It’s the year 1999. US President Bill Clinton is fighting impeachment charges. The Y2K bug is threatening to bring down technology and take the world back to the dark ages. And in the AFL world, it was the opportunity for redemption. After throwing away the premiership the previous season, North Melbourne returned to the last Saturday in September for another shot at glory.
Their roadblocks this time around were Carlton, a team that had been consistent all the way through the season and came into the Grand Final on the back of one of club’s most famous victories, a one-point triumph over minor premiers, Essendon. Starting the season 1-4, North Melbourne entered the MCG riding high on the back of 18 wins and one loss since. Would the Roos get the monkey off their back and claim a well-deserved flag? Welcome to Part TWO of our series, the 1999 decider between the Kangaroos and the Blues.
As the 1999 season began, many wondered whether the most talented team of the ’90s had underachieved. Making the finals every year in the decade (save for 1992), North only had the 1996 flag to show for it. In the season prior, poor goal kicking and a frustrating lack of pressure crippled the Roos, and they let another premiership slip from their grasp. 1999 began just as disappointingly, and after round five, North had only tasted victory once.
What happened next defined this playing group. The Kangaroos surged on the back of their champions, and with Denis Pagan making some innovative coaching moves during the season, the Roos made their charge. After round five, their only blemish was a loss to the underrated Bulldogs. Led by the King, North’s veteran players took it upon themselves to ensure that the 1998 stumble would not be repeated.
As the finals began, the premiership looked like a two-horse race, the best but disappointing team of the decade Kangaroos, against the near-unstoppable Bombers. Both teams had barnstorming wins early in the finals (North beating Port Adelaide by 44 points, and Essendon crushing the Swans by 69 points), and it seemed like only a matter of time before they would meet in the Grand Final. However, thanks to a brilliant Carlton performance, North Melbourne’s biggest road block had been pushed aside, clearing the way for redemption to be fulfilled.
As the day unfolded, and with Carlton clearly fatigued from their previous finals victories, North’s champion team of champions zeroed in on their prize, playing with a ferociousness and steel-eyed determination to write the wrong of 1998. The wave of momentum proved too much for the Blues to overcome, and the Kangaroos were finally able to obtain glory once more, and prove the doubters wrong. They were indeed the greatest team of the first decade in the AFL era.
NORTH’S OTHER FORWARDS
It was the battle for the ages. The King vs. SOS. It was a battle that many thought would decide the Grand Final. If Silvagni could keep Carey quiet, the Blues would surely be able to pinch the flag. However, thanks to Pagan’s manoeuvres, North didn’t need to rely to Carey to drag them across the line, as there were plenty of others willing to put their hands up to provide the assist. While Carey contributed two majors, there were seven others that added goals to the tally, and in terms of leading by inspiration, perhaps no-one contributed more than ruckman Corey McKernan, whose three goals in the second quarter pushed the Roos into the lead. And it was a lead they would not relinquish.
Midfielders Peter Bell and Shannon Grant each kicked four goals, Shannon Motlop and Winston Abraham popped up to deliver two goals each, while Craig Sholl and Scott Welsh kicked one. It was these collective efforts, as well as North Melbourne’s rock solid defence, that eased the pressure on Carey to lift his team to glory.
THE NOT SO GOOD
WERE CARLTON COOKED?
It’s a question that Carlton’s hierarchy would’ve asked themselves in the weeks and months after the final siren blew. Had Carlton already played its Grand Final the week previous in the famous victory over the Bombers? While North Melbourne had a fairly easy passage to the last Saturday in September, the Blues had to endure one of the games of the year, as Essendon came home hard to almost pinch the Grand Final spot from under Carlton’s nose.
Finishing sixth after the home and away season, the Blues had already had to confront a Brisbane team at the Gabba (a game they lost by 73 points), and having lost, faced a determined West Coast (a 54-point win), then had to clash with a Bombers outfit coming off a bye week, as well as a 69-point belting of the Swans two weeks prior.
