While the 2020 AFL season has scarcely resembled the game we all know and love, there is finally some familiarity creeping back into our lives, and that is the chaos and drama of the final round as teams jockey for position inside the final eight, and those on the cusp cling desperately to hope of a miracle.

For the first time since the 1967 season, the home and away matches will conclude after round 18, and as we stand today, ten clubs’ supporters still dream of premiership glory. Port Adelaide and Brisbane will finish first and second, if the Power defeat Collingwood they will claim the Dr W.C. McClelland Trophy after being on top for the entire season. Richmond face a revitalised Adelaide, seemingly free from the demons of the pre-season 2018 camp which received a lower Trip Advisor rating than the camp at Crystal Lake, while Geelong meet the Swans in games both of the higher seeds should easily account for opposition only hurting their draft position by winning.

West Coast currently reside in fifth and a home final in week one is their prize should they defeat the Kangaroos and other results go to plan, however if the Tigers or Cats slip up the Eagles will happily scamper up into the top 4 and a guaranteed double chance. The next five positions are where it gets tricky. Collingwood by virtue of a stuttering win over the Suns have secured their place in October, but need to navigate a match against the rampant Port before they plan their finals assault, the impressive Saints courtesy of a healthy percentage are unlikely to fall out of the eight, and a win against fellow contender GWS will assure them of a return to the finals for the first time since 2011.

The Bulldogs are dreaming of a sequel to 2016 and sit a game ahead in eighth but with a tricky assignment against the rising Dockers, Melbourne ready to pounce if they slip up with a final round fixture against the faltering Bombers. Last year’s beaten Grand Finalists have done anything but put that nightmare behind them in a horror 2020, but are still a mathematical possibility if they are able to win by enough to usurp the Saints, or if the Dogs falter.

While those especially in Victoria are faced with a very different finals series this year, the warmer weather, smell of freshly cut grass and numerous permutations of a cut throat final round have coupled together to create that same great sense of excitement and anticipation. Almost three and a half decades prior to this weekend however, we witnessed a penultimate round widely considered the best and most dramatic on record. Let’s take a walk down memory lane…

1987 was the year, the electrifying 80s was the era, and high scoring was a feature despite the often mud ravaged conditions of grounds. Only Collingwood and Footscray failed to top 2,000 points scored for the year; last season only Brisbane passed this tally, but this is a tale about high stakes and heartbreak.

After Round 21 the final five compromised of Carlton on 68 points, Hawthorn, their conqueror in the last season’s premiership decider nipping at their heels with 64 points and a far superior percentage. Third-place was the high-flying Swans, whose mid-season form where they scored 201, 236 and 199 in successive matches, had deserted them. They clung to the double chance, while an experienced North Melbourne were breathing down their necks only 2 points behind. A couple of wins further back were the Cats on 46 points, equal with the Bulldogs and fairytale side Melbourne on 44.

The McIntyre Final Five employed from 1972-1990 was by far the best of all finals systems used in league history, providing a tangible benefit to the minor premier by way of a week off, while second and third enjoyed the double chance. The advantage of that extra break invaluable to clubs hoping to achieve premiership glory.

A generous amount of luck saw six of the top seven fixtured to play each other in the final round, and with another decent slice of good fortune, these three matches, plus the vital Swans versus Fitzroy matches would be played simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon, so no team could manage their results. The round actually kicked off on a Friday night with Richmond hosting one of the league’s newest clubs, the Brisbane Bears in a game that would decide the wooden spoon. After a power struggle over the preceding five years that saw the lustre removed from the Tigers place atop the league they turned to their most recent premiership coach Tony Jewell, however even he was powerless to prevent an old fashioned thrashing as the Bears escaped embarrassment with a 56-point win. Ex-Footscray Brownlow Medallist, Brad Hardie was the star with seven goals and 26 disposals, ably assisted by former Tiger premiership centreman Geoff Raines with 22 and two goals. The Tigers glimpsed a brief taste of the 1988 goal and mark of the year winner as Michael Mitchell collected 23 touches and kicked three goals.

An adequate and appetising entrée had been served, but let’s skip to dessert before deep diving into the glorious main that stands the test of time. The West Coast Eagles, the other newcomer for 1987, finished their freshman year in eighth position with a commendable 11-11 record and finished the season by smashing the hapless Saints by 88 points in front of an adoring crowd at Subiaco Oval. Precocious talent Chris Lewis registered seven goals, while Andrew MacNish collected five goals four behinds from his 29 disposals, and former Hawk Steve Malaxos compiled a staggering 48 possessions. Curiously none of these three caught the eye of the umpires; not an uncommon occurrence back when the officials were not permitted to review the stat sheet before submitting their votes. For the record Adrian Barich collected the three Brownlow votes for a none too shabby four goal 25 touch game. The Saints were best served by Coleman and Brownlow Medallist, Tony Lockett with five goals, tough midfielder, Greg Burns who had 37 and a goal, and Neil Elvis (Nicky) Winmar with twenty-three disposals and three goals.

