Best Night Ever.

A few years ago we met a family from Zimbabwe who had started going to our church at Rosanna. The father, MT, was studying at Latrobe University. MT and Rhee, like us, have three young kids and so we invited them over for a meal. Our three children James, Thomas and Ben loved running around with their three kids Thando, Jeanclaude and Maclaude. There were play fights and the kids dressed themselves as superheros. Every now and then as we tried to finish our dinner one of the kids would run into the room in a blur of energy and excitement. At the end of the dinner I drove our new friends home. Maclaude then aged 8 pronounced his verdict on the night; it was short and simple.

Just three words, “Best Night Ever.”

Maclaude is now back in Zimbabwe but while in Melbourne he developed an allegiance to the Collingwood Magpies. Once that football bug bites, the itch will stay with you in any part of the world. And so somewhere in Bulawayo there is a room with Collingwood players plastered on the walls. I think of Maclaude and of the many people cheering on the Pies and Hawks from different corners of the globe as I get ready for the Preliminary Final at the MCG on Friday night.

Prior to the game starting the train is running late. The delay is ten minutes and by the time the train arrives the Greensborough line is bursting with black and white. The mood is a little sullen. Perhaps we already know the tussle we’re in for. I meet my footy mates Steve, Craig and Belinda outside Gate 1, in our usual spot by the crowded NAB ATM. Craig and Belinda haven’t seen the Pies lose a match for two years.

Inside the ground we take our seats on level 1 just behind the cheer squad. The early play all belongs to Hawthorn. Their tactic is simple- drop an extra player back into the Collingwood forward line and chip the ball precisely around the ground. They win several stoppages through the good work of Lewis and Mitchell. The Hawks hit the lead on the siren when Puopolo runs onto a clever handpass from Buddy.

In the second quarter the Hawks execute their game plan to perfection. Ben Stratton plays an important role as a floating half-back and takes a number of uncontested marks. At the other end Chris Tarrant plays well on Buddy, who despite being well held still kicks two goals for the quarter. By the end of the half the Hawks lead by 8 points, really it should be more. If Maclaude is following the game on the internet in Zimbabwe, he will be concerned.

In the toilets at half time the Collingwood crowd is flat. There is literally silence. It’s as if we’re attending our own funeral. Twenty-one wins for the season will count for nothing. It seems that Mick will end his career as Collingwood coach in a disappointing Preliminary Final. All I can think about is how good Hawthorn is in big matches. For most of my childhood and teenage years they just kept winning Grand Finals. The odds count for nothing when the Hawks play big games. Steve thinks we’re gone; Craig and Belinda keep the faith. Craig repeats our mantra of the last two years as the third quarter begins, “Be positive,” but the malaise has set in. Our season is two quarters from finishing.

The third term is more of the same with Hawthorn’s backs clearing the ball precisely from the Collingwood forward line. By three-quarter-time I watch Mick address his players for one last time. I think about the 2002 Grand Final when he cried with Paul Licuria after a heroic defeat. Mick and his players- that will be the enduring image of his career. I can’t think of any occasion when he has publicly belittled or berated on of our players.

As the last term begins I whisper to Steve “a goal in the first five minutes will give us some hope,” but I’ve lost all faith. Chris Dawes obliges by kicking one just a few minutes into the quarter but the Hawks keep responding. Hodge takes a brilliant mark and goals right in front of us. The Hawks maintain their lead, but the momentum is shifting.

The one change in the game is that for the first time our players have some room to move and we start winning the ball across half-back. It makes me wonder if the half-back line is the most important in football. Win that and you’re half a chance. Maxwell, gallant all night, takes a couple of crucial marks and somehow the players keep believing. With 7 minutes to go Trav has a shot from about 30 metres out. We are praying. Some people can barely look. He kicks it. His leadership of the forward line in the last quarter is outstanding. Somehow we have hit the lead. The cheer squad yell after every possession now. We scream at our players to find the right option but in the end it all seems to be a lost cause.

The Hawks charge down the ground with a few minutes left. Taz holds Buddy away from the ball, but somehow the Hawthorn man clamps it under his arm and runs towards the boundary line. He turns. He ducks and weaves and kicks an incredible goal, outside of the boot in the wrong pocket for a left footer.

Silence at our end, jubilation at the other. The noise cascades over the ground, Buddy lifts his arm in triumph. There was nothing Taz could do, in that moment his opponent was too good.

