1981 Revisited – Round 20: ‘Once in a Lifetime’, The Neale Daniher Edition

Delving back into the details of the 1981 season and watching the old highlights, I’m consistently reminded what an outstanding footballer Neale Daniher was.


Before he became a figure of universal admiration for his efforts in establishing “Freeze MND” and his own courageous battle with “the beast”. Before his sterling service as coach of Melbourne during which he dragged the Demons as close as any to the glory that has eluded them for over 50 years. Before the protracted battles with injury that restricted him to just 82 VFL games.


Reviewing 1981, we can enjoy watching the 20-year old N. Daniher, as yet unaffected by the travails that fate would later heap on him, in the simple purity of his footballing prime. And gee he was good!


Much of the vision from that era shows a game that was spectacularly exciting but mind-blowingly random by the risk-averse standards of today. Tactics rarely go beyond “beat your man”. Attack is the order of the day, whatever the circumstances. Defence is occasionally praised, but honoured more in the breach than the observance. Even the great players of the time had regular brain-fades, resulting in catastrophic turnovers, reckless physical clashes and costly tantrums.


None of the above applied to Neale Daniher. In all the footage I’ve watched from that season, he stands out as the quintessential footballer ahead of his time. A steady island of calm control in a sea of chaos. A clinical surgeon within a butcher’s shop.


The emergence of Daniher as a genuine star was a key factor in Essendon’s dramatic resurgence during 1981. Alongside his elder brother, Terry, the Bombers had a top-notch duo that could play defence, attack, key positions, on-ball. The term ‘franchise player’ hadn’t been coined in 1981, but Essendon had found two of them. What was South Melbourne thinking when they traded these guys?


So it was that in Round 20 1981, in front of a packed house at Princes Park, Neale Daniher had his finest hour as a footballer. The visiting Bombers, aiming for their 14th consecutive win, taking on the ladder leaders Carlton. So much at stake. The quality of the contest was as high as the heavy conditions would allow. Gradually, however, Carlton started to exercise their home-ground advantage, wearing the visitors down as the match wore on. Essendon trailed by as much as 29 points during the third quarter, and, despite rallying briefly, were still 14 points behind at three-quarter time.


The last quarter of this epic is probably the most famous and oft-repeated stanza of the 1981 season. But it’s absolutely worth a revisit: https://youtu.be/OM3NVJuDPfg


Essendon draw first blood through an Alan Reid goal. The margin is back to 8. But a Merv Neagle mistake in the Carlton goal-square results in a goal to Wells. It’s a measure of the problems the Bombers have been having that Sheedy’s resorted to throwing the side around. S. Madden is back in defence and N. Daniher has been thrown forward. Both figure in quick succession. Daniher goals from a free, only for Johnston to reply from a free against Madden. This sparks the Blues. Bosustow wins a free and handballs to Maylin for another goal. Johnston hits the post a moment later, then Sheldon adds another point, before Buckley launches a bomb from inside the centre square. Ten minutes to go and the Blues are out by 26 points. The Carlton celebrations are a tad extravagant, a point noted at the time by one N. Daniher.


Sensing that the game has reached its tipping point, the crowd reacts in true 1981 fashion – starting a brawl. Lou Richards, calling the game, responds phlegmatically “oh well, let ‘em go”, saving his enthusiasm for the game’s conclusion! The cops lead a bloody-nosed protagonist through the packed terraces, his day done just before the game reaches its incredible denouement.


It begins with strong marks and goals from Merrett and Vander Haar, two of the Bomber strong men that made this Essendon side so powerful. With the margin now back to a couple of goals, the game races maniacally from end to end for a couple of minutes until Carlton’s skipper, Mike Fitzpatrick – best on ground despite playing with a broken bone in his hand – takes a steadying defensive mark.  He goes back, slowly and purposefully, to settle things down. But famously, his attempt to run down the clock draws the ire of umpire Ian Robinson who pings Fitzpatrick for time-wasting and reverses the kick. It’s a famous incident that still riles Carlton fans. Suddenly, Carlton’s poise has been ripped away and the Bombers sense a kill. But Hawker can only score a behind from the reversed free. Watson shimmys around several opponents but he too misses. Essendon is still pushing, but time is running out. They need a cool head.


Cometh the moment!


With 30 minutes gone, Carlton’s well-drilled defence gathers to spoil another Essendon attack. From the huge pack, Daniher’s mark must rank with Twiggy Dunne and Leo Barry for timing and sheer improbability. The goal is straightforward enough. Five points the difference. From the restart, a quick break from Hawker and Daniher again escapes Doull (of all players!) for the winning mark and goal. Amidst the pandemonium, Carlton momentarily has one last chance when Crow drops a defensive mark but they squander it and Andrews wins a free. With a missing boot he punts Essendon to safety. The siren sounds seconds later.


