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Revisiting the Brisbane Lions' improbable 2001 premiership ahead of another Dons showdown

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Roar Guru
13th April, 2021
11

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Brisbane Lions coach Leigh Matthews famously used this quote from the film Predator to inspire his side ahead of a 2001 mid-season clash against reigning premiers Essendon.

History will tell us that the Lions caused an almighty upset that night, defeating the Bombers by 28 points and kick-starting a winning streak that would take them to a grand final showdown against the same side at the MCG on September 29.

Going into the decider, Matthews had already had the edge over Kevin Sheedy in the manner that he coached Collingwood to a drought-breaking premiership win against the Bombers in 1990, which ended a frustrating period of time that was dubbed the ‘Colliwobbles’.

But this was a different challenge for him altogether, with the Lions contesting their first grand final since Fitzroy claimed their eighth and last flag in 1944, while the other half of the merger, the Brisbane Bears, did not reach a decider in their ten-year existence between 1987 and 1996.

For the long-suffering Fitzroy supporters, it was a momentous day after seeing their club forcefully merged with the Bears to form the Brisbane Lions in 1997.

It had also been just over five years since the Roys played their final ever match, which they lost to Fremantle by 86 points at the since-demolished Subiaco Oval.

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The Lions went into the match having won their previous 1% matches, while Essendon were attempting to not only successfully defend a premiership for the first time since 1985 but also become the most successful club in the game’s history, with a 17th flag at their mercy.

Alastair Lynch kicked the first goal but the Bombers’ experience plus some inaccurate kicking from the Lions saw the home side lead by 14 points at halftime, 8.6 (54) to 5.10 (40).

But Brisbane made their move in the second half, kicking ten goals to four to ultimately win the match by 26 points, 15.18 (108) to 12.10 (82). They had led by 39 points, but the Bombers pegged back two goals to make the scoreline look respectable.

Eleven years after leading Collingwood to the aforementioned 1990 flag, Matthews, who was coaxed out of his coaching retirement to lead the Lions after they finished last in 1998, had once again weaved his magic.

That wooden spoon side of ’98 featured the Scott twins, Brad and Chris, as well as Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis, Alastair Lynch, Chris Johnson, Clark Keating, Craig McRae, Daniel Bradshaw, Darryl White, Justin Leppitsch, Luke Power, Marcus Ashcroft, Nigel Lappin, Shaun Hart, Simon Black and Tim Notting.

All those players became premiership winners.

Hart won the Norm Smith Medal as the best player on the ground, while Jason Akermanis had won the Brownlow Medal in the week leading up to the match.

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Brisbane went on to become the greatest team of the noughties era, claiming the following two flags at the expense of Collingwood in 2002 and 2003, then falling just short of a record-fourth consecutive flag when Port Adelaide denied them in 2004.

Since then, only the Geelong Cats (2007, 2009 and 2011), Hawthorn (2008, 2013-15) and Richmond (2017, 2019 and 2020) have won at least three flags, but it’s hard to go past the Lions as the greatest premiership team of the millennium.

Why, you ask? Firstly, the fact they defeated the most dominant team of the time (Essendon), and secondly, the fact they beat two big Victorian clubs at the MCG for their hat-trick.

It’s also worth noting that, as mentioned above, the Lions had claimed the wooden spoon in 1998 and Matthews quickly turned them into a powerhouse.

Had they also won the 2004 grand final against Port, which would’ve seen them match the Collingwood four-peat class of 1927-30, we would have been talking them up as the greatest team of the millennium.

As for Essendon, it was a bitterly disappointing end to another impressive season and nearly two decades on the club has yet to reach another grand final, let alone another preliminary final, and it has also been nearly 17 years since the club last won a final.

The 2001 grand final is also notable in that it has produced a number of senior coaches in the AFL: both club captains on that day (Voss and James Hird) went on to coach their respective clubs.

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During his time as Lions coach, Voss only took the side to September once, in 2009, his first season, before a series of trade and draft blunders (who could forget Brendan Fevola?) as well as poor results on the field saw him dismissed with three rounds remaining in 2013.

