon, the League’s latest glamour team.


Essendon had taken all before them in 1981 since round six when they had only one win to their credit. A 15-match winning streak had taken them to flag favouritism until the loss in the last round to Geelong soured a vintage year.  Even with the drop to fourth position, there are bold predictions that the Bombers could take out the double after already claiming the night premiership. This attitude rather ignored the fact that the Lions had won nine of their last 11 matches, culminating in their defeat of Collingwood at Victoria Park, a great morale booster for the finals. It also overlooked the Lions’ earlier win at this ground over the Bombers, not to mention the last time these two teams met in a final – the Elimination Final two years previously, where Fitzroy defeated Essendon by 81 points.


Whether or not the Bombers were guilty of taking Fitzroy too lightly, their sluggish start to the game certainly gave that impression. In the face of an early Fitzroy onslaught, the under-rated Max Crow stood tall, clunking some early marks on his way to a game-high tally of 12. Crow could have been the match-winner, but his awful kicking for goal was to prove costly. With Ron Alexander and Matt Rendell dominating in the ruck, Essendon’s other big men – the Madden brothers and Roger Merrett – were largely MIA. Just 13 possessions and eight marks between them was glaring evidence of how well the Lions’ nullified the Bombers’ aerial supremacy. Alexander was giving silver service to veteran rover Garry Wilson and ex-Carlton winger Peter Francis, who led the Lions’ bold charge to maintain a handy lead throughout the first half.


Things got serious for the Bombers when play resumed. Fitzroy were again out of the blocks quickly and 10 minutes in they held a 37-point break. In desperation, Sheedy threw his under-performing side around, notably shifting the rugged Ron Andrews and Gary Foulds to the forward line and Paul Van der Haar to defence. Things started to click for the Bombers and their fans, very much in the majority, came to life. In the next 10 minutes, they piled on five of the next six goals and by three-quarter time they had drawn to within a straight kick.


After this scoring flurry, the last quarter began as a goalless arm wrestle until, 13 minutes in, Andrews marked strongly in the goal square and put the Bombers in front for the first time.


As the Age report put it, “most of the 60,000 people there had expected it. Essendon, the lazy giant, finally emerging from its slumber and ready to devour the pesky challenger. This time the giant was lopped at the legs.” Two minutes later, one of Fitzroy’s few forward thrusts wasn’t cleared by the Bomber defence. From the fumbling contest, Wilson swooped with an opportunist crumbing goal. Essendon continued to attack but their scoring yips returned. At the 21-minute mark, Wilson capped off a brilliant day with a perfect pass to Quinlan, who converted. From the re-start, Francis won the clearance and found Quinlan again. With the aid of a dubious 15-metre penalty, ‘Superboot’ sealed the victory for the Lions. Leigh Carlson added a cherry on top with a 60-metre running goal. A clever goal from the boundary line by Tony Buhagiar summed up the wonderful debut season he’s had, but it’s scant consolation for the Bombers in the face of a shock loss and unexpected early exit from the Premiership race.


Notable stats from the game were the 33 possesions and two goals from Fitzroy’s indefatigable rover, Garry Wilson, and 26 touches for Peter Francis. Ron Alexander was the dominant ruckman on the day with 35 hit outs. Otherwise it was a remarkably even performance by the Lions, with most players getting a good share of the ball; they had 10 individual goal kickers. A lopsided free kick count of 40-24 in favour of the Lions (at one stage in the second quarter it was 17-5) certainly didn’t harm their cause. Looking at the replay, it’s fair to say that at least a couple of goals came from lucky frees.


The stats tell the sorry story for the Bombers. None more so than the five straight points for Max Crow. The significant but belated goal contributions from Ron Andrews and Gary Foulds are an indication of how Sheedy had to change his side around to get them back into the game.Buhagiar, Heard and Hawker were the Bombers’ best worker bees.


