Almanac Book Review: 1989 The Great Grand Final



1989 was momentous. I entered my own version of the big league. In my pre-loved ‘68 Torana, I crawled my way above the mist that settled upon our sleepy valley of apple orchards and hopfields, navigating the winding Huon Highway to the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Weekends were divided between study, farm life and following the Hawthorn Football Club.


I made an accidental connection with the family club from around 1978. My late father – a freelance journalist – was despatched to Melbourne to document the career of Hawk legend and local hero Peter Hudson. Thanks to e-bay, I tracked down a surviving VHS tape copy last year – it’s so seventies, in retrospect more mockumentary than documentary.


Getting my fix of the champions in gold and brown in rural Tassie was no easy feat. With the one commercial television station (TVT6) dedicated to the local competition, I relied on Drew Morphett and The Winners over on Channel 2 for curated highlights of the ‘big league’. Live match-day coverage involved me tweaking the radio dial on the dash of our flat-bed Holden ute. Parked on a specific angle in the top paddock, its large antenna could pick up signals across Bass Strait and into Princes Park. Iconic 3LO commentators Tim Lane and Smokey Dawson brought the action to life, including the Round 6 Hawks-Cats shootout that Blight called the ‘forerunner’ to the big one.


30 September 1989 was an unusually warm spring day in the Huon. Bees busily went about their work among the stunning pink blossom. And an excitable rooster woke us early, having drifted in from a nearby property for a chat. Was this a signal from the footy gods?  Feeling as toey as perhaps the players did in their pre-match warm-up, I retreated to my study to view events in close proximity to the tiny Red Sony Trinitron I’d saved for over the summer break. Like Johnny Platten, there was much that afternoon I didn’t absorb amidst the heat and fever-pitch emotion. When did Rat depart the game? Was Dipper really playing with a punctured lung?  It was all a haze. Wilson’s account suggests I wasn’t alone.


I’d usually fill in the detail of games on Mondays at the newspaper rack of the university library. On grand final weekends, though, my local country newsagent secured some copies of the Melbourne Sunday papers from ‘town’ (Hobart). I absorbed the many precious inches of copy dedicated to the brutal first few seconds of play. I was captivated by the backstories of carnage – of zombie-like players lining up to start the final quarter and collapsing by the final siren. The mythology making began then and has never ended.


So I was always going to love this book.  And I can understand why Geelong fans might give it a miss. But that would be a shame. Tony Wilson’s absorbing prose celebrates mental and physical toughness on both sides of the contest and the brilliance of two coaches of different eras and with contrasting approaches to their craft. And more than just an account of a great grand final, 1989 depicts a sport and society in transition.


With communism about to enter its death throes in East Germany – the second momentous event of the year – late cold-war era footy was still hot and unscripted. It was free of complex rotations and defensive structures. The objective was to score fast and often, not maintain possession. ‘Contested footy’ wasn’t a term – every moment was contested. Indeed, Wilson describes a game almost pre-science in its lack of concussion protocols, pre-tolerance in its lack of cultural and racial diversity (see the chapter on Hawthorn’s ‘blackface’ banner), and pre-historic in its legalised brutality (you can almost hear the hiss of oxygen escaping Dipper’s punctured lungs).


1989 VFL stands in stark contrast to the corporate world of the NBA captured in The Last Dance, the recent gripping documentary of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bills. It’s hard to imagine NBA players running late to training as they escaped white-collar day jobs in the CBD or shifts on a suburban garbage truck. An exploding vacuum cleaner at Darren Flanigan’s pub almost kept him from his big appointment at the MCG. Even ground conditions were a wildcard, with mud baths unnecessarily cutting down star players in their prime. Sand of all things – used to support the MCG surface softened by a particularly damp Victorian winter – proves a first-quarter nemesis of Dipper on the big day.


