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Which was the best AFL grand final ever?

Roar Rookie
16th January, 2013
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A full three months since the 2012 AFL Grand Final, can we now accurately and objectively look at the match and fit it in with the legend of grand finals past?

That’s a tough one. Yes, it was edge of the seat with moments of brilliance, but it was also spliced with periods of complete inactivity by one team as the other dominated.

The beauty of our game is that not many games play out the same, each have a different pattern and flow and therefore make it hard to compare.

It also means that a free flowing contest between teams in the bottom half of the ladder can be more aesthetically pleasing than a dour struggle between the elite – but could it be termed a ‘better’ game? Probably not.

By comparing grand finals, however, we are given a controllable that makes it a worthwhile exercise. The best two teams, at the highest stake moment is a good starting point.

Grand finals are often compared, but how can we add a little more science to the process and separate the myth from the fact?

To do this I’m stacking up every grand final from 1966 onwards and scoring them in five key elements that I think make a grand final great.

Why 1966? Well, we only see full broadcast vision of grand finals from 1966 onwards, I don’t know this for sure but we’ve never seen a broadcast version of the 1964 GF (close game, Melbourne’s last premiership), so I can only assume 1965 at the earliest actually exists and come to think of it I’ve never seen that either. So let’s say 1966.

So the five elements that I’ve picked which I think can sum up what we enjoy about a match; closeness, scoring, star power, historical significance and ‘iconic moment(s)’.

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Closeness: Self-explanatory, how close a match is. This is the most important as it holds interest greater than anything else so it is weighted for a score out of 20. Closeness is not purely based on the final score, plays a big part but also takes into account closeness throughout the four quarters.

Scoring/match style: We can all pretend otherwise but the more goals that are kicked the more watchable a game is. Invariably, it’s the matches with lots of goals that we remember and want to see again.

It also has a direct correlation with how skillful a match is. Defensive struggles are great but goal-fests are always better. So we rate matches out of ten on the number of goals kicked.

Star power: Subjective but essential to this is the participation of the stars of the era in a match and how they performed. A match will always be more memorable if the best players are playing and playing at their optimum. Rating out of 10.

Historical significance: Some matches are just fantastic but when it doesn’t have any particular extra meaning to it, the game just doesn’t hold the same gravitas. This will make more sense as I explain the top 10. Again a score out of 10.

Iconic moment(s): The moment that you talk about afterwards, the highlight that you will recount and remember where you were and how you reacted. Think Jezza’s mark, Harmes’ chase, Barry Breen’s point etc etc. This is an easy one, out of 10.

So at the risk of throwing my subjective views open to the world for criticism I took these five elements individually for every GF from 1966 and tried to give them comparative context (ie there is sliding scale for goals kicked) to then come up with an objective total score for each Grand Final.

10: 2009: Geelong def St Kilda

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Closeness: 18 scoring: 4.5 star power: 7.5 historical significance: 5 iconic moment: 7.5 TOTAL: 42.5.

Far and away the two best teams of the season playing at the peak of their era powers in a match that was close the whole way. You would assume absolute classic? Top 10, but only just.

Plainly Ross Lyon’s St Kilda didn’t play an attractive game style. Throw in wet weather and a bunch of players on wither team who were playing injured and the match was tense but mistake-riddled.

That will go down as much for St Kilda’s missed chances and missed opportunity at an elusive flag than anything Geelong did. This weighs down scoring and historical significance, however it had the Scarlett toe-poke as a match-winning moment, plenty of stars on either team (though they didn’t have a great influence on the game) and was in the balance up into the final minute.

Equal 9th: 2005/2006 Sydney & West Coast

2005 19, 1, 5, 9, 9 Total: 43

2006 19, 6, 6, 6, 6 Total: 43

Two of the hardest grand finals to judge. 2005 will always overshadow 2006 as it was the first in the series and the emotion of the Swans win was much greater than the West Coast win. Throw in the stench around the Eagles that played out so publicly and almost tragically after the win and 2006 has been almost-forgotten in the grand final pantheon.

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A shame; it was a much better game of football than 2005 as far as scoring and star performers go and the last quarter was entertainment plus from the moment Adam Goodes ran out of the centre square to put the Swans back in it.

For all that’s said about 2005, only 15 goals were kicked and when you watch it back its hard to get too enthused about the endless stoppages. However, it was unquestionably historical, a Sydney team winning the prize, the 72 year back story of South Melbourne, the Bloods connection and the Leo Barry mark is as iconic as anything. But objectively you can’t split these two matches.

