Almanac Book Review: 1989 – The Great Grand Final







Former Australian High Court judge and Governor General Sir William Deane once said something to the effect of “be very wary applying exactly the same set of expectations, beliefs and behaviours of people at one point in time to those of people at any other given point in time.”


While His Honour was obviously discussing a different case, he could just as easily have been making the same point about the subject matter of Tony Wilson’s recent book 1989: The Great Grand Final.


I suggest this at the outset because there has been some discussion in recent years suggesting the 1989 grand final doesn’t deserve the many accolades it has richly enjoyed over the intervening 30 years as one of the most memorable of all time. Critics point to the brutal manner in which players of both sides attacked opponents – in some cases barely within the letter of the then rules, in other cases in flagrant breach of them – causing severe injuries, some akin to those sustained in car accidents.


But that is Deane’s precise point. A lot about the game and the way it’s played – let alone public opinion about the game – has changed over thirty years. In one celebrated case in particular, the “Dermot Brereton rule” was changed the very next season ironically after Brereton himself was on the receiving end of the infamous Mark Yeates charge four seconds into the game. Not the direct ball carrier but within ten metres? What were they thinking?


Even participants of that game accurately capture the point in question too.


“It was the last of the truly brutal grand finals,” says losing Geelong coach Malcolm Blight.


Hawthorn player Peter Schwab says “the game wouldn’t be played like that now. It just can’t be. It’s just not where it’s at. It’s gone past that.”


(In a quirky little vignette, the above player missed the 1989 grand final through suspension for striking in the second semi final but later became Chair of the AFL Match Review Panel and AFL Umpires’ Coach. Poacher becomes game keeper!)


OK then, so back to the book itself.


For younger readers, the executive summary goes like this. Hawthorn had been the best team throughout the 1989 season and meets the emerging challenger Geelong in the grand final. Within the opening few seconds, Geelong’s Mark Yeates starts outside the centre square but with the ball bounced high in the air has time to run into the square without any attempt to get the ball and charge solidly into Dermot Brereton sending him heavily to the ground. This sparks an ongoing exchange of spiteful physical assaults throughout the rest of the game which Hawthorn eventually wins by 6 points despite Geelong full forward Gary Ablett’s nine goal haul in a best on ground Norm Smith winning performance in a losing side.


Now by necessity, like all 112 word summaries of two and a half hours of frantic action in one of the most written about AFL grand finals in history, I leave out a lot of detail here – but I’m sure you get the drift.


On the other hand, Tony Wilson does not leave out any details. Well, he may have but I’d be hard pressed to name one! And herein lies the first of the two great structural strengths of his book, namely, the detail of the stories behind the various people involved. Thanks to Wilson’s extensive reference collection of interviews, books, articles, films/TV and AFL statistics, we experience with an almost voyeuristic intimacy the participants’ different joys, disappointments, heartbreaks, frustrations and successes.


But in addition to the football focus there are many intriguingly colourful back stories to the main story. For instance we learn that on the morning of the big game Alan Jeans was pruning roses – if you don’t mind umpire!


At the same time, Darren Flanigan was managing the Valley Inn Hotel just a few blocks away from Kardinia Park. On grand final morning his vacuum cleaner blows up so “I had to go and buy a brand new vacuum cleaner so I could clean the pub, get it open, jump in the bus and get out to the game.”


Mark Yeates washes his car.


We therefore read about the light and shade around these famous people being normal people doing normal things we normally do ourselves. It’s a lovely touch.


The second major structural strength which greatly impressed this reviewer was Wilson’s cheeky use of very short chapters, some of them only two or three pages long. There are 64 such “chapters” in total in a 250 page book.


The effect of this technique is to create an almost film making like quickly moving montage of people and events which lends a uniquely crisp energetic flavour to the narrative. Short and sweet like this, it doesn’t become predictable or didactic as the reader’s curiosity is in a constant state of arousal. I kept finding myself asking where is he going to take me next?!


