David Barham, who took over as Essendon president this week, was the producer of the 1996 documentary ‘100 Years of Australian Football’. From Jezza to Jacko, from John Coleman to John Bourke, it showcased the best and worst of the sport. Heading into round 23 – whether it was Essendon refusing to return Ben Rutten’s calls, Kevin Sheedy speaking sideways, or Tom Browne offering $1.05 on Alastair signing with the Bombers – a century of footy’s folly and folderol was crammed into a few days.
By Friday, people who should have known better were floating the idea of James Hird returning as senior coach. A few months ago, dressed for the boardroom, carrying a Sherrin and sporting what appeared to be a straight face, he emerged through a thick wall of smoke at the MCG. It was an astonishing scene. They wouldn’t, would they? It would boggle the mind, but stranger things have happened at Essendon.
For North Melbourne, as Peter Ryan wrote in The Age, “it was a victory of process over panic, of decency over desperation.” For years, they ran on the smell of an oily rag. They’ve been kicked to the curb this year. In recent times, there’s been talk of shunting them off to Tasmania, or out of the competition altogether.
Clarkson spoke very well on Friday. He spoke of a club that helped steer him on the right path after his brother had been killed. The industry was pitiless, he said. But there were good people involved too, and the occasional moments of grace. His new president, the polar opposite of his old one, runs more than 100 programs supporting kids from non-English speaking backgrounds. The North Melbourne presidency, Dr Sonja Hood says, is her “weird job”. Her sentences are spare. There are no weasel words, no corporate mumbo jumbo. Professional fault-finder Kane Cornes described her as “uninspiring”. But she held her nerve, stared down the industry and got her man.
From that point on, the focus was on the mad scramble for double chances and home finals. More than 200 home-and-away games boiled down to a few Sunday afternoon fixtures. But before that, there were the warm-up acts. Melbourne flexed, Zorko sledged and Brisbane bottled it. In Canberra, Fremantle dozed and then rallied. In Geelong, Dangerfield celebrated his 300th, exploded away like a speed skater and shanked his first kick into a construction site. That night, footy bid farewell to the sublime Robbie Gray, and to Michael Hurley, who could barely raise a gallop but managed a goal with his last kick.
And then there was Sunday. As Essendon’s meeting of minds dragged on at Tullamarine, diehards were already making their way to the MCG. For his entire presidency, Eddie McGuire would make Churchillian speeches about the hatred between Collingwood and Carlton. He’d get the old legends in for a rev-up. But the fizz had gone out of the rivalry.
On Sunday, however, it was visceral. Watching the hordes snake their way through Fitzroy Gardens, it felt like a city emerging from its winter burrow. It felt like a big final. Collingwood were playing for the double chance. Carlton, who’d been in the top eight every week this season, were hanging on for dear life. Most Carlton fans had taken the full seven days to get over the final 90 seconds of the Melbourne game. This was their biggest game in nearly a decade. If Hawthorn could upset the Western Bulldogs in Tasmania, they could all kick back and ponder an elimination final.
For several hours, every single person at the MCG seemed to be in deep consultation with their phone. They learnt of Rutten’s sacking. They learnt that Sam Walsh, one of the hardest runners in the game, was a late withdrawal for Carlton. They saw the Hawks, in Jeff Kennett’s last game as President, give the Dogs an almighty fright. But as the Hawks petered out, Carlton’s destiny was in in its own hands. With most of their starting midfield sitting in the stands, much of it rested on Patrick Cripps’s shoulders.
It was an oddly subdued and cautious Carlton in the first half. As usual, the Blues were dominating in close, but the Pies were cutting them to ribbons on the outside. Their ability to quadruple their numbers at the contest and move the ball laterally at full pelt had Carlton floundering. The Blues were rushed, wasteful and in danger of being tipped out of the eight.
But they sprung to life after the main break. It was David Parkin who coined the term ‘premiership quarter’, and Carlton’s third quarter was one for the ages. They dominated in the air, at the coalface and at the fall of the ball. Adam Cerra played the quarter of his life. Their small forwards were insatiable. Curnow, who’d squandered so many chances in the first half, was suddenly straighter than Fred Nile.
Up the road, and under the roof, the Swans were taking care of St Kilda, though not by enough to secure an SCG final. But the football universe – so consumed with Essendon and Clarkson all week – was focused squarely on the MCG. They were so close, the Blues. They could taste it. But this was Collingwood. And this Magpies side simply doesn’t stop. You can’t play safe against them. You can’t chip 9 irons into your forward 50 and hope for the best. You can’t kick 0.6 in your most important quarter of football in 10 years and expect to hang on.
Carlton erred in so many ways, and paid a terrible price. Yes, they were stiff. They copped some rotten decisions. They watched Beau McCreery kick a preposterous goal from deep on the 50-metre boundary line. It’s hard to remember many more heartbreaking losses. It’s hard to think of a footballer who deserves to play finals more than Patrick Cripps. But ultimately, after six months in the top eight, they got the staggers, and the Pies swooped. It was cruel, utterly compelling and a fitting end to one of the most extraordinary weeks of football we’ve ever seen.