Yes, I left out 1972, 2005 and 2016. But these are subjective and this is an indulgence to the graph. Here, in grand final week, are the best grand finals of the past 50 years, which once included what was once the Victorian Football League (pre-1990) and now better known as the Australian Football League (now).
10. 1979 Carlton beat Collingwood by five points
My earliest memory is of this game, which is a concern. Carlton’s captain-coach was writhing in the MCG mud, his ankle shattered. A very drunk uncle got up from the couch at home – “BURY HIM!” roared. Wayne Harmes won his first Norm Smith Medal, but it could just as easily have been Wayne Johnston at the nightclub 12 hours earlier. More than any other grand final, it’s like watching a completely different sport, largely because of the ground conditions. We don’t see such swamps anymore. “The players dived into it like seals and darted out of it like parrots,” wrote Barry Dickens in his ode to muddy grounds.
9. 2011 Geelong beat Collingwood by 38 points
This game often falls down on these types of lists, partly because of the Meatloaf debacle, but mostly because it blew up in the last period. But by quarter-time it was a grand final of the highest standard I have ever seen. It was definitely the coldest. The two cracking sides scored at the height of their powers in the driving rain. Tom Hawkins had played well in the Qualifying Final, but with the game in the balance and his opponent confused, he tore the grand final to shreds. If he had kicked straight, he would have been awarded the Norm Smith Medal. He probably should have won anyway.
8. 1984 Essendon beat Hawthorn by 24 points
“This Premier League is SHEEDY’s Premier League!” Lou Richards cried. And it happened. Football has never seen the likes of Kevin Sheedy. Sly as a rat, he scoured the country for rough-hewn species that would play in his image. He turned to practice Hawthorn, sat on the fence and ignored them.
The Falcons blew them away early, but got back up in three quarters. “Don’t worry!” the late Ken Hakim shouted to his teammates. “Don’t worry!” But that brilliant bastard Sheedy threw the magnets around and the last quarter was a downpour. “I always felt the loudest noise I ever heard in football was when Leon Baker scored the first goal in the last quarter,” Terry Wallace said years later. “It was the awakening of a sleeping giant.”
7. 1977 Collingwood drew with North Melbourne
Collingwood were 27 points up and footy writer Rohan Connolly remembers a Magpie fan corking a bottle of champagne abroad (there was a one-board, two-bottle limit in those days). But they scored with seconds to go. In a sea of side cheeks, Ross “Twiggy” Dunne recorded a long bomb. You’re six points down, 20 meters out, straight ahead and a certain shot to seal the grand final – what’s your plan of attack? Drop a torpedo into the second tier of the Ponsford Stand, of course.
Afterwards, the head coach of the North team, Ron Barassi, gathered his players and their partners into the rooms. His powder blue suits, Polaroid sunglasses and quarter time blast would be grounds for arrest in some jurisdictions. “Girls,” he said. “I know how great you are and the sacrifices you have made, but can you give me your men for seven more days?” They did – quite happily in many cases – and North won the replay.
6. 2009 Geelong beat St Kilda by 12 points
It’s exhausting even thinking about it, but a personal favorite. It was raw, merciless, outdated football. It was brilliantly captured in Peter Dixon’s short documentary. If you ever want an example of what football can do to people and how much it means, then look no further than the old Saints fans in the stands. See Darrel Baldock in Rooms. It was such a day.
5. 2010 Collingwood drew with St Kilda
Eddie McGuire, who insulted Sen. Stephen Conroy for going to the crowbar early, couldn’t watch anymore. He walked into the AFL function room and found a woman sitting alone, crying. Elsie Rose, widow of Collingwood coach Bob Rose, knew a thing or two about grand final curses. Now, like almost everyone else at the MCG, Elsie is holding her head in her hands. After that, the streets of Melbourne were full of confused, chalk white, grown adults who didn’t know how to process it. The following week’s replay (Collingwood won) never stood a chance.
4. 2006 West Coast beat Sydney by one point
In 18 months, these two teams met 6 times with 13 points. The 2005 grand final is a more famous and replayed game, but this one was better. Five goals were scored in the last 10 minutes, which was unusual for this competition. Chris Judd suffered a shoulder injury during the scramble. “You’re good?” asked his direct opponent, Adam Goodes. “In this intense, manically competitive environment of a grand finale, his values did not change,” Judd said afterward. “To him, we were human before anything else.”
3. 2018 West Coast beat Collingwood by 5 points
In the end, despite their best efforts to break it down, the Eagles were a bit braver and deserved leaders. They won without Andrew Gaff, Nic Naitanui and Brad Sheppard. They beat Collingwood three times. They finally worked the locks at the MCG. And in one of the most clutch moments in the history of the game, Dom Sheed executed the perfect football kick. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more rabid supporters than the Collingwood fans that day. Greg Baum wrote in the book “Age”: “When I put my arm around the neck of a distraught son, I felt his tears flow down my arm. Endurance, stoicism, stubbornness, a little dark humor, phlegmatism, but also unquenchable hope: this is how our club has shaped us.”
2. 2012 Sydney beat Hawthorn by 10 points
A very plausible case could be made that this was the best grand final ever. Hawthorn played better football in 2012 than they have in four premiership years. But the Swans fought back and clawed their way to an upset victory. This game had a lot going for it – momentum changes, impossible cameras and a last minute sealer. Jill Meagher was murdered a few days ago. It was a tragedy, Alastair Clarkson said; losing the grand final was simply a missed opportunity. “She’s gone,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it. We just dig deep, use that as motivation and go again.” They did it and won the next three flags.
1. 1989 Hawthorn beat Geelong by 6 points
The younger generation of football fans tend to question the respect for the game. “But the result was never in doubt,” they will say. “You old-timers love it just for kicks.” If you’re still a skeptic, Tony Wilson’s 1989 book: The Great Grand Final should sway you. No grand final had richer stories – from Dipper’s audibly wheezing lungs to Dermott Brereton’s torn kidney to Gary Ablett thanking his saviour. Like 1989, no grand final falls in your year. We all took different things from it. I was 11 and under the spell of Ablett and Brereton. Ablett, writer Andrew Mueller wrote, “was like a man running out of Henry Lawson’s yarns – a peculiar, edgy magician, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and ballads but never see on a football pitch or anywhere else in real life.”