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The Grand Final Diaries: My experience watching last 20 AFL Grand Finals in isolation

I can’t stress enough how much I miss footy. The next three weeks honestly can’t pass quickly enough. Isolation as a general proposition was bound to be an unsettling time. An abundance of spare time; a sudden depletion of responsibilities; and, the terrifying proposition of being trapped in the house with my family. When Gillon McLachlin announced that a suspension of live footy would be added to that explosive melting pot, I knew things were going to get weird.

It took 5 minutes for the AFL media to run out of worthwhile ideas and leave me to my own devices. After watching all the Joel Bowden highlights YouTube can offer, it was clear that I was going to need something more substantive.

I heard of people doing useful things: reading, home renovations and even exercising. But what options are there for the degenerate footy fan? What do you do if you’ve conditioned your body to watch 9 games of football a weekend and structure schedule from Autumn to Spring accordingly?

The natural conclusion was to re-watch old games — and there’s no better game than the Grand Final. Would you believe, Kayo filled the void with the last 20 Grand Finals in a row. So, I went back to 2000 and worked my all the way to 2019; both of which, funnily enough, ended in massacres (though one infinitely more watchable as a Richmond fan).

Throughout 60 hours of viewing, naturally, you begin to notice some things. Some which you forgot, some you never noticed, some which aged differently than we expected and some just too obscure to let rest.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

But in a desperate attempt to justify my action to myself, here is a collection of 11 takeaways from my experience watching the last 20 Grand Final’s back-to-back.

  1. The 2000’s – Football has Changed

I know it’s not exactly an insightful opinion, but before I started this adventure, I never cared for the “footy used to be better” debate. I thought it was just a case of rosy retrospection; people are always going to elevate the ability of players and style of play they grew up watching.

But I have to be honest — after watching the way the game has evolved each year since the start of the century, I found myself agreeing that maybe football was better in the past. In fact, I think it was clearly more watchable in 2000 than it is in 2020.

There was a certain flow to the game in the early naughties which is just appealing to fans. Maybe not even all fans but definitely to me.

Long kicks, high marks, and high scores.

The style of play from the early years of the millennium encouraged and accentuated the best aspects of the game.

And the character of the game was matched by the players themselves. The modern game has taken on the ultra-professionalism of foreign sports leagues. Today’s players are carbon copy, clean-cut and polished specimens manufactured by the AFL system and the AIS.

I understand that the sport needed to evolve and become more professional. I understand the strategic benefits that flow from the modern style of play. But I challenge any of you to go back and watch the games from 2000–2004 and tell me, that as a pure spectacle, they aren’t more fun to watch.

At the risk of sounding like my dad, 2004 marks the point at which we see a rise in professionalism and a death of enjoyable, watchable football.

  1. 2000-1: Essendon used to be Relevant

Now to the specific observations.

When I started this journey, I was immediately overcome by shock when I noticed Essendon playing in a Grand Final. Not only that but they played in two — consecutively. After doing some research, it turns out they were actually pretty good back then. The 2000 Grand Final, particularly, looked like something of a training drill for the bombers.

Now, of course, I realise that Essendon was the dominant team at the turn of the millennium. But it still looked weird seeing them playing in September. They’ve been warming the bottom rungs of the ladder for so long I had forgotten they’d ever been a relevant club.

  1. 2001-3: Brisbane really were that good

It’s no secret that the Lions were pretty good in the early 2000s.

But there are a few things that are easily forgotten about that team.

The first noticeable thing is their pure size. These teams were stacked with hulking, dominating players all over the ground that wouldn’t stack up on the Telstra tracker today; the Lions team would be a champion data nightmare.

Key position players like Mal Michael, Jonathon Brown and Clark Keating all look enormous. Even the midfielders like Voss, Pike and the Scott brother’s all look bulky for their role. The sizable list included Alastair Lynch — a far better player than I remembered — who had mastered the old school and forgotten technique of arm-barring defenders to take one-handed chest marks.

The other immediately noticeable point is just how stacked these teams are. You often see polls or questions regarding who would win a game between the best teams of the century: The Lions, the Cats and the Hawks. While I don’t like comparing teams from different eras, I think that if you lined up the players from each team, the Lions clearly had the best list.

While players like Simon Black are regularly mentioned on lists of underrated champions of the game, it’s easy to forget how good other players on the three-peat squad were in their primes: the likes of Lappin, Leppitsch and Hart.

Finally, despite all the off-field (an occasionally on-field drama) which Jason Akermanis has caused, it’s undeniable how special this guy’s talent was. From 2001-3, Jason Akermanis gives us a run of big game performances that rival any of Dustin Martin or Gary Ablett’s September specials.

