Local Footy: You never know what to expect in a grand final

As I walk into Elsternwick Park for the Victorian Amateur Football Association’s A-section grand final, the biggest day of the Ammos season, I expect an Old Xaverians victory. They’re playing De La Salle Old Collegians, the team they beat by 92 points in the second semi. Xavs are finals hardened. This is their twelfth grand final in fifteen years. De La are young and fast. Their form has surprised many, even those who run the club. Early in the week, when De La midfielders Dave Lowe and Matt Fieldsend became dual winners of the Woodrow Medal for the best and fairest in A-section, I felt pleased for them. De La are a good mob. But surely the sun couldn’t always shine on Malvern. I felt it might duck behind a cloud on this last day of the season.

I make my first unexpected sighting when Evo greets me at the door for the umpires’ association lunch in the grey building behind the forward pocket. Evo used to be a rock ‘n’ roll guy. Now he’s wearing slacks. He introduces me to Rob Maston, the immediate past president of the umpires’ association, and MC Rob Sneddon, who sets up my son Michael with a table of pencils, crayons and colouring books, as well as a plate of party pies. I get up to talk about amateur footy, umpiring and writing about our game. Michael colours in happily. We’re all content. There’s none of the anticipation that normally precedes a grand final. It just doesn’t happen that a team wins the second semi by fifteen goals then loses the big one.

I emerge from the umpires’ rooms halfway through the first quarter. Xavs are kicking with a gentle southerly breeze towards the city end. They have most of the ball, and yet they struggle to kick goals. It feels like the lull before the spree. Xavs lead by eight points at quarter-time, 2.2 (14) to 1.0 (6).

In the second quarter Xavs appear to hit a winning rhythm. Wingman Ryan Colbert (the brother of Leigh) takes a diving mark and boots truly from twenty out. Centre half-forward Matt Handley marks on the lead past the 45-metre arc in front of the umpires’ rooms. His goal from a long way out on a difficult angle is the goal of a leader. I make a note in the margin of my Amateur Footballer: “Ominous.” A De La defender tries to evade a tackle in the teeth of goal and is pinged by Luke Howard, a compact half-forward, who boots the goal. I’m sitting on the slope on the outer wing. A nearby De La fan who’s leaning back on his elbow looks up at a mate. “They’re just not good enough,” he says.

I remember thinking that De La weren’t good enough at several stages of the epic Round 10 match against Xavs at De La’s Waverley Oval. Xavs dominated for periods of that match, only for De La to show their ability to kick quick goals and peg them back. I thought De La were gone halfway through the third quarter but, no, they mounted another comeback. They even hit the front. The lead changed half a dozen times through the last quarter, while De La key forward Leigh Harrison kicked three goals and Xavs replied on each occasion. Harrison was on fire that day. I can still see the mark in which he hovered on an opponent’s back for several seconds, like a diver at the apex of his arc, before falling to earth with the ball. Harrison ended up with eight. But Xavs edged clear with their bigger bodies and edge in belief. Xavs players seemed mostly relieved when the siren blew to signal an eight-point win.

In Round 16 I saw Xavs play at the eccentric ground of St Bede’s-Mentone Tigers, the reigning premiers. The Tigers had the advantage of playing at home in a howling gale; local knowledge was crucial when shooting for goal from the pockets.

St Bede’s hit Xavs with everything. Xavs hit them back. I remember Xavs’ Nick Serafini barging along the train-line wing and a pumped-up John Mercuri meeting an opponent at breakneck speed on the boundary line in front of me. The match’s indelible image was the No.14s from both sides, Josh Agius from Xavs and Simon Richards from the Tigers, turning their bodies into each other as they bent down to reach for a ball that was equidistant between them. Neither hesitated for a second. The symmetry of their collision, with their sides meeting in perfect alignment, could have been lined up by a dancing instructor. They clashed as the siren blew. The finality of the impact seemed to push the air from the crowd’s collective lungs. St Bede’s won by 28 points but Xavs lost no admirers. With only two games to the finals, I thought the tough hit-out at a testing venue placed them in good stead for the finals.

My next A-section match I saw was the preliminary final between De La and University Blues. The Blues had been forced to go into extra-time to beat St Bede’s in the first semi but they led this match at half-time. De La were doing nothing. They looked like bowing out of the finals without incident before, halfway through the third quarter, they snapped into gear like a foundation case. The Blues lifted as well. The two teams kicked six goals in seven minutes, with De La kicking four and the Blues two. The match continued in this helter-skelter vein in the last quarter, with De La bringing the ball through the middle with spitfire handballs. It was heady, daring stuff. The Blues refused to give in, but they could not keep up. De La were just too quick. Their willingness to take risks in sharing the ball reminded me of Geelong in 2007. Their ability to outrun their opponents and rattle on quick goals would always give them a chance.

Halfway through the second quarter of the grand final against Xavs, De La seem to have no chance. Rugged midfielder Sam Pickett pushes off three Xavs defenders at half-forward and gives himself enough space to pick out David Lowe, his captain, on the arc. In seeking to use up every centimetre before his kick, Lowe creeps in too close. He boots into the upstretched arms in front of him. This is not good for De La: the captain has kicked into the man on the mark!  The ball gets whisked back into the Xavs forward line, where Mick Darvell plops the ball through the goal from twenty metres. The 3000 or so spectators indulge him with polite applause. The margin is five goals but it might feels like ten. De La have kicked only one for the match.

