The 2023 Premiership Rant

The 2023 Premiership Rant

Success in footy is always about more than footy.

Around 15 months ago, I was driving home from the 2022 Preliminary Final. Collingwood lost to Sydney by a single point. After the craziest year of sport in my life, I decided to get a Collingwood tattoo on my arm.

2022 was hard for me. I left a job I really liked because I couldn’t see a long-term future there and ended up in a new job I hated. I struggled with living away from much of my family and felt isolated and alone. I was dangerously bored, and angry with myself for feeling bored. I had good friends to talk to, but that only helps so much when some of the hurt going on inside me, I didn’t even know was there.

Watching Collingwood held me together. In the hardest moments, I could always look forward to the next game, especially ones I could see in person in Melbourne with my family. I spent every spare cent on flights and tickets that year. I needed it.

In the darkest times, I couldn’t imagine my future. But when I thought of my team, I thought, “I can imagine theirs. And I can imagine being there for it.”.

Come 2023 Round One. I go to Melbourne for the game, and with a Cats-supporting friend. I watch us take on the reigning premiers. Darcy Moore tackles Oliver Henry in the goal square directly beneath us and the MCG shakes. Collingwood’s system is red hot, but Geelong are clinical with their chances. We get on top in the end. When my Magpies move the footy, it’s like a hot knife through butter.

I didn’t get to Melbourne as much in 2023 as I did in 2022. For one, I started playing again, and faced my own heartbreaks as a player, with injury interruptions ruling me out of playing finals with a team I’d come to love.
Of the few games I did see there, the best one was played somewhere else. I had come down for just the weekend, and the Pies were playing away in Adelaide against the Crows. Me, Dad, and Mikey went for dinner and watched game in the pub.

Collingwood won the game with 92 turnovers – the most in a win since stats have been taken. The last quarter was a thriller that had everyone in the (usually very relaxed) front bar at Hardiman’s in Kensington only watching the footy. We weren’t the only ones openly barracking, and anyone who came to investigate the commotion in light disapproval ended up watching too. People were getting out of their chairs to look over each other at the screen in the corner. When it ended, nobody could believe the Pies pulled it off.

The Crows game was the moment that I felt Craig McRae’s approach had evolved from a philosophy into a gameplan. His ideas about windshield wipers and taking the steps weren’t just handy directions for spiritual energy anymore, the way they’d felt against Carlton the previous year. They’d become a war manual, built on an incredibly smart guy’s understanding of football and the human mind. The team were using his mental insights as a foundation for tactics that abuse the availability of time and space, with and without the ball. And it was making us genuinely the best. The clutch finishes were the result of mental and tactical conditioning that no other team had. In older school terms, I’d never seen a team better at winning ugly. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say something like ‘our bad days need to beat their best days’. For most of the last two years, we have had the best bad days.

That wave took us all the way to being minor premiers, and then to aPpreliminary Final. While Melbourne had their chances in the Qualifying Final, I recently rewatched that game and they were massively flattered by post-match analysis. My read was that Collingwood backed its ability to hold a small lead and allowed Melbourne to attack the 50 in transition. McRae’s approach, ever braver in the era of 6/6/6, was completely effective. The Pies sat back and soaked up pressure for long periods of the game, making for inside 50 and shot on goal stats that didn’t reflect the contest. In soccer terms, we parked the bus. That game even gave me an inkling that stats like inside 50s, at least used in a vacuum, may suffer increasing irrelevance if the coaching renaissance reaches its full recreative potential.

And so, we moved on to the Preliminary Final. Without hesitation, I bought tickets for me and my brother with my club membership and flew down on the Thursday. We had seats in the front row of the Warne Stand, about 75 metres from the goal, sitting with 97,000 Collingwood fans, about 1,000 people dressed in orange behind one goal.

The footy that night was the definition of a slog. When we were down by a whopping three and a half goals with more than an hour to play in the game, angst emerged among some of the more idiotic Collingwood fans. They were screaming at Pat Lipinski for fumbling and yelling at random players to ‘do something’. A couple were even pacing up and down the aisles, seemingly prepared to storm out of the ground if we conceded another. Their fear of failure was so present and toxic. Frankly, they stank of despair. All I could think was ‘Is this even fun for you? Have you heard a word the coach has said these last two years?’. Thankfully, we started to come back at it.

