Both sides finished that epic with long casualties lists, and I mean casualty, not injury. John Platten was hit in the head so often it is impossible to say even now which one gave him concussion, but he was unable to play after quarter-time and to this day remembers nothing about the game. Dipper gave and got, until he could hear the air hissing out of his collapsing lung. Intones Don Scott, a former Hawthorn hard man by then commentating: “It’s not a safe place to be out there.”
It was tactical, not incidental. “The rules permitted that if the opposition player was within five metres of the ball, I could bump them down the centre, to the head, and as long as it wasn’t an elbow, I could bump them out of the game,” Brereton told Wilson.
“I thought that was a loophole in the rules. Even back in the day, I’m quoted as saying that it’s not the right way to play football. But it was part of the rules, and so I took advantage of it.”
In the grand final, it was Yeates who took the advantage. “What he did, for the era, was totally fair,” Brereton said. “I take my hat off to Yeatsey. He didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done to him.” Or hadn’t already done to him, that same year. There was an honour code of a kind. In choreographing Yeates’s grand final square-up, Geelong coach Malcolm Blight had said to him: “Fairly. No fists, no elbows. Fairly.”
Tony Wilson was an under-19 player at Hawthorn at the time. He watched the game with his father, Ray, who played for the Hawks in the 1971 grand final, thought by many to be the most brutal of all. Fists, elbows, boots, anything and everyone was fair game.
Footy coverage then consisted of a replay of one quarter of one game, filmed by one camera. There was only one umpire, too. It left a lot of dark alleys.
Ray Wilson said he could not understand then why soccer players were so comparatively genteel. Then he grasped that they were professionals, who, although rivals, respected each other’s right to make a living. The same ethic explained why the English walked at cricket and Australians didn’t.
In 1974, Ray Wilson helped found the AFL Players’ Association, and on Thursday night was made a life member.
By 1989, footy was semi-pro, and the violence, believe it or not, half as severe. “Some controlled, some wanton,” is how Brereton put it. In contact sport, violence occupied and still occupies a grey zone. “It was probably the last of the violent grand finals,” said Chris Langford, whose honour it was to stand Gary Ablett for some of his nine goals that day. “I think people do like the violence part of it.” Later, he became an AFL commissioner.
It was all a long time ago. Chris Wittman calls 1989 the Woodstock of grand finals, an epithet that dates itself. There was blackface on the Hawthorn run-through: why?
But that grey area, as personified by Yeates and Brereton, continues to fascinate. Brereton has just had a spinal fusion, and Yeates at least has the decency to look like an old footballer, but their vaudeville act does not age.
Comparatively, footy violence is at an all-time low, and as awareness of its sometimes horrendous lifelong impact grows will diminish further. The can’t look-can’t look away conundrum remains, which is partly why 1989 remains so absorbing. “But it’s much better now,” said another old Hawk on Thursday. “Thank God.”
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.