Some grand finals are jolly romps. Some are stinkers. Some are knife fights. The 2009 version was no sane person’s idea of a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment. Its defining images are mostly messy – toe pokes, goal-umpiring howlers, point blank misses, pissing rain. It was a freezing, excruciating, buttock-clenching day. It was raw, pitiless, attritional football. It wasn’t decided until the final few seconds. It knocked the stuffing out of everyone who played and watched. It’s the one football game that sticks in my marrow.
St Kilda hadn’t won a premiership for 43 years. For decades, they’d been bedevilled by eye-rolling scandals, administrative ineptitude, false dawns, crumbling facilities and rotten luck. But this was their year. They won 19 straight games, including what many think is the highest standard game ever played. They boasted a handful of bona fide champions. The rest were typical Ross Lyon footballers – jobbers, scrappers, asphyxiators. To topple them, Geelong would have to go to a place premiers are rarely asked to go.
The Saints probably should have won. They laid more tackles than any side in the history of the game. They had 19 more inside-50s. They butchered a succession of easy shots. As the Geelong players collected their medals, Ross Lyon perused the stats: “How the fuck did we lose?” he kept saying. “How the fuck did we lose?”
It would not be St Kilda if there wasn’t some sort of last minute fiasco. Zac Dawson spent the Friday night on an intravenous drip. Nick Riewoldt strained his hip flexor in the final training drill and spent the night running the corridors at Box Hill Hospital. Even at the best of times, he was barely functional leading into games. “Like being on death row,” he later described it. He fought gamely, but wasn’t his usual self. His opponent Harry Taylor managed 15 spoils with a broken hand, took the match-saving mark and would have been a worthy Norm Smith medallist.
Peter Dickson’s short film of the game is almost ghoulish at times. There are legends breaking down in the arms of trucking magnates, supporters weeping in the stands, players utterly bereft in the middle of the MCG. St Kilda’s high performance manager compared the rooms afterwards to “a casualty ward following a mass disaster”. They’d given everything. They’d come so close.
Geelong had been there. The previous year’s grand final is the key to understanding why this game means so much. For the players and supporters, losing to that Hawthorn side was a personal insult. Bomber Thompson harked back to it at three-quarter-time. “You never want to feel like that again,” he told them.
In the end, on a day where nearly half the possessions were contested, where players were rarely afforded an inch of space, the best footballer in Australia somehow found himself all alone in the middle of the MCG. Crazy-eyed and alligator blooded, Matthew Scarlett loomed like some sort of Cossack squat dancer. Off the drip but out of his weight division, Dawson was thwarted. Ablett ran like a thief and his panicked kick hung forever. The crowd gurgled. It’s the closest I’ve come to cardiac arrest.
Built like a pit bull and possessing not a scintilla of doubt, Paul Chapman was born for moments like this. “When you looked down the race before big games, and looked across to see Chappy there, you knew things were going to be OK,” his captain said. But he had pinged his hamstring in the second quarter. They discovered a 10cm tear. He was sent deep and told to hope for the best. With scores level, bodies flying and 100,000 drenched supporters losing their collective shit, he was licking his chops. He seemed like the only man in Victoria in control of things. He slammed it on his boot. Thwack. Goal. Premiership.
There have been better grand finals. The 2007 Geelong side was probably superior. The 2011 win was a more compete performance. But 2009 is the one that matters. It is the tissue thin difference between sporting immortality and being kicked to the curb. It encapsulates everything that is brutal, cruel, sublime and unique about this sport. It hammers home exactly what we’ve been missing these past few months.