Coaching was clearly more art than science, more analogue than digital. Blight sits alone late into the evening – glass of port in one hand and remote in the other – reviewing games on VCR tapes.  And both coaches engage in experimentalism probably unimaginable now. On the eve of a key clash, Blight goes off-piste, coaxing his reluctant players to relive their childhood memories of the game on a wind-blown, muddy Footscray oval. Jeans is a father figure with a tough-love ethos – understated in public, pushing the boundaries of provocation behind closed doors at Glenferrie. A man of Churchillian oratory powers, few could match his ability to motivate with increasingly animated repetition of simple maxims like ‘pay the price’.


Wilson is a skillful storyteller. 1989 transcends a factual, chronological account of the events of the day. Instead, grasping the melodrama of the contest and its combatants, the pages and chapters unfold like acts in a play. It’s packed with mullets and perms, heroes and villains, conflict and resolution. And all set on the ultimate stage – football’s antipodean colosseum.


Larger-than-life protagonists are introduced through brief vignettes. Brereton is the archetypal angry kid who grew up far from the right side of Toorak. His many home-and-away bone-rattling bumps (within the ‘loopholes’ of the rules) on the likes of the ‘Flying Dutchman’, Paul Vander Haar, would later have devastating repercussions. From the moment Brereton’s knee makes contact with testicle of Geelong’s Mark Yeates in Round 6, the two celestial objects are set in motion, almost destined for an explosive collision on 30 September.


With Gary Ablett Senior, Wilson builds a portrait of an enigmatic, inspired player – unstoppable and as competitive (but certainly not as disciplined) as Michael Jordan. God’s handlers for the day are clearly jolted by the enormity of their task (a Norm Smith winning role quips Brereton, unintentionally raising the stakes) and shaken by the ever-clear expectations of Jeans (‘just stop him’). Dipper is a big-hearted rebel without a cause, straightened out by a slap-down and some of ex-copper Jean’s straight-shooting talk.  Jeans’ hard motivational talk inspires Dipper to place himself in danger – running on empty and ribs fractured, he throws his frame on the ground in the dying moments, smothering the Sherrin and Geelong’s remaining hopes.


Wilson’s striking imagery captures the look, feel and vibe of the era. With centimetre-perfection he measures out the mullets of Ayres and Buddha Hocking, and of course, Farnham. Jack, having clearly abandoned whispering mode, cops some lip as he bounces a bit too enthusiastically into the Cats’ dressing room during their deep ‘preparations’. In any event, Blight doesn’t need ‘the voice’ – he’s cranked up Eye of the Tiger on cassette to lift the troops. Over in the Hawthorn rooms, Pat Benatar’s All Fired Up is synched up to footage of various Hawks doing ‘hard things’ – tackling, smothering and shepherding.


One of the more daunting challenges for the author must have been how to describe the big moments – particularly five of the most covered minutes in grand final history. But Wilson rises to the challenge – connecting the reader with their own emotions and partial memories of these key moments.


I can feel that ghostly pale complexion and cold sweat that came over me as Don Scott drew Channel 7 viewers’ attention to events behind the play. I’m in shock as Dermott the hunter becomes the hunted. And I soon experience both elation and a different kind of disbelief as the blond-tipped gladiator struggles to his feet. Wilson fills in gaps that modern-day television coverage – with its umpire cams and on-player microphones – wouldn’t have left to the imagination. I’d seen the footage many times but hadn’t realised the blood-curdling screams Brereton let out as he jogged away from the trainers towards the Punt Road pocket.


Other moments of elation and pain resonate. Wilson and his father – the 1971 Hawthorn premiership player (who might have seen parallels between Brereton’s day and Hudson’s collision with Cowboy Neale’s elbow) – spring uncontrollably from their seats as Dermott drifts fearlessly back into a pack only minutes after being poleaxed. Back at sleepy Huonville, I also sprung up and ran in search of someone with whom I could share that ‘what a champion’ moment. If I’d experienced such inspiration hundreds of kilometres from the MCG, imagine the boost to Brereton’s teammates I thought. Geelong’s premeditated attack would, l concluded (hoped!), prove to be a tactical blunder.