  1. 2004: Damian Hardwick dominated in Port’s premiership team

Port’s 2004 victory may have ended Brisbane’s chance of being considered the greatest team of all time. But undoubtedly the worst thing to come out of the 2004 Grand Final has been the Kane Cornes’ persisting ego. If I have to hear Kane Cornes introduced as a ‘Port Adelaide great’ one more time, I’ll vomit. Would we even remember his name if he weren’t on Channel Nine now? Perhaps as Chad’s little brother but that’s it. We really should show more 2007 clips.

If you haven’t watched this game or you haven’t seen it since 2004 (and honestly, unless you’re a Port Adelaide fan, why would you?), you might associate it with a few memorable moments:

  • Byron pickets’ explosive Norm Smith performance;
  • Choco William’s losing the plot and choking himself with his tie to signal a fat middle finger to the pundits who called the Power chokers; or
  • The multitude of overhand rights being thrown all over the ground in what has become a worthy YouTube re-watchable.

What you probably don’t remember is that it was current Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick’s tough and determine performance that helped undo the Lions forward line. Hardwick starved the Lions forwards all day and probably contributed to the pent up frustration that convinced Alistair Lynch’ to go down swinging in his final game against an innocent Darryl Wakelin.

Another player that probably hasn’t crossed your mind recently is Gavin Wanganeen. And that is disappointing because the man was a legitimate Rolls Royce. Wanganeen gives us a virtuoso performance more than a decade after he took Chaz home while with the Baby Bombers. He kicks a masterful goal in the 3rd that in hindsight, was the straw that broke the Lions back. And sadly, for Brisbane fans, it seems it’s taken the club this long to recover.

  1. 2005-06: The sequel really was better than the Original

Remember when Ben Cousins used to play footy and not just appear in channel 7 TV specials?

The 2005-06 Grand Finals really was something of a marvel. They’re loaded with stars on each side and there was genuine animosity between the players. Sydney and the ‘Blood’s culture’ were the epitome of professionalism in the mid-2000s; and, well, we all know what went on out West.

What these games lacked in scoring they made up for two-fold in intensity. After watching one of the tightest Grand Finals in recent history, the footy gods went back to the drawing board and conjured up an improved version for 2006. Watching from the learned perspective of a 2020 AFL fan, the Eagles revenge victory is that much sweeter in the context of the drug controversies and drama that followed.

The tense, low-scoring nature also reminded me that we need a return of the five-minute warning (I wonder if anyone else has ever had that thought?). And while we’re at it, bring back Anthony Hudson for Grand Final commentary.

  1. 2007-2011: Geelong used to win finals?

Did anyone else know this? I really thought the Cats were just a speed hump for the premiership real contenders — a little tune-up game in the first round.

Not only did they used to win finals, apparently, but they also did it at the MCG! I was about to email this interesting stat to Chris Scott until I noticed him in the coaching box in 2011 (Has there been a freer Premiership Medallion presented to a senior coach?). This is all very interesting given his recent comments.

It’s also an interesting aside to watch Jimmy Bartel play during Geelong’s premiership era and recognising him for his talent without no just for being Nadia’s’ ex.

In all honesty, this Geelong team were phenomenal. Probably the best backline, man-for-man, there’s ever been and definitely the best of this re-watchable series.

In this era, Geelong was unstoppable — unless your name was Stewie Dew. It took three minutes of play from the immovable object to end what could have been the Cats three-peat. Watching Dew’s performance made me think one thing — is he still the best player on the Gold Coast list?

  1. 2009-10: Goddard’s mark is Underrated

The 2009-10 Grand Finals bring up many memories. For me, it’s the first few games which I have vivid memories of. And not just recollections of memorable moments of each game: Scarlett’s toe-poke, Chapman’s snap and Heaths Shaw’s ‘spoil of the century’.

For me, these were the first games which I really started to delve into the Grand Final experience in totality.

For saints’ fans, on the other hand, memories of the 2009-10 Grand Finals is the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night (Steven Milne, anyone?).

But the less discussed highlight of any of the three games the Saints played in over this two-year span, came in the dying minutes of the draw. Perhaps it is because the Saints never got over the line but Brendan Goddard’s mark in the fourth quarter of the drawn game doesn’t get enough credit.

With the Saints’ throwing everything at the wall and the scores level, BJ provided a highlight which should share the shelf with Breen’s point in St Kilda’s pool room. Watching it in real time (or in my case, ten years later) really makes you appreciate the gravity of the moment. Goddard had been faultless all game. A real argument could be made that even without his final quarter heroics, he was the real Norm Smith medallist that day. The game had been an arm-wrestle for the whole last quarter when Goddard flew over the pack, taking the most picturesque of hangers, before having the intestinal fortitude to slot an outstanding goal.

It’s one thing to search the mark on YouTube but I’d encourage any of you to go back and watch the final quarter in its entirety and allow that moment to send a cold shiver down your spine.

  1. More Eric Bana at the footy

Celebrity sightings at the footy are a double-edged sword. For every Chris Hemsworth sighting, there are 10 Kevin Rudd appearances or equivalent attendances from masquerading celebrity ‘fans’.

