Comeback

James Button writes about the 2007 Grand Final, when Greatness returned to the Geelong Football Club.

Tom Harley woke at 1 a.m., and lay staring at the ceiling, his girlfriend fast asleep beside him. The thoughts would not let him go: What if we don’t win?

Everything seemed to be falling into place. The focussed intensity around the club, the calm conviction of his teammates, Brett Kirk saying to him as he walked past the Sydney Swans’ table on Brownlow night, ‘We just love watching you boys play.’ To hear that from Kirk, whose team he had watched a year ago as they went down by a point to West Coast in that epic Grand Final, and who he hoped his own side might resemble one day — that was special. Respect — this whole year had been about that one word.

But what would happen to this team, to this club, to him, if they didn’t win?

After an hour and a half he slept, but fitfully, and at 6.30 he got out of bed, not rested. Light was coming into the room through a crack in the curtains. Grand Final Day.

In the same hotel Steve Johnson was having the best night’s sleep of his life. When he woke up, he later told journalist Scott Gullan, he switched on the North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast to find Wayne Carey naming him as the likely winner of the Norm Smith medal for best on ground. Johnson was no doubt more amused than surprised.

A few players and Mark Thompson had stayed in Geelong but most stayed at the Holiday Inn on Flinders Lane. The Ablett brothers shared a room. Josh Hunt stayed in Essendon with his girlfriend’s parents. She was away but he went there because the arrangement had worked well before and Hunt was not only superstitious but given to bad pre-match nerves. Today, though, he woke calm and clear.

Cam Mooney drove to the hotel from his Port Melbourne flat so he could take the bus with his teammates. In 1963 and in five losing Grand Finals since then, the team had travelled together from Geelong. The bus was such a Geelong thing: songs, cards, chatter, riotous behaviour on the way home. But Thompson had banned it soon after he became coach, saying it signalled that Geelong was different from other teams, that it came from far away. In the bus on Grand Final day Paul Haines, the team runner, looked around: ‘Everyone had their earbuds in, listening to their own music. There was dead silence. It was eerie.’

You are reading an edited extract from Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong – out now!

On Flinders Street, near the old Herald and Weekly Times building, Haines saw a rising tide of blue and white beanies, jumpers and scarves, all flowing in the same direction. As the bus pulled into the car park, David Wojcinski, who had been sick all week and only started to feel better on Friday, watched people streaming along paths and across the grass: ‘Seeing everyone walking towards the ground, everyone in their Geelong colours — that really gave me butterflies.’

These people and so many others, including my father, brother and me, were moving in body or mind towards the MCG. So many stories, memories and anxieties, so much hope, converging on such a small patch of grass. On Grand Final day, time bends; life is no longer simply one moment after another. Every thought, every action, every particle in the universe, is being sucked towards the black hole of 2.30 p.m.

I had taken a week’s leave from my job and flown in from London. It was a no-brainer: if I hadn’t and we won, would I say on my deathbed, ‘Gee, glad I saved that two thousand bucks’? On the Thursday morning, dazed and confused, I had driven to training in Geelong with a friend. The city centre had been strangely quiet. At the ground, 10,000 people were quiet. Real training had been the night before, behind closed doors. Now the players came out in small groups and did light exercises. Thompson did not appear for ninety minutes, and with a cap pulled down so low people didn’t recognise him. No player spoke to the media, there was no running of laps to wild applause, no Malcolm Blight torps from the centre sending the crowd wild. It was the dullest Grand Final week training session ever. And that was part of the plan. Geelong was trying to defy its history, tamp down runaway hope. Kardinia Park was simmering under a giant lid.

Thompson had clamped the lid on his players, too. When Harley and Rooke, representing the leadership group, walked into the coaches’ meeting on Monday, Thompson looked at them and snapped: ‘You blokes don’t have the right attitude to win this week.’ Port Adelaide was full of players from its 2004 premiership win ‘and if you think you’re just going to turn up and win, you’re kidding yourselves.’

Harley, furious, replied, ‘So, Bomber, are you saying that just because they have premiership experience, they’re in a better position than us?’ Thompson said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m telling you.’ Rooke and Harley walked out of the meeting unhappy, and told other players what the coach had said. It occurred to Rooke later that Thompson’s attack had been a very clever ploy.

Inside the MCG, seats were filling up. Matthew Egan, who would have played today had he not broken the navicular bone in his ankle in a cruel, career-ending injury, sat in the coach’s box. Mark Blake, who had played nearly every game that year in the ruck but who had been dropped for former captain Steven King, sat in the stand in dark glasses. Max Rooke’s parents, John and Jo, who had come from Casterton a day early to sell their son’s car, sat with the Lings and Enrights. Brian Cook sat at the official AFL lunch, sick with nerves. Prime Minister John Howard sat next to AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou. Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls, a big Geelong supporter, spied Kevin Rudd, on the campaign trail for the November federal election, wearing a Port Adelaide scarf: ‘I said, “Mate, what the fuck are you doing wearing a Port Adelaide scarf in Victoria?” He muttered something about Adelaide having more marginal seats. I was ropeable.’

