Ever been a part of something special but not quite understood the immensity of what was transpiring?
17 years ago, I went to the MCG for ‘just another game of footy’ between Essendon and Collingwood. It took a little while to recognise that this was no ordinary day at the G.
Fortunately, I’m an early arrival at the footy, if the tickets aren’t pre-purchased. It’s good to get there early and sit in your favourite area. For me, it’s the top level of the Great Southern Stand, behind the goals. See the game from above, see the goals, see Matty Lloyd; you can’t lose!
So, I was oblivious to the impending pandemonium that was descending downstairs as thousands upon thousands of people attempted to gain entry. When Collingwood coach Leigh Matthews arrived at 12.30pm, there were so many people milling outside the ground, he thought the gates hadn’t yet been opened. The only sign of this high in the stands was that the usual spreading out of fans’ belongings and bags was curtailed as officials directed entrants to ev-ery available seat. Things were tight!
Big crowd, big day
It’s fantastic when you are at a game early and you know that a big crowd is present. The general public seating bays are full and there’s a non-stop, anticipatory buzz around the ground.
As the sun streamed down, word quickly spread through the crowd as the radio stations announced a lockout at 1.30pm, a full 40 minutes before bouncedown. There were still 20,000 people outside! Mounted police were called in to disperse them. So by now, some sense of deductive reasoning would lead you to conclude that a significant day was in the making. Yet I was still more concerned with the game-time pie and chips than recognising the full impact of the occasion.
You see, at that time, games were played on Anzac Day all the time. It wasn’t until that year that one of the great pioneers of the Australian football game – Kevin Sheedy – got his head together with the President of the Returned Services League (RSL) – Bruce Ruxton – and made the game about honouring the returned veterans and those that had gone before us to give us the freedom we currently enjoy.
And we’re off
This was a year that would see Essendon finish 4th while the Pies limped to 10th. At that point in the season, we hadn’t lost a game, while they were yet to register a solitary win! So, the game itself was a foregone conclusion, right? No. Way. Never. Not in these blockbuster games.
You see, there’s a fact that most Bombers fans are all too familiar with – in the 90’s, Sav Rocca owned Essendon. He just killed us. Our scrawny yet loveable fullback, Dustin Fletcher, was never a match for the burly forward who consistently feasted on our smaller matchups. Of the 748 goals Sav kicked in his career, about 700 of them were against us, I’m sure. This day was no different – did I mention he won the Collingwood best and fairest that year, kicking 93 goals in 21 games? We were in trouble…
And so it proved to be. This one man made all the difference. 9 goals, pack marks including an absolute screamer, making Fletcher look one tenth of the man who would eventually play 350+ games and in the process disavowing myself of a baby name that my future wife would unsuccessfully plead for. (‘Fletcher’, not ‘Sav’!)
In a way, though, it was this dominance that stopped Collingwood from winning the game. Pies coach Matthews sent out a clear message to his midfielders – ‘Get the ball to Sav. He’s on fire!’
And so it was, late in the final quarter with the scores tied, that Pies superduperstar Nathan Buckley streamed forward, and from 50 metres out, a distance he would make easily with 10 metres to spare on a bad day, decided instead to chip it to his leading forward. But not quite perfectly enough. Sav had to prop, the 6’6” Fletcher punched the ball away and play moved up onto the wing, when the final siren sounded.
Sorry, overseas readers – in our game, a tied game at the end of regulation is a drawn game. Period.
95,000+ people – the second most fans in a home and away game in history – left that day will little idea what had transpired; that one of the game’s great traditions had just been born.
Flip forward 17 years and Essendon-Collingwood on Anzac Day is the premiere regular season game of the year. Other teams have tried to get a piece of the Anzac pie – nice one, Kangaroos! – yet on this, the AFL won’t budge; wisely I might add. These were the other insipid ‘efforts’ before the Bombers and Pies made it their own –
- St Kilda vs Richmond, 37,000 in 1994
- Richmond and Fitzroy, 23,000 in 1990, and
- North Melbourne vs Sydney, 15,664 in 1991!
Sorry guys, you had your chance. No one wanted to own this date when there was the prospect of playing on a mere 4 day break. Yet when these two teams packed out the MCG in ‘95, the $ signs rang up in every other team executive’s eyes. Too late.
If I could guarantee one win for the season against any team, I wouldn’t need to think twice. Collingwood. Anzac Day. The 2009 game when we kicked 3 goals in 2 minutes in the wet to win by 5 points from nowhere remains one of the great sporting memories of my lifetime. There have been other highs, but (more) lows as well.
But what this game does to bring honour and respect to the fallen and the remaining is almost unparalleled in our city.
Hearing that bugle play the Last Post as the players line up arm in arm, facing each other, while 90,000 people stand in ab-so-lute silence is surreal, special; humbling almost. The roar that follows it is indescribable.
I hadn’t missed any Anzac Day games until a couple of years ago. All good traditions come to an end in our own lives at one stage or another. This year’s game was, obviously, yet another missed event, but this time, even the TV wasn’t my saviour. I sat without the radio on, writing school reports and trying not to think about what I was missing.
An ‘Are you watching this?’ text from a friend did me in and I have to admit on checking the scores a couple of times online while another close classic played itself out.
I wonder how many young kids went to their first Anzac Day game today and walked out thinking, ‘I am never going to miss one of those again.’
They wouldn’t be the first.