Reliving the pain

Everybody hates losing. It is almost impossible to be respectful in defeat. After a loss we wracked by pain and riddled with anger. It’s hard to come down from that so we seek comfort in friends for predictable analysis and vitriolic abuse.

We are forced forward to an uncertain future, next week or next year, where losing is always a possibility and winning is never guaranteed.

Losses often leave mental scars that linger for years. We try to purge the mind but it’s pointless. Losing kills the dream and destroys the memory. A loss, therefore, is cast aside like rubbish.

Few people, aside from coaches, are brave enough to watch a replay of a losing game.

I have never watched a replay of a game North Melbourne has lost. I don’t have the emotional stability to do it.

No matter how great the game was, regardless of individual heroics, only a masochist wants to relive the shame.

For years I kept a tape of the 1994 preliminary final. I can’t recall what year I threw it out but I slammed the lid strode from the rubbish bin without relief, swearing softly and ruing Gary Ablett’s one handed mark and his goal after the final siren.

We are never the same, emotionally, after witnessing a loss like that.

But there is much worse than losing a preliminary final. There is no greater heartache than watching your team lose a grand final. It leaves a legacy of hatred so raw it can’t be let go.

North has lost three grand finals in my life, 1976, 78 and 98. I was too young to follow football in 1976 but I have vivid memories of the debacle in 1978. I was just a kid but already loved the Kangaroos.

In 1998 I sat on the member’s wing at the MCG, horrified as we kept kicking and eventually squandered a 24-point half time lead.

I still carry hatred for Hawthorn and Adelaide, so it is understandable and completely reasonable that I have never watched any of those grand finals.

Until the weekend, I never thought I would watch them again. But a mate bought over his collection of Hawthorn’s premierships, ten in all, dating back to 1961.

‘There’s North Melbourne’s collection,’ The Pole said, pointing at four DVDs on the table. ‘Here is Hawthorn’s.’ He held it out, giving me and another mate, Adam, the chance to touch the box-set. We didn’t.

‘Two of the grand finals are against North,’ The Pole said. ‘Let’s watch one of them.’

The simultaneous retort was instinctive, no way. The Pole, having seen our expressions, respectfully put on the 2008 grand final.

I’ve seen every grand final since 1970, mostly on tape or DVD and about fifteen at the MCG. The only grand final I’ve never seen was North’s 30-points loss to Hawthorn in 1976, and I still have no interest.

But The Pole’s disc collection sparked my interest. I asked Adam if he could watch the 1978 grand final and he was unequivocal and specific.

‘I don’t want to watch North lose a grand final to Hawthorn,’ he said.

I pondered things for a moment then phoned a friend, Russ, and asked him the same question I offered to Adam; could you watch it?

‘I could,’ Russ said. ‘I didn’t follow footy then so it wouldn’t hurt as much as the 1998 grand final did.’

‘But this is North,’ I said. ‘Losing a grand final to Hawthorn.’

‘I could still watch it,’ Russ said.

‘I’m not sure,’ I said.

‘Just put it on.’

‘I don’t know Russ, this is North.’

‘Tell you what, ask The Pole for a copy and I’ll watch it with you. I’ve never seen it and I’m sure there are some players I remember.’

I hung up, thinking about emotional stability. After having a quiet word with Adam, we asked The Pole to put the 1978 grand final on.

Of course, we gave him a strict proviso.

The 1978 grand final was a tough, hard game played on a beautiful spring day. It was exciting, and took me back in time. I was at the MCG that day. The memories I should love were ruined by bitter disappointment…

30 September 1978

Carrying our balloons, the string wrapped tightly around fingers so they wouldn’t fly too soon, we strode toward the MCG in loose formation. The MCG was as tall as a building. Walking in was inspiring.

The atmosphere was fervent, hot and intimidating. Officials in blue coats lined up thousands of nervous kids clinging onto balloons. Our role was purely cameo, simply let go the balloons when the bluecoat told us to.
The sun reflected from the players as they ran through their banners and paced around the MCG to the tune of the crowd. I was totally overwhelmed. The crowd sounded destructive, nothing I’d ever heard before. It was easy to be scared.

With the bluecoat waving his arms, I opened my hand and let go. Balloons floated up in the vast expanse, rising on hot air produced by 101,704 people. A few bunches drifted into the cavernous stands, bobbing helplessly against the roof like dying jellyfish in a gentle tide.

The kids were marched out of the MCG, back into huge marquees in the parkland where we were fed four-n-twenty pies, a Big M and grabbed a couple of free t-shirts and a few pairs of socks.

We left the MCG before quarter time, listening to the game on the radio. When we got home the Hawks were ahead but North went in at half time with a four point lead.

It didn’t last long. Hawthorn kicked seven goals in the third term to lead by 22-points at three quarter time. It was my first brutal example of the premiership quarter.

Nauseous, with meat pie rising steadily, I glared at the television as the last quarter started. We were going to lose the grand final to Hawthorn, and I hated Hawthorn.

The final margin was 18 points. Don Scott kicked the ball into the crowd after the match. I hated him for it. I hated their horrid brown and gold jumper. They’d monstered and bashed us, proved they were tougher.

It was clear North was more skilful, but that skill melted under pressure. We had too many lairs, like Arnold Breidis, Stephen McCann and John Cassin. We had no hardness, no one who could stick their chin out and dare the mighty Hawks to punch on.

No one, with the exception of Phil Baker, would willingly belt Matthews or Scott behind the ears, and raise an elbow in a tackle.

It all seemed too meek to lose like that, even for a kid who didn’t know much about football except for two things; he loved North and hated losing.