The crucial moment came when the ball was loose on the wing across the ground from us. Oleg Markov and Connor Idun (who had been playing an excellent game), were running directly at each other as the ball bobbled between them. Oleg put his head over the ball with his body behind it and used two hands. Idun overran it, and Markov was left free to pick the ball up and launch it to the run of McStay, who clunked it. When he was lining up, my inner monologue piped up. Watching him turn the ball in his hands, I thought ‘Here I am, a victim of physics.’

He scored.

Brody Mihocek led to our wing in packs of three orange defenders again and again and again. He was always the first to his feet. We could hear the crunch every time. I say to Mikey ‘that man is made of concrete.’ The speed at which players got to their feet was so obvious this close to the game. It went from slow at first, to fast, to slow again as they tired. The players are battling to be the team up first 51% of the time. They were working to get adrenalin into one another. At one point with a contest right in front of us I yelled at De Goey, “GET TO YOUR FEET JORDAN!”. We were close enough that I think he heard me.

Then came the last contest of the game. After 10 minutes of scrap directly in front of our seats (the far wing, meaning De Goey, who had dominated all day, had been unable to come on, as I learned in the coverage the next day), there was a ball up on the Giants’ 50 metre line, directly in front of us.

I’m back there mentally now. I’m watching Tom Mitchell and Tom Green set up under the ball. As the umpire runs in, Mitchell gets a hard, early shove on Green. The ball hits the deck underneath them after the ruck, and Green hasn’t had time to close the inches of space he needs. Mitchell gets his left hand to the ball, smacking it out the back of the contest toward our wing. It makes its way to Josh Daicos, who is on my life running straight at me and my brother, chest heaving. I can see sweat dripping from his shoulders, and his eyes jumping back and forth between where to kick the ball and where he is stepping. After a zig sends the orange defender behind him left for just a millisecond, he zags up the line. He only needed a step, and we knew it. Me and Mikey grabbed each other and started yelling the name Hoskin-Elliott. He took the mark, and after a few seconds of not much, the siren went.

The joy and the excitement were met with pride in the way we’d won. I had a front row seat to immensely resilient football that day, from both sides. It was incredible elite sport, and my team were the ones to do enough. I cried during the song. I was overcome with the thrill that they would get to be part of the biggest day of all. I was so proud. An image popped to mind of my Aunty Kath’s Grand Final party, which I wouldn’t be attending, but happens every year. She sets up streamers for the teams on the rail of the stairs. This year, they’d be black and white.

Then, it was Grand Final week. I watched the footy talk. Unlike many Pies fans I know, I was genuinely enjoying the moment. I was nervous, but also having fun, treating tomorrow as never promised. I kept telling friends that there are no free hits (Carlton!), and that every shot at a premiership is somebody’s only shot at a premiership. Brayden Maynard and Jordan De Goey talked openly of redemption from 2018 during the Grand Final parade. Their planetary nads gave me hope and reassurance.

Suddenly, it was the day of the game. Incredibly, having rushed back to Canberra after the prelim for work, I didn’t even know where I’d watch when I woke up. Eventually, I decided to go to Ainslie Football Club with my sister, her boyfriend, and my mate Lachy. The anticipation was at its worst around 1pm. I bought a beer but forgot to sip it until halfway through the second quarter. From the second goal, I knew it was going to be a thriller. I’m no longer a smoker, but I had what was probably my third cigarette of the whole year at half time.

In the time I had to think, I kept reflecting on our goals in the last moments of the first two quarters. I was reassured by the fact the players were still behaving the same. But I was scared. I knew that chances at flags don’t come better than this, and Brisbane could easily say the same. Every Brisbane goal made me think ‘Fuck. I might as well just toss a coin.’
But honestly, I was barely thinking. Usually, my mind is full of words. When Collingwood is playing a knockout game of footy, I barely think at all.

I’d been receiving ribbing text messages about past Collingwood Grand Finals throughout the game, and at three quarter time I sent out a copy-message reply to something like four group chats and two separate individuals.
‘You can be in the past or the future all you like. I’m here, at 3QT in the 2023 AFL Grand Final. Watching a fantastic game.’

While it was intense at first, I felt progressively more relaxed throughout the game. To be fair, I wonder how aroused a person can stay for a game that lasts two full hours.

By the start of the last quarter, I was genuinely calm. I was enjoying the footy. I was focused on watching my team play the moments.

