Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Everybody loves a happy ending

On the afternoon of Saturday 19 September 1964, 13-year-old old Melbourne fan John Gleeson was dragged from his seat during the last quarter of the Grand Final so his dad could beat the traffic. After listening to Neil Crompton's famous premiership winning kick on the radio, Gleeson's father said "Don't worry son, there will be plenty more of those in your life." Wherever you are now John, I hope you were seated comfortably 20,827 days later when, and I can't stress this enough, THE MELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB WON THE 2021 AFL PREMIERSHIP. 

If I'm dreaming, be a dear and stick a pillow on my face so I don't have to wake up to a world without this:

To say I never expected to be writing this post would be an understatement. Christ, three years ago I tuned in for the final of AFLX Group B in case Melbourne never won anything else in my lifetime. Despite all available evidence, I felt the same way about two months ago, before our maddest ending to a season ever culminated in a Grand Final so baffling that scientists will still be studying it in the year 2525.

Now that the 9-0 start has been proven legitimate in the strongest possible way, I feel bad for not taking it more seriously at the time. And for my faith wavering between the losses to Collingwood in Round 13, and Footscray in Round 19. When the book is written about this premiership, as it must be (NB: not by me), let the record show that the revival started with our unnecessary trip to Queensland. From that point we never lost again, ending a 57 year quest that has involved 20 coaches, hundreds of players, a couple of serious attempts to merge us out of existence, and god knows how much torment for several generations of fans. 

I've got so much fondness for the snap lockdown that led to us being blocked from playing at Carrara that I'd invite Queensland's Chief Health Officer to the premiership reunion. Last year she needed police protection from COVID denying lunatics, now she'll need it when I run at her in the street yelling thanks for helping to deliver a flag. You see, I'd had a theory for weeks that we needed to get the bloodlust up pre-finals by thrashing somebody. 

Maybe we'd have thrashed them in the originally scheduled game and history would have turned out the same way, but getting a look at demoralised opposition shifted around the country on a few hours' notice can't have hurt. We treated the empty seats of Fortress Docklands to our (then) biggest score of the year and never looked back. Our blockbuster comeback at Kardinia Park, and Gawn's famous goal after the siren also played an enormous part in getting us where we are today (reminder: AFL premiers), but off a rotten few weeks I'm willing to make the case that it never happens without walloping the Suns first. That was Jake Bowey's first game, now he's a premiership player. What in the world is going on?

Taking advantage of the Suns' misery led to other great moments in 2021 Melbourne history, like the Perth Stadium lightning round, and Gawn's rampage in the Preliminary Final, but all of them would have been hollow if we'd made it this far and finished without a flag. In time you'd still have appreciated how well this season went, but there'd be a bitterness about getting to the last hurdle and stacking it that didn't exist when we were knocked out as underdogs in '98, '00 and '18. I don't know what it would have been like to lose as favourite, and don't know how I'd have coped. Never mind, not an issue now.

Unlike 2000, when there was only ever one team we'd play in the Grand Final, there were cases for either Footscray or Port Adelaide being the opposition this time. It was easier to find reasons why each would lose - the Dogs barely looked convincing beating Essendon or Brisbane while spending a month travelling the country, while Port was due an unexpected faceplant in the finals at some point. In the end both theories had some validity, Port flopped a week too early for it to benefit us, while the Dogs might have thumped them, but were about three quarters away from running out of petrol. Wish I'd known that just after half-time on Saturday night when I considered sticking my head in the dishwasher.

In every other year until this one, you found out who your Grand Final opponents were and played them the following Saturday. This time they made us wait an extra seven days to start as premiership favourites for the first time in nearly six decades. For me, this was just another week to survive. I was determined not to get all this way then be in a coma when we won a flag, driving like a grandmother all week just to make sure. 

Mentally, I knew there would be stroke-inducing tension by the 25th, so tried to pace myself. This was easy for the first few days, investing my energy in the white-hot buzz from the Prelim. Who had time to worry about a game two weeks away when you had to watch the video of Gawn's goals with alternative commentaries a seventh time? That got me another 84 minutes closer to the game.

After a few days, the excitement of flogging Geelong began to fade, and thoughts turned to the main event. I knew the rollercoaster drop feeling would hit eventually, so keeping it at bay for as long as possible was my only coping strategy. There was nervous anticipation, dread, and the daily quest to find a paper copy of The Age for my Grand Final archives, but also a bit of "is that all there is?" The extra wait was to blame, the closer we got to the 25th the more I started to think about it, causing me to clam up and pretend it wasn't happening. That didn't work very well.

The feeling of "we could actually do this" terror kicked in on Wednesday when I realised nobody was seriously tipping the Dogs. Tellingly they were all picking us by tiny margins, suggesting they secretly thought it could go either way. That's where I was, thinking that we should win, but not that we were a significantly better side. It felt a bit like walking into a trap, where everybody who says you're going to win waits until you don't, then turns on you like it was the result they'd always expected.

Not for the first time this year all's well that ends well, but the expectation of winning, coupled with the endless talk of drought-breaking was doing me no favours. The idea of being taunted with the most elusive prize in the game before it was snatched away - possibly never to be seen again - had me in pieces.

The stress I went through between Wednesday and Saturday would seem frivolous to outsiders, but this wasn't some fly-by-night bandwagon job. A premiership was literally the last thing in my life that I wanted in 1989 and hadn't yet acquired. As I got older that list soon expanded to include money, success, fame and glamour, but this full stop to my childhood remained elusive. Now we were closer than ever, but still a chance to go our whole lives without seeing a flag. This century Brisbane, Sydney, Geelong and Footscray broke long droughts at the first go, while St Kilda went as close as possible without winning then sank like a stone. Guess which path I expected to follow?