It was a truly remarkable performance to get over the minor premiers, but it proved telling, as Carlton were clearly fatigued by the time they got to North Melbourne. While their regular superstars did as expected, as many as half the team that took the field against Essendon had below average performances in the decider.
Fraser Brown went from 22 possessions and two goals in the preliminary final to just eight touches the next week, Lance Whitnall got the better of Dean Wallis, but was then well beaten by Mick Martyn, Ben Nelson produced a fine display then also failed to back it up when it mattered, and Aaron Hamill and Glenn Manton had Grand Finals to forget after starring the week prior.
Many in the AFL community see this as the start of Carlton’s downfall, with many of their star players being veterans that would retire in the coming years, leaving behind an unsteady foundation that as yet, is still to be rebuilt.
North Melbourne and Carlton fans, this may not be something you’ll enjoy hearing. Perhaps the worst part of this Grand Final came in the years after, as both sides that contested the 1999 decider have failed to reach the same milestone in the 20 years since. North Melbourne have come the closest, with three Preliminary finals appearances, while the Blues’ best finish since 1999 was a Preliminary final loss the next year.
Both sides have had their struggles since this fateful day, with the Kangaroos being linked to a move to Tasmania for the last decade, a proposal that had shut down by both club administration and supporters alike, while the Blues have had to deal with consistent mediocrity in the 20 years since this Grand Final defeat, and were forced to reckon with a significant salary cap breach that cost them the prized first two picks in the 2002 Draft (which would’ve netted the Blues Brendon Goddard and Daniel Wells) as well as a fine of over $930,000. This scandal rocked Carlton, who remained weak off-field, and it wasn’t until Richard Pratt took over the presidency that the Blues were able to stabilise themselves in a financial and administrative sense.
Looking ahead, it is hard to say at this point which of the two sides is closer to reaching the promised land. Carlton have an army of young talent that is yet to take the final step, while the Kangaroos don’t appear to have as many young guns as the Blues, but have been far more consistent on-field. I am almost gun-shy to tip Carlton to reach the summit earlier than the Kangaroos, as they have consistently let their fans down for the better part of a decade. However, all the Blues need is for their young talent to pop, and give their skipper Patrick Cripps support. McGovern, Dow, Weitering, Silvagni, Curnow, McKay, Petrevski-Seton, Setterfield. So much talent, if they can all reach the next level, David Teague could have a dynasty at his fingertips. It’s just a matter of when.
PLAYERS OF THE MATCH
After being labelled on his side’s worst players in the loss to the Crows in 1998, Shannon Grant played like a man hell-bent on redeeming himself, and boy did it show. In his familiar role as a high half forward and wingman, Grant was everywhere when the game was in the balance, gathering 19 important touches and booting four goals. While others around him had more of the ball, Grant made sure that every one of his disposals was effective, and his running power cut through a Blues defence that visibly fatigued as the game wore on. This was truly a performance worthy of the Norm Smith Medal, and one that would catapult Grant into the conversation of the AFL best player.
Oh Fremantle, why did you let this gem of a footballer get away? In 1995, Dockers coach Gerard Neesham said that Bell was “too slow to be an AFL footballer”, and delisted him after just two senior games. Scooped up by Denis Pagan, Bell didn’t look back, and played vital roles in the Roos’ consecutive Grand Finals. This time around, Bell amassed 31 touches in the midfield, and showed his improved speed by losing his opponent to go forward and add four majors to his stats sheet. One of the lesser lights in a midfield group the included Anthony Stevens, David King and Adam Simpson, Bell once again proved his worth, and proved how short-sighted Fremantle were to let him slip through their fingers.
In the same game last year against the Crows, the normally hard King looked pedestrian against his quicker, more agile opponents, often looking disinterested when defending against the flow. Today, it was the complete opposite, as King played like a man possessed, registering 23 disposals. In direct contrast to his 1998 performance, King’s work when he didn’t have the ball was his highlight, and it felt like Denis Pagan had laid it on King to remedy his performance from 1998.