When asked after the match what he’d learned from his first season as a VFL coach, Kevin Sheedy tersely replied “not to lose five of the first six games”. It was indeed a harsh lesson. Fifteen consecutive wins in a season would normally ensure top place rather than 4th. If that wasn’t hard enough to take, the Bombers would have gained the double chance in every previous season with their 16 home and away wins.


The magnitude of Essendon’s unexpected defeat overshadowed the top-class victory by Fitzroy. Lions’ supporters would have their own views, but when one considers the quality of the opposition, I would argue that it was the best of the finals’ victories Fitzroy achieved during this period and, arguably, their finest victory between their 1944 Flag and their extinction in 1996.



Across town at the MCG, Collingwood entered the Qualifying Final with two wins over Geelong during the regular season, plus the knowledge that in the previous year’s finals series they had defeated Geelong in a heart-stopping finish to the Preliminary Final. The Magpies were almost certain minor Premiers until their shock loss to Fitzroy in the last round. For Geelong’s part, they were an even, well balanced side with a defence that had, statistically, been the strongest in five years.  Their biggest dilemma – where would their goals come from?


For a quarter, it seemed that nothing had changed. Collingwood started the match with vigour and discipline that had been sadly lacking last week and reaped the rewards – a three-goal lead at the break. Geelong continued to over-use the ball, as they’d done in their earlier losses to the Magpies. They desperately needed a circuit-breaker.


Enter an unlikely hero – John Mossop.


Taking advantage of the untimely late withdrawal of key defensive big man, Craig Stewart, Mossop’s seven goal haul turned the game on its head. From a mark and goal within a minute of the resumption, Mossop ruled the forward line with a remarkable five goals in the second term and a further two in the third. Rod Blake’s dominance in the ruck against Peter Moore enabled Goggin to keep Mossop in the goal square for most of the day. Supporting the big red-head was the pacy Stephen Lunn who, with 3.2 from just six kicks, was a more than handy opportunist for the Cats. In an even team display, winger Murray Witcombe was the only Geelong player to top 20 possessions for the match.


For Collingwood, a few mitigating factors lessened the disappointment at losing consecutive games at such a critical time of year. With all due respect to Mossop, the Magpies could quite reasonably believe that his performance was a one-off and that with some structural and personnel tweaks, his impact could be reduced in any future meeting. The Pies could also point to their 33 scoring shots to the Cats’ 32, and eventual narrow losing margin, in spite of their poor second and third quarters.  Peter Daicos squandered chances to be the hero for the Pies, kicking 4.5, whilst Tony Shaw (29 possessions) and Mick Taylor (26) were tireless for the Magpies.


Two further interesting points emerge from the coverage of the match. One is the Age’s view that this was a “practice final”, and that the real action, the old “Final Four” finals, still lay ahead. Perhaps this attitude explained Collingwood’s relatively cool reaction to the defeat. The other is the post-match rumblings that a nasty shiner sported by Geelong’s Terry Bright had been caused by a “king hit”. Names weren’t named, but it’s clear in the post-match comments from the Geelong camp that they were fuming about it. For whatever reason, video footage of this game is scarce, but some brief coverage appears from the 1.20-3.00 minute mark in the following clip, including the very public display of Terry Bright’s damaged face!



So the first two finals of 1981 produced two gripping contests and two upset results. Geelong emerged as the big winner from the weekend and Essendon’s bubble had been well and truly burst. Collingwood now faced Fitzroy, its Round 22 nemesis, in a sudden death Semi-final while the Cats, buoyed by their recent good form, would take on the well-rested Carlton for a spot in the Grand Final. It certainly provided some spice for the weeks ahead in this already pulsating finals series.






Fitzroy 3.4 7.7 12.11 16.13 (109)

Essendon 0.5 4.8 11.11 13.16 (94)



FITZROY: Quinlan 3, Poynton 2, Carlson 2, Parish 2, Wilson 2, Alexander, Rendell, McMahon, Lewis, Herbert.

ESSENDON: Andrews 3, Heard 2, Foulds 2, Schultz 2, T. Daniher, Van Der Haar, Buhagiar, Thomson.



