Almanac Book Review – 1989: The Great Grand Final




Accounts of the 1989 Grand Final I have viewed or read were invariably compiled by those with a Hawthorn allegiance of some form, or by those who followed a well-trodden path. These have come to form the myths and legends defining the match. History belongs to the victor, as they say, along with the casting of heroes and villains.



Or, another way of putting it: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. That’s a quote from the classic Western movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Somewhat appropriate, because there was a shoot-out of sorts at the ‘G between the Cats and the Hawks in 1989. In short, there is typically bias inherent in any report; nothing entirely unsurprising there. If I were to document the match, as a Geelong supporter, I’d have preferential perspectives too.



Regarding the 1989 Grand Final, legend typically decrees that the Cats went the biff and Hawthorn heroically prevailed with players on one limb or lung or urinating blood in the changeroom.



Somewhat amusingly, the team that was long pilloried for being ‘too soft’ was condemned for being too hard. Sometimes you can’t win with how you go about trying to win.



Of course there’s much more to it than that…and I’m being somewhat flippantly biased. Geelong is also given credit for its attacking persistence and the superhuman goal-kicking feats of Gary Ablett. There’s an element of the Cats playing the supporting role in a classic, though that probably sells it short too – almost equal billing, without ever claiming the main prize.



With these thoughts in mind, I approached Tony Wilson’s recently published version of events: 1989 The Great Grand Final.



“How will his account be different?” Was the first question I asked myself pre-read. “What will it tell me I don’t already know?”



After reading the book, I found I was imbued with many more thoughts and felt torn between reviewing Wilson’s account and writing my own. So, if I digress it’s due to his inspiration.



What the book first moved me to do was to watch a replay of the match, as if I had been transported back to that hazy spring day in 1989 when footy was such fun, villains became heroes and time held its breath.



Yes, Wilson’s a Hawthorn man, recruited under the father-son rule, though injuries and circumstance meant he never played a senior match. As he describes it, he was, “Thereabouts without being there.” These recollections are tinged with a kind of philosophical pique, without diminishing his affection for the club.



The key to countering biases is to be aware you possess them. Wilson for the most part succeeds. In any case, it could be argued one role of a book is to engage – both in terms of enjoyment and by provocation.



As an outside-insider, he takes us closer to the scent of liniment, and has access to sources other scribes may have been denied, and draws on this to craft a coherent whole. I have a vested interest in the match, but for mine the book stands on its own as a ripping yarn even neutral supporters will warm to.



As history, it’s more Homer than Herodotus with an occasional poetic turn-of-phrase or metaphor thrown in for good measure. And, of course, the tale is epic!



The book begins at the end of the match, revealing the much eulogised ‘Dipper’ (Robert DiPierdomenico) as the last player to touch the ball, before his body finally succumbs to the punctured lung he has endured most of the game.



From there, a sequence of vignettes explore the backstory and characters of both teams, peppered with anecdote, poignancy and wry humour, and set the tone for the first bounce 115 pages later. That still leaves over 100 pages to delve into the main stanza. Expansive territory is covered, but it’s captivating terrain strewn with revenge, glory and valour.



While this sporting odyssey contains more than the usual bedfellows, Wilson laments an absence of roles for Indigenous players. He stops short of calling a Hawthorn banner ‘racist’, though I feel this is probably the right call – we can sometimes be too quick to cast that aspersion, and condemning the past based on standards of the present is fraught – the future will also judge us in ways we won’t expect.



The Round 6 meeting between the Cats and the Hawks earlier in the year is often overlooked. Wilson brings it front and centre as a spectacular, high-scoring precursor, and for the motivation it provides Mark Yeates to seek revenge on Dermott Brereton in the Grand Final.



Notions that the Hawks were choir boys are also dismissed. Following their finals victory over Essendon, when Brereton wrought havoc, the Hawks are portrayed as marching into the Grand Final like a school bully into a tuckshop: “Whoever played Hawthorn on Grand Final day would need to be ready.”



Like most ’89 Grand Final accounts Wilson highlights the violence, but it’s such a legendary dramatic aspect he couldn’t very well ignore it (a scuffle is chosen as the front cover photo).



