We have made it through most of an eventful 2001. George W. Bush is inaugurated as US President, the first iPod is introduced by Apple, and then there’s 9/11; a day that will live in everyone’s memories forever. In the AFL world, Essendon had won its third consecutive minor premiership, and was gunning for back-to-back flags. They were the competition’s heavyweights, able to withstand avalanches, and still emerge victorious, as demonstrated in their 81-point turnaround against the Kangaroos in Round 16.
The Bombers’ opponents this time around were the Leigh Matthews led Brisbane Lions, a team launching themselves towards the promised land after years of struggle. From merging with Fitzroy in 1996, to “winning” the wooden spoon in 1998, 2001 was the year they became a true force to be reckoned with, and they entered the Grand Final on the back of 15 consecutive wins. So, would Leigh Matthews take another team to the summit after years of disappointment? Would the Bombers add another premiership to their era of dominance? This is Part Four of our Grand Final series, the 2001 decider between Brisbane and Essendon.
THE TALKING POINTS
THE LONG WAIT IS OVER
Let’s take you back.
Before the Brisbane Lions ever existed.
It’s the year 1987. Brisbane has just gained its own VFL team. Fitzroy is coming off the most successful period in the club’s last 50 years. In the ensuing decade, both sides would produce ten years of underwhelming results.
Fitzroy’s best result from 87 onwards was a sixth place finish in 1989, but only the top five teams played finals that year. Of every other season in the period, the Lions highest finishing ladder position was 10th in 1992. Talk of Fitzroy folding began in 1986, and a proposed merger with Footscray was averted when Bulldogs supporters raised $2 million to avoid the merger.
Fitzroy flirted with a move to Tasmania, playing four matches in 1991 and 1992, but lost money in the process. In the last decade of their existence, the Lions moved to four different home venues, each one failing to lift them out of crippling debt. On the field it wasn’t any better, as Fitzroy only tasted victory on three occasions during the 1995 and 1996 seasons. Collapse was imminent, and at the end of the 1996 season the inevitable occurred, with the Lions needing to merge with another club to survive.
Up in Brisbane, the Bears won their first two games, each time in front of over 14,000 fans. Hopes were high. By the end of the season however, the Bears fell towards the bottom of the ladder, only avoiding the wooden spoon by toppling Richmond in the final round. By 1989, the club was under significant financial pressure. Owner, Christopher Skase’s business had collapsed, and amidst poor attendances, the Bears almost became extinct, until a takeover by businessman Rueben Pelerman saved the club. On the field, the Bears started to improve, making the finals in 1995 and a Preliminary Final loss in 1996. However, like Fitzroy, the club was still struggling financially, with a lack of support from headquarters and increasingly poor attendances spelling the end for the Bears. Also needing to merge with another club to survive, and the proposed merger between Fitzroy and North Melbourne off the table, the Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy Lions merged to become the Brisbane Lions, signalling the end of two of the AFL’s biggest headaches.
It was the dawning of a new era in 1997, with the newly formed Brisbane Lions beginning life in a promising fashion, finishing in eighth position. However, despite boasting a fresh, talented list, the Lions bottomed out in 1998. Sacking John Northey, the Lions looked at another story of quick success and brought in Collingwood saviour Leigh Matthews to produce another miracle. Amazingly, the Lions shot up the ladder, going from last to fourth in a single season. A semi-final loss in 2000 provided more encouragement that these young Lions could take another step forward the next year.
Finishing second on percentage to the rampaging Bombers, Bears and Fitzroy fans could start to smell success was just around the corner, after being starved of success for 57 years. Playing with an enthusiasm and aggression rarely seen in Bris-Vegas during the 1990’s, the Lions, boasting a younger, quicker, and fresher list, overwhelmed their opponents on their way to the new club’s maiden premiership. While still struggling a little off-field, on field the club had turned around the fortunes of two entities that had been poisoned for too long. More individual and team success would follow, with Brownlow Medals and, more importantly, premierships transformed the merged club into a powerhouse, something not seen from a Brisbane, or Fitzroy team for half a century.