My fear of losing a thriller was so severe that I'd rather they beat us by 10 goals than a point. Even in years where we started with no chance of making the Grand Final without 16 other teams being disqualified, I thought hard about how painful it would be to get within touching distance of glory and come away empty-handed. After finishing top and qualifying via the #1 most glorious performance of all time (now #2), defeat by any margin would have been tough, but a close loss may have left me frozen in front of the TV for the rest of my life, staring ahead in a vegetative state and occasionally mouthing "why?"

Maybe that would have spurred us to win in front of a packed MCG next season, and The Perth Debacle would be look back on as another pothole on the worst road in Australia. But I didn't fancy waiting 12 months to see if we could avoid injuries, COVID-22, other teams getting better, or just plain shithouse luck. None of us are getting any younger, and having made it in such bonkers fashion, we had to win or I was going to drop my mental bundle like a bowling ball off the Rialto.

It wasn't just that experts, randoms, and betting companies alike thought we were warm favourites, it was the way neutrals were coming from everywhere to go for us. We didn't owe these carpetbaggers anything, but I still had one of my favourite quotes on hand just in case: "Don’t worry, boys, we'll weather this storm of approval and come out as hated as ever." I hope they'll fondly remember their night as Melbourne fans a fraction as much as I did.

The closer we got to the game, the closer I was to cracking. Not sure how I'd cope with actual life problems, but none of them would have built up for 32 years. On Friday I was driving to the shop to pick up newspapers that I never read (and which would have been delivered straight to the yellow bin if we lost), and an attempt to relax by listening to Magic 1278 almost ended in a road accident after Midnight Train To Georgia made me weepy. What that had to do with anything I don't know, but that's where my head was at. This came after several days with Regulate by Warren G stuck in my head, leading to much walking through the house and yelling "Regulaaaaaaaaaaators. Mount up!" at my bemused family. Not the effect Death Row Records intended, but I'll always associate it with premiership week as much as the Grand Old Flag. Appropriately, our second half was the biggest rescue job since Nate Dogg arrived with sixteen in the clip and one in the hole. 

Much of the internal damage was caused by the idea of winning. Because that made me think about what would happen if we didn't, and never made it back to this position again. For the rest of my life every Grand Final, or mere mention of Footscray Football Club (trading as Western Bulldogs), would remind me of failure. They needed some sort of fan assistance hotline where you could ring and speak with a counsellor trained in sporting grief.

At around 11:00 on Saturday morning, I was in a brief panic lull and watched messages of support from ex-players. Probably shouldn't have done this until after we win, because it set all my waking nightmares off again. There were 180 contributions, but surprisingly nothing from Luke Beveridge (1989-1992). Wonder what he's doing these days?

Once the coverage started, after I'd already gone close to spewing a couple of times, Channel 7's constant playing of the Norm Smith Curse montage didn't help the tension. No sane person thought Norm was stooging us from beyond the grave, but it provided an easy way to explain the many and varied horrors the club has suffered. There were probably similar video packages before Footscray and Richmond won flags, but it still felt like we were being set up for mockery. Never mind that the Dogs were a very good team, if we'd lost here the legend of our failure would have grown over the years to the point where it was like Hawthorn 1988 lost to Fitzroy 1996.

The pre-game show had me at such a heightened stage of potential vom that I relaxed by turning over to Rugby League, where a team called Melbourne was busy losing as favourites. Maybe when the side with our name that usually wins flags ran aground it mystically cleared the way for us to take their place? Over at Channel 7, somebody thought we were the same team.

In a further edition of "I'm not into omens but...." my baby did a big old spew right down the back of the Grand Final t-shirt about 30 minutes before the bounce. Didn't feel right to take it off, so I just covered up with the famous Schwab Shield era MFC blazer and carried on. Under the spew shirt I had a second, non-footy related one. It was the same worn to the first date with my now wife, on the day I proposed, the morning of our wedding, and to the birth of both children. It's not that I thought it was going to bring me luck, just that there aren't many more great life events it could play a part in. After this, I might visit the United Nations with it on, and see if world peace breaks out.

To balance the omen ledger, pre-match entertainment featured the INXS version of Theme from Finey's Final Siren. I'd heard that song so many times after rancid losses, it was only right to hear it before a momentous win. That was a timely distraction from being traumatised by the build-up. By 19:00hrs AEST I was emotionally demolished to the point where I considered having the ultimate happiness hedge of $1000 on the Dogs. The first reason it didn't happen is that I'm a tightwad, but secondly it felt wrong. I've never bet against us before, and it seemed like an act of gross cowardice to start now.

A few hours later the savings were invested into a lot of unneeded premiership merchandise. Selling an entire year's worth of the stuff in the lead-up and flogging the Bentleigh Club for $23 million wasn't enough for us, and the email trying to get more money out of us came about 10 minutes after the final siren. I wouldn't have even waited that long. This went down a touch better than the famous 2017 finals ticket guide, and we flogged another two years' worth of merch over the next 24 hours.

It was always my intention to follow a flag by rolling into K-Mart at 9am the next morning and buying everything in sight. For the joy they'd just given me, ordering directly from the club seemed right. I didn't want the in-joke friendly cheese board, and there was no point buying the knives because I'd just pulled the one marked 1965-2020 out of my back, but everything else was fair game. Even the ugly hat that I spent $40 on but probably won't take the tag off. Despite some ideological concerns about the Herald Sun I went on to buy the premiership poster x5. One to be framed alongside my '64 WEG poster, god knows what I'll do with the rest.

