The history of Essendon and North Melbourne

Clashes between North Melbourne and Essendon invoke tribal instinct.  It’s a street thing.  The guttural urge to win overrides common-sense.


I like beating Essendon a lot.  It has nothing to do with marshmallows or peptides.


April 4, 1981, I clung to a cyclone wire fence watching North play Essendon at Windy Hill.  The Bombers overcame a 21-point deficit at quarter time to take a one point lead into the last quarter.  Late in the last term I turned and found my dad on the terrace.  He gave me the thumbs down.  The final margin was twelve points.


Essendon’s immediate resurgence under Kevin Sheedy surprised everyone.  Their supporters at Oak Park Primary found their high-pitched voices.  They were surprised and loving it.


On June 13 1981, North led by two points at three-quarter time and got wiped out in the last quarter.  The Bombers were bigger, stronger and quicker.  The margin, 47-points, might’ve been the catalyst for the end of North’s golden era.  I remember the sea of red and black as Essendon piled on last quarter goals and the roar of long-suffering supporters.  It was sickening.  I was jealous.


A classmate, a long-standing North fan called Scott declared he was switching to Essendon.  He started wearing an Essendon jumper to school.  Given he was one of the tougher kids, no one bothered him too much.  I no longer trusted him.  Even at a young age I didn’t understand how someone could dump their club.  The following season Scott reverted back to North.


April 17, 1982, North led narrowly all day at Windy Hill and won an exciting game by 17-points.  When the final siren went, I dropped my football record as I jumped over the fence to run onto the ground.  A teenage Essendon fan in a duffle coat who beat me over the fence picked up my footy record and ran off.  I called out but she kept running.  I’d recorded the goals, behinds and free kicks in that record.


The rivalry was further defined at Oak Park High School where ninety percent of the kids seemed to follow three clubs, North Melbourne, Essendon and Carlton.


You could always find a football argument when those clubs played each other.


On April 25, 1983, Simon Madden took a mark about 30-metres out from goal in the dying stages of the last quarter.  Essendon trailed by a point.  Madden took about a minute to remove a strip of streamer from his leg, chewing up valuable time.  His goal won the match for Essendon.  North was heading into attack when the siren went.


By 1984, throngs of Essendon fans were wearing colours to school, duffle coats or scarves.  The Bombers were invincible.  Their fans were insufferable.


We lived a few suburbs away from Essendon.  There were Essendon people everywhere.  I felt smothered.


June 2, 1984, I was in St Vincent’s Hospital, unnecessarily I thought, undergoing treatment for asthma.  North was second last on the ladder.  Essendon was first.  They’d been belting everyone.  Paul Salmon had been outstanding, leading the Coleman Medal.  I listened to the game on a small radio.  Football journeyman Bill Berry in his first game for North dominated Salmon, keeping him to three kicks and one goal.  Essendon won by two points.  The next day, Timmy Watson said he wasn’t surprised by the margin.  ‘Weak sides often try harder against the top teams,’ he said.


By 1986, I was accustomed to hearing red and black, back to back.  Essendon began the season in ominous form but injuries destroyed their campaign.  They took years to recover.  North had success against them.


When the Bombers lost to Collingwood in the 1990 grand final I was in Rockhampton.  I watched the grand final on a four-hour delay.  I was elated.


April 6, 1991, North was supposedly building a premiership list.  In round three we played Essendon at the MCG.  I watched the game in Rockhampton on delay.  The final margin was 73-points.  I was upset and angry.  I knew a lot of people in Rockhampton who followed Essendon.  No matter where I went I couldn’t get away from their fans.


In the nineties, North punctuated their rivalry with Essendon with a series of great games.  Unfortunately they only played one final against each other, in 1998.  There could’ve been a couple of grand finals but Essendon lost two preliminary finals by a point because they were too scared to play North the following week.


After the 1999 preliminary final, I went past Windy Hill.  Hundreds of outdoor seats had been lined up against the brick walls by Essendon fans wanting to secure a grand final ticket.  Those empty seats, lined up in arrogant certainty, now looked abandoned.  I’ve always wondered who took pole position in the queue.  I wonder how many people didn’t return to Windy Hill to collect their seats.  It remains one of my most vivid finals memories.  Nothing in football is certain.


North Melbourne’s second golden era was coming unstuck in 2000.  We were lucky to finish fourth.  We were unlucky to play Essendon in the qualifying final.  I was in Brisbane, watching the game alone.  I didn’t miss a moment.


Essendon were showing off.  They kicked nine goals in the first term and six in the second.  The margin at half time was 57-points.  They kicked ten goals in the third quarter and six in the last.  The final margin was 125-points.  They were showing off.  After the game, my mate Adam G said Essendon has to be careful, because you can go to hell for showing off like that.


July 22, 2001, North was on the wane.  We were ninth.  Essendon was first.  Early in the second term we led by 69-points.


Then the Bombers started showing off, kicking ten goals in the second term and eight in the last.  I sat and watched the last quarter in numb silence.  I’d never seen a club give up a 69-point lead.  It remains the biggest comeback in AFL history.  It was galling.  I wandered the house in a rage.  Anyone but Essendon…


Last year, after North’s 12-point elimination final win, I kept the celebrations low key.  We’d only beaten Essendon.


At the weekend, North defeated Essendon by 11-points.  Given I had to be up at four for work, I listened to the first half then went to bed, thinking I’d be able to sleep.  I couldn’t get there.


