Friday was 10 years to the day since Carlton last won a final. September 8, 2013 was one of those footy days that sticks in your marrow. On a perfect spring afternoon, in front of the loudest, most engaged crowd, Carlton ran all over the top of an emerging but rickety Richmond. I’ve never seen a more desolate supporter base than the yellow and blacks that afternoon.
The Blues had been parachuted into the finals because of the Essendon scandal. But they had Chris Judd. The most even-tempered of footballers, he had been angered, of all things, by Richmond’s drum ensemble, and he took it out on the Tigers. Outside of grand finals, any Carlton supporter would have told you that afternoon, football didn’t get much better than this.
But the next decade was a lost one. Judd’s knee buckled, Mick Malthouse was utterly impossible, the green shoots withered, and the cycle of optimism, reality and recrimination played out year after year. That’s why Friday night’s elimination final meant so much. That’s why, on a right royal rotter of a Melbourne night, more than 90,000 people, the vast majority of them Carlton diehards, made their way to the MCG. That’s why, when Nic Newman marked with six seconds to go, it wasn’t a normal footy roar. It was an expunge. It was the perfect pandemonium.
The bookmakers, whose ads constitute approximately 95% of all paid advertising at this time of year, installed Carlton as firm favourites. But the Blue Baggers traipsing to the MCG were entitled to caution. The foul weather was one reason. Their past decade was another. And their opponent completed the trifecta of trepidation.
It was hard to know what to make of the Swans. They’d fallen into the eight. They’d hardly beaten anyone of note. But this is a club, and a playing list, that’s used to the big stage. Sydney has missed finals five times since 1996. This current crop had won six of its past seven. After being cruelled by injury all year, they finally had something close to a full list to choose from.
The last time they met, the Blues were deep in their rut. They had to win that night, and they tossed it away. In the rooms afterwards, a board member coming off the long lunch mouthed off, and hasn’t been seen at the club since. Later, there was an eye-crossingly tedious controversy over Patrick Cripps and Sam Docherty staying in separate hotels to their teammates. It was tripe, but exactly the kind of story that bobs up when nothing’s going right.
Friday night’s opening half was the opposite of that. They exploded out the blocks, and seemed to have put the game to bed in the second term. Cripps, playing his first final since he was 14, was well held by his standards but plenty stood up around him. Tellingly, it was their endurance runners, an area their recruiters, coaches and conditioning staff have clearly zeroed in on, who ran the Swans ragged.
Sam Walsh watched last year’s final round debacle from the coaches box with his head in his hands, and he then had back surgery in the off season. Understandably, he took a while to get warm this year, but he was everywhere in that decisive first half. So was Matthew Cottrell, another gut runner who was pivotal at both ends.
Harry McKay had a dolly to put the Blues 35 points up early up in the third term, but completely shanked his set shot. For that point on, nothing was simple, nothing was easy and nothing was guaranteed. The Swans had a sniff, the Blues had the wobbles, and a very Carlton sense of doom enveloped the MCG. But they held their nerve, and caught a few breaks. The importance of the third quarter goals to Jack Martin and Adam Cerra, both from tough angles and both against the run of play, cannot be overestimated. Nor can Martin’s two intercepts in the final minutes.
Michael Voss was interviewed this week and spoke about his finals record as a player and coach. He’s now won 16 from 20. They key, he said, and not all that convincingly, was to treat it as just another game. As that glorious Carlton theme song started up on Friday night, thoughts turned back to the 2013 elimination final. For the Richmond fans scurrying for the exits that day, it must have sounded like a dirge. On Friday, it was a paean. Just another game? The hell it was.