I sit back to watch the final act. It is hopeless and yet our players keep believing. As the time ticks away Schoenmakers drops a mark and there is a ball up twenty metres from our goal. Luke Ball seizes on the bounce, turns and snaps a left-foot contested classic. Disbelief charges through the cheer squad and up into the stand. The bloke behind yells, “Ring the siren;” they don’t. We win the centre clearance but then the Hawks have one last chance. Cyril starts dancing through the middle of the ground but there’s no one up ahead. Enter Daisy Thomas. He dives at Rioli, tackles him and frees up the ball. The Umpire awards a free-kick. Collingwood players Shaw and Tarrant find some space and chip the ball around.

Siren.

 

I’ve been going to the football since I was three years old. I’ve seen us win and lose some classics. But I’ve never seen anything like this. In a second we are caught up in a ten-person group huddle. We are jumping up and down on the spot. Steve shakes his head. Craig and Belinda still haven’t seen a loss for two years.

In that moment of ecstasy and relief I think of Mick. He deserves this; he deserves the final act of his senior coaching career at Collingwood to be on the grandest stage of all. Then I think of the Hawks. They were brilliant all night. Their warriors Mitchell, Sewell, Hodge and Lewis were outstanding.

We stand there shaking our heads in disbelief as the ground empties. We recount our good players: Cloke, Tarrant, Swan, Ball, Pendlebury. Memories already wash over us. I keep seeing Leon’s magic left foot goal in the last quarter.

And I think of a kid in Zimbabwe checking the scores on the internet to see if his Magpies are into another Grand Final. Tomorrow morning I’ll send Maclaude’s Dad an email. Just three words will do it- Best Night Ever.

 

David Enticott is the Minister of the Rosanna Baptist Church. He still believes in miracles.

 

Comments

  1. Todd Allison says

    Don’t forget to thank the umpires as they, ultimately, decided the result. The non-free kick when Hodge was decapitated was one of the biggest howlers of the season. Collingwood took the ball down the other end and kicked a goal – the classic 12-point turnaround. Then there was Leon Davis’s goal. How could any umpire not miss the fact that Chris Dawes had crash tackled Josh Gibson on the line preventing him from touching a ball he couldn’t possibly have missed is beyond unbelievable. Worst non-decision in the history of the game. There you have the 18 points Collingwood made up in the last quarter all down to two absolute howlers.

  2. I’m prepared to chip in to make sure Craig and Belinda have front row seats this Saturday. Who’s with me?

  3. watt price tully says

    Todd Allison, if your gunna blame the umps at least get the facts right. The Anvil was shepherding Leon Davis’s the ball through the goals preventing Gibson from touching it.

    If you are to apportion blame try the inept goal kicking by a host of Hawthorn players including the gallant Luke Hodge..

    Corr blimey, do you ever see Collingwood supporters blame the umpire?

  4. Todd – bad luck to the Hawks but blaming umpires merely smooths over the actual reasons.

    There was no free to Hodge. Didn’t touch his head/neck actually. I really thought it was a great decision. Frees always even up in the end.

    You had set shots & you blew them. That’s pressure. That’s bad footy. That’s finals footy.

    In contrast, Trav stood up when needed, when the heat was at boiling point. That’s great footy. That’s finals footy.

    It was a good win. A gooooooood win.

    For reasons why you lost, look no further than Hawk players with ball in hand. There-in lies the wasted opportunities.

  5. People think Collingwood played badly but I tend to disagree. This was one for the ages. All of the big guns came out to play, and all you have to do is think of the highlights and you conjure up an image of a star player. Much like 2007 prelim there were heroes and villains on both sides of equal measure.

    I also think it’s a bit unfair to always talk about one team’s bad kicking when both teams miss gettable shots. But fair enough, it gives people something to talk about.

    One thing I do think resonates with me is the importance of the little things. The 1%ers don’t just occur on the field, but on the training track as well. For one I refer to Travis Cloke, who throughout the year has practiced goalkicking while listening to crowd noises on his ipod at training, waiting for the moment that it would be required. In the end it was his strong shot for goal (and thanks David King x2 third man up) that enabled the Pies to win.

    At the end of the game, I was also locked in the “Magpie embrace”, as this truly was the use of our Get out of Jail Free card. I’ve tried working out where this one ranks as a great win for the club that I’ve seen, and I’m not sure given it was a strong Melbourne rival, whether there’s been one better.

    Finally, considering Belinda and Craig obviously missed the Cats games earlier this year, is there any chance that they will be attending this week?

    Yours hopefully
    LG

  6. Well done David, a great read of a memorable match. Good luck for Saturday, keep the faith in the pies.

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