In the shadow of time-on in the second quarter, rangy De La half-forward Jack Vickers takes a mark on the pavilion flank. His nerveless shot from forty metres on a 45-degree angle rouses a small reaction from the 200 De La schoolboys in blue and gold tracksuit tops behind the goals. It’s only De La’s second goal and yet it brings them within 23 points at the main break. The score is 6.3 (39) to 2.4 (16). I recall looking up at the scoreboard at half-time in the previous week’s AFL semi-final between Collingwood and Adelaide. The Crows should have had the match in their keeping but they led by only four goals. Xavs lead this match by four goals. They haven’t won just yet.

Xavs full-forward Damian Lynch has been a constant threat. In the third quarter he takes a mark and kicks a goal after eight minutes. Xavs’ lead goes out to 29 points. Both teams kick one more goal for the quarter but I miss them because I’m searching for my son. My name is called over the public address system. This is most unexpected. And embarrassing. I feel relieved when I find Michael safe and happy with VAFA officials in the pavilion. Michael smiles like it’s all an adventure, like he can’t wait to tell Mum. The siren goes with Xavs leading by 29 points, 9.5 (59) to 4.6 (30). Five goals is a big margin in the context of a low-scoring game.

De La summon a shred of hope early in the last quarter when Ben Oakley earns a free kick for holding the ball at the top of the goalsquare. The margin is down to four goals. Nobody stirs particularly. I’m happy to sit in the blanket while Michael colours in next to me. He’s using something called an Exploding Pen.

At the nine-minute mark De La midfielder Matt Fieldsend shows why he’s won a Woodrow Medal by wheeling on to his left foot around and booting the ball about five metres beyond the arc. I have a view directly behind Fieldsend as the ball curls over heads in the goalsquare and sneaks over the goal-line next to the near post. De La fans get off their elbows and sit up. Others bounce up and down. Michael looks up from his colouring book and asks what happened. He senses a shift. A group of two dozen teenagers supporting De La behind me find their voice. Their team is three goals down. Another one and they might be in this.

The occasion stirs Xavs defender Nick Wynne into action. Early in the week Wynne won the Ammos’ equivalent of the rising star award. Throughout this game he’s kept De La’s talismanic forward Ben Mannix to a handful of possessions, none of them dangerous. Wynne takes two saving marks in the backline. He keeps talking and gesticulating. It’s a fact of footy that you can rely on a nineteen-year-old to remain fearless in a crisis.

As the ball floats towards Wynne and Mannix near the centre of the ground, Wynne nudges Mannix under the ball to take the mark. A whistle blows. Wynne can’t believe he’s been penalised. He throws his head and takes his time to get the ball back to his opponent. It fails to reach his opponent. He’s penalised 25 metres, the standard Ammos penalty, to take the mark back to the 45-metre arc. Mannix lines up from well beyond fifty metres. His long sleeves are pushed up towards his elbows. His pale, skinny limbs look out of place on the footy field. His kicks sail high and straight. The boys in blue and gold tracksuit tops behind the goals belt the advertising hoardings. Fans jump up and down. Michael stops colouring. Mannix’s kick is never in doubt. It sails through. Once again De La are showing themselves to be capable of rattling on goals. They even look like a chance to win. I did not expect this.

In the next five minutes Xavs midfielders and defenders do everything to keep the ball out of De La hands. The unlikely form of Damian Lynch moves from full-forward to the hole in front of the De La goalsquare and has an immediate effect. Lynch is built low, with enormous thighs that look incapable of quick propulsion, but he thinks quick and moves well. He punches the ball clear of a few contests. Whenever Xavs manage to take the ball past the centreline, it returns straight away as De La continue their kamikaze handball before kicking long in the direction of Harrison at the top of the square.

Midfielder Michael Duggan takes a set shot from well beyond the arc and kicks a behind. Jack Vickers tries to curl the ball through from the boundary line and kicks a behind. Xavs full-back Andy Bowen, a state player who’s managed to just spoil Harrison throughout the game, takes the kick-ins while the 200 schoolboys crane over the fence behind him and belt the tin hoardings. De La supporters scream for another goal. Xavs supporters scream for resistance. In the well-behaved world of amateur footy, this is a racket. It’s uplifting. Momentum is with De La.

At the 27-minute mark Xavs’ Ryan Colbert tries to wriggle past opponents deep in the De La forward line. He’s pinged. No free kick. The ball spills free and heads back out towards the outer wing. De La players swarm forward again. There’s no hint of finessin’. The ball is kicked long and high to the hot spot. There’s a pack of five players but one stands out. All I can see is the rangy form of Leigh Harrison. He takes a step and launches his shin on to the closest hip. He gets enough purchase to be able to stretch his arms just above the pack. The ball meets his hands. It sticks. His mark is a reward for persistence against tough opposition. The roars halt for a moment as Harrison takes his kick. It’s through. The outer hill comes alive. Fans in blue and gold jump up and down and cup their hands out from their hips, as if they’re about to launch an enormous hug at the world. De La trail by three points.

The ball breaks from the ball-up and shoots out to the Xavs’ half-forward line. It bounces up for Ben Corin, the De La defender, who handballs behind as he’s done all day. It’s the way De La set up forward thrusts. The ball spins backwards, past grasping hands, in the direction of the blue and gold back-up. The ball spins and spins and as it does the siren sounds. It’s over. De La have fallen short. Xavs have kicked one behind in the final quarter but still held on to win by three points, 9.6 (60) to 8.9 (57).

Spectators feel excited, drained, overwhelmed. Players slump to the ground exhausted. It’s Xavs’ tenth premiership in fifteen years, but no one thinks about that now.

You never know what to expect in a grand final.

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