Though, my recollection of 1989, sitting at ground level in the Southern Stand, is of total immersion in the frantic to-and-fro, rather than of transgressions other than that the match had, along with amazing deeds, the intensity and pushing of physical envelopes usually expected of grand finals.



While the aggro is an essential dramatic element of the book, and history, when all’s said and done only two players were reported, there were no all-in brawls, and melees (that could be called that) were small. Hawthorn backman, Chris Langford, is quoted as calling it “the last of the violent grand finals” but the following year, when Collingwood and Essendon fought it out, ten players were cited.



An example of potential bias involves the portrayal of Gary ‘Buddha’ Hocking. Buddha is referred to early on as “exhibit A” regarding theories Geelong went the biff, and a case is later mounted for him being the cause of John Platten’s concussion, with precise first-quarter moments detailed.



Wilson could be privy to information and superior technology denied me (i.e. more than an ancient cathode ray telly) and we aren’t presented Hocking’s thoughts (via Geelong centreman, Paul Couch, it’s implied Buddha was off with the fairies anyway, and may have no more memory of events than Platten) but based on my viewing, a court of law would dismiss the evidence as circumstantial. The court of public opinion, however, is another matter, as is the tribunal.



The third incident is the most intentional, though Wilson stretches it somewhat to suggest the plethora of superior cameras in today’s coverage would reveal it as “an infamous moment of Grand Final thuggery.” Platten shows no obvious ill-effect immediately following any of the incidents, so it’s difficult to be conclusive. Cameras today may reveal something entirely different.



Guilt’s extent, of course, can be in the eyes of the beholder, as can whether a player jumps instinctively to avoid contact or is lifted into the air by it.



Mostly, however, Wilson abides by the code of a good storyteller and evokes empathy in combatants. At other times, he compliments aspects of Buddha the footballer. Hocking is also acknowledged as being on the receiving end of an errant elbow, and the only player to spit blood, and teeth, onto the ground.



Of insights: it was news to me that the bridge ultimatum was a regular strategy by Geelong coach, Malcolm Blight – legend ascribes that event solely to an inconsistent Gary Ablett as an ‘are you with me’ moment that helped turn his career around.



Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans aiming for a tackle count of 40 in a match makes for an interesting comparison to today’s higher numbers and what statistics don’t tell. It was also a factor behind the Hawks winning.



One of my favourite metaphors describes how the Hawks piled on goals after Peter Curran filled the breach at centre half-forward when Yeates enacted revenge on Brereton: “It was like the Cats had pulled the ribbon on an exploding gift box.”



The book could have possibly gone for a less generic title and aimed higher, for a broader, uninitiated audience. A moniker touching on what the writing embodied on a universal level might’ve done it more justice? A glossary of terms could help novices with the descriptions of play. I raise these matters as questions rather than quibbles, editorial constraints acknowledged.



As the book draws to an end, Wilson is nostalgic for how the game was then, “…a beauty that will never be seen again.”



Heartfelt tributes to the late Allan Jeans by Hawthorn players are followed by a lighter note and a final humorous anecdote involving Jeans and the team during an overseas trip.



To borrow from Channel 7 footy commentating legend, Dennis Cometti, when they write the book about grand final books this will rank with the best of them.




Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Paul Spinks

I have had writing published and performed in various mediums, though not always with the luxury of a deadline. Below are links to some pieces published beyond this great site.


  1. I similarly loved the book. Watched the replay with 20-Something nephews and we thrilled to the game – whether initiates or greybeards. There is much in Jake Niall’s article in yesterday’s Age about how CV19 absence of footy has spoiled us with a superior contest via YouTube.
    I am looking forward to the resumption of AFL like a visit from the In Laws. Familiarity breeds contempt.
    Reflecting on Tony’s book I think he got the insider-outsider aspect right. As the narrator he provides context and sharp wit and insights that are 10% of the book. The other 90% the participants and game speak for themselves.
    Like the Apollo 13 movie we all know the outcome but the drama is still unrelenting.
    Do yourself a favour.

  2. Paul Spinks says

    Ditto on all accounts, Peter B.
    Hard to get enthused about the season’s restart, but no doubt interest will pick up a bit as it actually happens.
    Haven’t gone the You Tube route yet. Channel 7’s Vault turned out to be a plastic bag.
    But, been transferring old vids onto DVD and getting great kicks that way.

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