Finally, after a 15 day wait that felt like 15 years, it was time to meet my maker. Just before the national anthem I needed a quiet moment and stood in the backyard with my eyes closed, doing something resembling the 2017 Adelaide power stance. Bit dramatic, but I'd never thought so much about a game in advance and needed the last bit of silence before mayhem commenced. I was so scared that if you'd offered me another 35 minute lightning delay I'd probably have taken it. In the end, the longest barren chapter in our history ended with a final score of Melbourne 21.14.140 d. Footscray 10.6.66. If only those raw numbers told the story.

There was a theory that the extra week off would be bad for us. Cobblers. We'd gone through the exact same program between Brisbane and Geelong, it wasn't a new thing. The stakes were higher this time, with more off-field distraction, but players and staff both had experience getting to the start line in peak condition. Part of the warm-up was a full-contact training session the previous Saturday, leaving us all on edge for a random injury. I never thought Charlie Spargo rolling his ankle would cause me so much stress, but here we were. He got over it, nobody else was hurt, as far as we knew May's hamstring was intact, so what was there to worry about? Answer - everything. 

Conversely, after travelling around Australia like Bourke and Wills for a month, the Dogs had no idea what to expect from their first week off since early June and were so nervous in the early minutes that you could practically see their knees knocking together. Flubbed handballs, botched kicks, dropped marks. It was great, as long as we took advantage. Not that we were flawless, but our mistakes came in much less dangerous positions. Even when we stuffed up a handball on the half-back flank it was followed up by four players running at it and Salem knocking an opponent over.

At the other end of the awed/overawed scale, I was mad for Jake Bowey. Any danger of the slightest bit of nervousness playing a Grand Final in your seventh game? We've had players win flags without a loss before, but not often. Francis Vine on debut in 1926, Alby Rodda going 9-0 in 1939, and Don Cordner 2-0 in 1941. None of them with the same weight of expectation from millions of people watching. From 1900-1964, only 10 others did it within their first 10 games. Imagine the letdown he's going to feel when we lose some bog-standard Round 3 match. Even losing a Club X Community Shield game in Bonnie Doon could set him off. For the first time in my life, one of ours will be able to dry their eyes on a flag.

Their first great defensive cock-up, a weird short kick that went straight out on the full, gave Neal-Bullen the first chance. I've seen the Bullet kick them from a similar position, and while his kick around the corner died on the line, making them shit themselves in defence this early was a good sign. Brown missed as well, offering early uncomfortable memories about the weeks where we kicked ourselves out of the last game against Footscray.

If you're the sort of person who just answers B) when they don't know the answer, you'd probably have correctly predicted that Petracca would be the man to get us going. It was born of more pressure, and one of Salem's many delightful kicks in the first quarter. In the spirit of Gawn against Geelong, he marked, but played on anyway and ripped a shot around the corner from 50. I won't say it settled me, but it was nice to get any sort of break. The lead was lucky to hold, after Josh Schache qualified for Port's version of the Kingsleys, he briefly threatened to go back-to-back, but his snap had the power of a Daihatsu Charade, setting up old Corey Weightman to have his mischievous face slammed into the post. Because it was a Grand Final nobody cared to check if he was concussed.

When Sparrow set Fritsch up for the second I was simultaneously thrilled and concerned. There's losing, there's losing close, then there's losing close after giving up a lead. More on that later. 

We had to concede eventually, but Footscray did their best to delay it, including a horrendous kick to a forward leading with miles of space. Not many Grand Finals have been won in the first quarter, but if there's ever been a time to destroy a side early this was it. Instead, Fritsch got touched up in the square for no reward and they withstood a short period of pressure before getting their opener. It came from just the sort of situation I feared, a loose ball bobbling around in front of goal. Naughton (didn't do much) and Tim English Muffins (likewise) weren't our concern, they just needed to bring the ball to ground.

Despite that, things were going rather well. Our pressure and run out of defence had been great, and we'd already found multiple free targets inside 50. Now we just needed scores to make it all worthwhile. Enter Kysaiah (maybe, just this once 'Kozzy') Pickett, who worried a pair of defenders so much that they flubbed an exit from defence, leading to a Spargo goal. In my heightened sense of awareness, I momentarily thought Charleston had hit the post rather than the goal umpire and let out a tremendous yelp. It was only a few seconds later when nobody had said anything that I realised he'd actually kicked it.

I was too mentally cooked to notice, but I didn't see much reaction to the Mayor of Perth's call to clap poor, disease-ridden eastern folk like we were their World Vision sponsor children. He later presented a premiership medal to 'Jack Bowey' and forgot to invite the coaches to make speeches, continuing a legacy of farce dating back to West Coast 2017, when he confused Tom McDonald with the guy that played Lou Carpenter on Neighbours. People had no time for patronising gestures when they were busy working out how we were going to stuff the early lead. More so when another horrible blunder let us in for a fourth, and a second to Fritsch. The best bit was that after the Bulldogs bloke dropped the ball he could very easily have made up for it with a tackle but was too busy cracking the shits at himself while Bayley casually wandered past.

It was getting real, and as Brown snapped around the corner I nearly jumped on top of the couch. He missed, as did Langdon a couple of minutes later, and it was getting to the point where we were either going to win or look like cockheads for losing. 

So far we'd stopped any of their star players doing damage. The closest the Bont had got to the action was Petracca 'accidentally' whacking him in the head, and other than Daniel racking up cheap kicks in defence, nobody was particularly prominent. On the other hand, all our fringe players were making a huge contribution. Michael Hibberd might have been watching from the stands if Joel Smith hadn't done a hammy, now he was winning one-on-ones inside 50 like a boss.