The final Sunday match was played before a subdued sub-30,000 crowd at the MCG between Collingwood and Essendon. The low attendance may be on accord of a massive hangover caused by the finest display of thrill a minute sport seen in over 90 years of league football the prior day. While neither side could feature in the post season, those who did turn out were treated to an outstanding match full of twists and turns as the Magpies six goals straight in the final 30 minutes turned around a five point three quarter time deficit into a five point triumph. The never forgotten Darren Millane was a colossus with two goals and 35 brutal possessions, while a 2020 flavour emerged with Craig Starcevich (father of Brisbane’s Brandon) and the Macedonian Marvel Peter Daicos (father of Collingwood’s Josh) each kicking four goals. The Dons were best served by Terry Daniher’s five goals and a further four to Glen Hawker and Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson, who also returned 32 disposals.

So jumping back in time for the second time in this article we come to the main event, Channel Two (the ABC for those born after 2000) were the host broadcasters for this sole season and had they possessed the foresight or resources to introduce a ‘Live Ladder’ into their telecast they might’ve just been renewed by VFL House. Fans of the game today are spoilt with access to every match live, but back in 1987 only one match was filmed with the full crew. If you were lucky, a single camera and commentator would be on hand at other venues. Otherwise, you had to rely on the radio, or the old fashioned scoreboards showing A). vs B). around the grounds scores updated at the end of the quarter.

Carlton vs North Melbourne at Waverley was the featured match, with minimal footage from both Kardinia Park and the Western Oval available later that night on ‘The Winners’. Long before the Kennett Curse the Hawks and Geelong had history dating back to the 1963 decider, and reinvigorated through the late 80s, the Hawks usually with the upper hand, as it proved again in such stunning circumstances. The Swans meanwhile were battling a form slump and a bogey ground that had seen them fail to salute in its past 34 attempts in 22 years at Princes Park. With the final game a clash of the droughts, Melbourne – once the darlings of success had fallen on hard times, failing to reach the finals since their last flag in 1964. All-time great Robbie Flower on 270 games had never played a final, and his last chance looked a long shot both at the start of the day and throughout the afternoon, while the Dogs had only competed 13 times in finals since their ascension to the VFL in 1925 for a solitary premiership victory way back in 1954. Hoping to create some of their own luck while preventing the Melbourne destiny, the 1954 heroes were paraded around the boundary prior to the opening siren.

At half-time the Live Ladder had Carlton and Hawthorn in first and second as they both trailed, while North had leapt into third with a 16-point lead over the Blues. The Swans were 17-points down against the Lions and staring down an Elimination Final, while the front-running Cats were ensconced in fifth despite a wayward 6.12 to 6.6 lead. The Dogs were ahead by a solitary goal over the Dees in a game that based on other results looked to be inconsequential.

The 31,249 crammed into the Western Oval gasped in unison as young tyro Garry Lyon was stretchered from the field with a badly broken leg that would haunt him throughout an illustrious footy career and into his time in the media, but the home team Bulldogs were not able to capitalise on a strong wind, with their lead remaining at only six points at three quarter time.

Sydney kicked a remarkable 6.13 to the Lions 6.5 as both teams peppered the goals and gained the momentum coming into the final stanza hoping to reverse the Princes Park curse. Geelong piled on seven goals but their nemesis Hawks were able to counter with five of their own to stay within striking distance, while Carlton made the biggest move in the aptly named premiership quarter kicking ten goals to five and turning a three goals deficit into a 16-point lead at the last change.

Urban legend has it that a senior Melbourne official advised his players in that final huddle that Hawthorn had the match well in hand as a way of ensuring they remained focus on winning the match. The fans, however, remained glued to their transistors throughout the tense closing moments, at one stage the unusual chant of ‘Hawthorn – clap, clap, clap’ drifting over the Doug Hawkins wing as those long suffering supporters of the red and blue hoped for Flower to cap his career with a shot at the crown.

Each match see-sawed dramatically in the final thirty minutes, Melbourne forged ahead only for a 17 year old Steven Kolyniuk in his third game to regain the lead for the Dogs with a goal against the run of play at the 12 minute mark of the last. Geelong swept to a 15-point advantage as time-on ticked over,  Jason Love scrambled through a goal for the Roos to give them the lead at the 30-min mark and the Lions held firm in the face of a barrage from the Swans. Four matches all reaching their crescendo, no one – combatant or patron willing to take a backward step, but no one was prepared for not one, not two, but four further flips of the script.