Jenny Van Hees (Chatt), Thompson’s former PA, sat near Garry Davidson, the football manager who had been sacked a year earlier, just before the team’s rebirth. Van Hees, who felt that Davidson deserved some credit for the long years of building the team, wondered how he must have been feeling. Former player Tim McGrath watched at home in Geelong with his wife Noreen, having given away the ticket he was entitled to as a 200-game player to Paul Chapman’s brother, Brett.

In the bowels of the MCG, nerves were playing havoc with the bowels of Ron Watt, the coach responsible for the bench in today’s game. He used the toilet for the fifth time that day and was noisy, behind thin walls. When he came out, Joel Corey and Jimmy Bartel were laughing: ‘That’s a good sign,’ Watt thought. When assistant coach Ken Hinkley asked Johnson how he was feeling, he said, ‘Ken, I was made to play on days like this. It’s why they put air in my lungs.’ And when Watt asked Rooke as he walked up the race whether he was across his position in the forward zone, Rooke, channelling Watt’s goat, bleated, ‘Mehhhh.’ They were all good signs.

Harley talked to the players in a huddled group outside the door of the rooms. At the top of the race he talked to them again. Then they were on the ground, through the banner, and onto the benches to sit quickly with Thompson for the team photo. The players came from Shepparton, Bendigo, Heyfield, Wagga Wagga, Wangaratta, Casterton, Cardross, Daly Waters, Kilmore, Kimba and Rupertswood, plus five from Geelong. Seventeen from regional Australia — eighteen if you count Mathew Stokes from Darwin — plus two from Adelaide, one from Perth and just one from Melbourne. It was an old-fashioned Geelong Grand Final side. Country boys.

The first five minutes were unbearably tense. Port Adelaide matched every Geelong move. The noise was so great that Haines the runner had to yell at players from a metre away. When Stokes flew high for a mark in the Members’ pocket, landed badly and limped off, I was convinced it was not going to be our day.

Then Chapman wheeled on the forward flank and sent a soaring drop punt towards the goal square. A hundred thousand heads watched the ball turn end over end.

Some people say that watching football on TV is as good as being there, with big screens mounted on the wall, a warm house, and the play right in front of us. But watching this moment later on a DVD was flat compared to the experience of sitting fifteen rows back from the goal square, as Mooney flew backwards in the air and plucked the ball out of the sky and the crowd behind him lifted as one.

Mooney says that as he rose for the mark, Nathan Ablett blocked Darryl Wakelin to give him space. ‘I loved playing with Nath. He was unbelievably unselfish. He would run his opponent out of position so I could get a one on one. He could have flown for it but he just gave my man a little nudge, allowed me to take the mark.’

A few moments later James Kelly, lying in the dead centre of the ground, got a backhand fist to a ball and knocked it to Chapman, who kicked perfectly to Mooney.

‘I saw Johnno out of my left eye, breaking away,’ Mooney says. ‘I was going to go for the big launch, but I pulled the kick at the last second and hooked it to Stevie.’ Johnson marked Mooney’s sly kick and goaled: ‘We gave each other a hug after that.’

Port replied with a goal to its captain, Warren Tredrea. Gary Ablett stole in front of a Port defender, spoiled, ran onto the ball and speared a goal, then ran to the boundary shaking his fist. When Shaun Burgoyne kicked a second Port goal not long after, it was still a game of two evenly matched forces. But in a few moments the wall was breached, Geelong began to swarm forward, and the pent-up tide of a season — of forty-four seasons — was released.

Defenders Milburn, Scarlett, Enright and Hunt were all running off their men and sending the ball deep into attack. Scarlett ran 100 metres to mark a Chapman pass within range of goal. Johnson stole a Port handpass and had a clear shot on goal but tried a stagey banana and missed. Hunt ran outside the boundary line holding the ball in play, was bumped, but still managed to fire a pass to Chapman, who passed to Johnson, who kicked his second goal. Was it then that I saw two Port players remonstrating with each other and had the thought, quickly suppressed, ‘Maybe they’re done?’

A few moments later, Brad Ottens, Geelong’s lumbering ruckman, chased Michael Pettigrew and ran him down near the boundary.

‘The bench erupted, it was the greatest thing we had ever seen,’ says Mooney. Finally, a perfect chain of handpasses from Kelly to Gary Ablett to Joel Selwood, who baulked one player then hand-balled to Bartel, who turned on his left foot and kicked a goal. Geelong 5.7.37, Port 2.2.14 at quarter time.

In the first twelve minutes of the second quarter Geelong kicked five goals. Nathan Ablett, the reluctant recruit who never seemed that excited playing football, kicked two in two minutes — the second after a spectacular, nonchalant one-handed mark. By half-time Geelong was 52 points up. Yet there was scarcely a Geelong fan who thought the team had won.

