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Context becoming lost as the AFL caravan keeps rolling on


Two iconic grand final moments, Alex Jesaulenko’s mark and Travis Varcoe’s goal. One is part of football folklore. The other should be as well.

Context becoming lost as the AFL caravan keeps rolling on

Rohan Connolly    

Around this time six years ago, I wrote a column for The Age lamenting how one of the greatest handful of grand finals football had seen had been too easily lost in the wash of the ever-moving caravan that is the AFL news cycle.

Sydney’s epic 10-point win over Hawthorn in the 2012 grand final was a classic, the best I’ve seen in the flesh, and I’ve seen nearly 50 of them.

It was a high-standard contest with not just one but three comebacks, incredible individual performances, and the result still in doubt until Nick Malceski’s snapped goal with only 40 seconds left on the clock.

The various plots and sub-plots, twists and turns could have filled several volumes, yet within 48 hours in mainstream media the entire game had been relegated to a distant memory with the arrival of the free agency and trade period and Brendon Goddard’s much-discussed switch from St Kilda to Essendon.

That would last for a month, while at the same time there were other big news stories unfolding by way of the Kurt Tippett salary cap scandal and the Melbourne tanking investigation.

It all did one of the game’s greatest showpieces no favours at all, and in my view, it was a crying shame. Perhaps the AFL thought so, too, because it would then shift the beginning of the trade/free agency period back a week in an attempt to give the grand final some room to breathe.

Has it worked? Sadly, I think not. The genie had already been let out of the bottle, and while football’s determination to dominate the off-season news cycle with a never-ending stream of announcements and events has undoubtedly been successful, I think the cost to our appreciation of modern football history remains profound.

This year’s grand final between West Coast and Collingwood was another classic, and now we had another week to ponder its greatness before the caravan officially moved on.

Did we? Not really. The trade period has become an industry in itself, and so while no deals could officially be done for another seven days, there was more speculation about that than West Coast’s nail-biting win, Dom Sheed’s ice-cool match-winning goal or the various “ifs” and “buts” of a cracking premiership contest.

In major media outlets, anyway. Perhaps the most fascinating post-mortem on those dramatic final minutes of the grand final came via West Coast’s club website, where defender Will Schofield, accompanied by some very revealing down-the-ground footage, explained how he’d been caught way out of position as Collingwood attacked, saved by the intercept mark of Jeremy McGovern, which launched the Eagles’ match-winning drive.

Those are the sorts of moments, and insights, which elevate great football moments to legendary status over the years, and yet perversely, in an age of saturation coverage, we’re now treated to fewer of them.

If you think this is all overly-sentimental hogwash, consider the following. Whenever we do discuss the great grand final moments and view the montages these days, which are those most instantly recalled?

They remain stuff like Alex Jesaulenko’s mark and Carlton’s comeback from a 44-point deficit against Collingwood in 1970, Barry Breen’s wobbly point to give St Kilda its first premiership in 1966, the Wayne Harmes incident of 1979, or Leon Baker’s blind turn and goal as Essendon mowed down Hawthorn in 1984.

More recent games and moments? Not as much. And it’s not as if we haven’t had plenty of them. This century, we’ve already had seven grand finals decided by two goals or less, plus the third grand final draw in VFL/AFL history.

The individual efforts have been top drawer, too. But are they spoken about with the same reverence? Perhaps Leo Barry’s game-saving mark in the 2005 grand final. But what about Travis Varcoe?

Discussions about greatest grand final goals always mention Ray Gabelich in 1964 or Phil Manassa’s long run in 1977, but Varcoe’s incredible effort for Geelong in 2011 when he was involved in three separate acts of play in each part of the ground before sealing the Cats’ win with a left-foot snap was I think better than either of those.

The Western Bulldogs’ remarkable 2016 flag had an overload of great stories and moments. But when Shane Biggs announced his retirement recently, it was the first time I could recall any media mention of the importance of his two smothers and tackle in the lead-up to Liam Picken’s critical late goal against Sydney when the difference was only one point.

Indeed, the immediate aftermath of that game saw as much media discussion of coach Luke Beveridge’s gesture in handing over his premiership medallion to the injured skipper Bob Murphy as the game itself.

Richmond’s drought-breaking premiership last year is another of footy’s great stories. But far and away the most revealing insights into the Tigers’ remarkable effort came not from the mainstream media, but Konrad Marshall’s wonderful book “Yellow and Black”.

Increasingly, these are the means by which AFL football is delivered its context and the most important moments truly appreciated. Popular media is more today’s news, tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. You can’t necessarily even blame those outlets for the “look at this brightly-coloured object” media strategy the game’s controlling body has refined.

But there’s a longer-term price to be paid when the loud music and flashing lights never stop, and that is perspective. If one season segues barely with pause into the next, what does it all mean?

We write about, film, discuss the game to within an inch of its life, the point of it all purportedly the silver cup that is presented to just one team of 18 at the conclusion of the 207th game of the football year.

But if we’re no longer prepared to dwell for just a while on the significance of that final moment, preferring to keep looking forward to the next one, be it a trade period, a fixture release, a pre-season campaign or the next batch of 200-odd premiership matches, are we talking about a year-long sporting journey or a 24/7 sideshow?

That’s the danger. And I just hope for generations of football lovers to come that someone soon enough will look past the dizzying whirl of non-stop action to see it in time.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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