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Features & profiles


Melbourne tipped to win '88 Grand Final

12 September 1988

Published in The Age

Twenty-four years ago this week Sir Robert Menzies celebrated thirty years in politics, a coup failed to topple the leadership of South Vietnam, and actress Sue Lyon visited Melbourne, saying, "I don't want to be known as Lolita." ("Blushing Lolita and Her Stage Fright", went The Age headline.)

At the end of the week these pedestrian matters were put aside, as Victorians turned their attention to an event which, as it turned out, would end one of Australian football's greatest eras. The 1964 Grand Final was to be Melbourne's last act of dominance of the VFL: it was also the last Melbourne-Collingwood Premiership spill.

Melbourne's long-standing rivalry with the Magpies marked one of the game's great epochs. It amounted, in the minds of we Melbourne supporters, to something of a holy war. Certainly it had many antecedents in myth. (For those interested, perhaps the Dead Sea text The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness contains the clearest parallels.)

Saturday September 19, 1964 saw the Demons' eighth Grand Final in eleven years. With mastermind Norm Smith on the bench, and the demonically inspired Barassi onfield, victory was a foregone conclusion. Having demolished them by 89 points in the second semi-final, Melbourne was now about to make the classic historical error of underestimating Collingwood with its back to the wall.

102,000 people turned up at the MCG to view the battle. From the first bounce it was obvious that the Magpies (having scraped in against Geelong by four points in the Preliminary) were in a desperate mood. They hung on for grim death throughout, and as usual were not above a good biff when things didn't quite go their way. And Melbourne was nervous: even the great Barassi couldn't kick straight all day.

Near the final siren Collingwood was still only three points down. Then things degenerated badly. Collingwood's captain, Ray Gabelich - a kind of Prince of Darkness figure - grabbed the ball on their half-forward line and ran 60 yards across a field which, for all the defenders in evidence, could have been the Simpson Desert. As Gabelich hurtled toward an open goal like a sixteen stone dum-dum, bouncing, fumbling, recovering, bouncing again, time stopped entirely. Melbourne supporters' mouths went dry. When Gabelich booted his goal, a primal dread went through each of us like the infidel's lance.

Collingwood had hit the front near the final siren. We were ashen with shock. The only fitting words were those of Conrad: "The horror, the horror."

In the dying minutes of the game the hysteria was universal. For the first time in my then thirteen years, I saw the MCC Members rise to their feet as one man, and barrack. Establishment restraint was abandoned as fists were waved in the air, and imprecations volleyed down on the usurpers.

What was needed was a miracle.

One came. Melbourne's back pocket player, Neil Crompton, disobeyed Norm Smith's long-standing order to never cross the centre. He ran down to the Melbourne forward line, snaffled the ball out of a pack, and sank a long kick toward the goal. It sailed through.

What was left of the match saw thrusts (as The Age put it) "being launched with almost fanatical fury by Collingwood".

Melbourne's full-forward Barry Bourke was sent to the opposite end of the ground, as these rabid counter-attacks boiled over onto its backline. Moments before the end he marked in the Collingwood goal.

As the final siren began to blast, I flew over a policeman sitting against the fence - and hurtled toward the centre for the backslaps and jubilation. In a symbolic reconciliation of darkness and light, Melbourne and Collingwood were swapping guernseys. Peace was restored to the troubled soul - at least till the cycle began again - as they lapped the ground together for the fans.

Later, in the clubrooms, I asked Norm Smith for my annual autograph. "Sure," he said, handing me his frothing glass. "Hold this."

Happily licking his beer from my hand on the way to the carpark, I was not to know of the long exile that lay ahead. Melbourne would dominate the early part of the '65 season, only to be demolished by a resurgent St Kilda in the ninth round. It was the beginning of the end. The club was to spend a whole generation in the doldrums. Its great fighting tradition took a long rest.

For a while, that generation of football-lovers continued to hope - turning up for one dismal defeat after another, praying for Barassi to return and coach... Eventually we despaired, and went on to other things.

Now Melbourne is back for its first bite at the Premiership in a quarter century. John Northey has re-awakened the Great Fighting Tradition, and instilled a self-esteem the club has not known since the mid-sixties. Melbourne's finals form has given the best teams in the league a series of tragic surprises, and confounded the experts. The old fire is back.

For all that - tomorrow, the experts tell us, this romantic dream will end. O'Dwyer is out. Melbourne's inspired amateurs will be no match for Hawthorn's scientific professionalism. Tomorrow Melbourne will come face to face with grim reality. Their luck has run out. The magic run is over.

All this is the sheerest nonsense. The experts said the same sort of thing throughout the latter half of the season. They said it before each of the three finals Melbourne won. (They said it, incidentally, back in 1964, before the second semi that Melbourne won by 89 points.) They've been wrong so many times it's a wonder they still dare to air their opinions.

You can't measure Melbourne's fire-in-the-guts against mere skill and equipment: surely they've proven that already. A generation on, Melbourne is once again the most hungry, unyielding and audacious team in the VFL. They are quite beyond intimidation. And, going by the last three weeks, their nerves are considerably steadier than those of the team which won the '64 Grand Final.

It is for precisely those reasons that Melbourne will convincingly defeat Hawthorn tomorrow: inaugurating a new cycle in Victorian football, as once again the Grand Old Flag graces the Premiership pole.

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