The midweek earthquake (readers from the future, it was all happening in Victoria) revealed that a lot of people have security cameras inside their house. I'd have gone viral if you could see the way I acted during this game. Shifted by the lack of an internet broadcast to the boring old TV for the first time in three years, I prowled behind the couch, muttering darkly. The extra roaming space of the loungeroom was needed when the Bulldogs roared back into the game after quarter time, I started aimlessly walking around in circles and swearing like an ice addict after four days without sleep. 

Things would have been a lot more comfortable if we didn't concede 40 seconds in, or two minutes after that. Both fell to Adam Treloar (who practically admitted during the week that he remains haunted by losing the 2018 Grand Final at Collingwood so somebody best check on him after this), and both from pressure on our tall defenders. Now Footscray had swapped panic disposal for dinking the ball around unchallenged, getting the ball to ground inside 50 where they could do the most damage. 

In the midst of all this Steven May looked like his leg was about to fall off. Turns out his hamstring was pretty bloody bad after all, but they didn't disclose just how bad until after the game, giving him the option of playing if he felt like it. Seemed to work alright, maybe we should have forced Cameron Bruce to play in 2000? Maybe Goodwin also chose not to look at the medical report, because starting Jordon as sub under the circumstances was ballsy. I suppose picking Smith would have given away that something was wrong. I wanted Hunt, allowing us to pull off a pace-adding substitution rort with sore Spargo. If we didn't do it I was sure Beveridge would. And he might have if the game hadn't disappeared in the blink of an eye. Still must have thought about stomping on somebody's foot in the three quarter time huddle. In the end, neither sub was required, despite a gallant attempt by Harmes to feign injury in the dying minutes so Jordon could play. 

With May obviously nowhere near 100%, it was on the rest of the defenders to cover for him. In quarters 1, 3, and 4 they did a brilliant job. The other one, not so much. Fortunately, the majority swept the minority into the Indian Ocean, keeping them to a reasonably low score than we easily covered. And how. Didn't look much like that at the time though, and in a none-more-Melbourne twist, Naughton got only his second goal from open play this year to set off a round of "here we go", while we suddenly looked unlikely to ever score again. 

All that hard work in the first quarter had been reduced to a four point lead within minutes, and I was on the verge of hyperventilation. When Bailey Smith (crazy hair, crazy guy) hit the post from the next centre bounce my shorts almost became unwearable. That near-death experience proved crucial, we went down the other end for Brown's first. Given that he'd nearly missed the lot from his first set shot I was bracing for the worst, but he started his run-up in Bunbury and kicked as straight as humanely possible. "That's better" I said out loud, not seriously believing we were any more likely to win than we had been two minutes earlier.

I've whinged many times over the years about us having a good first quarter then doing nothing in the second, and that was our last goal before half time. Tell that to the captain, who booted what looked a lot like an accurate set shot to me, but was called a point. He may very well have missed, and knowing the Atari 2600 quality of the AFL's cameras they might not have been able to prove it either way, but given the occasion, I thought they'd at least have a token look before deferring to the umpire's call. 

When the game just carried on like nothing controversial had happened there was a slight part of me that was happy we'd been given something to whinge about for years to come if things went badly. Especially when the Dogs took the piss by going straight down the other end for a goal.

Under the circumstances, it wasn't anywhere near Lever's most dominant night, and as we started conceding left, right and centre, Adelaide fans who have been patiently waiting four years for him to fail must have thought they were quids in. We later removed this as a factor by taking the ball down the other and kicking a lot of goals in quick succession, but for now there were grave concerns that Footscray would be the first team to break through our backline since 2021 powerhouse Hawthorn. 

Speaking of Hawthorn, and residual bitterness towards ex-players, there was a bit of commotion when the retired players montage opened with Tom Scully (zero flags). I've tried to be polite in his retirement, but with nerves frayed there were some unkind comments made towards the TV. But now, as part of Demonblog's long awaited Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I would like to announce that Tom is officially pardoned for his crimes against the Melbourne Football Club. They can never be erased, but now his defection can be considered part of the road to a premiership there's no need to treat him like a war criminal anymore. See also Mark Neeld, Chris Judd, the umpire from the Adelaide game, and every other bastard who has annoyed us over the years. From here we'll develop some new vendettas.

I couldn't have contemplated winning in anything but a thriller from here. It just looked like all their good players had gotten into the game, with Bontempelli in particular going ballistic. They also got a cheap as chips free for a high tackle in front of goal. This wasn't consistent with the way the umpires had let everything else go, but was probably fair payback on Spargo for all the times he's engineered them in similar circumstances this year.

We weren't going down without a fight, but it just felt like they'd worked us out. Suddenly we were the ones fumbling and letting them escape from defence easily. I was feeling severely cheated, not by players who have done so much to make us look respectable this year, but for getting sucked into the idea that we might win. Like we used to say around these parts, the safest thing is to assume we'll lose - you'll either be right or surprised. 

Even if Channel 7 is the only broadcaster to deliberately choose their worst callers for the biggest game of the year, I was too wound up to get upset about them. Except when Taylor cracked his earthquake related gag about us being 5.9 and I yelled "fuck off you cockhead!" at the TV. I was more worried about a new version of the classic "who kicked five goals in the 1990 Grand Final?" joke. At that moment you'd have got better odds for peace in the Middle East than any individual Melbourne player kicking six.

Scores were level, but considering how things were going it made sense that an injured Bulldog went to the bench and made fist gestures. As far as I was concerned they may as well have been chockers up us to the elbow, and we hadn't even got to Mitch Hannan exercising his former player option to stitch us up. Spoiler - he never did. I still love him, mostly for the 2018 Geelong goal, also for doing stuff all here. The artist formerly known as The Stefan Martin Experience was a bit more prominent, but not much.