The strict proviso…

At the weekend, Adam and I agreed to watch the 1978 grand final until half time, for two reasons. North led at half time and Phil Baker kicked four goals in the second term, taking screamers and turning a 22-point deficit midway into a four point lead.

We let the DVD run on. North kicked the first goal of the third quarter to lead by ten points. That lead could’ve been extended, but Ray Huppatz spoiled Baker in the goal square and the full-forward went nuts at his teammate.

I could understand why Huppatz did it. No one spoils a teammate in the goal square. Huppatz wasn’t going for the mark, he floated in from beside Baker and whacked the ball from his hands, through for a point.

It might’ve been the turning point of the game. Hawthorn went on to kick seven unanswered goals. We didn’t see it, of course. It is humiliating having seven unanswered goals kicked against you in a grand final so we turned it off.

The Pole will have to watch the rest of the game alone.

On Sunday night, after the DVD was turned off, all the bitterness came back. Adam and I discussed it at length, heated words of hatred and unfairness.

North Melbourne was never going to win the 1978 grand final.

Injury took out a lot of our stars during the year. David Dench was the first to go, a ruptured ACL in round three. Steven Icke carried a groin injury for most of the season and aggravated it during the finals. Brent Croswell broke his arm in the second semi final.

North had lost three of its best defenders to injury.

We also lost Peter Keenan after the second semi, because he belted Don Scott. The tribunal gave Keenan two weeks and if the premiership wasn’t already lost to injury, it was now lost to stupidity.

All those men missed the grand final and the injuries kept coming. During the first quarter, Malcolm Blight tore a groin muscle running across the MCG’s centre wicket. Stan Alves tore his hamstring in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Blight ended up on the bench alongside Alves.

North was beaten by injury and suspension, one man at a time. In the end we were lucky to get within three goals of Hawthorn.

Adam and I complained about the natural conspiracy of injury and stupidity. Too many big-game players missed out and that’s no excuse but the 1978 grand final might’ve been different.

‘No team can cover for the players we had out,’ Adam said. ‘Then to lose Blight and Alves during the first half and Hawthorn have no injuries.’ Adam looked fierce. ‘Hawthorn was lucky to win and the next time North play in a grand final I want luck like that.’

I was feeling fierce too. Losing the 1978 grand final still kills me. I’ll never watch the first half again, I can’t, because I don’t want to be tempted into the second half, and watch Huppatz spoil Baker in the goal square.

Anything could’ve happened if Baker put North 16-points up…

Reflecting on the game in the early eighties, Ron Barassi remained aggrieved. ‘We were very disappointed with our showing in the 78 grand final. I believe we should’ve and could’ve won.’

I wonder if Barassi ever found the reason to watch the replay.

I wonder how many of us are brave enough to watch a replay of our club losing a grand final…

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Stephen Cooke says

    Well played, Iron Mike. I have never watched a replay of the 2008 Grand Final, I was at the game and caught up with friends after the final siren at the ground. The following Monday, they said they watched the replay on the Saturday night to see where they went wrong. I asked: WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO YOURSELVES? It made no sense to me.

    As a young fella, I did watch the 1989 Grand Final 30-40 times, always stopping it wiht 30 seconds left on the clock.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    Speaking as a Bulldog supporter, I would love to look back on GF wins or LOSSES! It means we actually featured them!
    It shows how it’s all relative. If your team was flying in the seventies you EXPECT success to continue and when Ablett marks at the end of a prelim and goals to win the match for example, it scars you for life. I refer to the case of Bulldogs V Crows 1997 PF when the Bulldogs went from almost last to just missing out on a GF. In 2013 we are going so bad that we have a danger game against The Suns on Saturday, so any win, anywhere, will be celebrated this year.
    But you’re right, I don’t watch replays after a loss and I see even Foxtel has obliged by putting on Bulldogs V Kangaroos replay at 4am. Only the worst-case masochists would chase down that one.

  3. Lord Bogan says

    C’mon Iron Mike where’s your spunk!

    I’m a proud owner of the 66, 70, 77 draw and replay, 79, 80, 81, 02,03 and 2011 GF DVD’s. Survive that and you can survive anything! That’s the theory anyway.

    Enjoyed the piece. Great stuff.

  4. daniel flesch says

    I have that 10 disc Hawk GF wins too , Iron Mike. What i particularly like about the wins over North is Phil Baker going apeshit dancing and prancing around the Hawk defenders when he kicked some early goals. Pride before a fall in a nutshell. What a goose. Pity , because if i had a “second club” as so many people do ,it would be North. (Have ever puzzled , though , where i might see a blue and white striped kangaroo , or a cat , for that matter.) Anyway , take heart – maybe Majak will do it for you in a year or two. And here’s a sadder tale for you … my best mate is a Footscray supporter – he was 6 in 1954 the year of the Dogs’ only Flag. We met in Year 7 ,1961 – Hawthorn’s first Flag – beating Footscray – their second and so far last GF appearance. Last year i relayed to him the interesting stat. that since joining the League in 1925 the Dogs and the Hawks had an equal number of wins and losses and 2 draws. “Yeah ,great ,” he replied , “and 10 Flags to one.” Proof there’s no justice , as we will all find out after Sept. 14. And what genius decided on an Election day in the middle of the Finals ? Sheesh !

  5. daniel flesch says

    p.s. that was a little unclear… should have said Dogs and Hawks equal wins and losses playing against each other

  6. There is no chance I would ever watch the 2009 GF again. I once watched the 2010 drawn GF, but I stopped it after Brendon Goddard’s late mark and go-ahead goal. I couldn’t go on.

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