FITZROY: Wilson, Alexander. Francis, Taylor, Serafini, Lawrie.

ESSENDON: Foulds, Crow, Watson, Andrews, T. Daniher, Buhagiar.


Umpires: K. Smith, N. Nash.

Attendance at VFL Park: 58,598.





Geelong 2.5 8.11 14.11 16.16 (112)

Collingwood 5.5 6.9 9.15 13.20 (98)



GEELONG: Mossop 7, Lunn 3, Featherby 2, Reynoldson 2, Witcombe, Bruns.

COLLINGWOOD: Daicos 4, Barham 2, Williams 2, A. Shaw, Picken, Weideman, Kink, Atkin.



GEELONG: Mossop, Blake, Reynoldson, Witcombe, Bos, Peake, Hawkins, Malarkey.

COLLINGWOOD: Barham, Byrne, Smith, Daicos.


Umpires: Robinson, Sawers.

Attendance at MCG: 83,899.



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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Yes Stainless i was one of the contingent of Geelong supporters present that day. Collingwood had ‘beaten’ them in the 1980 preliminary final, would Geelong get revenge?

    Yes they did, it was a pleasant day @ the ‘G’. Two weeks prior Rod Blake kicked 7, this week it was John Mossop’s turn. Amazing how a club fares when there’s no key forward.

    Yes, Terry Bright !?! Somerville & Wright? Geelong supporters that day were aggrieved by a former Westralian who’d heavily clashed with a games legend a few years prior.

    It was a weekend i savoured. The following day i/we headed down to the Junction Oval to watch reigning premiers,league leaders, Port Melbourne whup Preston 22-25-157 to 12-14-86. Port Melbourne in consecutive grand finals; would it bring consecutive flags?

    What do you reckon Stainless?


  2. Glen – a great weekend for you but I’ll wager that Port Melbourne’s prospects are looking better than Geelong’s at this stage!

    Since you keep mentioning the VFA, I noticed while researching next week’s instalment that the VFA Preliminary Final produced a whopping 54 goals. After enduring last night’s Richmond-Freo slog, with a grand total of 12 goals, It seems barely conceivable that we’re watching the same game. Maybe we’re not!

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Having just watched the elimination final vision I can confirm we are NOT watching the same game. Strategy, tactics, umpiring, ruggedness, conditions. . . all different. I also am intrigued what the split of support was at VFL Park that day. Sounded like 20K Fitzroy and 40K Bombers (maybe a slight adjustment needed to allow for your fellow Tiger contingent Sam?). Would there have been an awareness at this time that Fitzroys days were numbered?

  4. True Stainless, they don’t play games like that VFA Preliminary final any more. It was like ping pong, goal for goal. It didn’t matter which end of the Junction Oval we stood that day, as we were guaranteed plenty of scoring.

    Rex Hunt played a good game in the goal square for Sandringham, kicking 10.

    Preston led by over ten goals mid way through the third term, still in front by 40 points at the end of that term: 22.7.139 to 15.9.99. Sandringham kept the scoreboard ticking over, though couldn’t bridge the gap.

    Thus Preston were through to the Grand Final, the second time in three seasons. How would it pan out Stainless?


  5. Daryl – yes, it was a very different game in 1981, but I daresay there were observers back then lamenting the changes to the game compared with the 1950s. The eternal question is, was it better then than now?
    Essendon’s support strongly outnumbered Fitzroy’s at VFL Park that day. I vividly remember the roar when Andrews put the Bombers in front. At that moment it seemed like the tidal wave of support would carry them home. Massive effort by the Lions to overcome it.
    I’ve remarked in earlier columns that Fitzroy’s cards were already marked by 1981 and that they were living on borrowed time. Their on-field success at the time masked the parlous position of the club and created a sense of defiance that didn’t do them any favours over time.

    Ah Glen, much as you’d like to hijack this column to become a VFA retrospective, I must stay true to my readers (and I think there are a couple of them out there apart from yourself)!

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