That offers the historical context to things when considering this dramatic and thrilling 24 hours. The 2021 finale had layers to it that ’87 didn’t have.
First, this final round was national.
It was also played in a COVID world – which meant empty stadia and teams playing home games on foreign soil, and living in hubs away from home.
It had Alastair Clarkson coaching his last game for Hawthorn before they pay him next year not to coach.
It had Carlton coach David Teague saying, in effect, I think I will be sacked on Monday.
It had Eddie Betts saying, I’ll be retired in two hours’ time, but I wish I could play forever. It had Shaun Burgoyne bidding adieu and, unlike seemingly every other act of his on the football field, his very last involvement in the very last piece of play was just out of reach in a game, ended in a draw that was meaningful only for its self-contained drama, not for its impact on finals.
It had a time-keeping stuff-up that cost the Bulldogs a top four place.
It had umpiring controversies. The deliberate out of bounds call against Angus Brayshaw was only surprising in the context of others that had not been paid that night. The 50-metre penalty against Cat Bradley Close, allowing Jake Lever to pass to Gawn, was also “there” but in the context of crime and punishment even Dostoevsky would baulk at the equivalence.
It had Christian Petracca’s emotional post-match tribute to the Melbourne fans who had continued to wear the Demons insignia, the fans whose hearts beat true, even when the team made them feel embarrassed for doing so.
It had it all.
The Gawn supremacy
Gawn gave his side the psychological edge over Geelong. It was only partly by kicking the winning goal.
Gawn had already given them the edge with his extraordinary last quarter. Clayton Oliver was outstanding for the whole game but Gawn was decisive in that last term.
It was the type of performance that creates its own psychological edge. His complete dominance of Rhys Stanley in that last quarter left the Cats wondering what they can do next time. Could they possibly go in against Melbourne again with Stanley in the ruck? And if not him, then who? Admittedly, this not a new question for the Cats.
Each of the centre clearances Melbourne won in that last term as they got their momentum rolling was down to Gawn. Several of them he cleared himself. He just moved around Stanley like he was not there.
In the critical last play when Lever had the kick from outside 50, Stanley drifted away from Gawn as they shuffled back towards goal. Stanley assumed Lever would kick long to goal so put himself in the goal square to spoil a shot at goal. It was a reasonable expectation, but you simply cannot leave Gawn alone and in space at that type of moment.
Geelong piled on goals in that second term by running at Melbourne with fast play that spread their defenders. That made the slow ‘kick and hold’ possession in the last quarter frustrating.
It was also understandable. Geelong was being overwhelmed by Melbourne and just couldn’t get their hands on the ball. So in the last term they were not so much running the clock down as trying to arrest momentum.
Playing fast had seemed to play into Melbourne’s hands after half-time because by then the Demons were winning the contested ball and enjoying the chaotic territory game. The problem in the last 10 minutes was that when Geelong had the ball, just holding on to it, to deny Melbourne possession wasn’t enough. They needed to score. The collision of Lachie Henderson and Jeremy Cameron might have been their moment.
St Kilda was the side with nothing to play for and they played as if they had finals on the line.
Theoretically, Fremantle could have still made finals if they beat St Kilda. A theoretical opportunity should have been enough to play with spirit. That they then offered such a spiritless display was just pathetic. St Kilda was the side with nothing to play for and they played as if they had finals on the line.