Voss was replaced by his triple-premiership winning teammate Justin Leppitsch, who did not fare any better with the Lions, finishing no higher than 15th in three unsuccessful years in charge.

Hird took over as coach of Essendon after the controversial sacking of Matthew Knights in 2010 and, like Voss, only took his side to the finals once in 2011, when they lost to Carlton by 62 points in an elimination final.

His tenure at Windy Hill was shrouded by controversy and after sitting out the 2014 season due to suspension arising from his role in the club’s supplements scandal, Hird also departed with three rounds remaining in 2015.

Brad (North Melbourne) and Chris Scott (Geelong Cats), Damien Hardwick (Richmond) and Leppitsch (Brisbane Lions) also became senior coaches in the AFL, with Chris Scott and Hardwick (three times) leading their respective clubs to flags in 2011, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

Last year’s grand final at the Gabba saw Scott and Hardwick go head-to-head for the third time in a grand final as either a player or coach; the pair were on opposing sides when a Port Adelaide side featuring Hardwick in his final game upset Scott’s Lions in the 2004 decider.

Additionally, after his unsuccessful tenure as Lions coach, Leppitsch acted as an assistant to Hardwick in each of the Tigers’ last three flags.

Trent Cotchin

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/via Getty Images )

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On Saturday night, Brisbane will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that historic 2001 flag when they come up against the Bombers in a free-to-air blockbuster at the Gabba.

Both sides have won just one match for the season, with the Lions pipping the Pies in Round 3, when Zac Bailey booted the match winner after the final siren, while the Bombers were impressive in thrashing St Kilda by 75 points, also in Round 3.

Last week, the Lions crashed to their third loss of the season, going down to the Western Bulldogs by 19 points in Ballarat, while Essendon came to within a kick of handing the Sydney Swans their first defeat of the year, losing by just three points.

Reigning Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale has struggled with a back injury so far this season, which has also been attributed to the Lions’ poor start to the season which also included a disappointing loss to the Swans at home as well as a controversial loss to Geelong at Kardinia Park in Round 2.

While he is expected to play against the Bombers at the Gabba, just how much he makes an impact remains to be seen.

Also lighting the fuse for Saturday night’s clash will be the presence of Lions forward Joe Daniher, who will line up against his old club for the first time since leaving Windy Hill at the end of last season.

In four games for his new side, Daniher has kicked seven goals, but his first major as a Lion against the Swans in Round 1 drew criticism from former Port Adelaide champion Kane Cornes, who accused him of disrespecting the Bombers given how well he had serviced the club between 2013 and 2020.

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On the other hand, the Dons, who are on the road for the third time in four weeks, squandered a 25-point second-quarter lead against the Swans in Sydney but otherwise did well to keep them below 100 points, as well as contain nemesis Lance Franklin for most of the night.

After the match, footage emerged of captain Dyson Heppell telling his players how proud he was of the players’ efforts, and that he was excited for the challenge that lay ahead.

The Bombers have enjoyed a strong record against the Lions in the past decade, winning seven of their last 11 matches dating back to 2011, though it was Chris Fagan’s side that were victorious last time, winning by 63 points at Metricon Stadium.

It also stands to be a massive day for the Brisbane Lions, whose women’s team will be hoping to make it third time lucky when they contest the AFL Women’s grand final against the Adelaide Crows earlier in the day.

As for the men’s team, despite losing three of their first four games, it’s not yet panic stations at the Gabba, but you get the feeling that another loss on Saturday night could see them further fall behind the pack.

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If they need any inspiration, they need not look beyond when the class of 2001 upset the Bombers at home on a Saturday night with that result sparking a winning run that ultimately took them to the first of a hat-trick of premierships.

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The current crop of Lions are also on a similar trajectory than their counterparts of two decades ago, having claimed a wooden spoon in 2017 before rocketing up the ladder and producing an exciting brand of football under Fagan’s coaching.

Last year, they had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to qualify for a grand final at the Gabba, which could have meant winning a premiership on home soil, but were brought undone by the Cats in the preliminary final.

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That disappointment has only fueled their desire to go all the way this year, which would be the perfect way to mark two decades since the start of the club’s golden era, which to the older generation of fans seems like a lifetime ago given the struggles the club endured in the following years.