If I was a Geelong fan, I’d have dedicated more of this already lengthy review to Wilson’s evocative account of the skills and toughness of Buddha Hocking (‘eyes rolling back, foaming from the mouth’ at three quarter time) and wizardry of Ablett.  Flanigan recalls being well placed to win a tap in the forward pocket before someone lands on his head. It’s Ablett. Off one step he sends the ball on a ‘high parabola’. With mathematical precision he calibrates its path through the crowded pack and over the top of the goal umpire’s head. In this single, inspired moment, Ablett unites sworn enemies in gold and brown and white and navy blue in appreciation and awe. It’s a reminder of the refreshingly unreconstructed footy of the day captured so well in 1989 –– fast, extremely tough, high-scoring and free of third-man-up-rules and other complications.



You can purchase the book for $30 (which includes postage) by sending an email to us HERE.



About Gareth Meyer

Part-time food, wine and travel writer (and photographer), Hawks supporter since Huddo senior had the football on a string, proud owner of Martha the toy poodle.


  1. Gareth, thanks for a great review of a book describing the best VFL/AFL grand final I’ve seen by some distance.
    As a neutral, already on a high after seeing the Royboys winning the ressies by the barest of margins, it was a game that I didn’t want to end.
    Perhaps the fairytale result would’ve been for Gary Ablett to kick his 10th goal on the siren to tie up the game.
    But how many Hawks from this match would’ve been fit enough to return seven days later?
    The tactical aspect aside, copping a knee to the Jatz crackers almost five months earlier was more than enough motivation for Mark Yeates’ “collision” with Dermott Brereton.
    Coincidentally, a feature by John Townsend in today’s (May 18) edition of “The West Australian” described how Malcolm Blight got the idea from Dennis Cometti of all people.
    While coaching West Perth in 1984, Cometti used one of his players, John Morgan, to “take out” Swan Districts’ midfielder Brad Shine, who – like Dermie – was renowned for his physical approach.

  2. Hey Pete.
    Thanks for the feedback. I can’t imagine either side wanting to come back and play again the following week. A few challenges for the medical staff!
    As for Cometti, I guess his advice was ‘centremetre perfect’ ! Hadn’t heard that before. So thanks for the postscript. Gareth

  3. Gareth, then there would’ve been the issue of possible suspensions after the GF.
    Unless Peter Carey and Bryan Sheehan put away the notebook for the day!
    I think I have a copy of Dennis’s “Centimetre Perfect” stashed away somewhere.
    Or perhaps I’m thinking of “That’s Ambitious”.

  4. Gareth Meyer says

    Pete. I recall someone had collated Dennis’ greatest hits of one-liners and metaphors. Would make for a great story for Almanac. He really grew on me. I thought all WA commentators had objectivity problems after hearing the Perth-based ABC radio footy commentator from that period. Can’t remember his name but I think the odd ‘we’ slipped into his calls.
    Side note. I saw Fitzroy play once – but a terribly one-sided match at North Hobart oval against the Hawks. Rained goals on us in the city end grandstand. Dermie was down there doing corporate lunch talks etc must have been sometime in 1991-93 or so. Tasmanians were, of course, quite proud of Alastair.


  5. Love this memoir/review style. Thanks for the piece Gareth.

    Re D. Cometti, there’s a beaut little collection of his commentary – book is called Centremetre Perfect from memory. I wrote a yarn about it many eyars ago – for The Age. Could see if I can find that. But there’s heaps of dennis tributes floating around the net.

  6. Tony Wilson says

    Thanks for this magnificent piece Gareth. It wonderfully expresses and reinforced for me why a place like the almanac is my spiritual sporting home. Harmsy gets why this stuff matters in our lives and he has given voice to legions who get it too.

    Thanks Gareth – a thrill to read this.

Leave a Comment