In the period from Round 1, 1999 to the Preliminary Final of 2001, Essendon played a total of 73 matches. They only tasted defeat on a remarkable 11 occasions. In the same three-year period, the Bombers won the minor premiership every season. So when we look back at the history books, and see that the Bombers only hoisted the premiership trophy just once, the question must be asked; did Essendon underachieve?
Every line on the field was littered with superstars, a mixture of veterans and supremely talented young guns. Matthew Lloyd and Scott Lucas were a devastating forward duo, Dustin Fletcher and Sean Wellman marshalled the defensive zone with equal parts finesse and aggression, and their much-vaunted midfield was so packed with superstars, that in any other team they could lay claim to being that side’s best player.
Yet with all that talent, and one of the greatest coaches of all time, many Essendon supporters are justified in being disappointed with only one flag to show for all their dominance. It hurts even more when you consider that after this Grand Final, under the weight of several lucrative contracts, the Bombers crumbled, and while they made the finals in the years 2002-04, they failed the reach the third week of the finals on each occasion, and they are yet to win a final since.
SUCCESS HAUNTS THE BOMBERS
As said previously, Essendon’s win/loss record in the 1999-2001 seasons was 62 wins, 11 losses. So, did all of their victories cost the Bombers this premiership? In 1999, 13 players played over 20 matches. In 2000, their premiership year, it was 19 players. This year, 16 Bombers reached 20 matches played. While it was easy for Kevin Sheedy to play relatively the same players given they were so successful, it seems that this only hurt the Bombers in the long run, as evidenced by this game. In the second half, the Bombers wilted. A younger, fresher Brisbane outfit completely overran an Essendon outfit that looked exhausted by their three years of dominance.
Situations like this have inspired coaches of the present to tinker with their line-ups, ensuring that their players are getting the appropriate rest, with the AFL introducing a bye week before the finals to ensure that players are fresh for September. There have still been instances where a team gets to a Grand Final underdone by consistent performance, but for the most part, every club has made sure that their players are ready to go for however many victories are needed to achieve sustained success.
PLAYERS OF THE MATCH
A purely uncompromising display from the diminutive Hart, as the smallest player on the ground played with the biggest heart, winning the Norm Smith Medal in the process. He amassed the most possessions on the ground with 23, but Hart’s best work was in and under the packs, regularly taking body contact and brushing it off to feed the ball to his unmarked teammates.
Surprisingly underrated by many pundits given the Lions star-studded “Fab Four” midfield, Hart, who was followed around by Adam Ramanauskas in the second half, showed excellent leadership in taking control of the midfield with others around him were being more closely managed throughout the contest.
By far Essendon’s most important player, Lucas played out of his skin – a far cry from his efforts the previous year. Gathering 19 disposals, as well as dragging in seven marks, Lucas shrugged off a high hit in the second quarter to kick four vital goals. Regularly moving up the ground to provide his teammates with a big marking target, Lucas was inspirational for a team that visibly fatigued as the game wore on.
As the Lions took control of the game in the second half, Lucas’s impact naturally waned, but when the game was in the balance, it was Lucas leading the way.
Brisbane skipper Voss undoubtedly played like a man on a mission. Gathering an equal game-high 23 disposals (14 kicks, nine handballs), Voss was a clearance beast, and, together with Shaun Hart, made life extremely hard for Essendon’s midfield core. Occasionally drifting forward to use his bulky frame exquisitely, it was only fitting that is was a captain’s goal that sealed victory for the Lions. Halfway through the third quarter, Voss was a clear frontrunner for the Norm Smith Medal, until Kevin Sheedy sent Mark Mercuri to him in order to stop Voss from dominating the clearances. While it worked slightly, other Lions were able to step in to cover it, and Voss still managed to perform well even with the tag from Mercuri.
