One of my earliest memories in my life of following the Collingwood footy club involved the 1976 AFL season.
The Pies never won wooden spoons then. It just didn’t happen. Hadn’t in 80 years. Enter 1976 and ex-champion player Murray ‘The Enforcer’ Weideman in his second year as coach.
I recall my father had met a Pies official during the middle of the season and had somehow got me a ticket to the inner sanctum at the Pies for a home and away game during the year. I recall very little about the actual game yet can still smell the linament being rubbed into Wayne Richardson’s buttocks deep inside the decaying bowels of Victoria Park before the game.
I recall the players going through their pre-game paces and was completely awestruck, of course, watching these God-like figures doing normal human rituals in front of me was like I’d entered some fantasy realm. It was heady stuff for an 11-year-old boy.
The designated official looking after me plonked me in the Pies members stand for the end of the Reserves game, just me and one other bloke on his own, sitting on an old rickety wooden bench seat in the shade and cold.
The fellow was Murray Weideman.
I looked at him and remember him turning around to look at me. He looked grumpy. It later all came out that the president, coach and most of the players were fighting with each other through ’76 and consequently, our first wooden spoon arrived with Weideman removed as coach.
Enter Tom Hafey. The Adidas teetotalling T-shirt wearing fitness freak came to the Pies and took them all the way from wooden spoon to scores level in the final quarter of a grand final in one year.
I recall watching Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne take a great mark maybe 30 metres out in the dying seconds and kicking a flat punt through to tie the game. In the dying seconds, the Pies’ Shane Bond had the ball on the wing and was heading towards the forward line on the siren. Result was a draw and North won the replay comfortably. Flag lost, boy crying.
Being a couple of years older meant more maturity which unfortunately correlates to an ability to absorb and understand more pain. What pain too. The Blues were the best side in 1979, no doubt. They won four more games and had a much better percentage than the Pies after the home-and-away season.
However, the day was wet, the ‘G was even a bit muddy and the game was on. Carlton were still the better side and led by 20-odd points at three-quarter time, yet it came down to an infamous Wayne Harmes tap three metres over the boundary line (according to Eddie) unmanned by a slack boundary umpire to get Carlton the premiership-winning goal and a five-point victory.
Another grand final we probably shouldn’t have made, could have won, but didn’t.
The Tigers finished third this season, the Pies fifth. We shouldn’t have made the grand final, but did. We beat North by eight points in an elimination final and Geelong by four in the prelim.
The decider was so conclusive it didn’t hurt much to be truthful. It was over halfway through the second quarter as KB ran amok, kicking about 19 goals. Tigers coach Tony Jewell recently said he recalled Jim Jess taking a mark back with the flight in the first quarter and turning to his coaching staff saying “we won’t lose this today”.
He was right, to the tune of 81 points.
This one hurt. The Pies had thumped the Blues once in the regular season and by a point in the other game yet stumbled through the finals, barely making the grand final with a one-point win over Fitzroy in a knockout final and a seven-point win over Geelong in the prelim.
Yet we led the Blues by 21 points deep in the third quarter before they kicked the final six goals of the game to win by 20 points. Oh yes, I was old enough to really hurt with this one. A flag goes begging.
The Colliewobbles were symbolically buried in the Victoria Park turf after the 1990 flag yet they reared their ugly head once more in 2002. After all, this was up against the mighty Lions outfit in the middle of their three-peat.
The Lions featured such players in the prime of their career as Michael Voss, Simon Black, Nigel Lappin, Alastair Lynch, Jason Akermanis and the fearsome Scott brothers, seemingly named after a fictional London pair of brother gangsters from the 1970s.
Once more, the fickle footy gods decided to tease Pies fans, throwing down an ugly, windy and wet grand final which kept Collingwood in the game. ‘Let’s do even more,’ said the laughing gods as they ripped Aker’s groin early and had Scott Burns get within an inch of taking Voss out of the game with a brutal charge that didn’t quite hit the exact spot that surely would have finished even the indestructible Lions skipper.
All of this kept the Pies in a game which is worth watching in full if you like to see close, tough footy. It was brutal to watch, yet the gods weren’t quite done.
Anthony Rocca kicked a monster shot at goal in the last quarter that soared so high above the posts the goal umpire would have to have taken an educated guess.
Rocca is adamant to this day it was a goal, the goal umpire is adamant he got the call right. Who will ever know, but if he went for the goal it may have been the most unlikely premiership ever.
Once again the Pies were perhaps not quite good enough to make the grand final, yet did and lost.
This one probably should have been a Port Adelaide-Brisbane grand final yet the Pies upset the Power in a prelim after beating the Lions in the qualifying final.
Alas, it was not to be. This was over before halftime on a day where nothing went right despite Scott Burns knocking out Jonathan Brown five seconds into the game.
After the gods looked away for a millisecond in 2010, allowing the ball to bounce the wrong way for Stephen Milne and secure us the draw that became a flag, they were back again in 2011 determined to have some more fun.
We went through the season like a tornado seemingly winning every game by 50-70 points. It felt like being Hawthorn at their best. We were amazing. Yet we lost two games during the year, one by three points to Geelong in season and the most bizarre game I have ever seen in Round 24, to Geelong again by 96 points.
Collingwood never really recovered from that mauling yet we found ourselves in the grand final courtesy of a three-point win over a Buddy-inspired Hawks in the prelim. We kicked three in a row early in the second quarter and Travis Cloke was just catching and kicking everything.
It seemed we would go back-to-back before Chris Scott swapped Taylor off Cloke for Lonergan. Meanwhile, a young Tom Hawkins announced his arrival and the Cats pushed away to win easily. Another grand final went begging. Luke Ball recently said he barely goes a fortnight without thinking of it to this day.
For a man of my vintage, I have been tortured by the ghosts of Collingwood past and the footy gods who manipulate them like puppets. We are great at making grand finals. We play more of those than anyone.
We aren’t so good at winning them.
Why? Perhaps because we scrap and fight and claw our way to deciders we shouldn’t make and are spent when we make them. People older than me will also be tortured by 1970 (led Carlton by 44 points at half-time and lost by ten), 1966 (lost to St Kilda by a point) and 1964 (lost to Melbourne by four points).
This week, we may lose by one point or by 100, but we did it again. We made it and we will have another crack at it. What will the footy gods do this week? Can they look away just for a moment or two like 1990 and 2010, or will they throw another barb?
For those who point to our poor return on the grand final-to-premiership ratio, I would argue we get the joy of making the final day a lot more than most. Our club gives us a lot of chances, perhaps more than our talent deserves, yet we’d way rather be there involved than watching on the sidelines.
This is a club built in the working-class slums of Johnston and Smith St, by those who have built a new stately home with a foundation of tears, sweat and blood.
The corridors of the Holden Centre brought the ghosts of Victoria Park with them. They are roamed by the youthful ghosts of men who still live and reflect elsewhere.
The youthful ghosts of Bobbie Rose, John Greening and the Richardson brothers, of Peter Moore searching for the grand final medallion he threw into the crowd when we lost another one, of Ray Shaw and Fabulous Phil Carman with his white boots still gleaming.
Phil Manassa still takes epic running bounces along the corridor, Sav Rocca and Chris Tarrant stand defiant, James Clement and Paul Licuria shed tears, Anthony Rocca points toward the goal umpire in anger and Nathan Buckley tucks his Norm Smith medal into his jumper to reflect on it another day, perhaps this Saturday, perhaps not.