Like all good books though it is not without its flaws. Throughout parts of the narrative, attentive readers may detect more than a subliminal hint of Hawthorn triumphalism rarely far beneath the surface. Given Wilson himself was playing with their under 19s around this time and given the stellar Hawthorn’s success story of the 1980s I suppose you can cut him some slack here.


He keeps this in check most of the time, however the most egregious exception to this restraint appears on page 209 in his editorial comment after Dermot Brereton says his definition of the arrival of spring is not the smell of cut grass, pollen or swooping magpies as it is for most folk but the later afternoon light on the MCG on grand final day. Hmm, nothing wrong with that.


But then Wilson throws discretion to the wind admitting with jaw dropping candour “I’ve put that paragraph in just to annoy fans of other clubs.”


Full marks for honesty but surely not the best attitude for an author hoping to sell a book to a wider audience beyond rusted on Hawks fans. Notwithstanding the book’s many strengths, these are twelve indulgent throw away words that will only serve to alienate many readers. I feel he could very easily have done without them.


That said, for a plenary explanation of the result I’ll leave it Wilson as he outlines in Chapters 57 and 58 titled, respectively, The Reason and More Reasons, the content of which this reviewer agrees with incidentally.


“The reason” was the accuracy of Hawthorn’s kicking as Malcolm Blight testifies.


“That first quarter, it was the kicking of Hawthorn that absolutely split us open. They didn’t miss!”


What Blight refers to here is the quarter time score of Hawthorn’s 8.4 to Geelong’s 2.0, a 40 point difference. At half time the difference had barely narrowed to 37 points and at three quarter time it was still 36 points. Consequently, and regardless of all the brutality, the Cats were playing catch up football all day where it mattered – on the scoreboard.


The final six point margin perhaps flattered Geelong a little as the Hawks were the better team all day although it’s true to say they had stopped to a walk in the last quarter. As John Kennedy said “if it goes for another five minutes I don’t think we win the game.”


But it doesn’t and they do.


The four “more reasons” of Chapter 58 are as follows.


First, Hawthorn had the advantage of the week’s rest the previous weekend. “On a warm, humid Saturday, fresh legs probably helped.” Correct.


Secondly, Hawthorn were far more experienced. Incredibly, twelve of them had played four or more grand finals while only three were making their debuts. In Geelong’s case, all 20 were playing in their first grand final. Correct.


Thirdly, bad luck may have played a part as it inevitably does in any close game. At very least it “leads to an endless spiral of what ifs?” Correct.


“And then there’s the most obvious reason of all, the one hit on by (Geelong captain) Damian Bourke: Hawthorn was just better.” Correct.




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

About Roger Lowrey

Roger Lowrey is a Geelong based writer who lists his special interests as reading, writing, horse racing, Roman history and AEC electoral boundaries. Some of his friends think he is a little eccentric.


  1. Terrific summary Roger. This is a fabulous read and you don’t need to barrack for Geelong or Hawthorn to enjoy it. The personal touches are spot on.

  2. And you don’t even have to have a team, like I didn’t in 1989.

    Yes – Wilson the young and up-and-coming Hawk.

    Watched the flashback of the first Anzac Day clash on Saturday – very similar kicking where Essendon was concerned. I don’t know if Collingwood was ripe open.

    Good to see Paul Kennedy talking about the book with its author on ABC News Breakfast this morning [27.4.2020].

    Speaking of Kennedys – the way you set up John Kennedy and the Four Reasons Hawthorn won the 1989 Grand Final.

    And Jeans pruning roses – oh, yes.

    Schwab as poacher and gamekeeper – I mostly knew Schwab in his gamekeeping role. Especially around 1992 and 1993.

    I’ve noticed I’ve said nothing about the Cattery and its performance thus far.

    The pub cleaning for the win! Yes – lots of footballers were and are publicans especially in rural and regional settlements.

  3. roger lowrey says

    Thanks guys. As I read the book I kept scratching my head wondering how we ever got so close to be honest!

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