They got a DemonTime goal to end the half, and to say it had a negative physical effect on me would be an understatement. Double that with us nearly conceding again with 15 seconds left after May was denied an obvious mark. Had that shot gone through I might have kicked the back fence down. An eight point deficit was bad enough, prompting me to petulantly storm from the room, climb into bed and pull a blanket over my head. 

After a few minutes of brooding I decided to try and do something useful with the remainder of the break and put a recently washed doona cover back on. Cue 10 minutes of shaky fingers failing to get the thing in the corners, until I cracked the shits and started kicking it, nearly going arse over tit on tiles in the process. Concussion would have made the second half interesting. As I bent down to pick it up and violently chuck it out the room, there was a strange feeling in my nose, and I realised it was filling with blood. I've never had a random nosebleed in my life, and in conjunction with a throbbing in my left arm, could only conclude that I'd reached my blood pressure record. I've thought it was high while watching games before, but this scared me a bit. I thought I'd better try and calm down before the third quarter started, and achieved this as best possible by kneeling on a wooden bench seat and stretching out as if doing a yoga pose.

Given some of the margins we've come back from this year, you'd have been a knob for writing us off. And while I was open to the possibility of winning, every forward entry without a goal felt like one of the death by a thousand cuts. Fritsch missed a flying shot early in the third to leave us on 5.10, and it looked like we were going to be haunted by the inaccuracy that had given us the shits so much during the year. We'd only climbed above 50% goalkicking in the last two rounds, and had Gawn missed in Geelong would have been left on exactly 269.269. That made us the 15th most accurate side in the league, and amongst all the things I was stressing about, kicking ourselves out of the Grand Final was at the top of the list.

You'd think that when they got the first two goals of the third quarter I'd have been ready for carting out by men in white coats, but at 19 points down a strange serenity came over me. It was almost like the burden of thinking we might win was removed and I could just get on with being miserable. Sounds horrible now, but I can't have been the only one thinking like that.

The night peaked for Footscray when mini Caleb Daniel slung maxi Gawn over the boundary. It looked for all the world like Maximum's cult power had peaked in the Prelim, but you can't keep a big man down, and a few hours later he was doing this. Rumour has it 1900 premiership captain Dick Wardill celebrated in a similar fashion:

Lobbing a player to the ground after the ball has gone out of bounds, causing him to hit his head, would lead to a free most weeks, but Daniel benefited from both the 'size difference' and 'whistle away for a Grand Final' allowances to get away with it. Thank god he did, because from the 'maybe we wouldn't have made the Grand Final if it was played in Melbourne' file, we might not have outscored them 100-7 for the rest of the game.

What a ridiculous figure, the absolute living embodiment of Paul Keating's "beautiful set of numbers". To do it from the verge of oblivion, halfway through the third quarter of a Grand Final was surreal. In the time it takes me to drive to work we came back from 19 points behind to win by 74 - and you best believe I'll be thinking about that during every drive for the next few months. 

If the third quarter against Geelong was the greatest we've ever played, the equivalent 30 minutes from here was better. We were perhaps one good centre clearance from death and went on to the eighth biggest win in Grand Final history. It's scarcely believable that Round 23 would end the year as only the third most remarkable thing to happen to us.

Nobody could have guessed the quality of the party that was about to begin, but Fritsch was the first guest to arrive, finally kicking our sixth goal after a 40 minute wait. Even if a close finish was likely to be fatal I was just happy to keep in touch. His wonky set shots were a cliche last year, but he's been very good this season, and did the right thing when it mattered here - especially as we'd kicked 1.7 since quarter time. It was also set up with a lovely kick from Harmes, who made up for causing one of the earlier Dogs goals by bursting through a gap and sitting the kick perfectly for Fritsch's lead. You'd like to think that somewhere Kelly Underwood was beaming with pride when Slick Fritsch went back-to-back, pulling the ball off a pack to kick his fourth from the next bounce. NOW things were interesting again, with the margin back to seven points in the blink of an eye.

My wildcard prediction of Luke Jackson for the Norm Smith never stood a serious chance, but it was a decent nomination in spirit, because he had an excellent game, and was at the heart of the centre bounces that mattered in the third term. Probably helps to have the likes of Oliver and Petracca at your feet, but his contest when the ball hit the ground was super-important to get us back in the game. Literally the next thing you know, Petracca extracted the ball from the middle again, Brown kicked his second, the margin was back under a goal, and my breakfast, lunch and dinner were all about to come up at the same time. Even three days later, watching this part of the game gave me goosebumps.

I've had an up and down relationship with Angus Brayshaw, but he was so good on Saturday night. Not just in defending his wing but by marking a wonky, floating kick, then putting us back in front. Set shots are generally not his forte, and I tried to lower expectations by muttering under my breath that there was no way he'd kick it, but in a sign that everything was about to go our way he was ice cold. It was already game on, now we'd snatched the lead and a psychological advantage. 

I won't lie and say he's been my favourite player, but who gives a shit what some loudmouth on the internet thinks when you end the season looking like this:

See also Viney, who's been written on and off half a dozen times this year, but went off his nut in the finals. Suggests that there's life in him yet if he can avoid foot-related injuries for a bit.

There's probably a landfill in the western suburbs chockers with unused Footscray gear now, but at this stage the dump trucks wouldn't have known which pile of premiership merch to cart away. It was shaping up like a higher stakes version of the 2002 Semi against Adelaide, where the game started with one team in control, then the other seemed to have unlocked the door before falling apart. That ended in a 12 point margin. We did a bit better here, quickly going from 'could win', to 'might win', to 'should win', to 'must win', to 'rubbing it in', over a single unforgettable hour.