In a 2009 reflection on this famous game, Daniher and Carlton coach, David Parkin ponder the key question: did Essendon win, or did Carlton lose? https://youtu.be/AwrZ5PGybD4


Parkin pinpoints no blame at his team. I guess it’s easy to have no regrets when, in retrospect, the result actually didn’t affect the outcome of Carlton’s season. As for Daniher, with striking modesty, he explains his post-game grumpiness that stemmed from a dislocated finger sustained in his last final attempt at a mark. But his recall of his confidence to nail those last couple of goals is characteristically cool but assured.


Daniher’s final wistful comment is that the very next week, he injured his knee in the opening minutes of the game against South Melbourne. He wouldn’t appear again for the Bombers until Round 9, 1985. Plagued with recurring knee problems, he missed the entire seasons of 1982-84 and 1986-88. He managed just 16 more games before retiring in 1990, none of which remotely reached the heights of this famous day at Princes Park. As much as the darkest hour comes just before the dawn, so too the pinnacle comes just before the fall.


The drama surrounding the Carlton-Essendon match completely overshadowed the equally significant MCG game where nearly 70,000 witnessed yet another narrow Richmond defeat. The Tigers led virtually all day and were, by all accounts, the better side. But the scoring performances of Magpie and Tiger in the second half — 8.0 to 4.9 – are testimony to efficiency on the one hand and agony on the other. Richmond’s kicking woes were a constant all day, but a Terry Smith miss from 10 metres with just seconds left on the clock was the final nail. The result made Richmond’s task of making the finals now extremely difficult. By contrast for Collingwood, the win was a boon, scrappy and fortuitous though it was. With Carlton’s loss, the Blues and Magpies swapped top spot for the ninth time this year and with two games to follow at their Victoria Park fortress, the minor premiership appeared secure for the Pies.


The other games took a back seat to the two big ones. At Waverley, Hawthorn celebrated two big milestones – Don Scott 300 games and Norm Goss 200 games – slogging its way to an important win over a dogged St Kilda and re-entering the Top Five with a narrow percentage advantage. Just behind them was Fitzroy, which boosted its percentage at the expense of the dismal Bulldogs. Geelong blew South Melbourne away in the first quarter and cruised from thereon. North Melbourne at least waited until the second term before doing likewise to Melbourne. A highlight in that otherwise forgettable game was a 10-goal haul from Kerry Good, a more-than-handy stand-in for Malcolm Blight who was sidelined by injury for the rest of the season.








Hawthorn 1.6 4.13 7.15 10.17 (77)

St Kilda 3.4 4.6 7.11 9.14 (68)



HAWTHORN: Davies 2, Mace, Matthews, Russo, Greene, Ablett, Kennedy, Wallace, Goss.

ST KILDA: Gorozidis 3, Sutherland 2, Kellett, Elphinstone, Faletic, Bennett.



HAWTHORN: Matthews, Knights, Mace, Ablett, O’Halloran, Dipierdomenico, Kennedy.

ST KILDA: Burns, Sarau, Duperouzel, Middlemiss, Elphinstone, Thomas, Cox.


Umpires: Cameron, Chapman.


Attendance at VFL Park: 20,863. Receipts: $45,003.




Collingwood 3.3 6.7 9.7 14.7 (91)

Richmond 1.7 7.11 9.16 11.20 (86)



COLLINGWOOD: Daicos 4, Kink 2, Banks, Smith, Ohlsen, Picken, A.Shaw, Williams, Davis, Irwin.

RICHMOND: Jess 4, Sarah 2, Bartlett 2, Martin, Rowlings, Roach.



COLLINGWOOD: Smith, Magro, Williams, Irwin, Daicos, Picken, A.Shaw.

RICHMOND: Rowlings, Smith, Strachan, Landy, Welsh, Mount, Dunne, Tempany.


Umpires: Smith, Nash.


Attendance at MCG: 69,217. Receipts: $144,940.




Essendon 3.3 5.7 8.10 14.15 (99)

Carlton 3.1 6.2 11.6 15.8 (98)



ESSENDON: Crow 4, N.Daniher 3, Reid, Foulds, Van der Haar, Buhagiar, Merrett, Watson, Eustice.

CARLTON: McKay 4, Bosustow 3, Maclure 2, Wells, Johnston, Maylin, Ashman, Buckley, Marchesani.



ESSENDON: N. Daniher, T.Daniher, Crow, Andrews, Stoneham, Watson, Hawker, Van der Haar.

CARLTON: Fitzpatrick, English, Ashman, Howell, Southby, Bosustow, Maclure.


Umpires: Robinson, Sawers.


Attendance at Princes Park: 36,736. Receipts: $69,867.