I’ll admit this snapped when Charlie Cameron scored. The play itself was insane. Three times, I think Maynard or Quaynor have him. I am completely enthralled. But he gets loose, and his arms are pumping in celebration. Lachy, who had come to with me as much as emotional support as to see what would happen, later told me that he looked at me at this moment. In his words, ‘you just … sat there.’ I wasn’t ‘enjoying it’ anymore, but I wasn’t feeling negative emotion either. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I really wasn’t. My brain knew Brisbane scoring was ‘bad’, but my body just didn’t produce a pain response.

Perhaps my belief in the players had made its way into my actual nervous system. I didn’t feel like I’d made any effort not to panic, just that my brain knew it couldn’t send that message early. Deep inside, I knew the game wasn’t over. I was waiting to see what would happen next. Though I didn’t really ‘just sit there’. I immediately, reflexively looked at the clock. ‘5:33’ is etched in my memory. Instinctively, I thought ‘That is such a long time.’ My voice jumped in deliberately to riff on that. I said aloud ‘There is no world where that is the last goal of this game.’ It seemed to calm the Collingwood fans who could hear me. I went back into my trance, hypnotised by what had just happened, what could be about to happen, and the deafening sounds of the workwear man shouting at me through the big screen.

When Pendles, Nick Daicos and De Goey immediately hit back, I felt joy, but also vindication for my reaction to the Cameron goal. I felt well-coached. As a fan, as a Collingwood member, and as a person. For the rest of the game and the remaining two goals from Sidebottom and Daniher, I could only sit and watch the footy.

Then, we won.

I immediately cried on the prelim siren, but flags aren’t the same. I mostly felt peace. To love a football club is to live in perpetual yearning. In that first moment of glory, the absence of that yearning is more noticeable than any thrill.
After all, footy provides thrills all the time. In finals, but even just in big games. There might be 10 thrills in a single game some weeks. But the yearning is always there for more. We pine for the ultimate: a gold-plated year. Premiership glory. Getting to love footy without that desire is bliss.

Eventually, the joy did come. Just not all at once. It comes in waves. The first wave was on the day itself, of course. About ten minutes after the siren, raising a beer to what had just happened. Another came the next day talking on the phone to my dad, and then brother. One came weeks later, when I found myself rewatching the game on the couch, looking at Jordan De Goey grinning ear to ear during the national anthem. More waves came when my premiership stubby holder arrived. They come when I’m driving the car, when I’ll suddenly remember watching Peter Moore hand over the cup. They hit hard any time something reminds me of that day, like the song ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, for obvious reasons. ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ also does it, since it played in the first video I saw of Peter and Darcy Moore hugging each other after the siren. ‘Horses’, which Darcy Cameron sang at the premiership function, does too. One is hitting me now, writing all this.

The biggest came one night six weeks after the Grand Final. Lying in bed, moments from sleep, I remembered, without choosing to, sitting at the SCG after the 2022 Preliminary Final, watching Nick Daicos and Jack Ginnivan holding each other in tears about 25 metres away. Part of me was back there, not knowing what would happen next year. I was feeling sadness, but also immense hope for the future. But the rest of me was at home in bed, in that future: in a warm blanket, with a premiership banner on my apartment wall, knowing that the next year, we did it.

‘Dear that Pat’, I thought. ‘We go all the way. Failure in 2022 is a chapter in a premiership story. We all find healing in the most exciting way possible. Mate, the dream comes true.’

It was the perfect end to two years that had already given me so much joy, and the perfect beginning of whatever is to come. Most of the focus on premiership celebration goes into the moments after the siren, but the great thing about flags is that they are forever. 2023 is etched in metal, ready to last in moments like that for the rest of my life.

To finish, a nomination for a premiership slogan. There are many candidates from the club mystic, our quote-happy coach of the future. But mine is from the rags-to-riches story of 2023, Oleg Markov. On the back of his once-worn Carlton training gear on Mad Monday, he alluded to how things could have been, had he gone somewhere else at the turning point in his career that was the previous summer. Holding up his shining medal on the way into the pub, grinning ear to ear, Oleg perhaps unintentionally quoted Kanye West, who taking the stage at the Grammies, once began,

‘Everyone was wondering what I would do if I didn’t win …’.

Then, deadpan and holding his trophy aloft, delivered what would one day be Oleg’s magnificent line.

‘I guess we’ll never know.’