Nobody could conclusively prove if the third quarter last week was the best we've ever played, but bullshit if there's ever been a better minute than this one. Think of all the goals we've conceded late in quarters, then consider how we reacted to a premiership being on the line by taking scores from this:

to this:

I still have no idea how, and nor did the Bulldogs by the looks of it. Brown won't get as much credit as he deserves for starting it, bringing the ball to ground in a contest, then winning a free and thumping the ball forward. Not that he could have known Petracca would run onto a loose ball and casually roll it through from an obscure angle like he was pissfarting around at training. No pressure that you're in the last minute of the third quarter of a Grand Final, just do some tricks. What a man.

As one of the most conservative footy viewers alive that was more than enough for me. As they went back to the middle I said "just hold it, don't concede again", and would have been quite happy to get to the last break 12 points ahead. So would the coaches, who sent word to settle down, to which the players replied "no, we're right thanks" and went hunting for more. And boy howdy did they find more. The Viney/Oliver/Petracca combination ripped the ball out of the middle, Sparrow launched a shot from 50, and McDonald did some grappling on the line that also fell under the 'let them play' statute and suddenly the game had seriously tilted in our favour. Words cannot do justice to most of this game, but when Oliver added another 15 seconds later I may never have made a louder noise.

Even I had to admit we were in a winning position, but still spent three quarter time thinking "it's the hope that kills you". Had we lost from there I hope that would have been the theme for my funeral. Turns out it was never going to happen, but try explaining that to my central nervous system at about 9.30pm Saturday. According to the official program, the highlight of the last break in the biggest game of the year was the 'Chemist Warehouse Zorb Race', and anyone who was more entertained by that than the blitzkrieg they'd just seen us unleash should be shot into the sun. The crowd was so captivated that they never even did a Mexican Wave.

All I could think of as the fourth quarter started was "just get one". That wouldn't have made me believe in a win, but it would have moved the needle in our direction. Would also help to run some time off the clock. Suffice to say I didn't expect to get the first one after 30 seconds. Now we weren't going to do anything but win, and everyone knew it. Of course I did, but would still never have said it out loud.

It's appropriate that in the last game before Darren Burgess went back to South Australia, we did a Burgessball lap of honour on a side that had lost the will to live. Fritsch kicked the fifth a minute later, and even at a six goal margin - having kicked 9.2 since BT's HILARIOUS earthquake joke - I couldn't bring myself to publicly admit it was over. Because what if it wasn't? There was still 17 minutes left. Refer to the 2013 game when they nearly overcame an even bigger margin. You'd have to ask my psychologist why that should have anything to do with much better sides playing eight years later.

Since I was radicalised by the 2007-2009 plummet, I must have thought about how I'd react to a premiership about a thousand times. I'm not the sort of person to get a tattoo, and the option of going on the world's biggest bender was eliminated when I stopped drinking five years ago, so my dreams had been reduced to joyously mingling with random strangers inside the MCG, molesting a player over the fence during the celebrations, then sitting down against a tree in Yarra Park and having a good old fashioned cry. One out of three wasn't bad. When Neal-Bullen's set shot went through and they showed Goodwin trying not to crack up I absolutely BURST into happy tears. That's never happened before, but this was when I knew our bizarre, often terrifying, journey was complete, and that the last 10 minutes were just there to provide a victory lap. 

You'd have forgiven us for calming down and enjoying the moment from there, instead we treated them to the biggest case of dog cruelty since Joel Monahan. I haven't mentioned any Footscray players for a while, and that's because they'd barely had a touch. Even when they did it ended badly, like the guy going for a bounce down the wing and having it bounce behind him, or running to scoring range inside 50, buggering it up and scoring nothing. On the other hand, everything we touched turned to gold. Langdon started a move in defence, then ran down the other end to have a shot. 

By reasonable community standards the game had been over for a few minutes, but this officially put us beyond the fabled Chris Sullivan Line. I might have overreacted a bit, I'd already thrown the blazer off in disgust at half time, looked dishevelled, still had baby spew still on the back of my shirt, and my hair is trending dramatically towards a bald spot, but who needs hair on your head? Not premiership captain Max Gawn.

The hits kept coming, first through McDonald, then via Salem sneaking forward to get involved. Because why not? The Dogs finally got one, but it was anything but a consolation goal, Beveridge looked like he wanted to charge onto the field and start throttling people. Imagine how he felt when we piled on another four goals just for laughs. It didn't achieve the dictionary definition of a stranglewank (for any new readers still going at this point, that concept is best left unexplained), but given that it was nearly three goals better than any other comeback from a comparable position in the last 20 years it's going into the wank files anyway.

Jackson got the next one, fair reward for his great night. How odd that after a season of misses we were kicking every set shot on offer at the most important time of the season. How very un-Melbourne.

To a crowd that was a combined 80% Melbourne/theatregoers looking for a good time, Gawn was more popular than 1986 Hulk Hogan. When he plowed out of the middle and when momentarily looked like pulling off a repeat of the famous running goal against Geelong, the crowd reaction might have caused Western Australia to slide into the Indian Ocean. He missed, but nothing short of a player spontaneously combusting could ruin the mood from here. 

Locals and visitors legal/illegal instead had to settle for Fritsch's sixth, the best haul by anyone in a Grand Final since 1997. And considering how much less goals were worth then, this was almost the equivalent of kicking 10. I almost started feeling sorry for the Dogs at this point. The players obviously didn't, pressing on to try and kick more. When you're hot, you're hot.