Should they have been higher? These lose on star power, a run through the sides has some stars but a lot more foot soldiers than most grand finals – Stephen Doyle, Sam Butler, Kasey Green, Ben Mathews, Steven Armstrong, Paul Bevan, Travis Gaspar.

If you’re a neutral supporter and can pick them in a line-up you’re doing well. And a premiership-winning key forward setup of Quentin Lynch and Ashley Hansen? It’s that kind of stuff that holds 05/06 back.

8th: 2012 Sydney def Hawthorn

18, 6.5, 6, 6, 7 Total: 43.5

Here’s where we get speculative. A game decided in the last five minutes coupled with momentum swings gets it great marks for closeness.

Scoring-wise it wasn’t bad, star power and historical significance and where the question marks lie. Both teams are at a certain star level but that level could go higher in the seasons to come. Historical significance may well be the loser here.

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2005 will always be the iconic Swans premiership while again there will be a sense of Hawthorn not taking their chances. If Hawthorn go on and win a premiership in the next two seasons this will take on greater historical significance as two power teams duking it out.

If they don’t, significance will fade as one of those seasons where there wasn’t clear-cut power teams (each week seemed to find a new favourite: Hawthorn, Sydney, Collingwood, Adelaide, West Coast) and the Swans were left standing.

Iconic moments are also an interesting one, right now Buddy’s goal and the Swans power finish loom large but there doesn’t seem to be one moment on the winning side that we’ll hold on to.

A great match but time will tell whether those extra ingredients lift it to the next level.

7th: 1984 Essendon def Hawthorn

16, 7, 7, 8, 8 Total: 46

It’s now we step in to the big league of Grand Finals. A full 2.5 points separate 2012 and 1984 and the ratings system starts to take shape.

1984 was a weird game that saw a big opening from Hawthorn and then Essendon coming right back into the game but not being able to take hold it until the last quarter.

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For closeness it goes okay, a 23-point deficit was pegged back and turned into a 24-point win by Essendon but the match was closer than that all day – the Dons just couldn’t land the killer blow(s) to bridge the gap.

Star power was present, there were big names everywhere, while the first 10 minutes of the last quarter is one iconic moment as the Essendon avalanche occurred. The Leon Baker blind turn goal is as dramatic as any last quarter goal kicked in a grand final and qualifies as the moment.

The historical significance is the one where it wins bigger then you’d think.

In 1984 a 19-year premiership drought in a 12-team competition was significant and there was a sense of the giant awakening as each goal was kicked in the last quarter.

The immortal Lou Richards line of it being “Sheedy’s premiership” takes on historical dimensions as it was the first Grand Final where a coach saw that his team were behind and literally threw his team back to front with Duckworth and Weston going forward.

We’d just never seen adaptability on the big stage like that before and you could make a case that the principles of today’s rotations were first proven on that day.

Throw in that the second semi-final two weeks earlier is sometimes called the greatest match ever and you have parts that add up to a greater sum than the 24 point scrappy win it looks on paper.

6th: 2010 Collingwood drew with St Kilda

20, 3.5, 7, 9, 7 Total: 46.5

The first of the draws, strangely I think in a few short years we’ve forgotten the drama of this match, perhaps the blowout replay did the damage. Obviously it doesn’t get any closer so a score of 20 is a given. It was low-scoring and not the cleanest match up until halfway through the third quarter when it slipped into gear (again this is Lyon-St Kilda), which loses points.

However, it was a match where stars had huge days (Goddard, Hayes and a number of Pies) and also saw two teams at their peak. Historically it loses a little on 1977 , but still, 33 years on it was a draw and it left everyone awestruck, particularly when you factor in the last quarter which made up for a so-so first half with highlight upon highlight.

The simple fact that two generations of footy fans had never seen a drawn grand final will ensure its significance, magnified by that fact that national interest of 2010 dwarves the 1977 GF illustrated by the fact ’77 was the first time the game was broadcast live nationally. The question of “what happens now?” was still asked by many people across Australia.

The last quarter was full of iconic moments, none better than the Goddard mark – for someone to take a mark as good as that at the death to potentially win a grand final is something that we’ve never seen before. If St Kilda won, it echoes Spinal Tap and gets an 11 out of 10 on the iconic moment scale.

And the eerie history-repeating of Collingwood playing St Kilda and a wobbly kick that bounces through for a point in the Members forward pocket deciding the outcome lifts this to a higher status.

5th: 1967 Richmond def Geelong

17, 8, 8, 7, 8 Total: 48

Now this is a surprise, a grand final that has been forgotten by some in the modern era. A nine point result that remained close all the way in the second half gets it points for closeness of contest. It had a 16 to 15 goal total which is perhaps makes for the perfect purists game of football.