My son Jim brought me out of that transitional zone about half an hour later.  A text message just before ten from my brother, bring it home, sped up my heart.


I checked the score and responded.  For the next half an hour I checked the score and sent a few texts to my brother.  It was almost half past ten when I put the phone under my pillow.  The win had excited me.  It was after eleven when I went to sleep.  I should’ve stayed up and watched the game.


I took four hours of sleep to work and didn’t feel tired.  Social media feeds and the news websites mentioned the umpiring.  North had apparently been favoured.  I called a mate, Paul, who rejected the suggestion that the umpires cost Essendon the game.


‘We had plenty of chances to win,’ he said.  ‘The umpires didn’t make us keep kicking it to Petrie.  I was saying guys, he doesn’t play for us.  He’s wearing a North Melbourne jumper.’


When I got home I watched the game.  There were several generous decisions in North’s favour in the second quarter.  There were several generous decisions that favoured Essendon in the third quarter.


I talked to another mate, Adam L, about the umpiring.  He didn’t put all the blame on the umpires.  ‘North had a bit more class than us,’ he said.  ‘But you’ve got to say those decisions were wrong.  While they didn’t alter the result it’s disappointing to see umpiring like that.’


‘It’s where you get free kicks that makes the difference,’ I said.  ‘And the umpires didn’t force players to drop marks, miss targets, take the wrong option or kick points.’


It’s where you get them.  I like to get the Bombers…


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. The Wrap says

    Those empty seats, lined up in arrogant certainty, now looked abandoned.

    Gold Matt, pure gold. It sums them up perfectly.

    You could have added their propensity to whinge when things go a bit wobbly in their perfect little world. Like the time Sheedy complained about having to play Richmond in the 1995 Semi Final. I’m sure he felt Essendon should have gone straight into the Preliminary Final. Not to mention their current wave of blame shifting.

  2. Well written Matt. We watche dthe game in the ambience of the Whittlesea Bowling Club, and i reckon it was the best AFL game i’ve seen on TV this year. The heart wanted North to win but after the WADA anouncement i imagined Essendon would lift for the occasion and hey did especially in the opening stanza.. It was a top match with both sides playing good footy, but never able to break clear of their opponents. In the end the best team won,in a cracking encounter.

    I’m trying to recall clashes from the 70’s but only two come to mind readily, both at Arden St. In late 1971 the Roos won by five goals, the week after my old team Geelong had crushed them at Kardinia Park, a match where Doug Wade and Bill Ryan kicked 20 goals between them, compared to the Roos match tally of 11. The Roos rebounded the nest week rolling Essendon before finishimg the year being caned by he long gone South Melbourne, at Albet Park. The other was either 1975 or 1976 where Norh were reduced to 17 men, no interchange then, but hung on to win by 4 points.


  3. Peter Fuller says

    I’d suggest that the “feeling” between North and Essendon is the economic class struggle at work, intensified by proximity. North was an avowedly working class suburb, whereas Essendon had pretensions to middle-class (Protestant) respectability, and the football club was generally well-supported and financially secure.
    This was also reflected in their relative footballing status, North were late to the VFL and the last of the old VFL twelve to win their first flag (and that only after they had shaken off quite a bit of their working class associations). Even when North reached finals, including the 1950 Grand Final, they generally found themselves inferior to their neighbour rivals.
    I think that a good case can be made for the fact that North has been as successful as Essendon in the modern era. The Kangas’ four premierships 1975-2000, matches the Essendon record in the Sheedy era. Your mob is punching above its weight, as it has done for much of the past half-century or so, notwithstanding some periods of famine.

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    1993: Friday night at the G. The King going clunk, leaving Watson and harvey spellbound.

  5. Steve Hodder says

    I really enjoyed this game, most unusual for me to care about non-Hawthorn games but it was great to watch and serendipitously a few pieces of history floated through my mind, but not in chronological order.

    Firstly, I recalled a rough brawly game at Windy Hill in the 70’s, I think North got up with only 17 on the ground? Or was it the other way around?

    Secondly, I also think Essendon tried to nick Arden St in the early twenties, after their home ground, the East Melb Cricket Ground closed. Somehow North foiled them.

    Next and how about this for a bit of northern history? The first recorded horserace in Melbourne (then called Bearbrass amongst other things) was held on the 6th March, 1838 and won by, I think, a nag named Postboy. How it ties into NM v Essendon is that it began at about the Nth Melb railway station, then followed a course along the train lines towards Batman Hill (Spencer St. Station which takes in the Docklands footy ground) and finished just shy of the river.


  6. The Wrap says

    I remember listening to Essendon beat North Melbourne in both the 1950 Preliminary and Grand Finals with my Shinboner Grandparents. It was North’s first ever GF appearance. Pa didn’t speak for a few days.

  7. Glen, I looked up the games you mentioned. Doug Wade kicked 13 against North.
    Phil Baker kicked seven goals in the win over Essendon.
    Peter, the history of North and Essendon is enough to fill a book, like the time they voted to keep us out of the VFL then took our best players.
    And in 1996, when they were key in quashing the merger between North and Fitzroy.
    I remember the day Jim Krakouer hit Mark Harvey with a left hook at Windy Hill. That sums up how I occasionally feel about the Bombers.
    Steve, amazing history about that horse race. That’s worth a story for the Almanac.
    Andrew, that game in 93 convinced me North could win the premiership. We didn’t…
    The Wrap, love the story about your Pa. I’m like that after a home and away loss…

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