‘It’s in the bag,’ texted my cousin Ruby, a Brisbane supporter. ‘You’ve won, let up now, this is getting boring,’ texted Sam, a Richmond fan. But my friend Simon, a Geelong supporter who has known all the pain, texted: ‘An OK start. But must keep the pressure on!’

The mood in the Geelong rooms was serious, there was to be no letting up: ‘Tom Harley really drove that,’ says Haines. In the VIP room Hulls watched Frank Costa calmly eating party pies.

For years to come, Geelong fans would debate the moment when they knew. For former player Tim Darcy it was half-time — in the second half he and an old teammate, Terry Bright, sat back to soak it up. Some fans didn’t relax until late in the last quarter, when the team was 100 points up. For me it was Bartel’s goal in the third quarter, when the team went to a 65-point lead and all air went out of the game. From there I can remember just one piece of play: Chapman’s soaring mark over Tredrea. All I could think about — all anyone could think about — was that Geelong was going to win the premiership.

At three-quarter time, legend has it, Johnson came into the huddle, saying: ‘Call me Normie.’ In his mind, he’d already won the Norm Smith medal. Harley, Ling and Corey walked around urging on the players, ‘oblivious to the fact we were ninety points up,’ Ling later said.

Now Thompson spoke; no player would forget his words: ‘Go hard,’ he said. ‘Don’t showboat, don’t let Port take five goals back. Play the way you have played all year. Be humble but be ruthless. Respect the game.’

At the twenty-minute mark of the final quarter, sitting in the northern stand, Cook turned to Costa and said, ‘We’ve got this, mate.’ A photograph of the moment stands on a shelf in Cook’s house. Shot from a distance, it shows 200 people, rows and rows of faces turned to the game. In the middle, two men in suits are embracing. As they do, Cook’s long-time deputy Stuart Fox watches with tears in his eyes: ‘I kept gazing across at the raw emotion. I was thinking of the long years, how hard Cooky had worked.’

In the coach’s box, Thompson turned away, so that people wouldn’t see his tears. Then he said, ‘Let’s turn on the TV, hear what they’re saying.’ Five minutes before the end he and McCartney left the box and began the long walk down to ground level. They got on the back stairs and for a second the world fell silent, the crowd noise rose and fell like a distant swell — and it was just Bomber and Macca and a security guard. After the long years, to McCartney it felt like the happiest moment of his life.

In our seats, my father was happy, but also subdued. Why? I wondered. He should have been even more elated than I am — he was always a bigger fan. Is it just that when happiness arrives we often can’t seize it? His eyes were getting poor, and he couldn’t see the game at the other end of the ground, so for part of the last quarter I called the game for him.

With seconds to go, Scarlett had the ball. He was looking for Harley, his captain. He kicked, and as the ball flew through the air the final siren blew.

Joel Corey was standing next to a group of Port Adelaide players. Mindful of their feelings he didn’t leap about but quietly shook their hands, then ran off to join a delirious cluster of teammates.

In the K-Rock box, Andrew Bews and Michael Mansfield, Grand Final players from the Blight years, leapt into the air and hugged, their headphones entangling. Their old teammate Billy Brownless had been handed a ground pass.

‘I didn’t know what to do,’ he says. ‘The players were hugging and going mad and I’m thinking,“What are you out doing here, you dickhead?”’ Andrew Maher from Channel 10 grabbed Brownless on camera and he began to cry: ‘I’m not an emotional bloke but having lost four, worked at the club — finally, it’s arrived.’

Cook looked at Costa and was struck by how his friend’s manner never changed: ‘Billy was crying, I was doing high fives and punching the air but Frank was just being Frank. He was extremely happy but you would not know by his expression. It was like another day.’

Sarah Birch, part of Geelong’s media team, picked up two strands of confetti and put them in her pocket. One would end up in the club’s museum. Birch had come up with the idea that every Geelong player would give a cap to the child who handed him his premiership medal. A year earlier, West Coast players had been seen as arrogant, oblivious to the children. Geelong players said hello to them; some scuffed their hair.

Port Adelaide players watched, slumped on the ground. The 119-point loss, the largest in any Grand Final, would damage the club for years to come.

On the dais, Thompson thanked Port Adelaide. He thanked the coaches and the players. He said, honouring the promise he made at his first training session so long ago, ‘You are now premiership players.’

Johnson won the Norm Smith. It could just as easily have been Scarlett, or Chapman, but who can resist a fairy tale?

Harley began his speech by thanking Port Adelaide, ‘my former club’. Then he turned to his left and said: ‘To my teammates — what a turnaround from last year. I love you all. It’s been a long ride, played with spirit, and …’

His voice rose, nearly to a shout: ‘We are Geelong!’

This is an edited extract from James Button’s Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong – out now!