North Melb. 2.4 10.11 16.15 21.19 (145)

Melbourne 4.4 5.6 12.7 13.9 (87)



NORTH MELB: Good 10, Hodgeman 4,Spencer 2, McCann 2, Byrne 2, Holt.

MELBOURNE: Elshaug 4, 0’Donnell 2, Jackson 2, Braddy 2, Seddon, Healy, Todd.



NORTH MELB: Glendinning, Good, Hodgeman, McCann, Spencer, Kelly.

MELBOURNE: Elshaug, Smith, Gaunt, Hutchison, O’Donnell, Flower.


Umpires: Bryant, Sutcliffe.


Attendance at Arden Street: 7,749. Receipts: $7,292.




Fitzroy 7.4 12.7 19.12 22.15 (147)

Footscray 2.1 5.7 8.9 12.14 (86)



FITZROY: Conlan 6, Poynton 4, Quinlan 2, Alexander 2, Rendell 2, Carlson, McMahon, Lewis, Herbert, Parish.

FOOTSCRAY: Hampshire 2, Towns 2, Templeton 2, Komp, Edmond, Wheeler, J. Berry, Gallagher, Sait.



FITZROY: Quinlan, Conlan, Serafini, Lawrie, Poynton, McMahon.

FOOTSCRAY: Templeton, Dunstan, Hampshire, Whitten, Wheeler, Gallagher.


Umpires: Dye, Marcy.

Attendance at Western Oval: 11,770. Receipts: $17,618.




Geelong 8.3 11.7 14.11 21.13 (137)

South Melb. 2.5 5.9 9.12 12.14 (86)



GEELONG: Bright 4, Featherby 4, Bruns 3, Jeffreys 2, Reynoldson 2, Lunn, Neal, I.Nankervis, Witcombe, Mossop, Hawkins.

SOUTH MELBOURNE: Browning 2 Teasdale 2, T. Morwood 2, Hounsell 2, Allender, James, Foschini, J.Roberts.



GEELONG: Featherby, Hawkins, Bruns, Peake, Yeates, Mossop, B.Nankervis, Bos.

SOUTH MELBOURNE: Browning, D. Carroll, G.Smith, S.Wright.


Umpires: James, Morgan.


Attendance at Lake Oval: 11,849. Receipts: $20,826








W L D F A % P
COLLINGWOOD 16 4 0 2217 1822 121.7 64
CARLTON 15 5 0 2152 1666 129.2 60
ESSENDON 15 5 0 2097 1697 123.6 60
GEELONG 14 6 0 2041 1608 125.0 56
HAWTHORN 12 8 0 2126 1908 111.4 48
Fitzroy 12 8 0 2252 2055 109.6 48
Richmond 12 8 0 2167 2041 106.2 48
North Melbourne 9 11 0 2217 2135 103.8 36
South Melbourne 8 12 0 2023 2236 90.5 32
St Kilda 4 16 0 1779 2126 83.7 16
Footscray 2 18 0 1667 2465 67.6 8
Melbourne 1 19 0 1668 2647 63.0 4





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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. What a finale hey, Stainless? ND’s boys own story, then his knee went !

    He could have been anything, a ‘better’ version of TD who was a champion. Bloody knees.

    I notice Kerry Good bagged 10. Apart from the night grand final this would have been his most memorable performance. It wasn’t too many weeks prior Blight had bagged 11. The Roos forwards were finishing a disappointing year in style.

    A few names i’d forgotten about like Sutherland & Cox for St Kilda. Todd for Melbourne escapes me, with a few others like Ross Gallagher for Footscray & Graeme Gaunt @ Melbourne,i’ve not heard mentioned for eons.

    It’s getting to the pointy end of the 1981 footy season. The first division of the VFA was going into finals,with reigning premiers,’The Burra’s’ red hot favorites for another flag.

    Will they get a mention? One lives in hope.


  2. Peter Fuller says

    This is a very distressing memory for me Stainless. I was at Princes Park for the match accompanied by an Essendon supporting mate. My reaction was similar to Anthony Hudson’s observation when Nick Davis single-handedly knocked over the Cats in the 2004 Preliminary Final. As I recall AH said, I see it but I don’t believe it.
    I’m waiting for the final two rounds. Oddly enough my memory had this match as round 21, so your review of the season has corrected a misapprehension of mine. When the wounds of 39 years are less raw, I may be able to bring myself to follow your links to watch the train wreck (from my very biased Blue-eyed pov) of the last few minutes.

  3. Hi Glen – I’ll defer to North fans but I thought Kerry Good was a pretty fair player for the Roos? You’re stretching the friendship if you want me to build the VFA into this magnum opus! I’ll see what I can do :)
    Peter – I can quite understand your reaction on the day but there’s a particular satisfaction to be gained from revisiting the bad moments of a Premiership season when you know the eventual happy ending. The irony of this game is that in the end it had diddly squat impact on the outcome of the season.

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