I don't know how many Grand Finals have ended with a kick after the siren (none of the ones I've cared about), but McSizzle’s mark with 10 seconds left didn’t leave the director much time to decide how to cover both the kick and the celebrations. After presenting the rest of the game like an arthouse film – including zooming in so far that you’d occasionally think players were handballing straight over the boundary line, only for it to land with somebody who’d been framed out of shot – I thought they got the balance right here, but it must have been a nightmare choosing what shots to cut to. 

They were probably hoping he'd just throw the ball in the air and walk off, but he was feeling it, and undeterred by the largest pile-up of men since Abu Ghraib a few feet away, McDonald steered through the cherry on top. It’s been quite the journey since the last game of 2014, when he kicked his first goal(s) in a loss nobody gave two shits about, to the casually pushing the margin past 70 points in a Grand Final seven seasons later. Nobody would have blamed him if he'd missed under the circumstances, but it was fun to lay the boots in one more time on the way to the podium. Nothing against the Dogs, things were just going that way.

Then it was time for the moment I never thought I'd see, the unbridled joy of players and coaches charging the field to quite frankly hump the bejesus out of anyone they could find wearing red and blue. By this stage I was all cried out and just wandered the room punching my arms in the air and repeatedly yelling "Yes!" Thank you to everyone who made sure the win was in the bag miles out, you may have saved my life.

Sadly, Choco didn’t produce a tie and pretend to choke himself, but he’s been involved in enough flags now that it’s probably old hat. If Basil had been Grand Final MC in 2004, Alan Scott would never have been told he was wrong. Also winning at the first opportunity with us, Adem Yze, casually rolling in after three flags as an assistant at Hawthorn to grab another one here. Enjoy him while it lasts, he’ll be in the mix for any 2022 coaching vacancy not filled by Al Clarkson. Never mind, he was part of this and we thank him for it. Hope it at least slightly makes up for 2000.

The novelty value of winning a flag (!) should have been enough for a lifetime, but I still got a kick out of seeing players who'd gone nowhere near the team as part of the celebrations. This happens every year, but other than when Simon Buckley was in the circle with Collingwood before ever playing a game for them, I've never cared before. Now you had Daniel Turner, who was just hanging around Albury having a kick three months ago, running around with people who had just become club legends. We may never see some of these players again (and indeed, delistings started two days later), but they will be seen as part of the celebrations forever.

And what celebrations they were. Petracca won the Norm Smith, everyone did the cutesy exchange of medals and hats with young kids, and Basil stuffed up the running order, before it was time for the moment that I'd always wanted to see live - the players going bananas. Hibberd running away with the cup, Viney doing snow angels in the confetti, and so much inappropriate touching of AFL players by the general public. For the next two hours I just sat on the couch in a state of shock, trying to comprehend what I'd seen. It still makes no sense now. Maybe once I've had the chance to watch all the TV shows, read all the newspapers, listen to all the podcasts and watch the replay again with eight different versions of commentary I'll be sick of hearing about it. Not bloody likely. I'll probably bring it up in every second conversation until the day I die, whether the other person cares or not.

Everyone involved in this flag will eat and drink for free in the presence of Melbourne supporters for the rest of their lives. The list of credits is so long that it should scroll for 13 minutes at the end of the premiership DVD. From those that left their mark on the place like Peter Jackson, Paul Roos, and Glenn Bartlett (even if his attempts to shaft an ultimately successful coach now make him look like Jock from The Club). To the coaches - led by Simon Goodwin - support staff, and people vital to the running of a football club who'll you never know the names of, that have been there for years. And to those who provided the cherry on top: Kate Roffey (the greatest first term president since George Washington), Adem Yze, Choke Yourself With A Tie, and god knows who else. You're all Demon royalty now. 

But it's the players you'll be able to name on your deathbed. Your choice to go via alphabetical order, team positioning, or just blurt them out as quickly as possible before you run out of oxygen. Jake Bowey, Angus Brayshaw, Ben Brown, Bayley Fritsch, Max Gawn, James Harmes, Michael Hibberd, Luke Jackson, James Jordon, Ed Langdon, Jake Lever, Steven May, Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen, Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca, Harrison Petty, Kysaiah Pickett, Trent Rivers, Christian Salem, Charlie Spargo, Tom Sparrow and Jack Viney. Heroes one and all, with 23 different stories and 23 different endings, but one shared exclamation mark on the timeline that will bond them forever.

Plenty of other players contributed through the year, even if they didn't appear in a single game, and hard luck stories like Hunt, Melksham, Smith and Tomlinson will stay in our minds forever, but the men foremost in my thoughts were Nathan Jones and Neville Jetta. The greatest warriors of their generation, each falling agonisingly short of being involved. Both are now officially retired (and by the time I finish this post Jake Bowey probably will be too), and we thank them for everything they've done. 

Jetta is much loved - including Pickett unsuccessfully trying to hand over his premiership medal - but Jones will always be the main event. I love a Simpsons reference like nobody else, but having already become emotional over everything down to classic hits radio, seeing this on Saturday afternoon nearly put me over the edge. No idea who made it, but they whacked me right in the feels.


And lo the 23 heroes of Perth did do it for their valiant (ex)-leader. I know he'd have been both proud of them and gutted not to be there, but I hope he knows what he meant to us across all those years when the idea of Melbourne winning a flag was absolutely laughable. Somehow Jeremy Howe is now the last man standing from 186, and if he narrowly misses a flag nobody will care less. Forget getting Westralians to clap for Victoria, somebody should arrange for everyone who lives within 10km of Jones' house to stand outside going nuts.

So, thank you to everyone involved. And to all the fans who have kept this joint alive over the years. We've been stuffed more than once, and if you'd all given up the club would probably have been wound up by now. 