The second-year key forward showed his potential as Alastair Lynch’s successor with an aggressive, yet determined performance. Much like his compatriot Scott Lucas, Brown regularly left the forward 50 to provide his midfielders with a monster target to kick to. Recording 16 possessions (14 kicks, two handballs), and pulling in five marks, Brown used his size to his advantage, and he made Sean Wellman’s life a misery, with Wellman struggling to keep up with Brown’s endurance.
As a 19-year-old, Brown’s excitement got the better of him at times, as he did give away three free kicks that thankfully didn’t cost his team too badly.
Essendon’s next great key defender came of age with a brilliant display against one of Brisbane’s impressive forward trio. Although Daniel Bradshaw came into the game under an injury cloud, Jacobs’ performance against Bradshaw was exemplary, as he took Bradshaw completely out of the game. Gathering 12 disposals against Bradshaw’s five, it was Jacobs’ six marks as Brisbane went forward that assisted in the Bombers cause.
As with many of his teammates, Jacobs’ influence faded as the Lions made their charge, but when the game was on the line Jacobs, playing in just his 30th game, showed up his defensive cohorts with an ease beyond his years.
AND THE WORST…
Matched up on Alastair Lynch, the day did not start well for the champion full-back, who gave away a silly free kick in front of goal, only being saved by Lynch’s wayward kick. The year before, Fletcher took David Neitz out of the game and was a major factor in Essendon winning the game. Today, it was Lynch that controlled Fletcher, and Fletcher’s eight disposals did not have the same venom as we are all used to. When the scales were tipping in the Lions’ favour in the second half, Fletcher became visibly frustrated, and was lucky to only give away one free kick.
Coming into the game, many questions were being asked of Hird, who was carrying groin issues throughout the finals. Against Hawthorn in the Preliminary Final, Hird was ineffectual, gathering just 11 possessions. Kevin Sheedy decided to risk his captain, figuring that a team with an injured Hird was better than a team without him. In the end, the wrong decision was made, as Hird’s usual brilliance deserted him.
Bothering the statisticians just ten times, Hird was overwhelmed by Brisbane’s running power and he was played through the midfield too much for a man having no impact. This is not a knock on Hird’s leadership, but perhaps it would’ve served the Bombers much better if he had played out of the goal square for most of the afternoon.
Like James Hird, Daniel Bradshaw came into the Grand Final under an injury cloud, hamstring soreness that he slightly aggravated in the second quarter. While Bradshaw was able to run out the match, and the Lions ran away with the premiership, it perhaps would’ve served the Lions better if Bradshaw remained on the bench after he aggravated his injury.
During the season, Leigh Matthews enjoyed using Bradshaw at both ends of the ground, and this would’ve been extremely helpful during the period of Scott Lucas domination, but Bradshaw was completely outplayed and overawed by the occasion, continuing a trend of going missing in important matches.
It was the beginning of the end for Kevin Sheedy’s Bombers, but for Leigh Matthews’ Lions, this was the start of something truly special. Led by their Fab Four in the middle, the twin towers at both ends of the ground, and a steady stream of fresh, vibrant youngsters, Brisbane had built a list that could deliver its fans multiple premierships under the tutelage of one of the greatest players and coaches to ever grace the game.
For Essendon, this was their last premiership to date, and since 2005, they are yet to achieve success of any form during September. There could be a whole article on the peptide debacle, but for now, we’ll focus on-field, where Sheedy’s game plan was found out, and after 27 years, he left the Bombers to begin a new era. So far, this era is yet to produce any form of success, but for Bombers fans, hopefully a period of brilliance is just around the corner.
But for the time being we’ll look at the victors. Under Matthews, and led by Voss, this team needed more. 2001 was the first of the trilogy, one that finally gave long-suffering fans a reason to smile. But was this the best of the three flag victories? Would these young, hungry Lions feed on another carcass? Stay tuned for our next instalment.