As a regular, degenerate footy fan, I find it hard to identify with anyone who’s day-to-day happiness isn’t inherently connected to their team’s performance any given weekend. If you can’t recount the weekly Dream Team leaders you and I will probably run out of conversation fairly quickly. The fair-weather nature of the celebrity fan only compounds that disassociation.

That’s what I miss most about seeing Eric Bana at the footy.

Despite his social standing, I always got the feeling that Eric Bana was just like one of us — only far more handsome and wildly more talented. Watching Chopper Reid supporting the Saints from the cheer squad from 2009-11 made me yearn for a return of real celebrity fans. Periodic camera shots of Bana were a refreshing reminder that celebrities who aren’t Eddie Maguire can actually go to the footy without sitting in a corporate box.

The frustration on his face at the end of all three games perfectly encapsulates the collective experience of the St Kilda faithful — so much lost hope over just a few minutes of tension.

It hurts more that his career went in a similar downward trajectory as St Kilda since 2010. Bana may have not have set a midget on fire, but he did give us Special Correspondents. I’m not sure which is worse.

  1. 2012-15: The hawthorn three-peat was boring

Here’s an unpopular, though undoubtedly correct opinion: The Hawthorn three-peat was boring.

It was boring in the moment and it was a boring re-watch. For anyone that doesn’t follow the Hawks, 2012-15 was a painful slog. It was painful listening to their media yes-men sing their praises and anoint them the greatest team of the modern era. It was tiresome seeing repeats of Clarkson screaming at the plexiglass and slamming his fist on the table. And it was excruciating watching them play keep-me-off with the other team for long enough to hear the crowd boo. And most of all, it was awful to have to endure seeing them win again, and again and again.

Am I the only one who thinks that the only difference between Alistair Clarkson and Ross Lyon is that one of them won? Maybe I’m downplaying Clarko’s impact but there was a time when we all thought the Boss was a football genius (or at least the media told me he was). I think there’s an alternate reality where Ross wins at the Saints then again at the Dockers now occupies the mantle which Clarkson has assumed.

Watching Pavlitch do his best to motivate Fremantle in 2013 made me wonder how his career would have panned out if he’d played for a real AFL team. The existential boredom that comes out in 2013 is summarised by Denis Cometti in the 3rd quarter when he says: “all of a sudden a Grand Final’s broken out”.

This same sound-bite echoes through the next 2 years. Outside of an unexpected Matt Spangher sighting, there’s not much to note in either game. In all honesty, if these matches weren’t Grand Finals, they would’ve been buried on the schedule in a Saturday Arvo Foxtel slot with Brenton Speed on commentary.

  1. 2016: Good but not Great

This one might upset a few. I don’t mean to shit on the only Premiership Western Suburbs fans are likely to see in their lifetime. But this game is overrated.

Trust me, I enjoyed the Dogs 2016 run as much as any non-Bulldog fan. Maybe it was even more satisfying after watching the Saints fumble three draught-breaking games in a row.

But objectively speaking and free of all emotion and nostalgia — this game really isn’t what I remembered. I’m not talking about the collective package: the draught, the 6th place finish or the three road victories. I’m talking about the end product when you really strip it back. We were given three-quarters of momentum swings before an anti-climactic ending.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not 2007. But it’s not the all-timer it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it just loses its shine when you know how it ends but if you’re as desperate as I am for a footy fix during lockdown, perhaps think again before filling it with the 2016 Grand Final.

  1. 2018 had it all for Neutral fans

As a tiger’s supporter, I got really good at being a neutral fan on Grand Final Day.

And from the perspective of a neutral fan, you must admit that 2018 had it all.

Firstly, a Collingwood loss is always a plus (and there’s been a lot of them — someone should probably come up with a term for that). The way Dom Sheed turned to the fans after he kicked the game-winner warmed all of our hearts.

Secondly, the tempo and visual style of the game was a throwback to the footy I began to appreciate from the beginning of the century.

I haven’t troubled Champion Date for the stats to back this up but the eye-test told me there were far fewer stoppages from previous years. There was no noticeable flooding, and there was an abundance of long kicking and high marks. Each of which featured prominently in West Coast’s comeback and of course, we central to the final sequence.

I don’t care if Maynard was held (but he definitely was), anyone who’s played footy knows that Dom Sheed should not have kicked that goal. In the final minute of the Grand Final, a midfielder is not supposed to be able to nail a drop punt set-shot, from the pocket, with the crowd breathing down your neck. For the first time in a decade, Bruce McIvaney didn’t emphasise something enough.

For the first time in a long time, it included real characters with compelling story-lines in the form of Travis Varcoe, Liam Ryan, Nathan Buckley and Mason Cox — I hadn’t heard a crowd chant “USA” that intensely since the Iraq invasion.

 

from the mind and experience of Liam Simmons. Edited by Jack Tammens.

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