I'll go on next year, but things are going to be a lot different. Now that #fistedforever is dead, my entire gimmick is out the window. Come back next year for the All New Demonblog, where every mishap or disappointing scenario will be countered with memories of winning a Grand Final via glorious landslide. It's not say we'll be happy forever, but history can now be divided into BC (before cup) and AD (after Demon). They can torture us for the next 57 years, lose the Bentleigh Club money in a telemarketing scheme, and eventually relocate to Kuala Lumpur, but nobody can take the events of Saturday night away from us.

And, on as the curse is reversed, allow me to self-indulgently quote my own introduction to the best/worst timed footy book in history:

It's hard to imagine that if Smith had some supernatural control over the club's destiny, that he wouldn't have slung his old club at least one more premiership by now. Via merger and relocation respectively, the other clubs in Smith’s life, Fitzroy and South Melbourne, finally snapped lengthy premiership droughts in the 21st century. Isn’t it about our time, Smithy?

It was, and will remain so for a minimum of one full calendar year. Drink it in you magnificent bastards.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Bayley Fritsch
3 - Angus Brayshaw
2 - Jack Viney
1 - Christian Salem

On a night like this, no apologies are needed. Everyone is wonderful, and I'd give every single one of them (even Jordon) votes if it wouldn't affect 16 years of statistical integrity.

Leaderboard
Petracca falls narrowly short of already confirmed winner Oliver, but will just have to console himself with a Norm Smith. More importantly, he goes home with our Finals Player of the Year - which I've made the snap decision will be named after Garry Lyon. He contributed in finals throughout my formative years, and handed the cup over on Saturday. That'll do nicely. And despite a full tracksuit time experience, Jordon holds on to win the Hilton. Congratulations to everyone who took home a virtual trophy this season, I'm sure these are honours that will mean as much to you as playing in a premiership.

(NB: Updated vote count after an audit. Surprise, surprise I still can't count. Didn't change anything.)

64 - Clayton Oliver (WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
61 - Christian Petracca (WINNER: Garry Lyon Medal for Finals Player of the Year)
38 - Jake Lever (WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
29 - Max Gawn (WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
22 - Tom McDonald
21 - Luke Jackson 
20 - Christian Salem
19 - Steven May
13 - Bayley Fritsch, Kysaiah Pickett
11 - Jack Viney
10 - Ed Langdon
9 - Angus Brayshaw, Harrison Petty
7 - James Harmes, Alex Neal-Bullen, Charlie Spargo
5 - Jayden Hunt
3 - Michael Hibberd
2 - James Jordon (WINNER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Tom Sparrow, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Jake Bowey

It's the segment that won't die, making a one-off appearance after being killed off by COVID before the start of last year. Well done to the WA branch of the cheersquad, with an assist from lovely Freo fans, for delivering the goods, complete with an image of Gawn looking like he'd just broken through the crust of the earth and was about to obliterate humanity. The Dogs' version was made just up the road from Demonblog Towers, featuring the same font as when they use to do 'humourous' gags about negative gearing. Not as good. Dees win again.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Week
He's won everything except the Brownlow this week, so it would seem stupid not to pick Petracca's goal with 49 seconds left in the third quarter. Usually you'd call that the end of the quarter, but in this case there was an absurd amount of water left to go under the bridge.

Having finished the season with more silverware than the Queen of England, I don't think he needs a weekly prize. A lifetime of admiration will have to do and fans trying to hump his leg whenever he walks down the street will have to do as a consolation.

Gawn retains the overall title for that goal in Geelong. It wasn't the prettiest of the season, but it was the most important. He misses, our path to the flag is a completely different one, and god only knows what happens. Now you can watch it, and quite frankly every goal kicked by Melbourne this season, on a loop and know it ended.

Final thoughts
In ancient Greece, the philosopher Athenodorus was working in a new house when he heard the sound of clanking iron shackles, and a ghost appeared, beckoning him to follow. Athenodorus followed the ghost outside, where it led him to a courtyard before disappearing. The ground was dug up the next day, where a long-buried, shackled skeleton was found. The bones were collected and buried in a real grave, after which the house was haunted no more.

At about 10pm on Saturday night, 57 years of hurt were finally laid to rest. Everything that happens from here will be a new story, shed of the baggage built up since 1965. Go and spread the word in your community, Melbourne supporters everywhere may now live their lives freely, safe in the knowledge that no matter what else happens, they have seen ultimate success. The ghosts will never bother us again.

In the immortal words of Christian Petracca:

7 comments:

  1. Fantastic stuff Adam. You're a legend. You've kept a lot of us going through the dark times. Can't wait for the New Demonblog (TM)!

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  2. What an amazing story Adam, it was like you knew what we were all thinking and feeling leading up to this amazing game! Cheers on a great analogy !

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  3. I had a second rush of premiership euphoria last night watching interviews, highlights and analysis. I'm still in awe of what this team has achieved, not just on the night, but throughout the season. Hats off to Goodwin. He made the right calls; Brown v Weid, Jetta, getting Jones to 300.

    Petracca won the medal but it was Jackson who got us going when the situation looked dicey. Your Norm Smith call was not far wrong.

    Sparrow's goal was when I let my postcode know that I thought we had it won. It was only when watching the highlights later I realised there were 4 WB players converging on Sparrow as he gets his kick away. Amazing.

    Forget the $1000 bet on WB, your latest book was the hedge. Thank you from all Melbourne supporters.

    Thank you Adam too for summing up what most of us have been feeling over many years. #fistedforever good riddance.

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  4. Thanks for writing these! This one was a long time coming and many words in the making. I think you've already written the book on this premiership!

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  5. I'm a lapsed fan since 1988 and had fallen out of love with the game for a long time, but this will remain one of the greatest days of my life, THANK YOU!!!!

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