It’s historical significance is also greater when we look further into it, Richmond had not won a premiership for 24 years (an eternity in the old VFL) and in fact was playing in its first final series for 20 years. Sounds familiar today.

It was the start of the Richmond golden era where they won five flags in 13 years and the nucleus of superstars through the era were young punks who played their hearts out on this day.

A look through the best players gives you a fair idea of the star power on show and their impact on this match; Barrot, Hart, Bartlett, Goggin and Farmer while Doug Wade kicked four. It’s this star power that lifts it into the rarefied air.

As for iconic moments there were a couple of controversial decisions in the last quarter that have made Polly Farmer grumpy ever since that could qualify but for sheer perfect storm factor, Royce Hart’s soaring trademark grab in the last quarter stands out.

The fact that he was 19, in his first season, kicked three goals, was named Richmond’s second best player on the day and would soon plonk himself at centre half forward in his ‘greatest team ever’ gives it a further X-factor.

4th: 1977 North Melbourne drew with Collingwood

20, 3.5, 6, 10, 9 Total: 48.5

Here is the classic example of a match where the moment lifted it above its pure playing spectacle. As far as pure footy the forgotten replay exceeds it but for a match of drama 1977 is just about unbeatable.

It was a draw and the first of the modern era, a unique and memorable occurrence that coincided with the first ever live broadcast of the grand final. For historical significance it doesn’t get any better.

It was a fairly crazy game of footy. Bear in mind that North opened with all guns blazing to lead by 17 points at quarter time and then didn’t kick another goal until the last quarter whilst Collingwood accumulated eight.

For the Roos to then come back from 27 points down at the last change, kick seven behinds in addition to its five goals, and then get pegged back by the last goal of the game takes it to ridiculous levels of crazy.

In football terms it was mistake-riddled and scrappy, Collingwood were working class rather than star-studded and North had a few champions (ie Blight) well below their best.

Collingwood has risen from last in 1976 which tells us that the competition was devoid of great teams this year but also added a fairytale element to the day.

However the last quarter drama lifted it, and the iconic moment of the Twiggy Dunne mark fits in with the improbability of the day. A pack of seemingly nine or ten players where a fully obscured and probably skinniest man on the ground, in Dunne emerges somehow with the ball.

While footy was changing in the late 70s Dunne just looked like he belonged in the 50s or early 60s – and true to form he was not going to kick a drop punt from 20 metres out for arguably the most important set shot in football history. A hybrid flat punt/torpedo that never looked like missing.

It was also the first time we had pre-match entertainment, this ultimately resulted in Meatloaf 34 years later. Appropriately, the first entertainer? Barry Crocker. Maybe this concept was always doomed.

3rd: 1966 St Kilda def Collingwood

19, 4, 6, 10, 10 Total: 49

The most romantic game ever? Surely. There’s no coincidence that the ratings started with 1966, it effectively gave life to football and television.

While the game was a scrappy low-scoring affair and star power was weighted to the St Kilda side, and perhaps given greater weight because they are the one and onlys of this club, it has everything else in spades.

A one-point game in the balance in the final minutes that has been talked about ever since with the Barry Breen point providing perhaps the greatest iconic moment in GF history. The historical significance can’t be underplayed.

St Kilda were the tragi-comedy football club for over 100 years, often brilliant, often terrible, usually controversial but always interesting. So the solitary premiership by the solitary point has an immeasurable symbolism, and what came next also matters in this context.

Whether it be the infamy or their home ground in the ’70s and ’80s, the endless cash crisis’ , player ill-discipline mixed with occasional player brilliance, the St Kilda disco, Lindsay Fox, breaking the rules, Plugger, the animal cage, Darrel Baldock’s emotion, Nicky Winmar, Big Carl missing out – it’s all a tapestry of what makes 1966 so intoxicatingly memorable.

For this time in the early to mid-sixties St Kilda got it together and they were able to win the prize that at any other time would seemed a doomed mission for the club.

In a lot of ways it had parallels with pop music – exploding in the sixties, peaking in 1966 (Revolver, Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde were released that year) forever after being a runaway train that had sublime moments ultimately hijacked by excess.

Oddly enough the two GF-losing Lyon-Saints footy might have eliminated the rock and roll tragic St Kilda forever.

And we haven’t even spoken about the most memorable call of a game ever from Mike Williamson, Butch Gale and (a still playing) Teddy Whitten.