Firstly Melbourne tasted blood in the water, and the revered Flower brought the Dees faithful to their feet with a spectacular mark across the pack and goal, followed almost immediately by a sharp Ricky Jackson snap from 45m and a cool Brian Wilson goal on the run to end the Bulldogs hopes. Fans rushed the ground on the siren, but then returned to their earpieces to count down the final seconds as a miracle escape was unfolding down the highway.

A quick clearance by Platten ended up with Peter Curran who wheeled on to his left and found Dunstall who kicked truly. As the seconds ticked away an errant forward kick by Bairstow was intercepted by All-Australian, Russell Morris who dashed across the back of the centre square and launched it forward, the tumbling ball resting on the chest of a diving Dunstall, who was previously well held by Darcy. Dunstall burst to life in the last with four goals including the final two in the last 90 seconds. News of the Hawks victory swept over the Western Oval and swept the Melbourne fans into a state of euphoria. Little did they know, only three weeks later the club that gave would taketh so much in cruel circumstances.

A check of the ‘Live Ladder’ with two games still to be decided saw the Hawks temporarily claiming the all important week’s break, and North clinging on to the double chance, while Melbourne had secured fifth place.

As the old-time clock at VFL Park ticked over 30 minutes, a boundary throw in occurred on the members side forward flank, a rushed kick by Justin Madden was firmly grasped by a towering Kernahan, who lined up from a meagre 15 metres but on an acute angle as the siren blasted. The Swans had broken their hoodoo, and thus the final play of the qualifying matches was a kick that would give Carlton top spot or hand the Roos a second chance. The mulleted Carlton champ kicked truly and was duly carried from the ground in a fitting end to an extraordinary day, that paved the way for an epic finals series ending with Kernahan and coach Robert Walls thrusting the Premiership Cup into the air.

 

Carlton 20.9 def. North Melbourne 19.11

North Melbourne’s mercurial Krakouer brothers ran amok, Jim collecting 24 touches and three Brownlow votes, the two votes going to Phil for his four-goal haul and eighteen touches. The next best for the Roos as they attempted to sew up the double chance was a rookie midfielder in just his seventh game, with 21 disposals and two goals wearing number 57. Alastair Clarkson would go on to create some of his own history in the ensuing years.

The table topping Blues were led from the front by new skipper, Stephen Kernahan who took 13 marks and kicked six goals including the match winner after the siren, he was ably supported by Ian Sartori with five goals from nineteen disposals, fellow South Australian Craig Bradley 25 and two goals and ex-Swan Bernie Evans with twenty and three goals.

 

Hawthorn 19.12 def. Geelong 17.21

Geelong monopolised all the Brownlow votes with nippy rover Andrew Bews (Father of Geelong’s Jed) adjudged best afield for his 30 touches, Darren Flanagan’s 17 disposal, 14 hit out masterclass claiming the two and future skipper Barry Stoneham’s two goal effort earning the last vote.

The Hawks had an even spread of contributors, Platten and Morris with 23 disposals apiece, Brereton and Buckenara had 22 along with three goals for the later, while spearhead Jason Dunstall finished with five goals four, including four in the gripping final term, and surprisingly Chris Mew complemented his 18 disposals with two goals of his own.

 

Sydney 21.21 def. Fitzroy 20.13

The fickle nature of Brownlow voting awarding Sydney ruckman John Ironmonger maximum votes for a 31 hit out, one kick and eleven handball performance, Barry Mitchell (father of Hawthorn’s Tom, who may have received moral payback in 2018) only picking up one vote for an eye-catching 30 disposal game and four goals five behinds. Footballing rockstar Warwick Capper moved to 97 on the goalkicking table with four goals and four behinds.

Phillip Knight was a standout for the Lions collecting a career high 29 touches, while Matthew Armstrong’s 19 touches and three goals collected two votes. Current Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley kicked five goals from 13 disposals, and barrel-chested Mick Conlon matched Hinkley’s disposal tally and contributed three majors of his own.

 

Melbourne 12.11 def. Footscray 10.8

The MCC’s darling Steven Newport topped the Demons possession leaders with 24, while centre half forward Warren Dean added two goals to his 23 touches, collecting two Brownlow votes along the way. Dashing Irishman, Sean Wight received three votes for a sterling 17 touch defensive, but it was club legend and then games record holder Robert Flower’s three goals from ten touches that won the day.

The leading Bulldog possession winner was Steven Wallis (Father of current Dog Mitch) with 33, state of origin star and respected assistant coach Brian Royal with 25 and a goal, and key forward Peter Foster who picked up two votes for his 18 disposal, two goal game.