Another year, another defender that kept the King down. Last year, it was unheralded Peter Caven. This time around, it was the full back of the century. It was the same approach that always felled Carey, with SOS using his supreme agility to always cut off marks that Carey attempted to take, and his surprising speed from a standing start made it hard for Carey to get into the game. The third quarter rattled Silvagni, as Pagan threw Carey into the midfield to both get him into the game and rev up the Kangaroos to go on and win, and while that tactical change did indeed swing the contest North Melbourne’s way, Carey’s main weapon – that of being a forward target – wasn’t a factor, and that was directly because of SOS.
It was a silky smooth performance from Camporeale, who put together four quarters of magnificent football to give the Blues a sniff against the best team of the season. While his midfield contemporaries Bradley, McKay and Ratten produced games of sheer toughness, Camporeale was the Rolls Royce, and Carlton’s forward were afforded excellent service. If only they could have capitalised on it. Camporeale had 27 disposals, 20 of them kicks, and his six marks linking up plays from defence was a joy to watch.
AND THE WORST?
Playing in a defence that came under increasing duress, there was simply nothing Blues veteran Christou could do to stop the avalanche. Christou’s worst moment came in the second quarter when he was turned completely inside out by Craig Sholl. Despite only gathering a measly six possessions, Christou’s most frustrating aspect of his performance was the three free kicks he gave away within range of North Melbourne’s goal. Spending time on young Roo Scott Welsh, Christou was embarrassed by Welsh, and by the time he was taken from the ground, the damage was well and truly done.
In what was his final game in the blue and white, Brett Allison was simply the worst of a team of champions. Gathering just seven disposals, Allison didn’t get near it, but it was clear he didn’t need to, as there were so many winners for the Kangaroos that someone would inevitably have minimal impact. The 31-year-old played across the half forward line and was matched up against Simon Beaumont for the majority of the afternoon, and while Beaumont wasn’t one of the Blues’ star performers, it was clear that Allison came off second best in the one on one duel.
Another Blue that was simply overwhelmed by his opponents, as it seemed nothing was going to go Hickmott’s way. Registering just six possessions, Hickmott’s main strength, tackling, wasn’t on show today, as North Melbourne refused to be beaten. Spending time on the interchange bench, Hickmott was sent to various North midfielders in an attempt to stem the bleeding in the premiership quarter, and perhaps the only player Hickmott broke even against was Anthony Stevens, keeping in mind Stevens was dealing with an elbow injury sustained in the first quarter.
Perhaps a little harsh on the young man. Playing in just his eleventh match, 19-year-old Mooney came into the Grand Final as a replacement for the suspended Jason McCartney. Spending most of the game on the bench, Mooney failed to register a possession for the game, his only contribution being a hit on Simon Beaumont that gave away a free kick. Having started the game alongside Blues defender Michael Sexton, Mooney was pulled from the ground shortly after, with Sexton dominating the first ten minutes of the game.
This was North Melbourne’s second flag from three attempts in the 1990’s and one that will go down as one of the great team performances of the modern era. It was the Kangaroos’ finest hour, and one that they have yet to taste in the years since.
For the Blues, as losing Grand Finalists, the pain would continue, with Carlton experiencing turmoil both on and off the field. A team of stars that had been one of the best of its generation, Carlton has only the 1995 premiership to show for its decade of brilliance. But we will put all of these things aside for now, and focus on the triumph that Pagan and Carey engineered.
While Carey would quit North Melbourne in disgrace after his affair with Anthony Stevens’ wife Kelli was made public, and Pagan would be sacked from North, as well as the team he beat in this match, both men’s contributions in delivering North two flags in the 1990s should and will be forever appreciated by those who have the Shinboner Spirit running through their veins.