Take out the game itself and it’s the most significant Grand Final of the lot.

2nd: 1989 Hawthorn v Geelong

16, 10, 8, 7, 9 Total: 50

I’ve spoken about 1989 in these parts before, but it hands down is the most spectacular game of football you will ever see.

High scoring, skillful, tough, in retrospect it may have been the high point aesthetically of the game when skills had reached a ceiling level unencumbered by coaching influence and tactics.

The Hawthorn team was full of stars, Brereton, Dunstall, Buckenara to name just the forward line, while Geelong had the greatest individual star ever playing his signature match.

Its iconic moment is the Brereton opening bounce shirtfront by Mark Yeates – perhaps singularly the most dramatic opening to a match anywhere, ever.

It set the tone for a wild, west style quarter and a half where Geelong lost the plot, gave up a big lead and despite always looking good enough only closed to with range with 40 seconds left.

The only downside to the game is that for much of it Hawthorn were well in control on the scoreboard, even if they weren’t never far ahead in general play. You always sensed Geelong were good enough, but maybe not smart enough. Hawthorn just kept answering when it mattered but give the game another 3 minutes and it would have been Geelong’s – there is nothing surer.

Historically it’s the yardstick match for a generation of footy fans, it didn’t necessarily change the game but it showed how good it could look when it all came together. If it was a three-goal game instead of a five-goal game for most of the day, it’s the best game ever played no arguments.

If you had to pick a fantasy match of footy, you’d say 20 goals aside, drama, ridiculous highlights (see Ablett’s boundary thrown-in goal, Ablett’s one hander/checkside combo, Ablett “finds it on the ground” goal, everything Ablett in fact) with superstars on either side. 1989 had that.

1st: 1970 Carlton def Collingwood

16, 8, 8, 10, 10 Total: 52

Take these single elements that would make each make a game great:

  • A 17-14 goal match with a ten point margin in the balance up until the last minutes
  • A 44 point deficit erased in a Grand Final
  • The pop-idol of the era kicks six goals..and loses
  • One the certified greatest 15 players ever is best on ground with three goals including a ridiculous bouncing 60 metre plus goal that seals the game
  • That same player takes the most famous mark in the history (not best, but most famous)
  • A radical coaching philosophy instituted halfway through the match arguably changes the way the game is played
  • That coach becomes perhaps the most celebrated football figure of all time and the cult of coach raises to another level
  • 121,696 people were there to witness it

Now take a breath, all of those things and more happened in the one game and that’s why it sits two points ahead of any other GF in the ratings.

But there is more. When a team fell behind by 44 points in 1970 it was not a long shot, it was impossibility. Not only didn’t it happen, it had never happened.

An instruction from Barassi to play on and run as opposed to the stop start game that had prevailed for the 112 years of the sports’s previous life then changed the match. In all this a reserve (beforehand, somewhere down the food chain from plankton) comes on and kicks four goals out of nowhere. The historical significance of this match is undeniable.

After pegging the deficit back Carlton then engaged in a frantic last quarter where Jezza’s tumbling goal finished it with minutes remaining.

Iconic moments do not come any bigger than Jezza’s mark – perhaps the most replayed highlight in the history of the sport and accompanied by a Mike Williamson soundbite that I’m convinced is passed down generation-to-generation via the womb.

I knew “Jesaulenko, you beauty” at the age of five and I think kids today are the same.

It loses slightly in closesness, simply because Collingwood champagne corks were popping with a 44-point lead that looked like a blowout all through the first half, but the sheer audacity of a side to make it all the way back from 44 points down in grand final is something we’ve never before or since.

Star power was solid, the Carlton team are full of immortals Jezza, Big Nick, Crosswell, Walls, Silvagni, while characteristically Collingwood were more working class but still boasted Thompson, the Richardson’s, a pre-injury John Greening, and the biggest star of the day Peter McKenna.

You must remember that McKenna was tapped to be a TV star at the time (Hey Hey its Saturday), we’ve not seen a current player carry a TV program with a loose football connection ever since – and he was close to it. He was the Melbourne version of the Beatles. He kicked six goals in a losing side, it’s not far behind Ablett in ’89.

I’m not sure if there’s much more to say other than this scores high in every category, it doesn’t have a fault. Oh and it happened to be between what have proven to be the two most fierce rivals in footy (if not Australian sport).

Oh and there were 121,696 people in attendance. Read it again….. 121 thousand.

Now that will never be topped, and is another compelling reason that this grand final will never be topped.

So there it is, abuse, debate, maybe even agreement. And click here for my ratings for every GF since 1966.

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